All aboard the blended burger bandwagon

Products that mix less meat with more vegetables and pulses are touted as healthy, tasty and low impact. So could they actually prove more popular than 100% plant-based patties? David Burrows reports.

It’s hard to move for sensational stats on sales of plant-based foods. A recent Globescan blog for Sustainable Brands threw a few at readers, not just in terms of ballooning sales but the millions being thrown at companies from investors. But are brands so focused on producing non-meat options that they have forgotten about products that could more readily sway meat eaters to shift to more sustainable diets?

I am talking about ‘hybrid’ or ‘blended’ meats. A beef burger bulked out with beans, say, or a chicken nugget that substitutes some of the chicken for cauliflower. These can often be healthier and dramatically reduce the environmental footprint. Critically they also contain less meat rather than no meat, a gentle nudge in the direction of sustainable consumption rather than the pressure punch of 100% plant-based.

“They reduce the sense of loss to consumers making changes [to their diets] as they are still getting the goodness and taste of meat, but with some additional benefits,” explains Natasha Maynard, nutrition and scientific affairs manager at IGD. They also provide “familiarity and are viewed as a low-risk option for families”.

A couple of years ago some hospitality and food companies jumped aboard this blended bandwagon. Hilton chefs lowered the climate impact of one of their most-ordered items: the burger. Their Blended Burger swapped 30% of beef – a highly resource-intensive food – for mushrooms.

Steve Solomon is from the Mushroom Council in the US which, together with the Culinary Institute of America’s Health Menu Collaborative, started a movement among chefs called ‘The blend’. According to the website, blending is a menu strategy used with any type of ground meat, so everything from burgers and tacos to meatballs and chilli. Mushrooms can bring out the flavour of the meat and taste “more meaty”, he explains. The health benefits are also “pretty powerful”. When you add 30% (or more) mushrooms, you reduce calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and more, Solomon says, adding: “If every burger (not taco, meatball, meatloaf) served at restaurants in the US was ‘blended’, we would save trillions of calories a year.” 

Greenhouse gas emissions would also be slashed. The World Resources Institute estimates that agricultural production-related emissions could be cut by 10.5 million tonnes if 30% of the meat in the 10 billion burgers a year that Americans chomp through was replaced with mushrooms. Net-zero targets for the world’s major burger chains and chicken joints would also suddenly spin into reach.

And yet this flurry of interest didn’t really catch on. “Brands are too focused on making the best plant-based burger they can,” Mark Cornthwaite, industry and marketing team leader at DuPont nutrition and health, told me recently. “That’s where the research and development is.”

But as Footprint reported last month, meat is proving hard to give up. Plant-based sales, however fast growing, can still make up less than 1% of the meat market in European countries. So why not go after the 99% with a blended product – one with less (and ‘better’) meat and more plants?

This is what the likes of Rebel Meat in Austria and Freshly in the US are trying to do. The latter, which was bought by Nestlé USA in October, sells blended products through its fresh-prepared meal delivery service. Its ‘masterful meatballs’ manage a 60:40 blend of meat with mushrooms, onions, oats and ras el hanout spices. However, there are plans to push that ratio further away from meat.

Interestingly, the marketing doesn’t focus on the blends. ‘Less’, after all, is a difficult sell. Some blended products have already dropped into the middle ground between meat and non-meat, where it is easy to get lost, according to Rebel co-founder Philipp Stangl. Marketing is “very tricky”, he admits. Convenience, taste and satiety are all boxes that need to be ticked.

Rebel sells a range of products through supermarkets including a 50:50 burger, which uses organic, grass-fed beef. Stangl suggests that blended products offer a bridge to better meats, such as those produced from regenerative farming systems: less of the meat is needed so bringing the price down. Rebel’s products are currently priced higher than organic meat, however, in part due to the smaller scale.

If the price is right, will people buy into this concept? Research funded by European Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food at the MAPP Centre at Aarhus University, Denmark, is looking at consumer perceptions of “healthier meats”. These have less fat and salt or added omega-3, for example. The UK consumers they surveyed were uncertain about the products and their taste, as well as the amount of processing involved.

However, meat substitution with plant-based ingredients (together with fat and salt reduction) has more potential, they discovered. Blended meat products offer “the best of two worlds” according to Marija Banovic, associate professor at MAPP. They have also been “underestimated” in terms of their nutritional benefits and the fact they maintain the taste, flavour and “pleasure” of meat. The chance to eat less but better meat was a message that came back “very clearly” from consumers too.

“Blended burgers are the perfect example of bringing balance whilst importantly enhancing the flavour of the burger,” explains Rik Razza, head of chef development at BaxterStorey. “In our blended burger, mushrooms and chickpeas play a key role in getting the balance of nutrition and taste just right. The mushrooms bring and hold flavour, upping the umami sensation, while the chickpeas add fibre and a further source of protein.”

So could these products help the transition to a more plant-based diet? Research in the US by Hartman, and reported by Just-Food, shows that 56% of those buying plant-based products are interested in (or already buy) blended options, while 30% of those not buying into plant-based are interested in hybrids (or already buy them). Only around one in five (21%) were interested in trying the Impossible Burger, which is entirely plant-based. Are brands missing a potentially lucrative and sustainable trick here?

Foodservice could be the perfect place to provoke some curiosity in these products, says Stangl. Rebel had hoped to launch first through foodservice, as Impossible did, but covid lockdowns forced it into supermarkets first. “People are more willing to try new things in restaurants than in supermarkets,” he says. Perhaps blended burgers can take a bigger bite out of the market after all.

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