COMMENT: Blended burgers can help achieve net zero

Combining beef with vegetables and pulses can cut emissions and deliver on taste. What’s not to like, wonders David Burrows.

Earlier this month I wrote this short news item about a study by the Stockholm Resilience Centre that looked under the bonnet of some of the sustainability claims made aboutby different food technologies, including blockchain, home delivery, protein alternatives and vertical farms. Few of them were supported by decent data, and there was too much focus on carbon and too little on anything besides (those ‘unintended consequences’). “There is a distinct lack of studies assessing the social and economic implications of shifting towards plant-based alternatives,” they noted in their paper for Nature Food.

And yet cash keeps pouring into this and other food tech. Should we be worried? We shouldn't shoot these silver bullets down if they come up short on sustainability just yet, but where are the holes and which solutions provide most reason for hope in driving down scope 3 emissions are questions that need to be asked.

One innovation that I hold high hopes for is blending both meat and plants (like mushrooms, beetroot or lentils) into burgers. In theory these offer the best of both worlds: less (and better) meat and more plants. Those that are already reducing their meat consumption may pine after a 100% beef burger, which is fine, but despite the growing number of so-called reducers and flexitarians meat consumption is not falling fast enough. 

According to Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford, blended products might be “essential” to achieve international sustainability targets at the scale and speed required. With the help of his colleague Hannah Ritchie, he recently crunched some data on two key foodservice brands to show how. The results are eye-catching.

If McDonald’s and Burger King (which together represent 2-3% of global beef purchases) swapped 50% of the beef in their burgers for plants by blending burgers it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 34MtCO2e per year. Another 17MtCO2e would be removed as 8.5 million hectares of land “reverts to nature”, Poore explained. 

So combined, that’s 51MtCO2e. And here’s the kicker: that’s more than 80% of the way to meeting both companies’ net-zero targets. But will either go for it? 

Burger King UK has committed to a 41% reduction in scope 3 emissions by 2030, which will require a big shift to plants (its target is for 50% of the menu to be plant-based by the end of the decade). It’s also being rather bullish about how to do this, trialling meatless as the default option in Austria. McDonald’s UK&I, which tends to be more sheepish about its commitments, has the rather woollier promise to “have a market leading vegan plant-based food and drinks offering by 2025”. 

I can’t see either of these brands going for blended options, though. Fear of a backlash, for one – their burgers like the Big Mac and Whopper have dedicated followers numbering in the millions and it would seem foolish to play around with a winning recipe. Contract caterers are likely to be more interested, with one telling me the blended burger is a potential “gem” of an innovation. 

Schools may well be a good place to start. Rebel Meat, in Austria, has launched a chicken nugget with 40% meat and 60% veg. “We have learned that people understand the concept of blended meat much better in the context of ‘kids food’,” says CEO Philipp Stangl. With less meat to buy, the meat (and veg) content can be made organic and is marketed as ‘natural’ to help differentiate it from the faux-meat that can rely on highly-processed ingredients such as texturised pea protein powder.

A word to the wise for the fast food chains reliant on livestock though: there’s no guarantee that sales will shift enough from much-loved meat to pure plants. If their carbon reduction targets remain out of reach come the middle of the decade they might be forced to look at blended options.  

It’ll have to be carefully marketed. A blend is certainly not as sexy as vegan. Still, the honeymoon period for plant-based meats appears to be nearing its end: a lack of differentiation, a few duds on the market and big questions marks over nutrition, over-processing and affordability are all casting a shadow (and allowing meat, via the regenerative movement, to fight back). 

Research by Marija Banovic, associate professor at MAPP Centre, Aarhus University in Denmark, showed hybrid burgers are a good way of bridging the gap from meat to plants “on many levels”, especially for meat lovers. Recent research with a small number of UK consumers, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, also showed a blended burger beat the beef one in a blind taste test.

Maybe we do need to open our minds to the concept of the blended burger. I’d love to hear from those already working in this space.

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