Could cultivated meat combined with plant-based ingredients satisfy consumers who are demanding more from sustainable burgers, asks David Burrows?
It’s that time of year when people eschew meat and dairy: it is Veganuary. I won’t be partaking due to lack of willpower.
Indeed, at the first mention of resolutions I think of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that does the rounds in early January. Hobbes: “Do you make resolutions?” Calvin: “Heck no. I’m fine just the way I am. Why should I change? In fact, I think it’s high time the world started changing to suit me! I don’t see why I should do all the changing around here!”
That exchange cuts to the point I want to make here on burgers.
Early reaction to the FAO’s food roadmap, published during the COP28 climate summit, suggests much onus will be on individual behaviour change when it comes to achieving healthy, sustainable diets. This is risky in a world of Calvins, or as we could call them: consumers. (Proponents of the term ‘citizens’ will have to bear with me on this one).
Sure, there are more vegans than ever before, and more vegetarians, plus a growing group of flexitarians (25% of people living in Europe’s largest five countries – Germany, France, UK, Italy and Spain – are now following a flexitarian diet, according to Circana research). Plant-based burger sales are rising, especially in fast food chains, restaurants and cafés, too.
But this year there will be more heat on plant products as the battle to offer ‘healthier’ options intensifies. “Companies are now realising that it is not enough just to replicate meat,” said JP Frossard, analyst at Rabobank recently. “Consumers need to feel they are making a smart choice for their body. They need to fight not only to be a replacement, but be a better choice,” he told the Financial Times.
Research by Kerry Group in 2022 showed 60% of UK consumers started eating plant-based products because they are considered ‘healthier’, while 76% will buy a plant-based burger described as ‘authentic chargrilled-tasting’.
Selling less meat
From an environmental perspective, consumption of meat is heading in the right direction in the UK – down – but nowhere near quickly enough to meet the reduction targets proposed in Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy or set out by the Climate Change Committee in its net-zero assessments. The current UK government won’t touch dietary interventions (nor will most others, to be fair).
Food companies meanwhile appear to be slipping back into old habits: there are fewer commitments to healthy and sustainable diets being set in comparison to last year; and no major UK food retail or foodservice business has a target for and discloses the percentage of sales coming from both animal and plant proteins, according to the Food Foundation.
So, what to do? How about betting bigger on blended burgers – a stealth move to integrate more plants, reduce meat (and source ‘better’ meat for what remains) and cut emissions if ever there was one. Some could use cultivated meats and others regenerative or organic meat – whatever hits the mark for ‘better’.
Halfburger with fries?
These halfway house hamburgers could dramatically reduce emissions if applied at scale. “A blended solution appeals to those who want to consume less meat, [and] to the foodservice industry who looks for innovation and cost efficiencies, and all without sacrificing taste,” said Shalom Daniel, CEO at Mush Foods, the Israel-based maker of mushroom-based mycelium blends for adding to chicken, beef, pork and fish, in a recent interview with Green Queen.
Indeed, consumers have reportedly higher expectations of plant-based meats than they do of the ‘real thing’, so a blended burger could be a worthy compromise. Convincing consumers of that won’t be easy. “There’s a marketing job to be done,” Mark Lynch, partner at Oghma Partners, a UK-based corporate finance advisory firm specialising in the food and beverage sector, told me a couple of years back. His point still rings true today.
The research by Kerry Group with consumers in the US, Australia, Brazil and the UK showed beef is the benchmark for taste but consumers want plant-based burgers to replicate the sensory experience of eating a beefburger too. “Consumers desire products with improved succulence and a ‘bite’ that feels as close to meat as possible. They also seek cooking cues such as charring which signal that a burger is perfectly cooked and safe to eat and want meat alternatives with improved nutrition.”
A mix of meat and plants can do just that. Research with a small number of UK consumers, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, actually showed a blended burger beat the beef one in a blind taste test.
This could lay the groundwork for the next stage – cultured meat mixes. Oghma Partners recently published a report that suggested blended burgers could be the best entry point for these so-called lab-based meats. The UK government is also reportedly planning to fast-track the technology here – both in the name of sustainability and to offer potentially cheaper proteins – as Europe dithers.
UK companies must trial new products (including cultured meat if an when its available here), test consumer appetites for these novel meat-plant mixes and analyse the marketing cues that might work best. Imagine what that could do for both the UK’s and food companies’ net-zero aspirations. And all the while keeping the Calvins content as the world of burgers changes around them.