As more consumers become interested in the sustainability of what they eat, what role can ‘hybrid’ products made from meat and vegetables play? After all, early launches haven’t always succeeded, writes David Burrows.
The debate over sustainable diets is about all or nothing. Either you eat a meat product or you eat a 100% plant-based one. Consumers are left to choose between an Impossible Burger made from plants or a traditional one made of beef. Some are swayed one way or the other – either by the novelty, the environmental or health benefits, or concerns over animal welfare (or a combination of all of these). But most are not.
Indeed, the market value of processed meat alone was worth US$519.41 billion in 2019. Plant-based managed $11.1bn (according to Statista), so 2% of all processed meat. The category is growing fast of course and could reach $35.5bn by 2027. But processed meat is expected to reach $862.97bn by then, giving plant-based a 4% share. That’s nowhere near the shift required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve public health.
“Consumers say they will eat less meat but look at per capita consumption levels and it’s increasing,” explains Marija Banovic, associate professor at Aarhus University’s MAPP Centre in Denmark. “It’s difficult to say we are doing everything we could.”
So Banovic, together with academics at the UK’s University of Reading, Ireland-based meat processor ABP Food Group and the Spanish National Research Council, has been looking at a solution in what she calls “healthier” processed meats. Sausages with less pork and beef burgers with less beef, that are then bulked out with vegetables and pulses. Arguably these ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ meats offer the “best of both worlds”, she says.
Natasha Maynard, nutrition and scientific affairs manager at UK-based industry researchers The IGD, says such products also provide “familiarity and are viewed as a low-risk option for families”, adding: “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.”
Indeed, chicken nuggets launched by US poultry processor Perdue Foods and US ingredients start-up The Better Meat Co. in 2019 were targeted at “flexitarian families” trying to add vegetables to their diets with the minimum fuss and expense. The nuggets, which blended chicken with cauliflower, chickpeas and plant protein, were part of a flurry of activity in the blended meats space in a matter of weeks in summer 2019.
Hormel Foods, another US business centred on meat, also told an investment conference in Paris it would look to continue its development of products containing meat and other proteins. (It already had the Applegate Blend Burger). And, perhaps most strikingly, Tyson Foods, one of the largest players in the meat sector globally, rolled out a new brand – Raised & Rooted – which included ‘The Blend’, a burger made with ‘beef and plants’.
“This is not about vegans and vegetarians, it’s for people that want to make a good call today and be just a little bit healthier,” Susie Fogelson, a New York-based food marketing strategist who runs her own consultancy, F&Co., told just-food at the time. “It’s a big market.”
Yet Tyson recently pulled its blended burger from the market. And these products remain incredibly niche – so niche in fact =the likes of Kantar don’t collect data on them. Why?
The short answer, according to Mark Cornthwaite, industry and marketing team leader at DuPont nutrition and health, is that it’s too early. “Brands are too focused on making the best plant-based burger they can,” he explains. “That’s where the research and development is.”
The hype is with anything plant-based currently, and major food companies will be loath to lose any market share as sales continue to grow. Further fragmentation into new products and sub-categories risks confusing shoppers. Instead, retailers and manufacturers are solidifying their plant-based portfolios, says Andrew Moberly, director of category solutions at retail branding firm Daymon.
Research from Nielsen published this month by the Smart Protein Project shows the European plant-based food sector has grown by 49% in the past two years, reaching a total sales value of EUR3.6bn. It’s an impressive leap but again remains a drop in the ocean of the overall meat market.
Much is expected of the plant-based movement but are we asking too much? Research on how long vegan commitments last is mixed but meat is undoubtedly proving hard to give up (based on sales figures). “Plant-based meat replacements have 0.6% of the total meat market in Germany,” says Philipp Stangl, co-founder and CEO at Rebel Meat, a producer of blended meats based in Austria. “Why don’t we try an additional way of reducing the other 99.4%?”
The beef balance
Rebel offers a 50:50 burger, with half made of beef and half ‘plant-based products’, mostly mushroom. Companies in Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel and the US are also looking to blend mushrooms with soya and pea proteins, according to Steve Solomon from The Mushroom Council.
In April, Rebel is launching another four products made from pork or beef and a mixture of vegetables other than mushroom. These will be sold through supermarket chain Billa, part of Germany-based grocer Rewe, as well as at restaurants as and when they open up from lockdowns. “Our initial strategy was to build the brand in foodservice [as Impossible and Beyond did] but we had to change that due to Covid,” says Stangl.
Meat processor Danish Crown also went 50:50 in its pork and beef mince products, launched in August 2019. The vegetable mix has been adapted to complement the meat: ‘Grønt & Gris’ (vegetables and pork) contains carrots, peppers and chickpeas, while kidney beans have been used instead of carrots in ‘Grønt & Okse’ (vegetables and beef). Both variants also carry the Nordic Keyhole label (only 6% fat).
Others are working to a 70:30 ratio (Tyson reportedly got nowhere near this with its Blend, causing some to question whether it really was a blend at all). Maintaining the taste, texture and pleasure of meat is critical for wider adoption so each product needs to be carefully balanced. “The goal is first of all quality,” explains Emily Buckley, VP of meals portfolio at Freshly, the US fresh-prepared meal delivery service bought by Nestlé in October. “It still needs to resemble a meatball or burger.”
“It’s not ‘this’ or ‘that’. It’s somewhere in the middle”
Freshly’s new ‘masterful meatballs’ manage a 60:40 blend of meat with mushrooms, onions, oats and ras el hanout spices. Buckley feels the “middle ground” offered by blended products will have greater reach than the binary approach of meat-free one day per week. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has estimated replacing 30% of the meat in the 10 billion burgers a year Americans chomp through with mushrooms would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10.5 million tonnes. “It’s not ‘this’ or that’,” she explains, “it’s somewhere in the middle.”
This can create problems though. Blended meats fall between two worlds – 100% meat and 100% plants – and it’s hard not to get lost in between them, says Rebel’s Stangl. “As humans we don’t typically like the [concept of] less,” he adds.
There is a feeling the products have been poorly pitched. “There’s a marketing job to be done,” says Mark Lynch, partner at Oghma Partners, a UK-based corporate finance advisory firm specialising in the food and beverage sector. Some feel brands have adopted a lazy approach to blended meats, developing them to tie in with the flexitarian trend and then expecting them to fly off the shelves with little effort. This hasn’t happened.
Buckley says she isn’t aware of any one company that has mastered the messaging around blended meats yet. At Freshly, the emphasis is on stealth. Sales of the 60:40 meatballs are consistent with the full meat version, so why rock the boat with ‘less meat, more veg’ communications.
Some products could also be struggling with a clash in messages, which confuses shoppers. Meat tends to be sold as hugely satiating, fulfilling, tasty and almost powerful products, while plants have very different associations, like healthy, vitality, bland and so on, explains Sophie Attwood, senior behavioural scientist at US environmental think tank World Resources Institute. “I’m wondering whether the two worlds kind of clash in the blend – watering each other down rather than mutually supporting [each other].”
In work funded by Belgium-based research body European Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food, Banovic has been surveying thousands of consumers in Europe and running online focus groups to determine how people feel about blended products. “A more consumer-orientated approach to hybrid is needed,” she says. “Versatility, convenience, taste and satiety are all very important.” Younger females are also better targets than older males.
The health and environmental triggers are there but not as prominent as they are for those seeking out 100% plant-based products. Banovic says in her research the ‘less but better meat’ message came through strongly. Rebel has gone for organic, grass-fed beef for instance but Stangl reckons blends could offer a route to market for products that are too expensive to mainstream currently, such as meat from regenerative agriculture systems and cell-based meat.
Don’t call meat hybrid
Meat produced by cellular agriculture has already been through a lengthy period of reflection in terms of how best to pitch the products to consumers. The Good Food Institute, a non-profit that promotes the alternative-protein sector, finally landed on the term ‘cultivated meat’. Banovic reckons blended meats need to go through a similar process. Her research with consumers in the UK, Spain and Denmark suggests ‘hybrid’, ‘blended’ and ‘enriched’ are all seen as modifications and linked to processed products, which is why she’s using the term ‘healthier meats’.
Potential nutrient gaps in plant-based eating (iron, vitamin B12, calcium and iodine) could also be plugged with blended products, suggests Barbara Bray, founder of UK-based food consultancy Alo Solutions. Uptake of vegetables and pulses could also be increased at the expense of some meat, she adds.
Banovic also found people are sceptical about these products and see them as over-processed, which is not always the case. In fact, they can actually often trump pure plant-based products. As Melissa Abbott, vice president for retainer services at US research firm The Hartman Group, explains: “There is a significant difference in a plant-based analogue that relies on hyper-processing to achieve a meat-like eating experience and a burger that relies on regeneratively-farmed meat combined with real veggies.”
Research by Hartman shows 56% of those buying plant-based products are interested in (or already buy) blended options. What’s more, 30% of those not buying into plant-based yet are interested in hybrids (or already buy them). That’s actually more than are interested in trying the Impossible Burger (21%).
Awareness (66%) and purchase intent (61%) is also higher in blended meats compared to well-known plant-based options like Impossible and Beyond Meat (57% awareness and 52% purchase intent), according to Hartman. Some 60% of UK shoppers would also consider blended meat products, according to IGD.
This is good news for the likes of Freshly, Rebel and others. Stangl says there are two typical reactions to his products. “The first is along the lines of ‘nobody needs this – I can eat meat or veg’,” he explains. “The second is ‘this is what I’ve been waiting for’.”