Blended Burgers: Gateway to the Mainstream for Plant-Based Protein Alternatives?
Despite the fact that current consumer thinking around healthy, mindful eating includes attempts to eat less red meat, our cultural love affair with burgers continues unabated. One barometer would be the ongoing popularity of McDonald’s (2018 global sales of $38 billion), Burger King, and Wendy's (both of which did over $9 billion each in revenues in 2018). And yet, the concept of “half meat, half plant” burgers resonates with consumers today, since many admit they are interested in reducing animal protein products. Our Food & Technology 2019: From Plant-based to Lab-grown report finds that 56% of plant-based product purchasers are interested in purchasing a “blended” burger (or are already buying them). Even among consumers who don't currently purchase plant-based products, 30% say they are interested in buying blended burgers. One consumer interviewed in our Food & Technology report noted, "I think the fact that we’re doing a combination [of beef and vegetables in a burger] means that the flavor will win — the beef with the veggies. It’s half the fat, half the calories, half the guilt."
Reflecting demand, food manufacturers are stepping up offerings in blended burgers at retail. In March 2019, Applegate Farms, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp., introduced hybrid “blend burgers,” described in the Star Tribune as products "that reduce the amount of organic beef or turkey in a burger patty and fill it out with organic mushrooms. They are designed to appeal to people who are trying to put a little less meat and a few more vegetables in their diets. In joining the plant-based trend, Applegate and firms like it are paving a middle ground in the age-old divide between meat-eaters and vegetarians."
As an emerging sub-category within proteins, "blended burgers” are an underdeveloped bright spot with significant potential. This is because blended meat products have one big advantage over plant-based protein alternatives relating to perceptions of taste. Our Food & Technology report found in multiple data points that a significant barrier to the consumption of plant-based proteins related to negative taste perceptions. Of interest, even among non-buyers of plant-based products, there is strong, "common sense" thinking that consuming plant-based alternative proteins can be healthier and better for the environment. But — what's holding them back are perceptions relating to taste.
Whether currently buying plant-based proteins or not, blended burgers are viewed as potentially the best of both burger worlds. Interested consumers feel that the blended burger compromise is likely to give them most of the flavor of meat that they crave but may also enable them to eat in alignment with their health and ethical aspirations. This phenomenon is occurring as innovations in the meat analogue sphere, like the Impossible Burger, are garnering attention and business investment. Meanwhile, many consumers are indicating they appreciate simpler ways to cut back on meat without giving up on it altogether.
Going forward, it is highly likely that blended meat products (notably, but not exclusively, burgers) will become part of mainstream diets. This is not to say that they're going to replace meat (consumption of which is continuing to grow). Instead, products like blended burgers are going to just be another choice reflective of experimentation with customized diets and new eating approaches. Blended burgers will thus become yet one more way to experiment and explore new tastes, new formats, and new diets and will possibly be included in everyday eating routines.