Curious Cook: The story of hybrid meat


More people are on flexitarians but many are still resistant to consuming hybrid meats. - 123rf.com

People who are concerned about environmental or health or animal welfare issues should skip the next paragraph.

The global meat market had revenues of US$1.223tril in 2019, of which processed meats made up US$519.41bil, just over 42% of total meat production. Apart from fresh vegetables and grains/beans, most packaged vegetarian/vegan meat substitutes available in supermarkets are classified as “processed foods”. Therefore, as a comparison against processed meats, processed plant products only managed US$11.1bil in revenues, around 2% of processed meats. Even allowing for rapid growth, processed plant products may reach US$35.5bil by 2027, a doubling of market share, but still dwarfed by processed meats estimated at $862.97 bil by then.

The statistics are odd because almost every country has been claiming to be eating less meat each year since 2010, apart from the United States, China and several developing countries. Population dynamics play an important part, especially as China has increased its per capita annual meat consumption from less than 5 kg in 1961 to around 60 kg in 2020 – this pattern of increased meat eating matters when China’s population is 1.444 billion people, and they currently eat over 28% of all the meat produced in the world each year.

China may be a demographic issue with no immediate solution in hand, but there are other nuanced issues to do with cutting down on meat consumption. These issues may be solved soon, if only the public would accept some minor changes in their diets. This is the story of a sensible attempt to change our food.

Background

There is an issue with meat substitutes. The key word is “substitute”, where consumers still demand the taste, texture and aroma of real meat in their plant-based versions of meat. This can be done and there are several plant-based burgers which taste just as good, or sometimes even better than real meat-based burgers.

Although plant-based meats are more environmentally friendly, techniques and processes used to create the sensation of meat can lead to problems with over-processing of ingredients and overuse of flavourings such as salt. Some 28% of plant-based foods currently exceed recommended salt intake levels, for example, and their processing introduces a wide range of unfamiliar ingredients to manage textures and fat content.

Put simply, a plant-based burger is never a single-ingredient item (eg, minced beef in a burger patty) but a lengthy list of various items processed together to recreate a meaty sensation. This goes against our instinct for simple “natural” foods as our preference is usually to avoid eating items with long lists of uncommon ingredients. In short, meat substitutes may be environmentally friendly, but in the end, they are mainly processed foods.

Another issue is many people are resistant to the idea of dining consistently on meals without meat. Despite that, the good news is that flexitarianism is the fastest growing dietary trend in the world today. The number of flexitarians (people who reduce their consumption of meat and substitute it with plant-based foods) increased from 28% to 34% of the younger population between 2017 and 2018 in the UK, and some 60% of younger Americans claim to have cut down their consumption of meat during the same period.

One problem though is the definition of flexitarian is not quantitative; for example, it does not specify that a reduction of meat content of, say, 30%, is required before someone is eligible to be classed as flexitarian. Therefore, anyone who has “cut down” on meat, even by negligible amounts, can still claim to be a “flexitarian”.

Missing The Point

Often it seems the world sometimes cannot see the woods for the trees. For years, the hype and focus have been almost entirely on plant-based meat substitutes to replace meat in human diets. But surely the real requirement is a significant reduction in meat consumption, which can then profoundly reduce the impact of meat farming on the environment. For all the attention received by plant-based meat substitutes, the stark reality is they still make up an insignificant proportion of any country’s food consumption. It may be early days of course, but there are other faster, perhaps even healthier routes to cutting down on eating meat.

A Simple Solution

From the above, one might assume that a good remedy would be foods that combine meat with added plant-based ingredients. This lowers the amount of meat, plus introduce well-known plant-based constituents into food items. With careful balancing of ingredients, such foods can also display the characteristics of meat-only products, such as taste and “bleeding” during cooking. The logic appears compelling, and one might even suggest such foods would be a simple way to introduce healthy plant-based content into meals without the effort needed to additionally cook vegetables.

One of the USA’s largest food companies thought so too, and in 2019 Tyson introduced a range called “Raised & Rooted” which blended meat and plant ingredients to tap into American interest in plant-based foods. Star of the range may have been a beef burger called “The Blend”, made with Angus beef and pea protein, which contained 40% less calories and 60% less saturated fat.

However, little more than a year later, the “Raised & Rooted” range was discontinued, and the reasons why this happened are interesting.

Complex Perceptions

It is a strange situation. In Germany, for example, plant-based meat replacements have only 0.6% of the total meat market. So even as flexitarianism picks up in Germany, it appears that many people want to see either (i) only meat at some mealtimes, (ii) only vegetables/grains for some meals, or (iii) sometimes both meat and vegetables on the same plate. In other words, Germans do not currently approve of the concept of meat and vegetables blended to make up new food items, regardless of the health benefits. Meat and vegetables must be visibly distinguishable on the plate.

So, it is curious that 99.4% of the meat-eating market would not accept any blending of meat with plant-based ingredients, even though over 40% of Germans consider themselves to be flexitarians. If meat eaters there would change their attitude, then meat consumption can be lowered considerably with little effort while introducing potential environmental and health benefits via blended or “hybrid” meat/plant-based food items.

Therefore, it is worth understanding why there is resistance to hybrid meat products and whether this status can continue for much longer.

The irony, of course, is that hybrid meat items have been around for several decades, and many of them are even preferred to full meat products. A classic example would be sausages in the UK, where the most popular brand only has 42% meat content, with the rest made up of rusk (powdered dried wheat-based bread baked with salt and sodium bicarbonate), starch, seasonings, soya protein powder, preservatives, etc. It is certainly not healthy as there is little nutrition or fibre in rusk mixed with minced fatty meat in collagen/cellulose tubes – and it is certainly a hybrid meat. I once brought some popular UK sausages to France for a BBQ and none of the French could eat them. Yet some 90% of UK households buy on average around 80kg of sausages a year.

Tradition is therefore a factor in determining whether a hybrid food item is acceptable. For example, UK consumers traditionally perceive sausages as a “meat” item.

So perhaps there is resistance to “new” hybrid foods, where the perception might be meat has been “altered” or “reconstructed” by being blended with plant-based items. Or perhaps the taste profiles of hybrid meats are not acceptable yet for consumers, though one would think that including real meat in a hybrid food item these days can only improve palatability.

Regardless, several food companies are persisting with hybrid meat products. One such company is Rebel Meat which blends 50% beef with 50% plant-based products such as mushrooms to create delicious healthier burgers. One of their target markets is Germany.

Danish Crown is another global meat company who are now offering 50:50 blends of meat (pork and beef) with vegetable mixes specially designed to complement the meat. One claimed benefit is fat content is also considerably reduced to 6%.

It may just be a matter of time before hybrid foods are adopted universally. As mentioned, there is so much hype about wholly plant-based meat substitutes that people are never reminded that just using lesser amounts of meat in food can have a greater impact on the environment. For example, Americans eat 10 billion burgers a year; if every burger eaten in the USA had 30% of its meat replaced by plant-based content, it would save 10.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually, with arguably more health benefits and little or no difference in taste.

One thing the world (and Tyson) has learned is hybrid meats labelled as “blended”, “hybrid” or “enriched” are perceived to be industrially processed and therefore still hold negative connotations at present. Therefore, we may soon expect such foods to be termed something like “healthier meats” and perhaps even marketed as “better than meat”.

Some interesting UK surveys support such an approach. Out of the people not yet buying any plant-based foods, 30% expressed interest in hybrid foods, a higher percentage than the 21% wanting to try plant-based burgers like the Impossible Burger. Overall, 61% also express an intent to buy hybrid meat foods compared to the 52% preferring to buy wholly plant-based meat substitutes.

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