Meat and vegetables on the same dinner plate is not new. But what is novel about dinner plates today is combinations of meat and plant-based analogue ingredients in the same entrée or other product, such as burger patties infused with pea protein or sausage crumbles comprised partly of cauliflower.
In short, with these new products, meat and vegetables are comfortably cohabiting the same product, sometimes so closely that they’re indistinguishable.
“We have seen the boom in popularity of plant-based products, and we realized as a meat company that many consumers are trying to reduce their meat intake for a bunch of reasons – nutritional, ethical and environmental,” says Mayur Aras, brand manager for Applegate Farms, a Hormel brand, which recently launched the Well Carved line of meatballs that combine animal meat and vegetables.
“But among those who are reducing their meat intake, many do not want to cut out meat completely. They wanted the meat they kept in their diet to be a little cleaner or healthier than they were having beforehand, and that was our impetus. We created a product that blended high-quality meat with whole vegetables, legumes and grains without any kind of mystery ingredients that consumers are not used to.”
The meat/vegetable combos now on the market come in two general categories: meat-forward products with vegetables added that emulate all-meat products; and meat products with veggies added that celebrate the combination. Both seem to have a place in the market.
“We call this a ‘hybrid’ food trend where companies are trying to appeal to consumers seeking to increase consumption of plant-based foods without completely giving up animal-based food products,” says Tom Vierhile, vice president of strategic insights-North America for Innova Market Insights. “This approach appeals to consumers who do not consider themselves to be dedicated vegan or vegetarian consumers, but would rather aspire to increasing plant-based product consumption.”
Meat/veggie combo products that attempt to truly emulate meat – such as combo hamburger/veggie protein patties or meatballs -- are aiming for customers who want to feel better about having a burger, but without totally giving up the meat.
Hormel appears to be committed to the concept, and the Applegate Farms Well Carved products have been well received, Aras says.
“We launched in really one of the most uncertain times ever for launching a product,” he says, referring to the COVID lockdown. “And we’ve seen lots of pick-ups from national retailers. Because we use real meat, actual pork in our pork meatballs and turkey in the turkey meatballs, the flavor and texture is very close to a fully meat meatball. Consumers have told us that after eating some of these products they feel satisfied without some of the post-meat malaise.”
In addition to its Applegate Farms products, in 2019 Hormel’s Burke brand released two blended toppings products that contain 70 percent meat and 30 percent vegetable. One of the blends contains beef and two types of mushrooms – one dehydrated and one whole -- and the other pork and dehydrated cauliflower. The products, part of the Made Simple line, are being used by food processors making breakfast bowls, frozen lasagna, frozen pizza and other entrees.
“Finding the 70/30 combination involved a lot of trial and error,” says Paul Sheehan, Hormel Ingredients Solutions sales director.
Hormel’s researchers started with a 50/50 mix, says Amy Thielking, Hormel Ingredients Solutions marketing manager. “We eventually found that for the best flavor and processing operations, 70/30 was the magic number.”
Other than the meat and vegetables, the ingredient panel for these products is short, Thielking explains. “For the beef product it’s beef and mushrooms, salt, sugar and some spices, so a very clean ingredient statement. On the pork and cauliflower product, there is some crushed red pepper, pork, cauliflower, salt, some natural flavoring and a proprietary antioxidant blend that helps it achieve a 360-day shelf life.”
Melissa Machen, a senior technical service specialist for plant proteins for Cargill, confirms that getting the blend right is clearly an essential challenge for makers of combo products.
In a joint venture with Puris Foods, Cargill offers Puris Pea Protein to manufacturers in the space.
“I would say the biggest focus would be to make sure the balance of animal to plant protein is optimized,” Machen says. “The product needs a certain moisture content and pliability. For example, if you’re making a patty and you want it to go through a Formax machine and transfer from belt to belt, you need to make sure the formulation [can] go through equipment and transition through production across belts and into a blast chiller or freezer or whatever needs to be done.”
Getting the combination just right also involves taste and overall eating experience, of course.
“You need to optimize your formula to make sure the quality of the product when you eat it is what you want it to be,” Machen stresses. “That could involve the fat level, water level, usage rates of your inclusions, and other factors. That may require adding textured protein or protein powder to get that texture and bind you’re looking for.
"For a vegetable inclusion, even if it’s just cooked vegetables, you add a lot of moisture, so when it’s cooked, does that moisture evaporate or stay in product?" she continues. "So you may need to add a protein powder or starch so the moisture released is captured in the system to make desirable product.”
Meat plus vegetables as co-star
While some makers of meat/veggie blend products emphasize the lower fat content and genuine meat-like taste and appearance of their blends, others emphasize that the inclusion of vegetables is simply a nutritional bonus.
For example, the Perdue Chicken Plus line, which was introduced in summer 2019, promotes the fact that each serving includes ¼ cup of vegetables.
“Consumers tell us there is a tremendous benefit to having a simple and tasty way to get more veggies into their – and their kids’ – diets,” says Tracy Hostetler, vice president of marketing for Perdue.
Chicken Plus nuggets are made by combining a frozen blend of chickpeas and cauliflower with ground chicken. The mixture is formed into nuggets.
“The most significant challenge in development was the ¼ cup per serving of veggies claim,” Hostetler says. “For label approval, we had to prove that vegetables were from natural forms (so, real chickpeas and real cauliflower, not fractionated or from sources that had components removed or that were highly processed) and that there is actually a full ¼ cup contained in a serving.
"The meat protein itself and a proprietary natural and functional non-meat ingredient blend provides the formulation consistency necessary to move through our typical manufacturing process,” she concludes.
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Vierhile says Perdue’s strategy may have a greater chance of success than those of companies trying to just create meat/veggie combos that focus on the meat side.
“The Perdue Chicken Plus builds on the hidden vegetable trend,” he says. “That might be a more fruitful angle. They might have a better path to success by showing what the vegetable ingredients add to the product – because they’re improving the product. Maybe it’s more productive to tell consumers what they’re getting rather than what’s gone.”
Will the combos last?
Consumers are definitely looking for meat alternatives, but does the idea of mixing meat and vegetable protein in patties, crumbles and meatballs have legs?
“I think it’s kind of tricky,” Vierhile says. “I remember when soft drink companies experimented with mid-calorie soft drinks. Most consumers decided they wanted no-calorie soft drinks or regular soft drinks. If you want to get away from animal products, it seems like you’re going to bypass the animal altogether.”
Machen also expresses doubts, but ultimately is more confident in the category. “I think consumers have a hard time relating to it, they’re not exactly sure where to go with the concept. But I think it will grow.
"We know the flexitarian market is growing. They are really focused on reducing conventional meat consumption. That can mean going to 100 percent plant-based products or going to hybrid products. So I do think that will grow.”