More than ever before, consumers today are trying to diversify their at-home menu, balancing factors like nutrition, taste and kitchen burnout while they continue to prepare more meals at home.
“Ground beef has always been foundational in Americans’ kitchens and we don’t see that changing, but consumers are realizing now how versatile some of the other ground proteins and protein blends can be while offering the same convenience and optionality for their recipes,” said Jay Sagel, director of business development, fresh meats, for Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods.
That’s led to blends becoming more and more popular—especially during the pandemic when consumers were looking for new flavors to eat at home.
“Generally speaking, we know that most shoppers are still buying more meat than they did pre-pandemic,” Sagel said. “They are seeking convenience and variety while they continue to prepare more meals at home. Grinds, including blended protein grinds, were certainly a major driver of that trend due to their versatility, convenience and value and we don’t see demand slowing down in the near future.”
According to the industry insiders, consumer demand for blends has outpaced the ability to manufacture and deliver the product. In spite of that, sales are robust and continue to demonstrate a need for increased production.
Brian Nagele, CEO of Restaurant Clicks, said transparency is becoming a fundamental factor for successful food marketing and today’s consumers are more interested in grass-fed blends than those that are processed or come with unspecified production labels.
“We’re seeing a lot of resistance against blends with beef, especially if the labels don’t indicate which parts of the animal are used,” he said. “People favor leaner meats due to their concerns about high-fat intake. More companies are focusing on blends that incorporate meat and plant superfoods like mushrooms to encourage health-conscious purchases.”
Meat blends are popular, Nagele noted, because of their convenience. Blends remove the effort and commitment for many shoppers while still including some level of nutrition in their meals.
New and improved
Many companies are responding to the increase in consumer demand with new and exciting blended products.
“Blends have emotional, functional and performative benefits, and this is what makes them so popular,” said Tanya Rodriguez, senior human experience research manager at Hormel Foods, Austin, Minn. “While meat blends are an emerging space as more consumers learn how to incorporate these type of products in their food routines, we can’t forget that a lot of home cooks have been doing this for a long time. Blending meat and veggies creates flavor, curbs food waste, extends available foods and increases the nutritional profile of meals.”
Another interesting aspect to blends is how consumers are looking to add more plant-based foods to their diets, and creatively doing so by taking a food that they are familiar with and adding an aspirational food, like vegetables, to bring a nutritional aspect to their meal while also keeping a more familiar flavor option.
Applegate Well Carved products or Jennie-O Burger Blends are great examples of products that Hormel offers that help consumers get a serving of vegetables within a delicious burger.
Tyson Foods offers a beef and pork grind blend that is in high demand by consumers and offers retailers a cost-effective, consistent value- added solution.
“We expect to continue to see increased demand in grinds and blended protein grinds in coming months,” Sagel said. “We see opportunities with new protein blends or different forms like patties, loaves and chubs for example. Additionally, flavor-infused meats like our Ball Park lineup of fresh burgers (Smokehouse, Bacon Cheddar, Steakhouse) continue to be very popular.”
Mushroom blends in bloom
For many, mushrooms are considered the original and best for blending in any application because they are natural, sustainable, and add flavor, texture, immunity and numerous other benefits.
Michael Buononato, senior vice president for Creative Food Solutions, noted blends have the unique capacity to demonstrate innovation while problem solving the greater picture. It’s a way to bring sustainability and health and wellness alongside taste and craveability.
“Meat blends have evolved to capture the increasing consumer interest in the plant-based alternative space,” he said. “We’re now seeing combinations of multiple animal proteins in conjunction with plant based to derive new formats, applications and offerings.”
Anne-Marie Roerink, president of San Antonio-based 210 Analytics, LLC, and author of the report The Power of Meat, said the popularity of blended meat items is driven by a number of reasons—first and foremost taste and flavor.
“In numerous taste tests comparing a pure beef burger to a blended mushroom/beef burger, the latter comes out favorably in terms of a moister texture and a richer flavor,” she said. “Taste is what drives a second purchase of any food items, so this is a very important advantage.”
But there are many more reasons as well. For instance, blended items are innovations that address the permissibility of meat for those people who struggle a bit with eating meat and poultry.
“This may be because they have some questions on whether meat is healthy for them and their families,” Roerink said. “Others wonder about the impact of animal agriculture on the planet or about the animal welfare. At the same time, making better choices is hardly ever a radical lifestyle change and even more rarely a change that sticks long-term. Much more frequently, people are simply focused on making a better choice today than they did yesterday. And that’s where vegetables and mushrooms come in.”
Popular blend vegetables such as carrots, kale and broccoli have great health benefits and have been blended successful into meat.
“I don’t think blends are a threat to meat sales at all,” Roerink said. “In order for the blended item to have good texture, meat typically makes up some 70% of the product. So, meat still has the majority share and it remains on the plate. Blends are an all-around win.”
Another big consideration is needing to find blend items that have the same spoilage rate as the meat itself. In other words, you can’t risk having to dispose of the meat because the vegetables go bad in a day. Mushrooms and ground beef have a very similar rate, so they are a good match.
Merchandising the right way
At Tyson Foods, the company is continually monitoring consumer trends and best practices for merchandising in the meat case.
“Often blended grinds can be shelved with ground beef products, as they are appealing to shoppers for the same eating occasions,” Sagel said. “As the weather warms up, flavor-infused patties can be cross-merchandised with other grilling staples, to help introduce consumers to a fresh new twist on a classic flavor.”
Buononato noted product placement with clear ingredient messaging in the traditional meat department is the desired location as it adds both credibility and consumer purchase intent.
Nagele noted that companies who want to reap the most success from their meat blend campaigns might need to return to the basics first—re-examine their ingredients and dietary contributions and invest in sustainable packaging.
“Consumers aren’t just concerned about soothing their appetites; they want to know what they’re eating and supporting through their visits to the supermarket,” he said.
According to Roerink, blended items have been much bigger in markets such as Europe and Australia for quite some time.
“A big difference in merchandising is that these countries really emphasize the visual beauty of vegetables to enhance their health halo on the product,” she said. “Labels typically show the range of vegetables on the label, letting the vivid colors pop in the sea of packages in the meat case. A major retailer in England also has a big campaign surrounding great taste, health but also the angle of getting more veggies in the kids’ diets, which is a struggle for some parents. They call it their hidden veggie meat.”
She expects US stores to mimic this success and foresees sales of blended meat products continuing to rise.
Roerink has been tracking the blended meat trend for many years and has seen a definite increase in the category, though she noted it’s hard to put a sales number on the blended category as some items are made in the in-house butcher shop and innovation is in its early stages.
“The pandemic has prompted people to take a look at the foods they eat in addition to the focus on vitamins and supplements,” she said. “Certainly meat has the opportunity to address healthful choices also and that’s where we see labels call out protein, vitamin B, zinc, etc. Blended options fit in that as well.”