‘Flexitarians’ drive meat-vegetable hybrids toward more marketshare
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Analysis

Have you ever eaten a dinosaur before?

Turns out that a lot of kids, and adults, have thanks to Perdue Farm’s “Chicken Plus” nuggets that are shaped like dinosaurs. But more notable than their shape is what’s inside. Each one of these “tiny giants” is made from a 50/50 blend of chicken and vegetables — cauliflower, chickpeas and plant protein.

In June, Perdue introduced its “first-of-its-kind nationally distributed new “PERDUE CHICKEN PLUS” nuggets, tenders and patties, which it describes as “next generation.” Each serving, contains one-quarter cup — half a serving — of vegetables and its “no-antibiotics-ever” white meat chicken. They’re now available in 7,000 stores.

What is this all about? What’s driving this new approach to an already established popular food item?

The answer comes down to market forces. A new kind of shopper has joined the consumers roaming the supermarket aisles. Dubbed “flexitarians,” they’re in there with  the typical shoppers, who buy an assortment of meat and vegetables, and also with the vegetarians and vegans.

These flexitarians have a commitment to including more plants and vegetables in their diets. Yet they still eat some meat. There are enough of them — an estimated one-third of North American shoppers — for a large company like Perdue Farms to take note and make some changes accordingly.

Eric Christianson, chief marketing officer for Perdue, said that while Perdue’s chicken nuggets have been a staple for families for years, the company wanted to help parents in their ongoing battle to get their children to eat more vegetables.

“Not only are we helping to meet demands for millions of parents but we are appealing to the growing number of flexitarian families,” Christianson said.

Flexitarians — Who are they?

Many flexitarians say that want to cut down on meat in their diets because doing so makes them feel healthier. They also point to their concerns for animal welfare and the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Yet they don’t want to give up meat altogether. That’s where plant-based meat substitutes and now meat hybrids come into the picture.

Purdue’s “Chicken Plus” nuggets are a mixture of plant protein and chicken meat. Photo courtesy of Perdue Farms

According to Innova Market Insights, in the United States, 38 percent of the consumers can be described as flexitarian; in the United Kingdom, 53 percent; in The Netherlands 67 percent; and in Germany 69 percent.

Plant-based protein products such as the “Impossible Burger” and “Beyond Meat,” which don’t contain any meat, have already responded to the desire of many consumers to eat less meat.

But Christianson points out that while many of these new plant-based products are geared for vegetarian adults, Perdue’s new chicken nuggets have the kids in mind. According to the company, when kids taste-tested the new chicken plus nuggets they gave them high marks for the overall look, texture and flavor.

In February, the Food Network voted Perdue’s Chicken Plus nuggets as “the best-tasting frozen chicken nuggets.

“Perdue is listening to consumers and responding to the meteoric rise in interest in hybrid proteins,” said Alison Rabschnuk, spokesperson for The Good Food Institute.

Describing this as “an important step forward,” Rabschnuk said that research shows that consumers are looking for products that deliver on taste, texture and nutrition, while also offering flavor experiences that are familiar.

“It’s a strategy that meets consumers halfway,” she said.

Perdue is not alone in reaching out to flexitarians. Tyson Foods has also announced a blended range of meat and vegetables. Its “Raised & Rooted” brand of burgers and nuggets mix meat with pea-derived protein.

Hybrids: Blending meat and veggies

Paul Shapiro, co-founder of The Better Meat Co., which provides Perdue Farms with plant-based products, said that blending meat with high quality plant protein is “a great way to give consumers more choices while enhancing both nutrition and sustainability.” He describes it as a “win-win” for the consumer and the planet.

The company makes plant-based protein that can be blended with meat and seafood and sells its formulations to food manufacturers who want to create “hybrid” products. The goal is to boost the nutrition and sustainability credentials of these products. Company officials say another plus is the cost-effectiveness of this approach, which benefits the companies and consumers.

In approaching potential customers interested in creating their own “hybrid” meat-vegetable products, Better Meats lists advantages such as improved yield and moisture retention; maintenance of high protein levels; reduced calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol; increased fiber; and no food allergens.

The Better Meat Co. has also released two seafood ingredient blends into the market, which are being tested. One of them is a crab replacement.

The company has raised almost $10 million. Of that, $8.1 million came during a seed round co-led by U.S. funds Greenlight Capital and Green Circle Foodtech Ventures.

Our planet

When it comes to sustainability, adding vegetables to meat ingredients would reduce demand for irrigation water by billions of gallons, proponents say. According to information from “National Geographic,” one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water to produce, which includes irrigation of the grains and grasses used to grow feed, plus water for drinking and processing.

The hybridization of meat products would also reduce the demand for farmland by more than 14,000 square miles globally each year, according to World Resources Institute. The organization also points out that these blended products have the potential to improve the environment and human health.

“We are offering meat companies a way to reduce the environmental footprint of meat on the land” said Shapiro. “When consumers can rely more on plants for protein, it helps reduce that footprint.”

He also pointed out that hybridizing meat products with plants offers companies a much more diverse portfolio.

When looking to the future, Shapiro predicts that the time will come when people will no long associate protein with just the flesh from an animal.

“They’ll also start associating protein with plants,” he said.

Like others in the industry, he said that the flexitarian sector of the market will keep growing.

“You’ll see a real shift in meat consumption patterns,” he said. “For people who want to enjoy a more plant-based diet, this — blending meat and vegetables — is an excellent option.”

Lentils, too?

Looking north to Canada, a study www.mdpi.com/ funded by Lentils.org and Pulse Canada, found that substituting one-third of a lean beef patty with cooked lentils gives you a blended burger that the report says is more nutritious, cost effective and sustainable.

It concluded that that a burger made with 33 percent cooked lentil puree reduces the carbon footprint, water footprint and land-use footprint by about 33 percent.

The report also found some diet-related benefits: a boost of 3 grams of fiber; 12 percent few calories, 32 percent less saturated and total fats, and 32 percent less cholesterol per 4-ounce serving.

When it comes to cost, the report says the lentil blend reduces production costs by 26 percent.

“We’re seeing a rise in interest in meat products enhanced with plant protein,” said Amber Johnson, spokesperson for Lentils.org.

The beauty of lentils, she said, is that they’re “carbon-negative.” They actually remove more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than they emit during their production.

What about food safety?

Shapiro said that Better Meat’s products are made in an FQF2 facility — a very highly regulated food safe facility. He also said that everything in Perdue’s “Chicken Plus” finished chicken products are fully cooked and then frozen.

Parker Hall, Perdue’s vice president of research and development, said that consumers of Perdue’s Chicken Plus “should feel very safe purchasing and eating the product.”

He pointed out that the vegetables in Perdue Chicken Plus, specifically a blend of chick peas and cauliflower, are heat treated before they come to Perdue. The mixture is then blended with Perdue’s chicken and fully cooked before packaging to ensure they are food safe.

“The consumer should be sure to follow the cooking instructions on the bag for reheating, which, again, is sufficient for food safety,” he said.

Don’t forget to wash your hands even with frozen food

According to a USDA study, inadequate handwashing is a contributing factor to all sorts of illness, including foodborne illness. That’s why the agency says  it’s so important to follow proper handwashing steps before, during and after preparing frozen food to prevent germs from transferring from your hands to your meal.

Proper handwashing includes wetting and lathering your hands with soap, scrubbing for 20 seconds, then rinsing and drying them. The study found that most participants failed to rub their hands with soap for a full 20 seconds.

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