June, 2023

Hybrid meat: fad or opportunity?

The growing trend for a healthy and sustainable diet has led to the emergence of new alternatives to conventional products, such as those based on vegetable proteins and mushrooms, or, in the near future, products based on cultured meat. These products are primarily targeted at consumers who eat animal products but want to reduce their consumption and look for alternative products that can guarantee the same level of satisfaction, but with positive overtones in relation to sustainability and health. The category of flexitarians is steadily increasing: according to a study funded by EIT-Food, in the UK, for example, around 90 per cent of consumers eat animal meat, and more than 1/3 of these claim to have set days on which they avoid meat consumption.

In recent years, “hybrid” meat has been introduced in response to these trends. As the name suggests, hybrid meat is a product made partly from animal meat and partly from non-animal proteins. Although this type of product is not yet fully available to consumers, it can be an alternative to bring reluctant consumers closer to consuming a sustainable but nutritious and tasty product. On the other hand, hybrid products may represent an opportunity for conventional meat producers to differentiate their products, gaining the market share of flexitarian consumers who occasionally consume vegetable meat.

Cultivated hybrid meat vs Plant-based hybrid meat

There is currently no official definition for hybrid meat; however, this category includes animal meat products containing varying amounts (between 10% and 50%) of plant-based protein ingredients – from legumes, cereals, oil seeds, mushrooms, to fruit and vegetables, It should be noted that vegetable ingredients, including soy and wheat, are already used in the meat industry as extenders. These serve either to increase protein content or for their functional properties, such as the ability to emulsify with fats, to gel, or to bind to water and oil, according to the study. The difference between the use of plant ingredients as extenders, gelling agents or binders, and their use in hybrid meat products lies in the increased emphasis on environmental and health-related concerns, and in the direct substitution of part of the meat itself.

In this article, we would like to focus more on hybrid meat based on animal meat and plant proteins, rather than on hybrid meat based on cultured meat and plant-based ingredients. After all, hybrid meat products based on plant proteins already appeared on the market in 2016, from major companies operating in the meat industry such as Tyson and Perdue. In addition to large companies, small companies are also breaking into the industry, examples being Phil’s Finest, with ground meat mixed with soy protein, and Rebel Meat, with its 50% meat and 50% vegetable burgers.

In the future, hybrid cultured meat may become a development opportunity for both sectors – cultured meat and vegetable meat – with improved sensory properties. The category is still in the early stages of development, however, and we are still a long way from its market introduction.

Is hybrid meat missing its target?

Although there are many advantages in the development of hybrid meat – such as a better sensory and nutritional profile – it has yet to gain a foothold in the market. There may be various reasons for this: for example, according to the above-mentioned study conducted by EIT-Food, consumers in the UK, Spain and Denmark currently perceive hybrid meat as an ultra-processed product with an unsatisfactory taste.

In particular, it seems that consumers are not encouraged to try hybrid meat for a factor mainly related to taste, especially when compared to animal meat. Even the term ‘hybrid meat’ itself does not encourage people to try it, as it is unfamiliar and artificial. Nevertheless, numerous studies have been conducted in recent years on how consumers perceive hybrid meat in order to understand how best to communicate the benefits of these new products. For example, according to a study conducted in Europe in 2022, informing people about the benefits of hybrid meat produces greater acceptance and interest in this type of product, also leading to greater willingness to pay more for them. In order for this segment to expand, it is necessary to understand the needs of those consumers who might be attracted to these products because they perceive them as a healthier alternative with the same texture and taste of animal meat.

The potential of hybrid meat is real, as it could represent a flexible and convenient option for those who wish to reduce their meat consumption without adopting drastic solutions, or simply for those who may not fully appreciate all-vegetarian meat alternatives. However, it seems that companies in the sector are still unable to carve out their own niche in the market between entirely plant-based products – which are gaining much success and attention – and 100% animal meat, a traditional and familiar element in many culinary cultures around the world.

Also, hybrid meat is nowadays a product commonly found on the shelf or in frozen food departments, and is sold – in most cases – as conventional meat. Only by reading the label can one see that the vegetable protein content is very high, and consequently understand that the product has been enriched with vegetable ingredients to improve its nutritional value. The issue related to hybrid meat thus seems to be mainly related to the way in which information is provided about these products, and how it greatly influences acceptance among consumers, who are not persuaded to try a burger with vegetable protein declared on the pack, but already consume similar products sold as conventional burgers.