CHICAGO — More than 400 global protein executives gathered on June 17-18 in Chicago at the Future Food-Tech Alternative Proteins conference to discuss how the diversification of protein can deliver affordable, nutrient dense foods and contribute to sustainability initiatives. The many barriers to success were discussed, with taste and price leading the conversation. Those issues led to several discussions about hybrid proteins. Many in attendance believe they are key to the future of the alternative-protein sector.

Hybrid foods are defined as products combining animal-, plant-, cellular agriculture- and/or fermentation-based ingredients. They also provide a feasible approach for novel food ingredients to enter the market despite the scalability challenges, said Emelia Nordlund, research team leader of food solutions at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Such efforts will enable consumers to familiarize themselves with the novel ingredients and production concepts and start reducing their animal meat intake while adapting to alternative proteins.   

The concept is not new. In fact, formulating ground beef with oats, breadcrumbs and texturized soy protein has long been a way to reduce costs. Older generations may have a negative perception of the practice, because it is perceived as something done by lower-income families to save money. Today, however, it may be a positive approach to improving human health and the health of the planet.

Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based 50/50 Foods developed the Both burger. The product features a formulation of beef and a combination of vegetables.

“It’s a blended burger,” said Andrew Arentowicz, co-founder and chief executive officer. “We’re the first company that can actually say it’s 50/50 meat and vegetables. We have seen a lot of companies use protein isolates or other ingredients that consumers can’t pronounce. But we keep it simple.”

The Both burger is made with six ingredients. As the name suggests, the burger is half beef. The other half is composed of broccoli, caramelized onions, cauliflower, garlic and mushrooms, along with some seasoning. The product is US Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved for 50% beef.

“It’s a way to meet in the middle,” Arentowicz said. “It’s getting more people interested in eating less meat.”   

Arentowicz believes the Both burger is a game changer. The company’s mission is to reduce meat consumption in half by delivering exceptional foods to the large and growing population of flexitarians, which are those consumers who still eat meat but want to eat less meat.

“There are three benefits to hybrid,” Arentowicz said. “(There’s) cost, and that’s why cultivated (meat) has joined the party; taste, as vegetables make meat taste better; and there’s health. You get the best of both, the health of vegetables and the protein of meat.”

Mush Foods, New York, takes hybrid to the next level with its 50Cut ingredient, which is a mushroom blend specifically intended to be mixed with ground meats so chefs may reduce the amount of meat needed in a recipe by half, while still maintaining the taste, juiciness and texture. It is made from mushrooms and mushroom roots (mycelium) and provides umami flavor and enhanced texture for ground beef, pork and poultry dishes, according to the company.

Nordlund believes that in the future hybrids will be animal-free and based on cultivated animal ingredients. An example being microbial-produced beef-type lipids used to add flavor and texture to plant-based meat.

“Hybrid foods provide keys for the needed transition,” she said.