Hybrid foods: sustainable, healthy and tasty

Close-Up Of Meat In Plate

Hybrid foods present an exciting opportunity for the industry to develop foods that help consumers make informed decisions without having to make trade-offs.

There is no escaping the evidence that our current appetite for meat is unsustainable; a major report in the Lancet concluded Europeans and North Americans need to cut meat consumption by as much as 80% for their diets to be both climate friendly and healthy. At the same time, studies have shown that a purely vegan diet cannot be implemented globally. But another approach is emerging. Hybrid foods, combining animal and plant-based ingredients, offer a logical step towards more sustainable and more health-conscious food production. This is a nascent development, but the fact that market research analysts have clocked it suggests it’s only going to get bigger.

Global data from Innova Market Insights shows that the number of new meat hybrid launches grew by 8% (CAGR) between 2015 and 2020, and that the pace of innovation moved up a gear in 2020. The UK leads the world in this trend, accounting for 19.5% of total new meat hybrid launches tracked in the last five years, which corresponds to a staggering 54% CAGR.

On the face of it, the concept of hybrid meat products is straightforward enough to grasp foods that are part-meat, part-plant-based, offering potentially healthier and without doubt more sustainable alternatives to 100% meat products. However, when you delve deeper, it becomes apparent that the drivers behind the trend and the demands that need to be met when formulating these products are complex.

Two Women Enjoying Lunch Date In Delicatessen Restaurant

Eat less, eat better

The emergence of hybrid foods is closely aligned with the flexitarian movement that is gaining traction; Euromonitor’s 2020 Health & Nutrition Survey reported that 42% of consumers globally restrict animal-based products but don’t follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet.

It reflects a shift in consumers’ mindsets away from the idea that eating meat has to be an all or nothing choice. Instead, many consumers are choosing to ‘eat less, but eat better’ when it comes to meat, opting for quality over quantity and spending more on products that are obtained from ethically reared animals.

Powered by plant protein

Typically, premium quality proteins from defined sources such as soy, pea or wheat will form the basis of the plant-based element in hybrid foods. In the UK, there is also a drive for the protein to be sourced closer to home - soy protein from South America doesn’t always cut it. “UK retailers are very keen on looking at food miles and sustainability, and so we are looking at sourcing proteins more locally, from within Europe,” notes Brenntag F&N’s UK Technical Sales Manager, Stephen Herring.

He adds that in the UK, the hybrid food movement is heavily linked with retailer and regulatory pressure on meat manufacturers to reduce salt and fat levels. “Manufacturers are looking to us to help them use other ingredients in combination with meat to reduce saturated fat levels,” he says.

“For our colleagues in the Application & Development Centers hybrid foods is a great area to explore different opportunities with the possibility to combine plant-based with animal origin ingredients for optimum sensory performance and best nutritional value”, adds Stéphanie Pretesacque, R&D Director Food & Nutrition for EMEA.

Traditional homemade meatballs with fresh basil
Smoked salmon and soft cheese spread, mousse, pate in a jar with crackers, olives and capers on a wooden background

Strong candidates for fortification

Fortification takes on greater importance in hybrid foods, not only because a lot of plant-based products are inherently low in certain vitamins and minerals as well as other nutrients such as omega-3 that are found in meat and fish products, but also because target consumers are likely to be health-conscious.

Therefore, in the UK market, the Brenntag team has been working on giving hybrid products a vitamin and mineral boost through fortification, as well as helping customers to formulate for on-pack claims such as ‘high in fibre’.

“The ability to make health claims allows manufacturers to move into a completely different part of the market, where consumers are less cost-driven and more health, quality and ethics-driven,” explains Stephen Herring.

Navigating the regulatory minefield

Regulatory requirements are a major consideration when developing hybrid foods. It is not just about knowing what health and nutrition claims you can make; it is also about how products can be named and labelled.

The ability to assist customers with regulatory and formulation support is one of the reasons food manufacturers choose to partner with Brenntag when developing hybrid foods - second only to the breadth of its ingredient portfolio.

“The regulatory aspects are always considered first when looking into the development of new concepts. It is key for us to be able to present to our customers innovative, on-trend concepts that are also complying with their specific market regulations”, says Stéphanie Pretesacque. “In addition to this, we can rely on one of the widest food ingredient portfolios and can use our worldwide network to search for new materials or optimize the supply chain.”

Cropped image of three vegan burgers representing the quality of vegan food

Celebrity chef collaboration

Brenntag’s development centre in Poland has been a hotbed of innovation for hybrid foods in recent years. The team even collaborated with Polish TV chef Karol Okrasa on some of its product development, which has included 50/50 burgers with a texturant produced from corn and pea protein. In addition, Cezary Kowalski, Business Manager Savoury, CEE, says they have been experimenting with new ‘local’ plant protein sources such as rapeseed, sunflower and canola. “We can create recipes for a large variety of hybrid meat products – be it burgers, sausages or also fish, like tuna. Of course, there are certain limitations to the types of meat products that can be given the hybrid treatment, but we are pushing back the limits every day and our application experts have even succeeded in creating a hybrid ham style charcuterie product”, explains Cezary Kowalski.

Vietnamese girl flexing muscles with glass of milk

Dairy next in line

To date, the focus in hybrid foods has been on meat and fish products, but in as little as two or three years, the team believes that dairy will follow.

“We have been working on plant-based dairy alternatives for several years now and this trend followed the plant-based meat alternatives that spearheaded the vegan wave. So, it seems logical that hybrid dairy alternatives may be next in line” says Stéphanie Pretesacque. “By now, innovations in the food industry take into consideration a lot of different aspects, including nutrition benefits and sensory aspects, such as taste, but also the origin of the ingredients, and the environmental aspects of the manufacturing process. We are aware of this and Brenntag’s Food & Nutrition experts are ready to help shape these new trends into concrete products. Just contact us, and we can get to work on new hybrid food projects together”, adds Stéphanie Pretesacque.