The Blended Burger
It is no secret that burgers are well-loved. The burger is abundant, a staple on menus in many fast food restaurants, diners, schools, and even more upscale restaurants. It appears in an endless variety of iterations both classic and innovative. It is no accident then that a staggering 10 billion burgers are consumed each year in America. (1) Anything produced at that scale is bound to have an environmental impact, and the burger is no different. In fact, beef is one of the most resource-intensive meals we put on our plates. While animal livestock production alone accounts for an estimated 14.5% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, cattle livestock in particular are a major contributor, accounting for 65% of those greenhouse gas emissions related to livestock production. (2)
How Meat Takes More
Why does meat production require more resources and emit more greenhouse gases? Think of it in terms of efficiency. All food is essentially converting energy from sunlight and soil nutrients into calories that we can eat. However, the food chain is longer when we raise livestock because we must first grow food for that livestock. Raising livestock requires all the land, water, and energy needed for the livestock themselves, but also the land, water, and energy for the corn, soybeans, or grass to feed them. Greenhouse gas emissions are compounded in the same way. In other words, producing a gram of animal protein is much less efficient than producing a gram of plant protein.
Cattle, even among animals, are a uniquely inefficient converter of resources into a food (i.e. beef) that we can consume. Cattle require far more feed to produce one gram of protein compared to poultry, fish, and plants. Bacteria in the stomach of a cow are also unique among livestock animals. Gut bacteria in cattle break down food and release methane, one of the more potent greenhouse gases (3). Put simply, beef production places an outsized strain on the sustainability of the food system.
Thus, reducing the amount of beef we put on our plates is a high-impact way to move toward a more sustainable future in agriculture.
The Plant Forward Strategy
So what is one way to reduce the beef on our plates? Go more Plant Forward.
To be clear, Plant Forward does not have to mean removing animal products from your diet entirely. Plant Forward means adding more plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds, to replace some meat, dairy, and eggs.
Even within dishes like the burger that rely on animal protein, we can put plants more front and center. While completely plant-based burgers like the Beyond Burger are increasing in popularity, the ‘blended’ burger trend emerged from the plant forward concept. The blended burger still contains beef, but a certain percentage of beef is replaced with a plant ingredient such as mushrooms. This cuts back on beef (as well as calories and saturated fat) to make a better-for-you and better-for-the-planet burger. Remember how abundant the burger is in American cuisine? If every one of those 10 billion burgers consumed annually was prepared with 30% mushrooms, the ensuing reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be equivalent to taking 2.3 million cars off the road. The blended burger therefore has potential to shift palates toward more sustainable choices. (1)
The Blended Burger at Runk
To align with this plant forward strategy, our beef burgers at Runk have been blended with at least 20% roasted mushrooms since January. In the spring semester, we replaced more than 1,000 lbs of beef with roasted mushrooms by employing this strategy. Through further recipe testing in the fall semester, we have further upped that percentage to 25% mushrooms.
The last important question though: is it any good? A few weeks ago, we highlighted our commitment to a more plant forward burger through a Guess the Blend game, in which we asked our guests to taste two samples and identify which burger was blended and which was all beef. As it turns out, the blended burger is often indistinguishable. In some cases, it was even preferred! Mushrooms hold more moisture and have a savory umami quality, making them a natural pairing to produce a savory, juicy burger with less beef.
Sounds like a win-win to us too. Come give it a shot at our Street Food Grill, and let us know what you think!