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In the past half-decade, there has been a resurgence and renewed interest in plant-based meat alternatives, specifically in plant-based ground beef alternatives (GBA). Unlike previous soy-based generations, today’s products typically use protein sources comprised of both pea and various bean proteins to help the products more closely resemble beef. Additionally, some of these products are using novel proteins to help mimic the red color of beef and even more closely resemble beef products. Unlike previous plant-based burgers, today’s products are actively targeting and marketing to beef consumers, with 31% of consumers reporting eating meat alternatives at least once a week. Previous research evaluating the eating quality of these GBA in comparison to ground beef has shown marked differences. When compared directly to ground beef, these modern GBA and traditional soy-based GBA have been shown to have lower consumer sensory panel scores for all palatability traits and have a lower percentage of samples rated acceptable. Of note, these products have been shown to have flavors not commonly associated with beef products and viewed as undesirable by consumers. However, much of this previous work has utilized unseasoned meat and GBA samples. When used in a “real-world” setting by consumers, these products are often just an ingredient as part of a larger meal. It is unclear how the eating quality of these products may be impacted when used as such. It was therefore the objective of the current study to evaluate the eating quality of ground beef in comparison to three GBA in “real-world” taco and hamburger eating scenarios.
Three plant-based GBA alternatives were purchased from retail markets throughout northeastern Kansas and represented a modern GBA commonly sold at retail (RGBA), a modern GBA commonly sold in food service (FGBA), and a traditional soy-based GBA (TGBA). Additionally, 80% lean / 20% fat ground beef was also purchased from retail markets at the same time for use in the trial. Consumers (N = 240; n = 120 per panel type) were recruited from Manhattan, KS and evaluated samples for juiciness, tenderness, texture liking, beef flavor liking, overall flavor liking, overall liking, purchase intent, and purchase price on 100-point continuous line scales. Additionally, samples were rated as either acceptable or unacceptable for each trait. For hamburger panels, consumers were served a sample from each treatment on white hamburger buns and were given the option to top their hamburgers to their liking with cheese, lettuce, pickles, ketchup, and/or mustard. For taco panels, all samples were seasoned with a commercially available taco seasoning blend and served on flour tortillas, with consumers given the option to top the tacos with cheese, lettuce, and/or tomatoes.
In both panel scenarios, consumers rated ground beef higher (P < 0.05) for juiciness, texture liking, overall flavor liking, beef flavor liking, overall liking, purchase intent, and purchase price willing to be paid than all three GBA, but ground beef was rated similar (P > 0.05) for tenderness to FGBA and RGBA. Additionally, a higher (P < 0.05) percentage of ground beef samples were rated acceptable overall and for flavor characteristics than all three GBA. Moreover, few differences were found between FGBA and RGBA for any of the palatability characteristics evaluated in both taco and hamburger panels. TGBA was rated lower (P < 0.05) than all other treatments for all palatability traits for taco panels and was similar (P > 0.05) to only RGBA for beef flavor and overall flavor liking within hamburger panels. Consuming the GBA in the taco scenario had a larger positive impact on eating quality of GBA than the hamburger scenario, with samples in the taco panels rating 3%, 4%, 12%, and 1% higher for overall liking for ground beef than FGBA, RGBA, and TGBA, respectively, and flavor ratings for ground beef were 34%, 40%, and 91% higher than FGBA, RGBA, and TGBA for taco panels and 39%, 56%, and 81% higher for hamburger panels. When compared to previous work, consumers rated all products higher for all traits evaluated in both the taco and hamburger panels than in previous unseasoned panels, providing evidence of the improved level of eating quality offered by ground beef and GBA products when included as an ingredient in a food product rather than as a stand-alone item.
Plant-based beef alternatives continue to be a growing market within the protein sector, with the number of product offerings increasing on an annual basis. Unlike the past, these products are not solely being marketed to vegetarian consumers, but instead are being offered as a direct substitute for beef products. Results from the current study provide clear evidence of the superior level of eating quality offered by beef products in comparison to these plant-based alternatives, even if other commonly used taco and hamburger ingredients are included. Ultimately, the level of eating satisfaction offered by beef products is unique and has not been matched with GBA currently available on the market.