Though many environmentalists understand that red meat isn’t always green, it can be tough to forgo a juicy beef burger for its vegetarian alternative when dining out.

The all-or-nothing approach is common when it comes to red meat consumption, but restaurants are now taking strides toward a sustainable happy medium.

Introducing Blended Burgers

The newest trend in sustainable burgers is the blended burger — a beef patty blended with mushrooms. It still has real meat for those who just don’t want to give it up, but its carbon footprint is significantly smaller.

While you’ll find these burgers popping up on menus at sit-down restaurants everywhere, they’re just gaining steam in the fast-food world. Sonic, which has more than 3,500 restaurants across 45 U.S. states, was the first national fast-food chain to adopt this healthier burger alternative, which rolled out nationwide last month. Their version is called the Signature Slinger, and it’s made from three simple ingredients: 100 percent beef, savory mushrooms and seasonings.

Starting under 350 calories and at $1.99, the Sonic Signature Slingers combine beef and mushroom into one patty. Photo: Business Wire

It was a smart move. As the demand for sustainable food rises and more folks choose natural beef sources, quick-serve restaurants find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Fast food is known for being cheap, but sustainable beef isn’t. Because mushrooms are relatively low in cost, the blended burger could mean higher-quality, antibiotic-free, hormone-free beef without a spike in price.

All About That Taste

Blended burgers typically have significantly fewer grams of fat, carbs and calories compared with their all-beef counterparts. But now for the big question: What about the taste? 

The James Beard Foundation has partnered with the Mushroom Council to host The Blended Burger Project, a contest and movement encouraging chefs to create their own mushroom-beef blended dishes. Competitors’ dishes are judged in terms of their creative use of mushrooms, flavor profile and overall presentation. With more than 200 enthusiastic participants in 2017, the contest is well on its way toward balancing nutrition, sustainability and flavor in America’s food system.

As previous award winner Stephanie Izard points out in an interview with the James Beard Foundation, “you shouldn’t have to sacrifice flavor in order to think sustainably.”

Mushrooms have a meat-like consistency and are incredibly juicy. So, when it comes to meat substitutes, they’re a no-brainer. They add a mild umami-flavored kick to burgers and give dishes unparalleled depth.

“Mushrooms have really come into their own as a solution to changing dietary patterns, earning their place on the plate with their nutrient quality, flavor impact and incredible functionality,” said Greg Descher, vice president of strategic initiatives and industry leadership at the Culinary Institute of America, in the company’s study on mushroom-beef blending.

A Sustainable Outlook

Who will offer a blended burger next? While McDonald’s recently announced some big steps to reduce carbon emissions — the equivalent of taking 32 million cars off the road for a year — the announcement did not include any menu changes. 

Getting McDonald’s on the blended burger bandwagon would make a huge difference. With 37,000 locations around the world, there’s no denying the impact of the fast-food behemoth.

“Where McDonald’s goes, usually the rest of the restaurant industry eventually follows,” said Sara Senatore, a senior research analyst at a restaurant investment research firm, in an interview with The Washington Post

Fortunately, McDonald’s has recognized the environmental impact of beef production and plans to address sustainable agriculture practices in its green initiatives. It remains to be seen just how the company will do that, and how other meat-serving establishments will address their undeniable environmental impact.

While a blended burger may not be a perfect solution, it’s a great option for meat eaters. Given the success of Sonic and other restaurants using this approach, we hope more eateries will join this sustainable movement.

By Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.