Spicing Up the Grind
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor

Processors continue to experiment at an increasing rate with different ingredients and flavors in their ground proteins.
Adding a little flavor to ground beef or turkey is a popular way to spice up a meal, but a the cook at home must watch that he or she doesn’t add too much or too little flavoring. Similarly, topping a hamburger with onions or cheese can improve any burger, but all too often, the toppings fall all over and simply make a mess. It’s a fortunate thing, then, that processors are taking the guesswork and mess out of the equation by adding flavors directly to the ground protein.
Cris Eide, director of marketing for Jennie-O Turkey Store, points to simplicity and convenience as two reasons for the popularity of flavored ground proteins.
“By adding flavoring to the recipe, it enables consumers to have more time by removing a preparation step in cooking,” Eide says.
David VanKampen, vice president of sales/national accounts for Kenosha Beef International, makers of Birchwood Burgers, notes two ways in which this is accomplished. The first is seasoned ground products.
“The consumer is not as concerned about ‘all beef’ as in previous years,” he says. “They are looking for a good beefy flavor balanced with a hint of spice that still allows the consumer to add flavor to their desired taste.”
That trend has carried over from ground beef to ground turkey. Butterball’s Just Perfect line of value-added turkey products includes ground turkey in both Italian Seasoned and Seasoned for Beef Lovers, says Carrie Dugan, director of marketing, retail fresh/frozen turkey. “The Seasoned variety appeals to consumers that are looking for a healthy alternative to beef but still enjoy that savory taste profile,” she adds.
Another way to spice up a ground product is to offer seasoned hamburgers with inclusions in the mix. Bacon and cheese, Swiss cheese and mushroom, and Vidalia onions are popular mixes, VanKampen says.
“Choice, variety and more intense flavors are what today’s consumers are demanding,” he says. “Of course, we can’t forget convenience. Having inclusions in the burger, [such as] bacon, makes a picnic or tailgating more convenient by not having to bring additional condiments or spices.”
Gaining popularity
The idea of adding ingredients to ground product is nothing new. “Natural flavorings are commonly mixed with ground turkey to maintain the freshness,” says Chu-Han Kuei, director of research & and development for Butterball LLC.
Jennie-O Turkey Store has offered an Italian-Style ground turkey product as well as seasoned fresh ground burger patties for several years. “Shipments on our Italian-flavored ground item are up 31 percent from last year,” Eide says. “Growth has been strong. We see no reason to think it will slow down and time soon.”
VanKampen says that Kenosha Beef began developing its Birchwood Burger blends about three years ago. “Last year, we could see the acceptance trend developing,” he says. “This year, the inclusion products have really taken off with many of our private-label customers jumping into the category.” Birchwood Burgers include more traditional frozen burgers, but it also features Cheese Beef Patties, Bacon and Cheese, Vidalia Onion, and Jalapeno and Monterey Jack patties.
Although the trend for those types of burgers started in retail, the company has seen interest picking up in the foodservice side of the business as well. “We have done several consumer and internal tests that illustrate toppings alone cannot deliver the same flavor impact as having the ingredients blended into the product,” VanKampen says. “The toppings add some flavor, but the inclusion into the burger really defines the flavor in every bite.”
Ground turkey is traditionally more popular in the retail sector, yet it is starting to grow in restaurants that are adding “good for you” options, says Jack Civa, director of foodservice marketing for Butterball.
“Butterball’s foodservice division is continuing to explore adding full-flavored items that have a culinary flair. For example, there is an opportunity for foodservice growth in items such as innovative turkey sausages with added ingredients, which has already had success in retail,” he notes.
Plenty of appeal
Consumers appreciate the convenience of having ground beef or hamburgers already seasoned and flavored, and Duggan notes that the new flavors can help spark new preparation or usage ideas. “For example,” she explains, “someone may not think of using ground turkey in a taco until they happen upon a Southwest-flavored ground turkey.”
The growing popularity of these products is good for the processor, but any other company looking to get involved with flavoring ground proteins also has to be aware of the added efforts involved in producing them. “It does affect the production line in terms of preparations and washdowns between runs,” says Eide.
VanKampen agrees that process requirements are more complex and time-consuming for a burger with inclusions over a regular burger.
“One of the important characteristics of inclusion products is to ensure we maintain the ingredient’s integrity from a visual, texture and flavor perspective,” he explains. “We are walking a fine line between ‘mystery meat,’ or over-processed meat, and a gourmet variety of ground beef patties. It is important to ensure the consumer can visually identify and experience the flavor intensity of the ingredients.”
He further explains that the standard blend, grind and form system has had to be modified in order to produce ground beef patties that pass both a visual and taste test. As the market for flavored ground protein increases, processors see more room for growth in the market.
“Trends in other categories include a movement into stronger Southwestern flavors with strong chile profiles,” says Duggan. “Chipotle, in particular, is gaining popularity. Also, smoky mesquite flavors work particularly well with poultry items.”
Jennie-O’s Eide suggests possible flavor extensions could relate to how consumers are already using ground turkey. Mexican flavorings would be popular for users using turkey as taco meat, and Asian flavorings would appeal to consumers who like stir fry meals or lettuce wraps.
VanKampen says the industry has seen the consumer acceptance of inclusions in other processed meats for several years now, but it is only just beginning to uncover the potential for ground beef products.
“Consumers have been doing this in their kitchens for years; we are now making it a convenience and, hopefully, helping them discover new taste sensations they may not have experimented with in their own home kitchen,” he says. He believes flavor combinations will continue to follow general consumer taste trends based on ethnic food trends, “as well as good old home cooking, like an American meatloaf patty.”