Fruits, vegetables, grains and cheese, these ingredients are increasingly finding their way into burgers as a way to differentiate in the crowded refrigerated and frozen meat departments. These inclusions add color, flavor and texture and in some instances, contribute nutrition and improve the healthfulness of the beef, chicken, turkey or blended meat patty.

Bell & Evans, Fredericksburg, Pa., is rolling out a line of gourmet chicken burgers made from whole-muscle dark meat chicken and chunky pieces of real fruit, vegetables and natural cheeses. They are sold in 6-oz portions that are nitrogen frozen and uncooked, locking in freshness and natural flavors. Varieties are: Chicken Bacon & Sharp Cheddar, Roasted Portabella & Swiss, and Granny Smith Apple & Gouda. The burgers cook up and bite like a traditional burger but with fewer calories and less fat, making them a smart choice for health-conscious consumers.

“Rather than piling up toppings on a burger, these have your favorite enhancements within the patties for all the flavor and none of the mess,” said Scott Sechler, owner.

Applegate, Bridgewater, NJ, a Hormel Foods Corp. subsidiary, now offers Applegate Well Carved, a new line designed to satisfy conscientious consumers who are being mindful of their meat intake and its nutritional, ethical and environmental impact. The grass-fed organic beef burger contains one-third cup of cauliflower, spinach, lentils and butternut squash, while the organic turkey burger has one-fourth cup sweet potato, white bean, kale and roasted onion.

“The Well Carved product line is a bold, direct challenge to the newly established wisdom that the only way to eat meat responsibly is to settle for a highly processed soy or pea-based burger or to not eat meat at all,” said John Ghingo, president. “Well Carved products offer a way for consumers to enjoy the real, clean meat they crave along with the vegetables that promote health and a healthier planet.”

There are many variables to consider when adding whole food ingredients to ground meat. One is the pH of the ingredient and the meat system, as changes in acidity impact color, taste and succulence. Succulence is related to fat and moisture retention. Too much purge during cooking will dry out the meat.

Bell Evans

The moisture content of the meat matrix and the inclusions is also a key consideration. If there’s too much difference, moisture movement – inclusion to meat matrix or meat matrix to inclusion – may occur. Too much movement in either direction results in product breakdown. Fruits, vegetables and cheeses all have varying moisture levels that may impact the stability and cohesion of the system.

The moisture of cheese, in particular, can severely impact product quality. But because cheese is a great way to add flavor, color and even texture, it is an increasingly common inclusion.

Current clean-label trends are to use natural cheese, as it is minimally processed and typically contributes very simple ingredients to the final product, just milk, salt, culture and enzyme. With natural cheese, you get flavor and mouthfeel, but melt can be challenging, as the cheese particulate may lose its identity in the final cooked meat product. Restricted-melt process cheese and no- and low-melt natural cheeses, such as feta, halloumi, queso blanco and paneer, simply get creamier when heated. They do not ooze and lose form the way cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss do when added to meat products.

When it comes to including fruits and vegetables, dried and semi-moist bits and pieces are often the smartest choice. They may pull some moisture from the meat matrix, but just enough to become tender. They also don’t bleed as much as fresh fruits. These dried versions are often infused with a humectant to keep them soft but prevent moisture migration.

Unprocessed whole fruits can be quite challenging to work with, especially if the product is intended to have a lengthy refrigerated shelf life. They will leak moisture into the meat matrix over time, creating mushy pockets in the cooked product. When fresh fruit is used, it is best to freeze the product immediately after manufacture until it’s ready for preparation and serving.