Meat alternatives have made such a good impression that bigger companies are getting in on the trend
Though valuations for plant-based “meat” pioneers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have come back to Earth after initial investor enthusiasm, the products have proved they have staying power. Whether it’s vegans or vegetarians looking to capture the taste and feel of meat without the guilt, or carnivores looking for substitutes in their diets, fake meat offerings have proved popular. They’re inspiring competition and mimicking more animal proteins to attract more eaters.
Big Players Join In
Rather than double down on its past, Tyson, the U.S. leader in meat sales, is leaning into the trend with an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Its Raised & Rooted sells burgers, ground “beef”, sausage, nuggets, and tenders powered by pea protein.
“Raised & Rooted was created to raise taste expectations of plant-based foods with products that are rooted in how people eat today,” the brand’s FAQs state. “Our products are for people who want to make more nutritious choices — but enjoy the same meaty foods they love.”
“For many years we have been investing in our protein expertise and the development of proprietary technologies for plant-based meat alternatives, allowing us to continuously expand our wide range of tasty and nutritious products with a lower environmental impact,” Reinhard Behringer, head of the Nestlé Institute of Material Sciences, said. “To complement these efforts, we’re also exploring technologies that could lead to animal-friendly alternatives that are nutritious, sustainable, and close to meat in terms of taste, flavor, and texture. We are excited to understand their potential.”
On the Menu
Fake meat options have successfully established themselves on restaurant menus. Burger King’s Impossible Whopper made its nationwide debut in 2019, and White Castle has an Impossible version of its classic slider. The Beyond Famous Star solidified its spot on Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s menus soon after. In the ground-fake-meat game, Del Taco has a Beyond avocado taco and Taco Bell has introduced the Cravetarian, featuring its own pea- and chickpea-based protein in addition to teaming up with Beyond to create a new plant-based “meat” for future menu items. McDonald’s has tested the McPlant in Denmark and Sweden in collaboration with Beyond.
They aren’t limiting themselves to pretend beef, either. Beyond “chicken” tenders are rolling out in more than 400 restaurants nationwide, and Panda Express offered Beyond the Original Orange Chicken at select locations in New York and Southern California over the summer. Beyond Fried Chicken has popped up at KFC locations in the South and Southern California over the last couple of years.
“I’ve said it before: despite many imitations, the flavor of Kentucky Fried Chicken is one that has never been replicated, until Beyond Fried Chicken,” then-KFC chief marketing officer Andrea Zahumensky said in a statement when the product came to California in 2020.
With meat and poultry covered, new players aim to broaden their horizons to expand the $1.4 billion plant-based “meat” market in the U.S., which grew by 45% in 2020. Plant-based “fish” is the new frontier in plant proteins. Beyond is sticking to fake beef, chicken, and pork, and while Impossible has been working on a fish alternative, the company has yet to bring it to market.
The public generally views fish as a healthy alternative to meat anyway, with less of an environmental impact, so it’s already a staple of flexitarian diets. The U.S. market for plant-based “fish” grew 23% in 2020, but only to $12 million. That relatively small size hasn’t discouraged investment, though.
Good Catch, with its line of fake crab cakes, tuna, and fish cakes, sticks, burgers, and fillets, signed a joint venture with Bumble Bee Foods and has drawn investment from General Mills. Nestlé’s Vuna is a plant-based tuna alternative launched last September. Plant Based Seafood Co. offers coconut and dusted “shrimp,” “lobster crab cakes,” and dusted “scallops.”
Overwhelmingly, these companies cite overfishing and other ethical qualms in the fishing industry as the reasons behind their offerings.
They’re likely to attract customers who feel the same. Ultimately, though, they’ll still have to pass the same test meat alternatives have before them. As the Good Food Institute’s Marika Azoff put it to CNBC, “First and foremost, consumers are going to purchase alternative seafood if it tastes good.”