Food & Beverage

An unintended consequence of meatless burger boom: Vegans' lives got easier

Key Points
  • Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods target flexitarians, not vegetarians or vegans, with their meat alternatives.
  • Vegans and vegetarians, who have long struggled to find appetizing options on restaurant menus, are excited about the trend anyway.
  • They are less excited about plant-based options from Big Food, particularly traditional meat producers like Tyson Foods or Smithfield.
Adam Berry | Getty Images

Plant-based burgers weren't created with vegans and vegetarians in mind.

But they're cheering for the trend anyway.

In the United States, the percentage of vegans and vegetarians has remained relatively stagnant over the last 30 years, according to Gallup. A 2018 poll from the firm found that 5% of Americans identify as vegetarians and 3% as vegans.

Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other companies making meat alternatives that mimic real beef, chicken or sausage are instead targeting a different kind of customer: flexitarians. That's the name used to describe the growing number of consumers who are trying to reduce how much meat they are eating, usually for health or environmental reasons. Eighteen percent of U.S. consumers are trying to eat more plant-based foods, according to the NPD Group.

In part thanks to the popularity of meatless products from Beyond and Impossible, 55 of the top 100 U.S. restaurant chains have a plant-based entree, according to a 2018 report from the Good Food Institute, an advocacy group for the plant-based food and beverage industry.

And that number will keep growing, meaning more options for vegetarians and vegans after years of choosing between a salad or an unappetizing black bean burger at restaurants.

At fast-food chains, the options were even more limited. Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of the Good Food Institute and a former PETA executive, said that he's eaten his fair share of Wendy's baked potatoes and McDonald's fries in the decades that he has followed a vegan diet. (Wendy's is currently testing a black bean burger and exploring other meat alternatives, while McDonald's is testing a Beyond burger in some Ontario restaurants.)

Teagan George, a 22-year-old data analyst based in Pasadena, California, has been a vegan for more than three years. Living near Los Angeles, she has plenty of options when it comes to choosing vegan restaurants. But when it comes to eating out with friends who eat animal products, it can be tricky.

"You don't always have the option in restaurants," George said. "If I'm with non-vegans, I don't want to make a fuss and fulfill that negative stereotype."

But as the popularity of Beyond and Impossible products soar, so does their availability. Ed Winter, a 25-year-old British vegan activist and YouTuber with over 200,000 subscribers, said that he now regularly sees Beyond burgers on the menus of traditional English pubs that would never be considered vegan friendly. The Impossible Burger is not sold yet in the United Kingdom.

Some restaurants, in an effort to simplify the process of cooking plant-based burgers, cook them alongside beef patties. At Restaurant Brand International's Burger King, for example, customers have to request that their Impossible Whoppers are cooked separately.

George said that she does not mind if her plant-based meat is cooked in the same place as meat.

Winter, on the other hand, said that he wouldn't feel comfortable eating a burger fried on the same grill or cooked in the same oil as a beef patty. But he still thinks having meat alternatives in fast-food chains is a positive step because it helps dispel the idea that veganism is an elitist, middle class diet that means shopping at Whole Foods or Sprouts.

"It's not even about turning people vegan. It's about showing people that becoming vegan is so easy," Winter said.

Still, the widespread availability of plant-based meats does not mean that vegans and vegetarians are eating them everyday. Nick Squires, a 33-year-old vegan living in Sacramento, said that he'll eat Beyond or Impossible products several days a week. As a competitive powerlifter, he leans on them for high-protein meals.

As Beyond and Impossible have gained steam with consumers, traditional food companies are branching out and creating their own meat alternatives. Kellogg, Nestle, Tyson Foods, Hormel and Smithfield are among the big names launching their own lines to appeal to a flexitarian consumer.

But unlike the start-ups that launched the trend, Big Food — particularly traditional meat producers — likely will not count many vegans and vegetarians as customers.

George said that she would rather support a plant-based company when she is shopping for vegan meats at her local grocery store.

Winter echoed that sentiment, saying that he recommends that vegans should be more mindful of where they shop, but he is glad that it makes it easier for non-vegans to buy plant-based meat.

To Friedrich, the entrance of the world's largest meat and food companies is "fantastic." He sees it as beneficial to Beyond's and Impossible's businesses. With traditional food companies' large consumer bases and distribution channels, the popularity of plant-based meat will just keep growing and become a greater threat to animal meat.

"This is not a zero-sum game," Friedrich said. "It really is a rising tide lifts all boats."

CNBC's full interview with Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown
CNBC's full interview with Impossible Foods CEO Patrick Brown