A Beyond Meat chicken-tender slider.
Alternative protein brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are now options for meat eaters.
Fast-food chains and restaurants like Starbucks and McDonald’s helped increase their popularity.
Places like China and India are huge opportunities for the growth of plant-based meats.
Significant improvements in taste and texture, especially from brands like Impossible Meat and the publicly traded Beyond Foods, have helped push the popularity of alternative proteins beyond vegans and vegetarians to omnivores.
Experts say the two brands have led a wave of mainstream awareness and greater sales of alternative-protein items in grocery stores, major fast-food chains, and restaurants, along with growing interest in personal health.
Alternative proteins are products made of plants – including beans, soy, mushrooms, and other ingredients – that primarily mimic beef, pork, and poultry products but also a rising number of dairy and seafood items. Interest in alternative proteins from vegans and vegetarians was primarily focused on concerns about animal welfare initially but has recently broadened based on greater awareness of the environmental impact of livestock and public-health campaigns about nutrition.
Plant-based alternatives have existed for decades, but until very recently, few of them successfully came close or matched the way chicken, beef, and pork looked, tasted, and cooked. “They didn’t taste like real meat,” said the Morningstar equity analyst Rebecca Scheuneman.
The market for these items was also relatively small due to the 5% of Americans who identified as vegan or vegetarian over the past 30 years. “It’s a small portion that is willing to make substantial sacrifices for their beliefs about animal welfare. But I think a larger percentage of the population is concerned about animal welfare and the environment,” Scheuneman said.
To succeed as an industry, plant-based protein alternatives needed to taste significantly better and draw in a much broader group of consumers, according to Alon Chen, cofounder and CEO of Tastewise, an artificial-intelligence platform that analyzes data for food and beverage companies. Other experts told Insider that the shift in demographics was largely led by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in the past few years.
“The new products being released now have the technology and food science to replicate the experience of eating the original product,” Chen said.
The appearance of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products in restaurants and major fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Starbucks, was also significant in making them widely available to consumers across Canada and the US. Scheuneman called it a large-scale taste test that helped prompt follow-up sales at grocery stores. “Once people tried them and realized they were very similar to meat, then they wanted to make them at home,” she said, noting the companies disclosed that plant-based meats were more popular in city areas compared to other locations.
A positive long-term view
Scheuneman said she expected products that feature plant-based alternatives will be very popular over the long term based on the growing demand for protein worldwide as well as the fixed agriculture resources in markets like China and India for producing livestock. India’s large vegetarian population, along with a high willingness to try meat alternatives in China and India compared to the US, are additional reasons international markets are considered a significant growth opportunity for companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Food.
“These products are truly effective at helping solve the problem of how to sustainably feed the world,” Scheuneman said.