(Originally published 2022 | 01.25)
McDonald’s recently completed U.S. market testing of the McPlant—as the name suggests, a plant-based burger—co-developed with Beyond Meat, one of the growing number of companies that have made good business selling meat alternatives in recent years. An expanding range of fast-food and fast-casual restaurants—including Burger King, Chipotle, KFC, and Panera—is meanwhile either offering or planning to offer new vegan-and-vegetarian-friendly options in their U.S. and global markets. More traditional meat alternatives, such as tofu or even veggie burgers, have been around for ages—as have moral aversions to animal-based food—but these newer plant-based products are getting unprecedented exposure and traction with consumers. Why is that?
Nina Gheihman is a sociologist—and a postdoctoral scholar at the Sustainable Food Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business—writing a book about the cultural emergence of veganism “from a niche subculture into a mainstream movement challenging the food system.” As Gheihman sees it, the expansion of meat alternatives is the result of a transformative cultural change over the past decade, largely centered in the U.S. but also visible in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Plant-based eating, which used to be associated largely with the animal-rights movement, is now perceived as a culturally acceptable—almost mainstream—way of life, with benefits for personal health and the environment. Though still far from the norm—no more than five percent of the U.S. population eats a strictly vegan diet today—the growing popularity of plant-based foods, especially among young people, suggests a generational shift in eating habits is underway.
Graham Vyse: Why are all these big food companies expanding their plant-based ranges?
Nina Gheihman: The plant-based phenomenon, which used to be niche, has become a big part of the mainstream food movement. It’s not a passing trend. There’s awareness of the benefits to public health and the environment, especially given that industrial animal agriculture is one of the leading drivers of climate change, and these companies don’t want to be left behind.
For decades, there were companies like the makers of Tofurky and Vegenaise catering to people who were vegan or vegetarian, often for moral or health reasons. Then came startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat geared toward omnivores. They’re not making your hippie grandmother’s veggie burgers. Their products look, feel, and taste like meat.
What’s happening with companies like McDonald’s is also happening within the conventional meat industry, with companies like JBS and Tyson Foods getting into this game. They know plant-based food could be the future of food to some extent. Some companies have put some of these Beyond Meat or Impossible products on their menus. Carl’s Jr. is an example. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is developing its own plant-based burger. If you have your own product, you’re not reliant on other companies. This is the hottest trend in American food—even more than gluten-free or any other kind of diet.
Vyse: How did the contemporary plant-based phenomenon begin?