Plant-based menu items are infiltrating fast food – and meat-eaters are all over them

Impossible whopper
  • As plant-based items infiltrate fast food, chains offer everything from Impossible Whoppers to McPlants.
  • But plant-based meat substitutes aren’t just for vegetarians or vegans – meat-eaters are trying the items too.
  • If plant-based foods can rival the taste and cost of meat, a Beyond Meat spokesperson told Insider, “we think very few consumers wouldn’t opt for that.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Fast-food giants might be the last you’d expect to cater to plant-based eaters. Their businesses are centered around the very antithesis of vegan food: animal-based meat and dairy, made fast and made cheap. But over the last few years, fast-food joints have been making a concerted effort to add meat-free, plant-based, and vegan options to their menus.

But the people actually opting for those menu items may surprise you.

Carl’s Jr. has the Beyond Famous Star burger made with Beyond Meat. Burger King offers its Impossible Whopper, made with the infamous “bleeding” Impossible Foods’ beef-like patty. Del Taco has the Beyond Avocado Taco, and now a host of other vegan and vegetarian options. Even cheap-beef juggernaut McDonald’s is in the plant-burger game with its recently released Beyond Meat-based, all-vegan McPlant burger, kicking off in the United Kingdom. And these are just to name a few.

The items aren’t just for plant-based diets, either. Meat-eaters are trying them. The survey house Piplsay surveyed 30,700 people and found that of the 71% of respondents who said they’d heard of plant-based meat substitutes at fast-food restaurants, 54% had tried it, the vast majority (72%) of whom identified as meat-eaters.

“Over the past few years, the fake-meat phenomenon has gone from being a highly speculative curiosity to an in-demand food item, available not just in grocery stores but also dished out over the counters of popular fast-food chains across the country,” says the research summary from Piplsay. “From burgers and sandwiches to tacos and pizzas, a wide range of meatless alternatives is available to customers today, many of whom are opting for them for health, environmental, or ethical reasons.”

Del Taco beyond taco

Meat-eating Americans are increasingly motivated to swap animal products for plant-based doppelgangers for a number of reasons, the top being perceived health benefits, followed by the environment.

Meeting the increasing demand for meat and dairy alternatives, and driving it, requires meeting meat-eaters where they are – like at the counters and drive-throughs of familiar fast-food restaurants. These chains know meat; they don’t know meat substitutes, which is why they often turn to the pure-play brands – basically, ones that focus on one specific niche, like plant-based items – that are eager to have fast-food companies as part of their channel. They’ve already done the legwork to establish a brand presence and become known as legitimate replacements that actually taste good, something critically important to the discerning meat-eater or flexitarian.

“If we can make plant-based meat taste just as delicious, be better for you and ultimately get the price to be below that of animal protein, we think very few consumers wouldn’t opt for that,” a Beyond Meat spokesperson told Insider. “Our mission is to make our products as accessible as possible and our QSR partners are a critical part of that strategy.”

Beyond Meat has been delivering on its promise of accessibility. The company, according to its market research partner SPINS, is the top-selling plant-based meat brand across the US in total food service and sells in more than 80 countries. Beyond Meat’s competitor, Impossible Foods, also has a major food-service presence, with its most notable fast-food partnership with Burger King.

GettyImages 1287311421
Patties of Beyond Meat Inc.’s plant-based burger Beyond Burger are cooked on a skillet on November 19, 2020 in Katwijk, Netherlands. Photo by Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

Eat Just, a top egg-replacement maker with its Just Egg product, is also continuing to partner with fast-food restaurants to meet what it says is a growing demand – especially by millennials and Gen Z, based on research from Mintel.

“Consumers are looking for plant-based options at fast-food operators, and [they’re] enjoying their experience once they try it,” Alexandra Dallago, a spokesperson for Eat Just, told Insider.

“We are seeing that meat-eaters [and] flexitarians are interested in trying these options and [their] appeal goes far beyond meatless consumers,” Dallago said. “We’ll continue to see more innovation in plant-based offerings as demand grows and plant-based becomes more mainstream.”

Eat Just said, for example, for example, its “Everything Plant-Based Sandwich” is the top-selling hot menu item at popular nationwide chain Peet’s Coffee. It’s also the third across all product categories, including beverage.

“The sandwich is selling at three times what was initially forecasted, earning it a permanent menu placement,” Dallago said. “It also drives new incremental customers, typically younger, into Peet’s locations. High appeal with younger customers because it’s an exciting, fully plant-based offering.”

McDonald's PLT Canada
and Beyond Meat offered a plant-based burger in Canada. McDonald’s

Ricky Borja, a casino executive based in California, falls into the group of vegans and vegetarians who have tried plant-based options at mainstream fast food chains. He’s tried vegan items from Burger King, Carl’s Jr., and Del Taco, and sees why the plant-based offerings are appealing in large to meat-eaters.

“People that eat meat know that it’s not really good for you, so they see the option and think, ‘Oh, it’s not meat or an animal product, it must be healthier or better for you,'” Borja said. “Or they think about the environment, and are motivated to give a plant-based option a try.”

Borja also said he’s not surprised that vegans and vegetarians are in smaller numbers eating plant-based fast food from mainstream chains.

“Most vegans and vegetarians have already found their own means of eating, and found alternatives already, so they are not gravitating towards these places,” Borja said, adding that some vegans really don’t want to support corporations that still profit from animal exploitation and thus don’t align with their own values.

KFC Beyond Chicken
KFC Beyond Chicken John Amis / ASSOCIATED PRESS

There’s also the issue of cross-contamination, as many staunch vegans or vegetarians don’t like the idea of their plant-based burger being potentially cooked on the same grill as meat – although many fast-food operators have said accommodation can be made to ensure no cross-contamination.

Even as plant-based menu options and communities grow, 2018 Gallup poll found that only 3% of Americans say they’re vegan and 5% say they’re vegetarian. However, there is more cohesive research needed to accurately measure changing food preferences and capture those who are “plant-based,” a term typically used to define someone who eats mostly plant-based food, but may periodically eat meat or dairy. It can also be used to identify someone who may not eat any animal products, but isn’t necessarily motivated by animal ethics (which may also drive other lifestyle choices) – a defining principle of veganism.

By far, the largest opportunity for plant-based food adoption currently lies in the hands, and mouths, of meat-eaters. It reasons that fast-food chains, and the brands that are keystone to their plant-based offerings, continue to forge a symbiotic relationship, even though what they each represent may seem at odds.

Correction: A previous version of this story misrepresented the percentage of people who had tried plant-based menu items by referring to the percentage of all respondents to the Piplsay survey, not merely the ones who had heard of plant-based menu items.