Plant-based meat alternatives that serve as substitutes for hamburgers or chicken have hit the mainstream in a big way in the last month or two, with the Impossible and Beyond brands being at the forefront. These are plant-based alternatives to meat, which emulate the taste and feel of the real thing, as opposed to the more familiar veggie burgers that are clearly made from legumes, vegetables, or other plant-derived ingredients. So far consumers have embraced the new options, although the trend is still in its early days.
The health benefits of plant-based meats are debatable—they are processed and sodium-filled—but they appeal to many customers who are looking to cut back on meat, often due to concerns about the environment as much as for health reasons. The products are marketed more to meat-eaters or “flexitarians” who are trying to eat plant-based meals on occasion than to strict vegetarians and vegans.
Players entering the space recently include:
- Supermarkets. Tesco introduced Plant Chef, a new brand for plant-based meals and vegan products, following the launch of its Wicked Foods plant-based line two years ago. Albertsons debuted a “certified plant based” line of products under its private label brand at 2,200 stores in 35 states under the Albertsons, Jewel-Osco, Safeway, and Vons nameplates. Kroger has been increasing its plant-based selection, including meat substitutes such as vegan deli ham and burgers, under the Simple Truth brand and recently announced it was testing dedicated plant-based displays within the meat department at 60 locations in three states.
- Quick-service restaurants. Burger King offers the Impossible Whopper, KFC is trying Beyond Fried Chicken, White Castle has the Impossible Slider, Carl’s Jr. sells a Beyond Meat version of its Famous Star burger, Del Taco features Beyond Meat fillings in tacos and burritos, and Dunkin is testing Beyond sausage breakfast sandwiches. Most recently, McDonald’s and Beyond Meat developed the P.L.T. (plant-lettuce-tomato) burger, which the chain is testing in 28 restaurants in Ontario, Canada. Many quick-service initiatives have begun with a limited-time test in one market, quickly rolling out nationally or regionally after long lines and better-than-expected sales.
- Consumer packaged goods companies. Nestlé introduced The Awesome Burger, an alternative to the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat made by Sweet Earth, a plant-based protein company it acquired in 2017. Hormel launched its Happy Little Plants brand, which includes plant-based products as well as blended-protein foods that incorporate meat as well as vegetables. Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms division introduced the Incogmeato brand of plant-based burgers and “chik’n” tenders and nuggets, while Tyson launched its Raised & Rooted brand of plant-based and blended foods.
- Entertainment venues. Disney Theme Parks locations are offering more than 400 plant-based food items to guests starting in October, both at quick-serve and sit-down restaurants, in response to customer demand. The items include plant-based burgers, sausages, and hot dogs as well as more vegetable-based offerings such as salads.
According to the NPD Group, 18% of U.S. adults are trying to get more plant-based foods into their diets, while 60% want to add more protein. Plant-based “meats” allow them to do both, and U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods overall have grown 31% from April 2017 to September 2019, according to the Plant Based Food Association.
Some licensors have been entering the plant-based food market with items such as cauliflower pizza crusts (from Oprah and Kraft Heinz) and almond-based “milk” (through the long-running Blue Diamond and HP Hood partnership), while celebrities from Kate Upton to Tom Brady have introduced vegan meal kits. There has not been much licensing activity in the meat-alternative space yet. In Europe, Unilever licensed its Unox brand to a Dutch company called The Vegetarian Butcher in 2016 for a co-branded line of vegetarian meatballs in sauce before acquiring the company in 2018.
If the ventures described here, or others like them, are successful, however, can licensing deals be far behind?