Vegetarians and vegans looking for more meatless options at fast-food restaurants, rejoice.
The first three weeks of 2022 have already brought a variety of new alternatives to popular chains. Chipotle has introduced a plant-based, vegan chorizo for a limited time, Kentucky Fried Chicken launched a plant-based fried chicken option in partnership with Beyond Meat, and McDonalds announced this week that its “McPlant” meatless burger will be available in 600 stores in the San Francisco and Dallas areas starting next month.
While fully plant-based consumers make up a small portion of the population – 5% of Americans identify as vegetarian and 3% vegan, according to a 2018 Gallup poll – the demand for meat alternatives at restaurants is rising as meat-eaters also test out options.
A 2021 survey from Piplsay found that 71% of the 30,700 people polled said they’d heard of plant-based meat substitutes at fast-food restaurants. Of those, 54% had tried the alternatives, 72% of whom identified as meat-eaters.
“Restaurants are definitely trying to meet this rising demand for plant-based products by offering more meat alternatives on their menus,” Maha Bazzi, farming campaign manager at World Animal Protection, US, told USA TODAY. “The industry is expected to stay the course in 2022 as meat alternatives evolve and become more widely accessible.”
Restaurant chains’ use of meat alternatives in 2021 saved the equivalent of more than 700,000 animals – 212,000 pigs, 92,000 cows and 405,000 chickens, according to new research from World Animal Protection, a global animal welfare nonprofit organization.
That’s down from nearly 947,000 animals in 2020, despite the expansion of plant-based options at restaurants.
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World Animal Protection’s analysis of Beyond Meat and Impossible Food products served at restaurants calculated how many units of plant-based products needed to be sold to represent the amount of meat provided by one animal, then applied a substitution effect to estimate the likelihood that the product was purchased by a meat-eating consumer.
Two of the biggest companies behind plant-based meat alternatives, Beyond Meat and Impossible Meats, broadened restaurant partnerships in 2021 to include plant-based replacements for poultry favorites. Beyond Meat launched new chicken tender options in U.S. restaurants last July, while Impossible Meats expanded into chicken nuggets in the fall.
Restaurants that currently serve Impossible Foods include Burger King, Red Robin, White Castle, Cheesecake Factory and Dave & Buster’s, while Beyond Meat products are sold at chains including Pizza Hut, Subway, Carl’s Jr. and Panda Express.
Impossible launched a record number of new products in the latter part of 2021, including Impossible Sausage, Impossible Chicken Nuggets, Impossible Pork, and Impossible Meatballs Made From Plants, according to company president Dennis Woodside.
“Looking ahead to 2022, we know that in this category, it’s not enough to just have any plant-based product in the market now. You have to prove to people that you have better products,” Woodside wrote in a statement to USA TODAY. “We did that last year with our Impossible Chicken Nuggets, Impossible Pork, and Impossible Sausage products – all of which were found by the majority of consumers to be as good as or better than the respective animal-based products in recent taste tests.”
Meat industry leaders are working to keep pace, too.
Tyson Foods expanded its meatless options in 2021 to include plant-based burger patties and bratwurst, while Perdue has explored “flexitarian” options with chicken nuggets madecombination with cauliflower, chickpeas and plant protein alongside plant-based chicken nugget options.
“The plant-based food industry is showing no signs of slowing down,” Bazzi said. “Some of the biggest meat companies are trying to keep up by introducing their own lines of plant-based products.”