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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Plant-Based Meal Options Going Far Beyond the Burger

So far, 2021 has proven there's plenty of growth in plant-based foods: Consumers increasingly seek them and the range of options is growing.

The plant-based lamb from Black Sheep Foods, available at a Greek eatery chain in San Francisco

Nothing occupies more plates or is celebrated as much from bars to barbecues as the juicy, condiment-laden hamburger. But that iconic beef patty is being nudged off the bun by a host of plant-based substitutes, and more diners are fine with that.

While plant-based alternatives to hamburgers have been the most popular “meat” so far, more restaurants are offering chicken, sausage and even lamb substitutes. Consumers also are increasingly seeking plant-based foods and the variety of offerings is growing.

Omnivores are making plant-based options a thing

“Omnivores and flexitarians make up the lion’s share of consumers who eat these products due to their sheer numbers,” food and beverage publisher Jennifer Mapes-Christ of the market research company Packaged Facts said in 2020. That survey revealed that 36 percent of respondents said they ate vegan and vegetarian meals regularly, although only 5 percent reported adhering to a strict vegetarian diet and only 3 percent described themselves as vegan. One study revealed that vegan choices increasingly have less to do with health and more to do with saving the planet.

About 10 companies lead the plant-based meat industry. What were long known as veggie burgers have changed dramatically from just a few years ago, when grainy soy patties were the primary option for vegetarians at a barbecue.

Companies including Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are the biggest names in the market. They researched the best formulas to mimic meat and started turning out better substitutes. For the most part, plant-based meat consists of soy, peas, beans, mushrooms, mung beans or wheat gluten, according to the online publication Green Matters.

These meat alternatives have spread through the fast-food industry, with more than 30 restaurants serving some kind of plant-based product, whether they are patties, sausage or a chicken substitute. And the timing could not be better to introduce these new foods; supply-chain problems have slowed deliveries of all kinds and chicken has become scarcer and more expensive. Bank of America Securities noted that this year, chicken commodity prices have doubled.

Plant-based menu choices have become more creative

Watch for more options than fast food sandwiches. After all, there is now even a plant-based “lamb.” Souvla, a Greek restaurant chain in San Francisco, started offering a lamb substitute (as pictured above) in part because more customers wanted such alternatives. The restaurant partnered with Black Sheep Foods to create an alternative using pea protein and a mixture of flavor compounds.

Burgers, though, were the first big veggie trial. While a little late to the non-meat burger game, McDonald’s plans to test-market its McPlant burger at eight locations from Manhattan Beach, California to Jennings, Louisiana this month. The McPlant made its first appearance in some European markets earlier this year. It debuted at U.K. locations in September and at the latest count is available at 250 McDonald’s outlets across Great Britain

According to one writer at Food & Wine, “Despite only being a small test, it marks a big jump forward in what has been a long and winding road for a plant-based McDonald's burger.”

More legacy chains are getting into the plant-based act

The McPlant joins other meatless burgers such as the Impossible Whopper from Burger King, which launched in 2019; A&W’s Beyond Burger, available in select locations in the U.S.; and meatless patties on the Bareburger on Carl’s Jr. and Hardees’ menus. Even White Castle's iconic mini burgers have been available in a meatless version since 2018.

Jack in the Box recently jumped into the market and is testing its Impossible Burger at some Phoenix-area restaurants until December 12. Customers can substitute a non-beef patty in any burger for an extra $1 to $1.50. The company released an Unchicken Sandwich in 2020, which was available for a limited time in several markets. 

For vegans craving tacos, Taco Bell is expanding its test of plant-based options to locations in Detroit, after positive feedback in California. If sausage is your thing, Chipotle launched a test of vegan chorizo in August at some Denver and Indianapolis locations. According to the company, the meatless sausage includes ancho chili and chipotle peppers, tomato paste, crushed garlic, Spanish smoked paprika and extra virgin olive oil mixed with protein derived from peas.

Vegan “chicken” is appearing on more menus, due to customer demand and rising produce prices. Companies like Jack in the Box and KFC, which introduced Beyond Fried Chicken nuggets in 2020 - a test batch at an Atlanta store sold out in five hours - have been joined by Burger King, which introduced meatless nuggets in October, not long after Impossible and Beyond unveiled their versions of veggie chicken. Beyond introduced veggie tenders in July, while Impossible’s nuggets arrived in supermarkets and restaurants in September. 

The future for plant-based protein is clear. The number of plant-based proteins on menus could increase by nearly 35 percent by the end of 2022, according to additional data from Technomic Ignite.

Keep tabs on these menu changes. More plant-based and vegan alternatives to eggs, pork, shrimp, fish and crab are in the works.

Image credit: Black Sheep Foods

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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