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Converting The Meat Eaters: The Mainstreaming Of Plant-Based Foods

July 16, 2019 Kathy Bryan


“There’s a sense that there’s a movement going on that’s much bigger than any one company.” Those are the words of Ethan Brown, Founder & CEO of Beyond Meat, the self-proclaimed “future of protein” as he describes the recent growth of the plant-based food market.

And though veggie burgers are not in any way new, the $13 billion invested in the plant-based food industry during the last two years has revolutionized vegetarian options, taking plant-based products mainstream.

Recent Meat Alternatives Target Meat Eaters

Vegetarian food is no longer just for vegetarians, due in part to the mindset of Pat Brown, Founder and CEO of Impossible Foods. “I love vegetarians and vegans as much as the next guy,” Brown said regarding his company’s focus, “but that is not the customer we care about.”

Impossible Foods

Impossible Foods makes a burger that tastes, looks and feels like beef. Genetically engineered from soy heme protein, their most recent burger (the Impossible Burger 2.0) even bleeds as it cooks. These meat-like features are what have brought meat eaters to the Impossible Foods brand. In fact, Impossible Foods claims the majority of people who taste test their burgers believe the “meat” is derived from an animal.

Impossible Foods has raised more than $300 million in funding and may be considering an IPO. Their $87.9 million in revenue last year was up 170% from 2017 as they expanded into 5,000 restaurants across the U.S. including White Castle, The Cheesecake Factory and Red Robin. Their Burger King product, the Impossible Whopper, boosted Burger King traffic by 18% in test markets resulting in nationwide expansion plans later this year.

Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat claims 93% of their customers also purchase regular meat, indicating the product is not just for vegetarians. The broad appeal is in part because Beyond Meat has focused on making their meat-free alternatives look and taste just like meat. In fact, their burgers start red and turn brown as they cook due to apple extract in the ingredient list. Beyond Meat also recently added marbling to make their burgers look and taste more like beef.

Available in more than 35,000 outlets, across hotels, college campuses, grocery stores – including Whole Foods, Kroger and Target, sports stadiums and restaurants like Del Taco, Carl’s Jr. and TGI Friday’s, Beyond Meat has experienced success by targeting consumers who typically center their meals around meat. Their 2018 sales were $87.9 million, up from $32.6 million, resulting in a successful IPO with their stock price quickly rising from $25 to $167.


Less well known, NUGGS has just one product: “chicken” nuggets comprised of pea protein. The NUGGS business is operated like a software company, with continuous releases implemented to improve the product. For example, a recent release changed the cooking instructions of the NUGGS nuggets.

For their “chicken nugget simulation” that “kills you slower” according to their eatnuggs.com website, NUGGS raised $7 million in funding, including a hefty investment from McCain Foods.

Meat Manufacturers Are Taking Notice Of The Plant-Based Trend

By targeting meat eaters, the meat alternatives have broadened their customer bases. But they’ve also dented the revenue of the meat manufacturers. In response to the recent plant-based trends, Tyson and Purdue have both announced plans to launch vegetarian product lines.

Plant-Based Diets Deliver A Long List Of Benefits

Plant-Based Diets

It’s been long known, and long ignored by meat eaters, that plant-based diets are good for people’s health and the environment.

  • Meat Production Produces Greenhouse Gases: Experts predict a vegan world could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%.
  • Meat Production May Be Contributing To Antibiotic Resistance: Many animals in close quarters are constantly fed a low dose of antibiotics to reduce illness across the livestock.
  • Factory Farm Conditions Make Many People Sad: Often, animals in factory farms are subjected to what many consider cruel.
  • Vegetarian Diets May Reduce The Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease: Limiting the amount of meat consumed can reduce cholesterol levels, decreasing the risk of heart disease.

But, none of the meat production or vegetarian diet factors are new to the equation. So why are plant-based foods suddenly so popular? The right product has hit the right market at the right time.

“It’s a combination of increased consumer interest in healthier eating in general,” noted Michele Simon, Executive Director of the Plant-Based Foods Association, “and then combined with innovation and an explosion of more great-tasting meat alternatives for consumers to choose from. With that has come the mainstreaming of these types of foods.”

More Than One-Third Of Americans Want To Eat More Plant-Based Foods

Although only 3% of Americans are vegan, 39% want to eat more plant-based foods. “The shift towards flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan lifestyles is undeniable,” according to Carsten Gerhardt, a partner at AT Kearney, a global consultancy, “with many consumers cutting down on their meat consumption as a result of becoming more conscious towards the environment and animal welfare.”

In fact, a recent report from AT Kearney predicts one-quarter of the meat people eat in 2040 will be replaced by plant-based products that look and taste like meat. This might happen even faster if McDonald’s responds quickly to the Change.org petition asking the fast-food chain to add a meatless option. The petition has more than 225,000 of its 300,000 signature goal, including an endorsement from Ellen DeGeneres.

Marketing Meat Alternatives To Meat Eaters Is Not Simple

Despite the recent popularity of plant-based meats, according to Food Business News, there are a long list of terms that can cause meat eaters to skip vegetarian options. The publication recommends marketers avoid the use of the terms below, especially on restaurant menus.

  • Meat Free = Less of what meat eaters want
  • Vegan = Not for meat eaters
  • Vegetarian = Healthy, not satisfying
  • Low Fat = Not tasty

Instead, Food Business News suggests focusing meat alternative product descriptions on flavor, look and feel. Of course, recent laws may make that harder. For example, a new law in Mississippi bans the use of words traditionally associated with meat products (i.e., burger) from being used when describing vegetarian products.

We’re Still At The Beginning Of The Plant-Based Meat Revolution

“Plant-based meats are still just getting started,” according to Caroline Bushnell of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote meat alternatives. “The next generation [of vegetarian foods] is really designed for meat eaters, so the stakes are higher for what the products need to deliver on.”

Currently valued at $1.44 billion, the U.S. meat substitute market is expected to grow to $2.5 billion by 2023. With Millennials and Generation Z more likely to skip meat than prior generations, plant-based meat alternative sales are likely to benefit both from traditional meat eaters and the growing roster of vegans and vegetarians.

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About the Author

Kathy Bryan

Kathy Bryan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Digital Media Solutions (DMS). In this role, Kathy is responsible for all aspects of marketing and communications for DMS, the leading global martech company leveraging innovative, performance-driven brand and marketplace solutions to connect consumers and advertisers.

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