Burgers have long been a staple for Americans. However, as the beef industry tops emissions charts, several fast-food chains have presented consumers with plant-based alternatives. And surprisingly, consumers are loving it.

Plant-Based Meat Surges in Popularity

From January 2019 to May 2019, American consumers purchased 228 million plant-based burgers, per market research firm, The NPD Group. The figure shows a 10% surge in sales for the plant-based food industry from the following year. Considering the actual meat industry only rose 2% during the same time frame, that’s quite an impressive leap.

Research by the team also revealed this increase in sales wasn’t due to vegetarians flocking to these popular restaurants. Rather, 95% of consumers who purchased a plant-based burger also bought a product with beef in it that same year.

The plant-based food industry has surged since 2015. Source: SPINS LLC

The plant-based food industry has surged since 2015. Source: SPINS LLC.

NPD says the increased popularity of meatless burgers is associated with the increase in plant-based alternatives. More specifically, Darren Seifer, an analyst at the firm, explains that plant-based burgers give consumers a chance to get involved. By consume plant-based burgers instead of their beef counterparts, consumers are choosing a significantly less environmentally-harmful option.

“Plant-based burgers allow consumers to substitute without sacrifice. They get the ‘burger’ experience while assuaging their need for more protein and social concerns,” Seifer said. “With that said, U.S. consumers have not given up on beef burgers, but are willing to mix things up every now and then.”

Startups Compete in the Billion-Dollar Plant-Based Meat Industry

Currently, the vegan food industry is worth a whopping $4.5 billion. On the other hand, the plant-based meat industry rakes in approximately $800 million.

Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat currently act as the main suppliers of plant-based meat in the restaurant industry. With the help of food engineers and scientists, Impossible Burger offers consumers a soy protein and coconut oil patty, whereas Beyond Meat sells a pea-based protein patty.

The emerging popularity and demand for meatless burgers even came as a shock to the manufacturers themselves. After a 50% surge in sales growth following the launch of its 2.0 burger, Impossible Burger even struggled with a burger shortage. To meet unprecedented demand, the company had to triple its weekly production.

Restaurants Adopting Plant-Based Meat Rapidly

Currently, Impossible Burger patties are available at over 9,000 restaurants, including White Castle, Red Robin, and Burger King. Its primary competitor, Beyond Meat, serves several other popular chains, including Del Taco, Carl Jr.’s, and Tim Horton’s. In total, the two companies serve their plant-based patties in over 20,000 locations across the United States.

Impossible Burger patties are available at over 9,000 restaurants, such as White Castle, Red Robin, and Burger King.

Impossible Burger patties are available at over 9,000 restaurants, such as White Castle, Red Robin, and Burger King.

“I can’t believe how many people are going crazy over it,” Tricia Scanlon, a bartender at Red Robin, told The New York Times. “A lot of people have been asking for it, people that are vegetarians or vegans. Everybody who lives that lifestyle absolutely loves it.”

Consumers Actually Want Plant-Based Options

Rob Leclerc, a co-founder of food-tech startup AgFunder, said restaurants are listening to consumer feedback more than ever before. Evidently, the numbers show that adopting more plant-based options is exactly what consumers want.

For instance, after the introduction of Burger King’s Impossible Burger, it has been greener in more than just one way. In a test market for their new plant-based menu items, the burger joint reported foot traffic rose by 18.5%.

“I think we’re talking about a consumer who has certain demands and — if unmet by McDonald’s —are willing to go to a smaller franchise that focuses on those demands specifically,” Leclerc said.

While adding plant-based burgers to the menu is a win for the environment, it’s won’t solve the world’s climate crisis. What’s clear is that everyone needs to make sacrifices in order to mitigate the serious ramifications of climate change. And the burden can’t just lay on everyday people — major corporations also need to get involved.

So, although plant-based meat won’t completely eliminate meat production and consumption, the space is growing quickly. As more fast-food restaurants join the fight, reducing carbon emissions on a large scale is becoming less far-fetched than it once seemed.

Emily Dao

Emily is a Writer at The Rising, a Business student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a former writer for the Daily Illini.