In the year 2000, if one had stood on a street corner and predicted that in two decades, the biggest craze to sweep through fast food since the drive-thru window would be artificial meat – well, let’s just say there would be a lot of disbelievers in the crowd.
Twenty years ago, the veggie burger was not the kind of thing that would take the world by storm, because they were not, as burgers went, very good. Which isn’t to say they were uniformly terrible or even that they tasted bad. Some of them even tasted pretty good, mostly when smothered with ketchup and other burger toppings.
But what they didn’t at all taste like, however, was an actual hamburger. As the 21st century was getting off the ground, if one came across another human being eating some kind of veggie burger to satisfy their craving for an actual burger, it was safe to say they were a very committed vegetarian or vegan.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the world is waiting with bated breath for the nationwide launch of the Impossible Whopper at Burger King. A veggie burger so well-made, so delicious and so entirely perfected by science that the fast-food chain claims diners will not be able to tell the difference between an ersatz Whopper and the real deal.
Burger King may be making the biggest leap forward in the QSR meatless race, but it is far from a solitary play. Many known names in the fast-food game are investigating their own version of riding the trend; there are even rumors that McDonald’s is considering joining the fray with a meatless option of its own.
As we ponder the burger giants pondering burgers that really aren’t burgers, it’s fair to ask whether meatless meat is a new way of eating for a new era of consumers – or the latest in a long line of food fads that seem like the next big dietary shift, and then fizzle out quietly as consumers’ tastes, quite literally, change.
The March of Meatless Everywhere
Burger King’s experiments with artificial meat began in April of 2019, when it rolled out the Impossible Whopper in St. Louis area restaurants. The Impossible Whopper was a standard Whopper made with a grilled Impossible Burger patty – along with a claim that the meatless burger would offer the same mouth-watering sensation of its beef counterpart.
The magic of the Impossible Burger, according to Impossible Foods, is a mixture of ground wheat and potato protein mixed with “flecks” of coconut fat. The burgers also “bleed” like a proper burger, due to the inclusion of a compound called heme, found in animals and plants. The net result, according to Impossible Burger and Burger King, is a totally vegetarian (but not vegan, since the Whopper has mayonnaise on it) that has 15 percent less fat and 90 percent less cholesterol than a regular Whopper, but tastes exactly the same.
Seems almost impossible.
But Burger King says it is so confident that the Impossible Whopper could fool a fan that they are launching a taste test of their own. Customers who order via DoorDash or the BK app can use the “IMPOSSIBLE” promotion code to buy both a regular Whopper and an Impossible Whopper for $7. That promo will run through Sept. 12.
The Impossible Whopper pilot was so popular in St. Louis that there were lines out the door to buy them, with reports of some locations running out early on – even though a burger with no meat costs a dollar more than one with it. Neither BK nor Impossible have released sales figures as of yet, but the test was clearly a big enough hit to warrant a full-blown rollout to Burger King’s 7,000 or so nationwide locations a few months later – the biggest exposure the product type has gotten so far.
That said, meatless meat has been gobbling up fast food real estate all year.
White Castle, a fast-food chain with a much smaller regional footprint, has already rolled out a different Impossible Burger recipe for its signature slider burgers. Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s both sell a vegetarian burger option made by an Impossible Foods competitor, Beyond Meat.
Dunkin’ doesn’t do burgers, but they have introduced a Beyond Sausage patty to their breakfast sandwiches at select locations. Del Taco has been selling the Beyond Taco for the last six months. And while Taco Bell in the U.S. has not yet introduced fake meat to its taco products, it has rolled out vegan “meat” chainwide in Spain for its tacos and burritos.
Meatless meat has also inspired other food product extensions. Chains like Tim Hortons, New York’s Gregorys Coffee and Bareburger have all embraced a veggie-based “egg” scramble product.
“As we continue to test and get feedback, we will consider expanding plant-based options into other menu items,” a spokeswoman for Tim Hortons told MarketWatch in an email.
It bears mentioning that thus far, the year’s most successful IPO was Beyond Meat’s in April – and it seems the drumbeat of places signing up to include some variation of a meatless product on their menus has magnified since that point. Given the explosion, and the seemingly genuine enthusiasm for the product, one might wonder if there is a big shift underway in our national eating habits.
The Shifting World of Food
Creating a long-standing classic that stands the test of time in the world of food is, well, not easy. Food is a trendy, fad-laden place where things are everywhere and then – very quickly – nowhere.
In the 1950s and 60s, one might have feared that for the rest of time, all fruit would be served with marshmallows inside a gelatin mold. For 10 years, the cupcake reigned supreme in the United States as the nation’s most beloved confection – only to suddenly crash one day in 2013, when everyone realized what they really wanted was a cronut. Two years ago, people were writing think pieces about how avocado toast was destroying both American society and the planet’s ecological balance – these days, the artisanal toast makers have all moved on, as the price of avocados has suddenly spiked.
That’s not to say that nothing holds on – spaghetti and meatballs has been on 90 percent of humanity’s top-five list for the last 500 or so years. But more often, things can be delicious and beloved one day and entirely forgotten – or, worse, widely mocked – the next.
Which way will the meatless craze go? At this phase of the game, it is hard to say. Still, three interesting points of unrelated data seem to be worth keeping in mind.
The first is that meatless meat costs more than the real McCoy. Not hugely more – a buck or so over the cost of a burger made of beef. But considering these are $1.50-$5.00 items, the meatless upgrade can add 20 to 60 percent to the cost of the product. Given that the meatless meat’s claim to fame is that it tastes exactly like meat, one might wonder if customers would prefer to pay a dollar less and eat something that tastes exactly like meat, because it is meat.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat also say they are providing a burger-like taste in a way that is healthier and more environmentally friendly. Yet both of those claims have been questioned, according to Wall Street Journal reports. The patties themselves, experts note, could be somewhat healthier than a meat burger (although still quite high in fat), but the fast-food versions are still loaded with toppings and other unhealthy preservative ingredients, which means any potential health benefit is marginal. Meat or meatless, it’s still lettuce, onion, cheese, pickles, tomatoes and special sauce on a sesame seed bun.
And while animal husbandry is very land- and water-intensive, so is soybean farming and wheat farming – and the production process for high-tech meat products tends to be on the heavy side when it comes to power use and waste generation. It still might be cleaner than industrial meat production, but it is a bit of a stretch to call it a wholly green process. As meatless meat products become more common, it remains to be seen whether those facts will influence consumers’ decisions to consume them – and, in many cases, to pay more for them.
Finally, there is the interesting data point that the majority of people who eat meatless burgers are meat-eaters. A new report from market research firm NPD Group finds that 95 percent of plant-based burger buyers have also purchased a beef burger within the past year. Committed vegetarians or vegans are not the main drivers of this market – in fact, many people in these groups complain that the products are too much like meat for them to enjoy. According to NPD, the main buyers here are “flexitarians” – consumers who hope to lower their overall meat consumption but are not looking to give it up entirely.
“Although vegetarians and vegans are certainly contributing to the growth in plant-based [foods], they still represent a small (single-digit) percentage of the U.S. population and aren’t the primary contributors,” NPD notes.
The good news is that meatless burgers are pulling from a larger base: There are many more consumers who would like to eat less meat than those who are willing to give it up entirely. But the bad news is that they have to compete against an already ingrained habit: eating actual hamburgers. And they have to be willing to pay more to do it.
Habits, as PYMNTS has noted in the past, are hard things to overcome. Novelty can do a lot of the early heavy lifting – and we imagine all kinds of people will be taking the Impossible challenge to see if they can tell a real Whopper from its vegetarian doppelganger. But once that enthusiasm wears off, will consumers stick with the meatless bandwagon? Or will they follow their stomachs to the next neat new idea in eating?