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2021 Burger-nomics: Beef Shares The Plate With Fast-Growing Plant-Based Options

The hamburger is not the monolith it once was, and Fourth of July weekend cookouts are getting more varied. There was a time when, with a few exceptions, one could basically throw a beef patty on the grill for everyone, and the only questions that needed to be asked were “How do you like it cooked?” and “Cheese or no cheese?”

Now, there are many more considerations. People’s diets and their ethical choices can have a huge impact on their burger preferences. Many are looking for leaner meats or plant-based options to stick to their diets and/or their ethics, while lab-grown meat startups suggest that there will be even more options in the years to come.

Plant-based meat sales are growing far faster than beef sales. One report from March finds that the global market for the former is growing 19.4 percent each year, while another March report shows the global beef market growing 3.2 percent each year. That means plant-based meat alternative sales are growing more than six times faster than beef sales, having received a boost since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think [the plant-based trend] is here to stay, and the more people get educated on the space, the larger it will get,” Sean Dollinger, founder of plant-based eCommerce platform PlantX, told PYMNTS in an interview. “I think COVID had a huge part in this. I find people want to take better care of themselves, seeing what can take place at any time.”

It is not only vegans and vegetarians opting for meatless burgers when given the chance. Plant-based burgers are also a popular choice for flexitarians — those who generally opt for meatless options but will make exceptions — and for those who may not be as familiar with plant-based options, but are willing to test them out.

As Adam Grogan, chief operating officer for plant-based food brand Lightlife’s parent company Greenleaf Foods, told PYMNTS in an interview, these burger substitutes are “a huge driver of trial in the plant-based category.”

“Consumers define healthy in a lot of different ways, and we recognize that everyone balances different priorities when making their food choices,” Grogan said. “We are seeing more people interested in a balanced diet that includes both animal protein products and plant-based items — all in moderation.”

Key restaurant and grocery players are noting this rising interest, debuting new products to meet consumers’ desire for plant-based burger substitutes. Of course, there are many different approaches to the category. There are those that look to recreate the meat-eating experience, such as the alternative proteins created by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Then there are those that foreground their plant and fungus ingredients — chickpea burgers, quinoa burgers, mushroom burgers and more. Research from Kellogg’s finds that only 40 percent of the Generation Z consumers and millennials that the company surveyed prefer the “just-like-meat” experience, while 60 percent prefer options that do not imitate the meat experience.

Seizing the desire for the latter, more popular option, Wendy’s announced in late June the pilot test of its new Spicy Black Bean Burger in three markets: Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Jacksonville, Florida. As Carl Loredo, the company’s U.S. chief marketing officer, said in a statement, “Consumers are demanding plant-based sandwiches, and we’re answering the call.”

Meanwhile, DoorDash is taking the other veggie burger route, recreating the beef experience with its Independence Day grilling kits, created in partnership with Beyond Meat, sold direct to consumer (D2C) through DoorDash’s DashMart online convenience store. The kit was a limited-time offering just for the holiday — which is probably for the best, from the delivery service’s point of view, as the cracks are beginning to show for major “just like meat” partnerships. In late June, it was revealed that Dunkin’ was dramatically scaling back its own Beyond Meat offerings, discontinuing its Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich in all but 10 states.

For many of the consumers seeking out meat-free options, plant- and fungus-based patties may not be the only possibility. A survey of 8,500 vegans, conducted earlier this year by plant-based dating app Veggly, found that concerns for the environment and for animals’ well-being are far more common reasons for going vegan than personal health concerns. This means that as lab-grown meat becomes more available, it may prove to be a popular pick for many of these consumers.

Additionally, lab-grown meat companies have the opportunity to win the spending of those who care about animals and the climate, but are not willing to sacrifice the flavor of actual meat. This may not be such a distant possibility. The cultured meat company Good Meat announced a $170 million fundraise in May, and a lab-grown fat company, Mission Barns, announced a $24 million Series A fundraise in April. Plus, a Good Food Institute study found that cultured meat companies’ total investor interest in 2020 was six times what it was the year before.

For now, when it comes to vegan products versus beef products, the latter remains by far the No. 1 choice for most American consumers. A June survey of over 16,000 U.S. adults found that 65 percent of Americans would include a hamburger or cheeseburger on their ideal barbecue plate, while only 9 percent would include a plant-based burger. Notably, turkey burgers remain more popular than plant-based burgers for now, with 11 percent of U.S. adults saying that their ideal plate would include this leaner pick. With so many new options coming to the fore, it remains to be seen how long traditionally raised beef will remain consumers’ top choice.

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