Plant-Based Meat’s Popularity Grows

As food prices rise, alternative meat products are even more in demand.

June 14, 2021

Impossible Plant-Based Meat Burger

CHICAGO—Before COVID-19 struck last year, plant-based meat was trending upward on foodservice menus and grocery store shelves. Then the pandemic shuttered restaurants and other retail outlets, while keeping Americans in lockdown. Industry experts pondered whether alternative meat’s moment had ended, the Washington Post reports.

After an initial plunge in shipments to restaurants last April, plant-based protein has roared back stronger than before because of its cost. The pandemic squeezed the prices of traditional and alternative meat proteins, pushing down the cost of plant-based protein at the supermarket faster than analysts predicted.

“We plan to keep lowering prices as we achieve new production records and economies of scale and ultimately undercut the price of ground beef from cows,” said Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside.

This drop in price, coupled with rising prices overall at the grocery store, has convinced more people to try plant-based proteins from Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and others. The soaring popularity has spurred the introduction of 112 new plant-based dairy, egg and meat brands last year.

(The May foodservice issue of NACS Magazine explored the rising popularity of plant-based food and how convenience foodservice operations are incorporating it in “Plant-Based Food Takes Root.”)

Shipments of plant-based proteins from foodservice distributors to commercial restaurants increased 60% in April 2021 compared with the same month a year ago, when the category realized declines because of pandemic restrictions, The NPD Group reports. Shipments were up 16% compared with April 2019, according to NPD's SupplyTrack®, which tracks every product shipped from leading distributors to more than 700,000 U.S. foodservice operators, capturing detail on more than 80% of the broadline foodservice sales channel.

“There has been a lot of public discussion about plant-based beef and meat substitutes, and whether or not plant-based is a fad or a trend,” said Tim Fires, president of NPD’s SupplyTrack. “But the fact of the matter is, chefs and operators see the plant-based protein category as a flexible option for developing recipes and menu offerings that taste good, and their guests enjoy. Plant-based is now a staple in their repertoire.”

The plant-based industry, while increasing, still only captures a tiny amount of the $1.4 trillion worldwide meat market, according to economist Steve Meyer with Partners for Production Agriculture. “A lot of the things that have been said about those products have always dealt with growth rates,” Meyer said. “But when you start at zero, the growth rates are pretty darn high.”

The continued healthy eating trend is driving some to try plant-based alternatives, especially as more people begin to address some of the health concerns brought on by the pandemic, according to nutritionist Wendy Wesley. “My phone is blowing up with people who’ve gained the Covid 30,” she said. “They know the way out of this is through plant proteins. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but I’m always looking for ways to replace an animal protein with a plant protein, and my clients are in lockstep with me.”

Meanwhile, restaurants and food companies are passing along higher commodities, labor and transportation costs to consumers, the Wall Street Journal reports. Chipotle has raised menu prices by about 4%, while General Mills, Campbell Soup and other consumer packaged goods companies are raising grocery store prices.

Blame it on inflation. U.S. consumer prices rose 5% in May compared with a year ago, reaching the highest annual inflation rate in nearly 13 years, the Journal reports.

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