It wasn't that long ago that the only green, plant-based food generally spotted in fast-food restaurants was the shredded lettuce separating a hamburger from its mayonnaise slathered bun.
But as the vegetarian and vegan community rapidly grows, even fast-food fans are becoming less afraid of eating their greens. Just this week, McDonald's announced that it is offering a meatless burger called the McPlant, and Pizza Hut became the first national pizza chain to partner with Beyond Meat to introduce plant-based meat pizzas across the country. The fast-food giants are following in the footsteps of rivals Burger King, Carl's Jr. and White Castle, which have partnered with the company Impossible Foods to offer plant-based burgers. Dunkin' and Del Taco have also introduced plant-based substitutes with Impossible's rival firm Beyond Meat. But the recent embrace of plant-based foods by McDonald's and Pizza Hut brought their recognition to another level.
"The introduction of a plant-based line by the world's largest fast-food chain will certainly challenge these brands' dominance of the plant-based market," said Alex Jarman, a research analyst with Euromonitor International. "In recent years, chains such as Burger King and White Castle gained a competitive advantage against McDonald's by introducing plant-based options on their menus. Vegan and vegetarian consumers may have avoided McDonald's in favor of chains with these options."
Jarman said he believes that because the McPlant is being solely produced by McDonald's, it opens a new channel for future sales growth and can lure a wave of customers who are interested in vegan fast-food options.
The expansion of plant-based meats raises concerns for the meat industry. New York-based author Chase Purdy said in an interview with New America that the meat industry views their expansion as a threat.
"The lofty goal of these companies is to replace the monolithic animal agriculture system, which has been pegged for being inhumane and a big-time contributor to black greenhouse gas emissions," Purdy said.
While many fast-food chains have partnered with Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods — the biggest players in the plant-based food market — to add meatless options, McDonald's said it made sure that the McPlant burger has a taste that appeals to meat lovers.
Rather than mimic traditional veggie burgers made of ground vegetables, the McPlant creates the illusion of a meat patty with similar taste. According to McDonald's, markets can adopt the McPlant "when they're ready," with a partial release projected for next year.
Pizza Hut is also trying to cast its plant-based sausage with Beyond Meat, which will be used on pizzas across the U.S., as entirely different from that of its rivals, as well. The new collaboration allows Pizza Hut to offer two new meatless pizzas, the Beyond Italian Sausage and Great Beyond pizzas, which are available now at all Pizza Hut restaurants. The Beyond Italian Pizza features a vegan alternative to the company's Italian pork sausage, while the Great Beyond Pizza imitates Pizza Hut's most popular item, the Supreme Pizza.
"I'd challenge anyone to go try the new Beyond Pan Pizza and tell the difference. I shared it with friends and family, and they couldn't," said David Graves, chief brand officer, Pizza Hut. "The Beyond Italian Sausage is rich, juicy and has the signature Pizza Hut flavors — pizza lovers everywhere are going to love it."
What investors learned this week is that plant-based companies need fast-food chains to drive the next level of success. After McDonald's failed to mention Beyond Meat's participation, characterizing the McPlant as "exclusively for McDonald's, by McDonald's," Beyond Meat's stock dropped by 19 percent Tuesday morning, generating a loss of more than $1.5 billion.
McDonald's has big hopes for future products with Beyond Meat.
"McPlant could extend across a line of plant-based products, including burgers, chicken substitutes and breakfast sandwiches," Ian Borden, whose title is president international at McDonald's, told a group of investors Monday. "We are excited about the opportunity, because we believe we have a proven, delicious-tasting product."