Plant-based protein isn’t exactly the newest concept in the food world. For many years, vegetarians have been able to enjoy the backyard barbecue, thanks to the black bean burger, which at least looked like its beef brethren even if it didn’t always taste like them.
That all changed in 2016, when the Impossible Burger was born. A plant-based burger that not only looked the part, but tasted it as well. Soon after came the similarly created and marketed Beyond Burger. Both boasted that diners could not tell the difference between their fake meat burgers and the real thing.
Response started slow, but was practically kicked into overdrive as more restaurants and food distributors took notice.
Fort Wayne burger joint BurgerFi was a perfect candidate for the Beyond Burger, as part of its brand has been synonymous with “something different” and inventive spins on the classic burger trope. Assistant manager Jeff Gibson said that the Beyond Burger has been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening in 2017 and that there are individual customers who might come in two or three times a week for it.
“It’s more popular toward vegan people,” Gibson said. “They want to eat like (non-vegan) people but can’t. They still eat this like it’s a burger.” Morgan Butler, a manager at Wings Etc. in Huntington, noted that the Beyond Burger had been on the menu since October of last year, but that the number of times it was ordered only started to climb this past summer.
Burger King is the latest and most public brand to pick up the plant protein, advertising the Impossible Whopper complete with a commercial filled with “average Joe” customers munching on the new sandwich in theatrical disbelief that this couldn’t possibly be plants.
Aramark, a large-scale foodstuff provider, recently announced that it too would start carrying the Beyond brand, opening up the possibility of the burgers and its other plant-based protein products to become a mainstay at restaurants, concession stands and university cafeterias.
The popularity of the plant-based patty varies from university to university. While some have seen a high demand for the foods, thanks in part to its commercial popularity, others have noticed a more subdued, yet still positive, response.
“The ones that do like it, do want it and they know what they want,” Scott Kammerer, food services director at the University of Saint Francis, said. “It’s really nice here on the college level; people are more in tune to where their food is coming from and how it’s prepared.”
Flashy commercials and colorful ads aren’t the only reason that people are gravitating toward plant-based proteins for dinner. The appeal also comes from the health and environmental benefits that are often attached to replacing meat with plants.
I think the idea of it at first kind of grossed people out I guess or they didn’t see a point in a meatless burger,” Butler said. “But with different diets and fads they definitely contribute to why people are willing to try it now.”
Sustainability was a driving force behind USF’s reasoning for exploring plant-based protein. Kammerer explained that they have looked heavily into the concept of the “protein flip,” a study done by Harvard University researchers that suggests that it is healthier for people and the environment to get energy from plants as opposed to from the animals that consume the plants and pass on the energy. Essentially, cutting out the mooing middleman.
“Instead of serving grain and plants to animals, we serve them to the diner where they’re going to take the protein straight from the source,” Kammerer said.
Trying to peddle a plant-based burger in the Midwest, where beef, chicken and pork producers operate, Kammerer admitted, comes with its challenges. Not only do they need to overcome the skepticism of people believing that plants could actually taste like a burger, but they also need to permeate the long-held traditions of eating meat, real meat, at almost every meal.
Local beef producers are also not a fan of these new products calling themselves burgers and are doing their own work to reveal that these products may not be the wonder foods they were first thought to be.
“While beef producers are supporters of the free-market system, there is a serious concern about these products co-opting terms like beef and meat to further the marketing of their non-meat products,” Joe Moore, executive vice president of Indiana Beef Cattle Association-Indiana Beef Council, said in an email to Business Weekly. “We feel that there may be an effort underway to confuse the consumer about what these products are … Nutritional facts from products like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger read like a chemistry paper while suffering from a nutrient comparison with natural beef.”
Picking your protein will always be a this-or-that situation, and both will likely find a way to coexist and thrive despite the other. But Kammerer and other distributors are confident that this is less a short-lived fad and the start of a greater trend toward plants pretending to be other beloved meat products and allowing diners to decide for themselves which protein they want on their plate.