© FT montage

A man wearing a cowboy hat and a blue plaid shirt bites into a thick, juicy-looking burger. A look of surprise spreads on his face as he realises he has been tricked into thinking he is eating beef when, in fact, it is Burger King’s new plant-based “Rebel Whopper”.

“I’m a damn fool!” he says with a smile. 

The scene from Burger King’s television ad campaign for the “Rebel Whopper”, which went on sale in 25 countries in Europe this week, is a cheeky play on how restaurants and food manufacturers hawking new alternative proteins are trying to win over mass-market consumers: by making the product look, taste, and feel like meat.

It is a surprising turn from decades past when veggie burgers and tofu were sold in health stores and given virtuous-sounding brand names like Gardenburger or Morningstar Farms. A new breed of start-ups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat spent years manipulating plant proteins, such as soy or peas, starches and other ingredients to create products mimicking burgers, chicken, and pork.

Charts showing how alternative proteins are attracting VC funding and being sold in US restaurant chains

This new product quality and positioning to appeal not only to vegans and vegetarians has turbocharged the growth of the plant-based meat market, which UBS estimates will reach $50bn by 2025. That would still be dwarfed by the $1.2tn spent annually on the animal meat market, and will account for only 2.5 per cent of total volume consumed by 2025 from less than 1 per cent today. 

Going by the headlines and hype, you might think there was a fake-meat gold rush afoot. But in reality, there will be winners and losers minted by this shift, and consumers may prove fickle especially once the novelty wears off. Beyond Meat’s once stratospheric share price has come back down to earth to trade at $79, far off the peak of $234 in July. 

Meat companies such as Tyson Foods and Maple Leaf are coming out with their own alternative proteins, and big consumer goods companies like Nestlé and Unilever also want in. Restaurants and food service may end up capturing much of the growth: in the US, about half of all plant-based meats are sold through that channel as opposed to retail and grocery.

Treemap showing how alternative proteins make up a tiny share of the overall meat market

There are already signs of a backlash brewing in some quarters. Meat industry groups are lobbying lawmakers in Europe and the US to restrict the newcomers from using the word “meat” to describe their plant-based products. They are joined by farmers who are pushing back against the idea that eating fake meat is better for the planet, saying that it depends on how and where the meat is produced.

Other critics point out that fake meat is in a fact highly processed food that often contains heavy doses of oil, saturated fat and salt to render them palatable. 

Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, which is sold in the US and carries a slight price premium, has 630 calories and 11 grammes of saturated fat, only slightly better than the 660 calories and 12g in the beef version. But it has 10 per cent more sodium.

Perhaps something else for the cowboy to feel foolish about?

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