Meat alternatives, also known as plant-based foods, are continuing to trend, as high-profile launches from big chain restaurants like White Castle, Burger King and most recently KFC announced they are adding vegan meat alternatives to their menus.

Although not a new concept, not too long ago the biggest issue these plant-based companies faced was the lack of education of consumers about their products and convincing restaurants and retailers to stock their commodities. Fast forward to 2019, and it has been an incredible year for this niche industry. US sales of plant-based food grew 31.3% between April 2017 and April 2019, to about $4.5 billion, according to the data collected by SPINS for the Good Food Institute and the Plant-Based Food Associations.

With meat alternatives fast gaining popularity, it’s offering us a glimpse into a different future for meat. More and more consumers are simply trying to eat healthier, while others have become more conscious about the effects mass meat production has on the environment and the welfare of animals. Every year, more than 9 billion animals in the US are raised and killed on factory farms. Our factory farm system has contributed to a range of problems, from increasing antibiotic resistance to the climate crisis. Proponents of meat alternatives say these meatless meats could help change that equation.

It has tremendously helped that there are more alternative options available in the market, thus empowering the two-thirds of Americans to choose alternative meatless options. Companies like Beyond Meat Burger or Impossible Burger have products made from plants that are meant to taste like meat, be marketed to meat-eating customers and replace some of those customers’ meat purchases. (That’s what makes them different from veggie burgers, which have been typically aimed mostly at vegetarians.) Another kind of meat alternative said to be expected on the horizon is “cell-based” or “lab-grown” meat, which are products that are made from real animal cells but are grown in food production plants instead of being taken from animals raised in captivity and slaughtered for consumption. 

The rise of the meat alternatives has driven researchers and marketing experts to realize that this current trend doesn’t have to be a niche product just for vegans or vegetarians, who make up just 3 percent of the US population. There are in fact lots of Americans who are meat-eaters, but who are also up for trying plant-based products as long as they’re tasty, cheap and nutritious. Those consumers, not vegetarians and vegans, would be the target of the next generation of meat alternatives. So, the teams behind meat alternatives work to ensure their products have flavor, micronutrients balance and the cooking experience of meat, thus working hard to break the stigma that plant-based products are just for vegans and vegetarians.

In the upcoming months, restaurants and consumers can probably expect more big chain restaurants to announce meatless products on their menus, as well as emerging competitors to the market. Tyson and Purdue Farms are said to be launching their own plant-based meat products. Good for consumers, as more competition means keeping prices down, more choices and make it likelier that the industry can scale up to meet the growing demand for the meat.