Who's Eating Meatless Fast-Food Burgers? Not Vegans

Most coverage of the rollout of meatless fast-food burgers like Burger King's Impossible Whopper and White Castle's Impossible Slider pegs them as a long-awaited drive-thru option for vegans. But new data indicates it's not vegans who are buying them, but meat eaters.

A new report from market research firm NPD Group finds 95 percent of plant-based burgers buyers have also purchased a beef burger within the past year. It's not the committed vegetarians or vegans who are buying meatless burgers, the report concludes, but so-called "flexitarians," people who are trying to reduce their meat consumption but not rule it out entirely. This makes sense once you think about it: Established vegans may not need a food replicating the flavor and texture of a beef burger. But for avowed carnivores, a burger like Impossible or Beyond certainly makes plant-based eating much more palatable.

"Although vegetarians and vegans are certainly contributing to the growth in plant-based, they still represent a small (single digits) percentage of the U.S. population and aren't the primary contributors," NPD notes.

Fast-food chains no doubt needed to have carnivores' buy in. Meat-eaters' appetite for meatless burgers helped push sales up 10% for the 12-month period ending May 2019 versus a year prior. Beef burger growth, meanwhile, remained flat. The data indicates that's because carnivores are making a trade-off, at least sometimes: For every 18 fast-food beef burgers they purchased over a 12-month period, customers bought two meatless ones.