McDonald’s is expanding U.S. market testing on a new plant-based burger co-developed with Beyond Meat, one of the growing number of companies that have made good business selling meat alternatives in recent years. On the menu since November at just eight McDonald’s restaurants across the United States, the McPlant will soon be available at 600 locations in the San Francisco Bay and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. An expanding range of fast-food and fast-casual restaurants—including Burger King, Chipotle, KFC, and Panera—is meanwhile either offering or planning to offer new vegan-and-vegetarian-friendly options in their U.S. and global markets. More traditional meat alternatives, such as tofu or even veggie burgers, have been around for ages—as have moral aversions to animal-based food—but these newer plant-based products are getting unprecedented exposure and traction with consumers. Why is that?

Nina Gheihman is a sociologist and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business, writing a book about the cultural emergence of veganism “from a niche subculture into a mainstream movement challenging the food system.” As Gheihman sees it, the expansion of meat alternatives is the result of a transformative cultural change over the past decade, largely centered in the U.S. but also visible in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Plant-based eating, which used to be associated largely with the animal-rights movement, is now perceived as a culturally acceptable—almost mainstream—way of life, with benefits for personal health and the environment. Though still far from the norm—no more than five percent of the U.S. population eats a strictly vegan diet today—the growing popularity of plant-based foods, especially among young people, suggests a generational shift in eating habits is underway.

Graham Vyse: Why are all these big food companies expanding their plant-based ranges?

Nina Gheihman: The plant-based phenomenon, which used to be niche, has become a big part of the mainstream food movement. It’s not a passing trend. There’s awareness of the benefits to public health and the environment, especially given that industrial animal agriculture is one of the leading drivers of climate change, and these companies don’t want to be left behind.

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