On November 3rd, fast food titan McDonald’s launched its first ever plant-based burger in the US.
The aptly named McPlant was introduced in ‘eight select restaurants’ as part of a temporary ‘operations test’, as the company laid out in a statement last month.
The scheme follows several trials set in motion across McDonald’s overseas branches earlier this year. The McPlant has already been introduced in stores in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Austria and the UK.
What’s Actually in the McPlant?
Toppings-wise, the McPlant outdoes McDonald’s equally priced meat alternative. In addition to the Quarter Pounder’s helping of cheese, onions, gherkins, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, the McPlant is also accompanied by a slice of tomato and chopped lettuce.
This selection differs slightly in the UK, where the company has debuted its plant-based cheese slice and vegan sandwich sauce.
The patty itself is the product of McDonald’s recent collaboration with vegan meat substitute brand Beyond Meat. After two years working together, the companies finally settled on an exclusive-to-McDonald’s patty constituted largely of potato starch, pea protein and rice protein.
With this all-vegan ingredient list, the patty is a creation that stands in line with McDonald’s bold ambition, stated on their corporate website, to ‘address climate change and drive positive change in the global food system’.
A 2018 study commissioned by Beyond Meat into the ‘cradle-to-distribution life cycle’ of one of their standard burgers, against a 2017 LCA study of that of a quarter pound beef burger, drew the following conclusions: the Beyond Burger generates ‘90% less greenhouse gas emissions, requires 46% less energy, has >99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use’.
Though the McPlant patty is not an exact replica of the Beyond Burger, this certainly bodes well for its environmental impact.
‘Eat what you love’ is the slogan plastered all over Beyond Meat’s social media, and if we buy into their own advertising, it would seem that the environmental benefits of their products do not come at the expense of great taste.
The high profile brand has been given the public stamp of approval by some major celebrities. A scroll through their Instagram will reveal the likes of two-time Grammy Award winner Lizzo, and reality TV star Kim Kardashian gushing over the flavour of their meat substitutes.
It comes as no surprise then that consumers flocked to social media to review the McPlant. For some, like Dutch influencer Coeshi Vanderpuey, it was to praise the burger for perfectly capturing the ‘signature McDonald’s flavour’; while for others, such as American Youtuber De Gato, it was to critique its lack of an ‘obviously meaty taste’ and too-crumbly texture.
The general consensus, however, is that while the McPlant might not meet the standards of gourmet food critics, it certainly lives up to McDonald’s global repute as the provider of quick yet satisfying fast food.
Will the McPlant Survive Financially?
In an official press release for the US McPlant, McDonald’s was keen to clarify that the burger will only be available for a limited testing period, and that its future remains ‘secret sauce’.
According to CEO Chris Kempinski, this indecision results from the company’s anxiety over insufficient levels of demand for the product. During a third-quarter earnings call last month, Kempinski alluded to this lack of interest, stating that only ‘when people are ready for the McPlant’ can McDonald’s ‘be ready for them’.
The fast food industry has transformed dramatically since the McDonald’s brothers founded their first drive-through in 1948, with the ‘Pure Beef Hamburger’ and ‘Tempting Cheeseburger’ as its only mains.
In tandem with a growing awareness of the meat industry’s drastic contribution to climate change, the demand for plant-based alternatives has seen a steady increase. This trend has spiked in the last decade, with the per capita revenue of the global meat substitute market rising to 89 cents in 2020, and expected to grow to $1.03 in 2021 – more than triple that of 2014.
Major fast food companies have refashioned their menus accordingly, McDonald’s notoriously late to jump on the plant-based bandwagon. The arrival of the McPlant comes nearly a year after Burger King’s soy Whopper, and two years since the KFC Quorn burger.
Despite optimistic forecasts, however, momentum seems to be waning already in the US. Beyond Meat reported disappointing third quarter results this year. While they saw a 12.7% increase in overall revenue, this figure was largely representative of international sales, with net revenue in the US declining by 14%.
Beyond Meat’s CEO Ethan Brown attributes this decrease in part to the aftershock of the Covid pandemic, but others fear it indicates a more permanent problem.
Bank of America Securities Analyst Bryan Spillane believes these figures to be symptomatic of a general slowdown in the growth of the US meat substitute market. Particularly in ‘US retail’, Spillane forewarned in a September earnings call for the brand, ‘consumers are not getting the message’.
According to retail data group SPINS, this shift in mood is already being reflected in overall US meat substitute sales figures. In the four weeks to October 3rd, SPINS reported a fall of 1.8% from a year earlier, taking total declines for 2021 to 0.6%.
While such losses are for now only marginal, with the US alone accounting for 40% of McDonald’s overall 2020 sales, it is clear that the survival of the McPlant rests heavily with the improvement of these figures.