Can plant-based burger startups reframe the masculinity of meat?

Meat substitute manufacturers such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are grappling with intense social conditioning as they relay to consumers that protein doesn’t need to come from a cow.

Can plant-based burger startups reframe the masculinity of meat?
[Source Photos: Impossible Foods, Frantysek/iStock, eugenesergeev/iStock]

In a Bud Light ad from 2013, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan is seen tailgating with his small barbecue grill. Amid a backdrop of festive jersey-clad men, our protagonist wears a look of utter confusion and disappointment as he holds a box of something completely foreign: quinoa veggie burgers.


“Ugh,” utters his inner monologue, “why did she pack these things?”

The “she,” we’re led to presume, is a girlfriend, wife, mother, or some other hopelessly clueless woman in his life who sends a grain patty to a beefy, masculine football event. “I ate one by accident last time,” he continues, investigating the patty like a dead body.

None of this is surprising: Veggie burgers and tofu dogs have long been the subject of societal ridicule. Beef, meanwhile, is a sign of masculinity. Consumers are trained to think that eating meat is tightly interwoven with strength, confidence, and virility.

“This is probably one of the most difficult disruptions that you’ll see in [the food] industry because consumption of animal protein is so intimate with our own evolution and who we are as a species,” says Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat.

Companies like Beyond Meat and their competitor Impossible Burger–which both recently launched new versions of their plant-based patties that are designed to mimic meat–hope to redefine how we envision traditionally animal-based foods and the role it plays in our lives. It certainly won’t be easy: They’re fighting against centuries of ingrained cultural and social symbolism, not to mention the mythology of the all-holy hamburger.


A raw deal?

The market for plant-based foods has grown at a dizzying pace. In the last year, retails sales jumped by more than 20% to total $3.7 billion, driven by plant-based meat, reports the Good Food Institute. Impossible Foods produces 500,000 pounds of its Impossible Burgers per month to serve more than 5,000 restaurants. Competitor Beyond Meat, meanwhile, saw sales of its meat-free burgers, chicken strips, and sausage increase by 70%. The company, which tripled its production capacity in 2018, struggled to keep its products stocked on grocery store shelves.

Still, the faux meat market is minuscule compared to the trillion-dollar meat industry, itself the largest segment of U.S. agriculture. That’s partially due to a perception that the best protein comes from animals. A U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that men and teenage boys consumed the highest amount of meat and poultry, in comparison to other demographics.

Not only that, many eat double the amount necessary: U.S. government data found that the average man between the ages of 30 to 39 consumed an average of 110 grams of protein, and nearly all of that comes from meat–which is a major dietary risk factor for coronary heart disease, among other health conditions.

As Carla Seipp, a writer for trend forecasting firm The Future Laboratory writes in a recent column, its masculine associations with meat that date back to caveman times are proving difficult to overcome: “With almost half (46%) of Americans believing that plant-based protein sources are healthier than their animal-based counterpart, according to Mintel, could it be that it’s not a lack of demand or interest among men, so much as shame that has so far stagnated their interest in plant-based proteins?”

She points to a long history of positioning: Protein shakes and supplements, for example, market to men for weight gain and muscle. Numerous aspects in society–from advertising to popular TV characters–reinforce an exaggerated narrative of how meat consumption intersects with masculinity. Entertainment tropes see men ordering a steak, while women, a salad.


A key step in human evolution came from the protein boost our ancestors got from learning how to hunt, but for millennia, meat was a treat not consumed two to three times a day. Our current fixation with meat was molded in the 1950s, with the introduction of the concept of four basic food groups, explains Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, making meat seem like the only available source of protein. Around the world, there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian sources of protein, like falafel in the Middle East or lentil patties in South India. In modern America, the hamburger has become our preferred delivery system of single-portion protein.

“The hamburger, in a sense, was an imitation of a complete protein-from-plant patty,” says Adams.

The argument to switch to a plant-based alternative is a strong one: Apart from health concerns, avoiding meat can dramatically reduce one’s environmental footprint. But often, people fear they cannot give up cherished cultural food items.

“What made it your hamburger and why do you think you can’t give it up?” asks Adams. “The rigidity around eating that we’ve ended up with is sort of remarkable.”


It’s not solely about taste, says Adams, since Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger mimics hamburgers quite well. Plant-based burger companies are up against something far stronger: the mythology about what a burger accomplishes.

“People are perfectly happy eating vegan food as long as they don’t know that’s what they’re doing,” says Adams. “They only get anxious when they realize that they haven’t eaten something they’ve come to believe they need.”

Breaking the beef cycle

Advertising continues to be filled with such delicate representations of male anxiety. From Taco Bell to Dodge, men are told they need to eat enough meat to be “manly” or strong enough. A classic of the genre is the 2006 Hummer ad that showed a young man buying tofu at a cash register. Directly behind him in line is another man buying an abundance of ribs, steaks, and barbecue charcoal. Embarrassed by by his weak purchase decision, the newly minted tofu owner drives straight to a Hummer dealer. The tagline is: “Restore the balance.”

“There’s such an over-the-top emphasis,” says Adams. “As if you eat three times the meat, you’re going to be able to do three times [the physical exertion] . . . or play basketball against men three times your size.”

Beyond Meat tackles this assumption by employing a number of professional athletes to serve as vegan spokesman. For several years, the brand demonstrated that well-known athletes from the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and World Surf League can adopt a lean, clean, plant-based diet and still perform at capacity.


“We’ve tried to run straight at the question: Is a plant-based meat sufficient for humans to be vital and robust?” says Brown. “Our marketing speaks very much to the ability for the highest-performing people in our society to perform not just as good, but better as result of the consumption of plant based meat–particularly, our plant-based meat.”

Instead of succumbing to masculine tropes, Beyond Meat grapples with the heart of the matter. It did this through the familiar trajectory athletes instead of dieticians in lab coats. The point was to inspire people, not lecture them. “We don’t want to preach to people,” says Brown.

(Beyond Meat isn’t the only company to take up sports affiliations. Don Lee Farms, which sold more than 1 million plant-based burgers at Costco, sponsors NFL events.)

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Beyond Meat also goes through indirect routes to reach consumers. Brown recalls women approaching him at grocery store sampling activations a few years back. They said they needed help convincing their husbands to adopt plant-based protein because doctors directed them to reduce red meat consumption. He realized there was an opportunity in converting the decision makers.


“[Men] are the ones that are most likely to object at the dinner table,” says Brown, “so we tackle that issue, then we arm mom–who continues to be the CEO of the household–with the information and inspiration she needs.”

Inspiration is chief among Beyond Meat’s strategies. The company looks to brands like Tesla, which found a sexy and exciting solution to an environmental issue, then marketed it as a cool, aspirational product. Just as a Tesla isn’t sacrificing design, Beyond Meat doesn’t want to sacrifice taste.

“Our obligation is to make this [food transition] seamless for the consumer so they can enjoy the products and continue to do what they love,” says Brown.

Likewise, Impossible Foods, manufacturer of the Impossible Burger, tries to deliver as close as possible what a consumer loves about meat from a cow, and that includes protein: Their patties possess the same bioavailable protein, iron, and fat content of 80/20 ground beef. In its mission, the company specifically partnered with top carnivore chefs who would appeal to hardcore meat eaters: Momofuku’s David Chang, offal enthusiast Chris Cosentino, and self-described “meat-centric” Iron Chef star Michael Symon (who boasts a tattoo of a pig)

Consumers were willing to trust celebrity chefs who had once, like Chang, swore off meat substitutes.


“It was the best endorsement out there–that the best chefs working with beef are choosing our product to serve,” says Jessica Appelgren, VP of communications at Impossible Foods.

Today, Impossible Food’s customers skew male (57%); 18- to 34-year-olds are its largest demographic.

The timing is right for these companies to better resonate with wider audiences. Millennials are now the largest percentage of self-identified vegetarians than any other generation (although they still constitute a tiny percentage of consumers). Celebrities also help publicize the cause: Beyoncé, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Liam Hemsworth are just a few of the stars who have spoken about their plant-based diets. (A recent study found that a majority of men found a plant-based diet more filling.)

Seipp believes that even the fact that companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have male CEOs and founders has an influence. “They’re breaking down these barriers,” she tells Fast Company.


It’s not there just yet, but it’s getting close. Till then, these burger brands entice men where they can be found–in sports, at popular burger joints, and in the BBQ meat section at stores. In fact, Beyond Meat is now found at Carl’s Jr., the fast food chain that was once synonymous with sexist, breast-focused ads. (The brand has since dropped these campaigns.)

In perhaps what might be the biggest marker that the tide is shifting, Beyond Meat finds itself fielding requests from a most unlikely group: bikini models. Brown says that since the Carl Jr.’s collaboration announcement, a number of high-profile models reached out with the same request: “Hey, can you shoot one of those [sexy burger] ads with me?”