CHICAGO – In the world of burgers, plant-based and animal proteins both have a place at consumers’ tables.

Quick-service restaurants (QSRs) reported 228 million servings of plant-based burgers in the year ending May, up 10 percent compared to 2018, according to Chicago-based The NPD Group. But beef burgers, by far, commanded the menu with 6.4 billion beef burgers ordered at QSRs, according to NPD’s CREST service.

“Plant-based burgers allow consumers to substitute without sacrifice. They get the ‘burger’ experience while assuaging their need for more protein and social concerns,” said Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. “With that said, US consumers have not given up on beef burgers but are willing to mix things up every now and them.”

That’s because more QSRs are offering plant-based burger options on menus. Vegetarians and vegans are playing a role in driving growth in the plant-based category, but they represent a single-digit percentage of the US population. The main drivers of plant-based burger consumption are the flexitarians — consumers who don’t want to stop eating meat, just reduce their consumption of it. NPD reported in its Health Aspirations and Behavioral Tracker that 18 percent of the overall adult population are trying to get more plant-based foods into their diets. And there are other factors in play.

“The popularity of plant-based foods is being fueled by consumers’ want to get more protein in their diets (60 percent of US adults want more protein in their diets), concerns for animal welfare and how meat products are brought to market, sustainability and what they perceive to be healthier nutrition,” NPD said.

It doesn’t hurt that plant-based options are more palatable today compared to products of the past, said Christine McCracken, animal protein analyst at Rabobank Agri-Finance, shared with attendees of the 2019 Animal Ag Alliance Stakeholders Summit in May. Another element in the mix is marketing.

“I think Beyond [Meat] and Impossible [Foods] both have done a fantastic job not just in product development,” McCracken said. “You might not like them but there is a group of consumers that do. They are marketing machines. They have got those products in every nook and cranny in America.”

So, it seems the plant-based burger makers have succeeded in their quest to expand into the diets of flexitarians — but only on a few dining occasions. Beef burger buyers purchased burgers an average of 18 times in the year ending April 2019, NPD said, however they bought plant-based burgers at QSRs only two times in the period.

“Another way to look at it is that 95 percent of plant-based buyers have made a beef burger purchase within the past year,” according to NPD’s receipt harvesting service, Checkout.