There may not be any pork involved, but some people are bellying up to a different kind of bacon.

At a time when more plant-based products are encroaching into traditional animal protein segments, even one of the most beloved foodstuffs in the meat world is getting a doppelganger. Plant-based bacon is one of the latest “alt-meat” products to shake up retail meat cases and foodservice menus, following the successful introduction of plant-based burgers and sausages that mimic the real deal.

Although the plant-based market overall is comparatively small, it’s getting so much attention because of rapid growth. According to the Power of Meat 2020 report prepared by 210 Analytics and published by the FMI Foundation for Meat & Poultry Research & Education, total sales of plant-based meat alternatives grew 11.8% in the past year to reach $760 million in retail sales. The Power of Meat 2020 found that although some growth is being driven by vegetarians, vegans and others who totally eschew meat, much of the interest comes from the novelty factor: flexitarians are high-frequency users of plant-based meats, and 29% of consumers just want to try something different.

Meat-free bacon definitely falls into the category of something different.

“We’re seeing market segments in premium categories that you would have never guessed before,” said Bill Bishop, principal at consulting firm Brick Meets Click, Barrington, Ill.

Plant-based bacon is indeed taking hold within the hot plant-based sector, say some industry experts.

“I think plant-based bacon, like all other plant-based meats, is going to see very fast growth in the next few years,” said Cara Rasch, an analyst for Packaged Facts. “More companies are developing plant-based bacon and other meat alternatives than ever before.”

Burt Flickinger, managing director at Strategic Resource Group in New York City, also sees these products on an upward trajectory.

“It’s a plant-based protein that virtually eliminates the fat content, which is a main concern with consumers who love the taste profile of bacon but want to limit their bacon intake,” he said.

Interest among flexitarians may prove to be a differentiating factor for so-called pig-free bacon, Flickinger added.

“It will pull in vegetarians and vegans who weren’t eating any bacon before as well as mainstream consumers who switch back and forth,” he said.

Rasch agreed there are many simultaneous factors propelling growth of this particular alternative protein.

“Many consumers are interested in switching to plant-based meats or are at least open to trying them or using them along with animal products for a few main reasons,” she said. “They think that products that come from plants are healthier. People are thinking more about where their food comes from and what impact it has on the world. And concerns about climate change are leading consumers to question whether meat is part of a sustainable diet.”

Hog(less) wild

Several brands are tapping into those drivers with their plant-based bacon products. The MorningStar Farms brand from Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co., for example, offers veggie bacon strips with more than one-third less fat than cooked pork bacon. Chicago-based Upton’s has a 100% vegan bacon made with seitan, while the Tofurky brand, from Hood River, Ore., has a smoky maple bacon made from tempeh. The Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat brand, which was one of the first meatless burger lines launched, announced late last year the addition of a plant-based bacon to its portfolio.

Sweet Earth Enlightened Foods, Moss Landing, Calif., has done well with its line of Benevolent Bacon.

“It’s such a versatile product,” said Ryan Riddle, senior product development specialist, vegetarian meal solutions for Nestlé/Sweet Earth. “You can use it as a delicious ingredient in breakfast burritos, BLTs, soups, burgers, pastas and many more dishes. And of course, people like it because it’s a tasty, no-compromise option when you’re looking to incorporate more plant-based meats into your diet.”

Like regular bacon, taste is a key deciding factor for meatless bacon.

“When people think about bacon, they focus on the depth of flavor and delicious texture it brings to a dish,” Riddle said. “Bacon – whether plant-based or pork – is a great source of protein on its own, and ours has a great smoky flavor that can turn something as simple as eggs and toast or a burger into a more indulgent dish.”

Flickinger said that once consumers get used to the idea and taste of plant-based bacon, it will be an option across more channels.

“You’ll see it in both food stores and also institutionally through fast food chains, especially chains that offer things like bacon cheeseburgers and bacon egg and cheese wraps,” he added.

All this said, while plant-based bacons are seen by many as the entertaining new kid on the block, there may be some challenges in the long term for these items.

“Bacon in particular is known for its savory qualities, and consumers find bacon very indulgent,” Rasch said. “Other plant-based meat products tend to play up the health benefits of plant proteins, but plant-based bacon may need a different approach. I think the concept of plant-based bacon may be harder for consumers to latch onto than plant-based burgers because of how bacon is loved for its rich flavors and greasiness.”

On the other side, there are those who just love real bacon for real bacon.

“At the end of the day, animal proteins are not substitutable for a lot of people,” Bishop said.