As carbon-friendly food options gain in popularity, plant-based alternatives proliferate fast food chains. However, are these new choices truly healthier than their animal meat counterparts?
This article is free of personal opinion and bias, and is based solely on medical science and accredited media reports. No medical advice is offered herein on the part of the author, other than to speak to a doctor if you are considering any potential change in diet. All listed theories and facts within this article are fully-attributed to several medical experts and media outlets, including those quoted for The Verge, CNBC, McDonalds.com, inMarket, Business Insider, WGN-TV, and Courier Journal.
The vegan foods industry has long held fascination for Americans in search of more sustainable food product. In disclosure, I myself have been exclusively consuming plant-based foods for over 12 years, though I do not believe the diet — or lifestyle, more accurately — should be undertaken without first consulting a doctor. As any targeted internet search will bear, controversies over such a diet arise when alleged vegan foods are heavily-processed or prepared on devices used to prepare animal-based product. A further debate ensues when considering pre-existing medical conditions on the part of a consumer.
Regardless, this piece is not solely about estimated health benefits, or lack thereof, of a plant-based diet. It is instead an overview of popular U.S. fast food chains and their present plant-based offerings.
Plant-Based Fast Food Options and Health
Nearly each of the top dozen U.S. fast food chains presently carry — or plan on carrying — plant-based options. Many of them offer replacements for existing offerings with either of the two largest meat-replacement companies: Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods.
- McDonald’s - The most venerable of all fast food chains is also perhaps the most surprising in that a true vegan option has yet to debut on domestic shores. According to both The Verge and CNBC, the McPlant — McDonald’s Beyond Meat variant of the Big Mac, in addition to other related products — is scheduled to roll out in eight U.S. test cities this year after debuting in various international territories.
From The Verge: This comes about a year after McDonald’s ended its P.L.T. pilot, another Beyond Meat branded burger. It’s still unclear what the differences are between the McPlant and the P.L.T., other than the name. A post on McDonald’s website says that the McPlant patty will contain peas, rice, and potatoes and will also be topped with tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pickles, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, and American cheese. That sounds a lot like the P.L.T., but we won’t really know until the start of its test on November 3rd. It’s also important to note that the McPlant will be cooked on the same grill as beef burgers, so it might not be classified as purely vegan or vegetarian.
For dedicated vegans, the last matter may be an authentic issue, but the less devout will have the option, as always, to remove the American cheese.
- Burger King - CNBC reported the Impossible Whopper and Impossible Whopper, Jr. launched in a nationwide test run in August of 2019, following a successful test roll-out in St. Louis. The article states: The nation’s second-largest burger chain began testing the plant-based burger from Impossible Foods at locations in St. Louis in April. Those Burger King locations saw traffic outperform national averages by 18.5% that month, according to a report from inMarket.
In October of 2021, Business Insider reported on the success of the endeavor, in an article entitled “Burger King Doubles Down With Impossible Nuggets After Impossible Whopper Success.” From the article: Parent company Restaurant Brands International CEO Joe Cil said that the Impossible Whopper was not a short-term offering, but something that could be on menus for a long time. It proved so successful that same-store sales jumped 6% in the quarter following the launch, attracting both New and returning customers. Orders including plant-based burgers spent about $3 more overall, Cowen found.
Most of the below fast food companies have also tested their plant-based options beforehand, only to meet with surprising success and permanent additions to their menus.
- Wendy’s - Not using a meat alternative, they have instead been testing a black bean patty. See WGN-TV story on Wendy’s new test here.
- KFC - Plant-based Beyond Chicken nuggets and patties (the latter not yet in all locations).
- Subway - Now offers Beyond products, as well as vegetable burgers, in addition to vegetable-only sandwiches and salads.
- Chipotle - Vegan chorizo is a new menu item, and other vegan products are available.
- Arby’s - Chopped side salad is their only vegan offering for now.
- Taco Bell - Various black bean vegan items, no meat replacement. Has been working with Beyond Meat for a collaboration, but no partnership item is as yet offered.
- Chick-fil-A - No current offerings, but several of their menu items contain no meat and dairy. Ask a cashier or manager, or visit chick-fil-a.com for those items.
- Wienerschnitzel - Hotdogs made of pea-based protein.
- Del Taco - Beyond Meat can be substituted for other meat products.
- El Pollo Loco - Has offered Beyond Chicken products.
Regardless of if the chains above presently serve substitute meat options, Courier Journal answers the question posed in the subtitle of this article, in their story entitled “Plant-Based Meat Alternatives, Like New Nuggets From KFC, Sound Healthier. But Are They?”
The article contains an explanation to their title that should encourage all potential consumers, vegan or otherwise, to check ingredients of all options before purchasing: When looking for a vegetarian or vegan meat alternative, it's a good idea to understand what you are putting into your body. Just because something is plant-based does not mean it's healthier, Kyser cautioned. Salt is often used to improve flavor and increase the shelf life of many commercial food products. That means you should keep an eye on the amount of sodium, saturated fats and preservatives when consuming meat alternatives. Also, plant-based options typically contain less protein than animal products.
If you are looking for salads and related non-meat vegan items, many of the above chains offer such items, which are listed on the companies’ websites.
The vegan fast food offerings at your favorite local fast food establishments have been generally well-received and resultantly reported as expanding well into the future.
In addition to existing generation-spanning chains, newer outlets such as Flower Burger and Veggie Grill maintain dedicated vegan-based fast food chains of their own. Based on your dietary needs and any medical conditions you may have, you would be well-encouraged to source ingredients, and also get a doctor’s medical opinion to determine if a partial or complete plant-based change of diet is right for you.
If so, you may also ask, which vegan foods are best for my purposes?
I hope the plant-based fans among you have found this article informative.
Thank you for reading.