Is Fast Food Healthier When It’s Plant-Based?
Alternatives to animal products aren't necessarily better for you
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In November, McDonald’s announced plans to roll out plant-based versions of its signature items, including a burger, chicken sandwich, and breakfast sandwich made with plant-based sausage. The new menu, called the McPlant, is hardly a surprise.
McDonald’s is a latecomer to the plant-based fast-food game: White Castle debuted the Impossible Slider in April 2018. Shortly after, Del Taco and Burger King added Beyond and Impossible products to their menus, respectively. Then Dunkin’ released a breakfast sandwich made with plant-based sausage, and KFC and Jack in the Box began rolling out meatless chicken in select markets. These options, part of a massive innovation boom in alternative meat, are engineered to be extremely similar to the meats they mimic. They’re different from old-school veggie burgers, which were just plant proteins like beans or soy in the shape of a small patty. These new products are still made from a mishmash of plant proteins, but they look, smell, cook, and taste like the real deal.
As a nutrition journalist, I find the whole trend a little baffling. The number of Americans who follow a vegetarian diet hasn’t changed much in recent decades. In fact, adult vegetarians in the U.S. dropped from 6 percent of the population to 5 percent between 1999 and 2019, according to a Gallup poll. And while many vegetarians are OK eating food cooked with the same griddles and deep fryers as meat, those who aren’t have voiced concern over the cross contamination that happens at certain fast-food joints. (Many chains include a disclaimer on their website as well as their menu stating that this is the case, so it’s worth looking into or asking a staff member about if this is a deal breaker for you.) Still, vegan and vegetarian options are trending like never before, likely because more customers are interested in eating sustainably.
The number of American adults concerned about climate change is growing dramatically, up from 44 percent in 2009 to 60 percent in 2020, according to the Pew Research Center. And 55 percent of respondents in a 2020 Yale University survey reported that they are willing to eat less meat as a way to combat it. If you’re a major fast-food company, that’s a trend worth capitalizing on.
Is This Fast Food Healthier?
The term “plant-based” often gets an automatic health halo: it reads as synonymous with “good for you,” no matter the context. And when done right, it can be. A 2016 review found that plant-based diets were linked to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, because they’re generally low in saturated fat, high in fiber, and nutrient dense. But that’s an entire diet they’re talking about, not a single ingredient or meal. And these new plant-based meats are popular because they are engineered to be as close to the real deal as possible—not just in taste and texture but nutritionally, too.
Both Beyond and Impossible burgers contain 20 grams of protein per four ounces, while the same amount of 85 percent lean ground beef has 21 grams. The plant-based protein comes from a variety of sources—rice, pea, and mung bean protein in Beyond beef; soy and potato protein in Impossible beef. Since protein is important for both performance and general health, the fact that you can get just as much of it from plant-based beef as regular beef is a good thing.
But there are downsides. Impossible beef contains the same amount of saturated fat as 85 percent lean ground beef: eight grams per four ounces. Beyond recently lowered its saturated fat content, but a serving still contains five grams. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your total calorie intake, or about 22 grams per day for someone who eats around 2,000 calories. Too much saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, regardless of whether it comes from plants or animals.
Destini Moody, a dietitian and athletic trainer based in San Francisco, points out that plant-based meat also tends to be higher in sodium than regular meat. The Impossible Whopper has about 10 percent more sodium than its beef counterpart. Even before cooking or seasoning, beef from both Beyond and Impossible has more than 350 milligrams of sodium per four ounces, compared to 75 milligrams in 85 percent lean ground beef. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, since too much can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke. “I can’t say that plant-based burgers are a healthier choice than just getting a regular beef burger,” Moody says.
When it comes to plant-based chicken versus the real thing, Moody explains that it’s likely the same story, since both are breaded and fried. KFC doesn’t list the nutrition information for Beyond Fried Chicken on its website (which is a little odd, as the company lists it for everything else), but according to Prevention, one nugget has 60 calories, one and a half grams of saturated fat, and five grams of protein. It’s hard to compare that to its regular chicken, since KFC doesn’t have chicken nuggets. But one extra-crispy chicken tender (the closest thing on the menu to Beyond Fried Chicken) has 260 calories, two grams of saturated fat, and 19 grams of protein per serving. That means that, per calorie, the plant-based nuggets actually have less protein and more saturated fat than regular chicken tenders.
It’s not all bad news. If your main concern is planetary health, plant-based foods are the better choice. Yes, some of the research touting the sustainability of plant-based meat is funded by the same companies that make it, which might overestimate its positive impact. But experts agree that plant-based foods have a smaller environmental impact than animal products, processed or not.
A May 2020 article published in the journal Global Environmental Change looked at data from 140 countries and concluded that a vegan diet has a 70 percent smaller carbon footprint than a traditional diet. Animal products require a lot of resources: about 77 percent of the habitable land on earth is used to raise livestock or grow livestock feed, but those animals make up just 18 percent of the calories produced for human consumption. In order to sustainably feed the growing number of people on the planet, we have to adjust the way we eat.
Plant-based options at fast-food restaurants that actually taste good might help get more people on board with a planet-friendly diet. “Corporations are providing these offerings not only for vegans and vegetarians but for meat-eating customers who are interested in plant-based options as well,” says Taylor Wolfram, a Chicago-based dietitian who specializes in veganism. She points out that Burger King had another veggie burger on its menu for years, but it didn’t taste anything like beef and only existed on the menu so that there was a vegetarian option. “Now that there are beef-like alternatives, I think a lot more meat eaters are going for these options,” Wolfram says. She’s right—MarketWatch reported on a survey showing that 95 percent of people who bought these new plant-based burgers in 2019 were meat eaters.
Impossible Whoppers and McPlant sandwiches also make plant-based eating more accessible to those who rely on fast food for many of their meals, whether that’s due to convenience, price, or preference. On any given day, 36 percent of American adults eat fast food, according to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If even a fraction of those 85 million Americans went plant-based for their meal, it could have a significant environmental impact. While these new alternatives typically cost between one and two dollars more than their meat-based counterparts, Wolfram still thinks that they could have a broad enough appeal to create change. If that Impossible Whopper convinces a diehard carnivore to give plant-based options a chance, then that’s certainly something.
It’s Still Fast Food
If you eat fast food often and want to lessen your carbon footprint, plant-based menu items are a good choice. But if you only eat it occasionally, just go ahead and order what you’re craving. Whether they’re made from plants or animals, the menu items at your local McDonald’s aren’t terribly nutritious. And that’s OK. No single food will make or break your diet, and you don’t need to choose the healthiest option every time you eat. A good diet means you’re getting the nutrients your body needs, but it also means you’re eating what you want. Maybe that’s an Impossible Whopper, and maybe it’s a Big Mac.