Lately it seems that every restaurant chain is scrambling to add some type of vegan meat to their menu. And these new products are so excellent that they appeal to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Is this good news for vegans, or are we all going to suddenly keel over and die now that we can eat fast food just like the rest of America? Detractors, including some plant-based diet advocates, are quick to point out the processed nature of the new burgers. They say people are being led astray if they believe that these are healthy alternatives. Some even suggest that the health of vegans is suffering because of all the new vegan products on the market.
But, it’s not like there have never been vegans with heart disease and cancer before veggie burgers came along. Nor is the availability of processed vegan foods some new phenomenon. Oreos have been vegan for 25 years. Potato chips have been vegan since forever. When I worked for PCRM back in 1990, we cooked up Boca Burgers (made from soy protein isolate) in an electric frying pan in the office on a regular basis. Vegans looking for treats haven’t needed to wait until Impossible Foods teamed up with Burger King to find them.
It’s true that these foods are easier to find now. It’s also easier to find vegan foods made from unprocessed ingredients. When it comes to vegan foods, we have a pretty extensive range of choices these days. And while a steady diet of highly processed foods isn’t the best choice for health, it doesn’t mean that you need to eat only whole plant foods if you want to be healthy. That’s a perspective that plays to fears around food choices. It burdens people with undue worry about whether every single bite of food they take will protect or harm their health. Eating is not quite that precarious. If you are consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables and fiber plus foods that provide healthy fats, enjoying a fast food veggie burger once or twice a month is not going to make or break your health.
Some vegans have raised questions about whether the Impossible Burger is truly vegan. (I’m not going to address that because there is nothing I could add to the already excellent articles on the topic from Better Eating International and Lifelong Vegan.) For others, the decision about whether to eat a fast food burger is less about the burger and more about the practice of supporting these restaurants. But it’s important to consider that for some people, these eateries are a helpful, albeit imperfect, option.
For whatever reason – physical limitations, cognitive limitations, lack of facilities – not everyone is able to cook all their meals at home from scratch. Sunaura Taylor, author of Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation says that despite problematic issues associated with the fast food industry, “a radical change in our food system must not shame those who are on the front lines of food inequity.” Inexpensive and accessible food is important for people with limited money and who live in food deserts, and this includes many disabled people.
Ability and access aside, some people simply don’t have the time or energy to cook. Yes, it can feel “soothing” to meditatively stir a pot of soup crafted from homemade stock that you’ve prepared from carefully saved and cleaned vegetable scraps. But maybe not for a single parent who also works two jobs outside of the home and just needs to get dinner on the table without taking time to feel all Zen about it. Likewise, chopping vegetables is not relaxing and calming for someone who lives with chronic pain. Sometimes cooking is a difficult chore. Sometimes it’s just one more task on a too long to do list.
Also, some people don’t like to cook –which incidentally is not a moral failing. People have different needs, priorities, resources and abilities. The idea that everyone should choose only healthy foods, only home-cooked foods, and only whole foods, comes from a place of privilege. To be sure, veganism itself is a privileged choice. Not everyone in the world has the option of choosing what they will and won’t eat. Bringing veggie burgers to fast food restaurants isn’t the answer to that complex issue. But it does make a difference for some people. Everyone deserves to have vegan food available to them, regardless of their priorities, their food habits, or their resources.
And no less important, meat-eaters are far more likely to consider the ethics of veganism when they have access to delicious vegan food. For anyone who eats at fast food restaurants, it simply cannot be a bad thing for them to have the option of trying a tasty, appealing vegan burger.
These things may help some vegetarians/vegans….but I don’t see many “meat eaters” buying them beyond curiosity purchases. They cost significantly more than the regular version, aren’t available in many options and don’t taste as good.
Also since they are ultra-processed foods the “meat eaters” that are health conscious are likely to continue ordering the lean meat options (chicken sandwich, etc).
Tyler, with a tiny percentage of the population being vegan, who do you think is buying all these burgers? These companies are not even focused on the vegan market. They are trying to get meat eaters to buy their product. There’s no way Beyond’s stock would have shot up immediately the way it did upon their going public had only the vegans/vegetarians and the curious been interested.
The stock price of Beyond has nothing to do with the number of people that are eating Beyond’s products. Beyond has only sold around 25 million beyond burgers where as there are far more vegetarians than that worldwide.
In any case, just because a business is trying to do something doesn’t mean they will succeed. My point is that Beyond’s marketing may get some “meat eaters” to make a curiosity purchases but there is going to be little motivation for continued purchases. The products are significantly more expensive and usually don’t taste as good.
Beyond is driven by hype right now. They have a lot of money from investors and they’ve spent massively on marketing. Hampton creek did the same thing a few years ago with “Just Mayo” but today many retailers have stopped selling it or its on the bottom shelve. As with the beyond burger, there was no motivation for non-vegans to buy the product. It was more extensive, just as unhealthy as regular mayo and had no taste advantage.
From the news reports, most of the Impossible Burger customers are non-vegetarian. Whether those purchases are displacing meat burgers is a more important metric. We may get an indication when we see figures for per capita meat consumption and per capita meat consumption as a percentage of overall consumption.
I think that the increasing ubiquitousness of products such as the IB helps normalize the concept of plant-based main courses. As does the strategy of putting these products where meat consumers already are.
The price point hopefully will come down as sales go up. Most people don’t actually want to hurt animals, but they’re reluctant to change comfortable habits or go against the grain. I think these products help lower those barriers.
Although there is some hype surrounding the IB and BB, that’s not entirely a bad thing. Marketing is a key part of transforming people’s attitudes, and all the animal products against which the plant-based options are competing are propelled by tons of hype.
People do seem to like the product, though, so that’s a purchasing basis that goes beyond hype.
I’m actually more interested in plant-based chicken products that make as much of a splash as the IB/BB. Reportedly, both KFC and Chick Filet are working on plant-based options. Since we’ve had plant-based chicken patties and nuggets that fool meat-eaters for 15 years, the technology is not a hurdle. I think it comes down to how much the companies want to promote it and invest in it. But best case, these market share dominators both promote it heavily, which could dramatically shift society’s attitudes about plant-based main courses. Ultimately, it’s cheaper and more economically sustainable for these companies to rely more on plants than animals, so it’s probably a matter of how much, not if, this trend accelerates.
When I traveled earlier this year, I specifically researched restaurants along my route that had vegan options. I had my own food with me and wasn’t in danger of going hungry, but just in case I needed to stop somewhere I had that option. And I was grateful for that.
For a group of people that is supposedly committed to compassion for all living creatures, we tend to have a surprising lack of empathy towards one another. I am sure glad that you pointed out that there are people who have constraints: work schedules, money, physical challenges and those that aren’t entirely independent. Many people don’t have access to fresh and safe water right here in California where I live, let alone fresh produce. And while a steady diet of fast food probably isn’t a good idea long term, there is nothing harmful about continued compassion and understanding towards all creatures. So, keep the vegan options coming and keep up spreading the positive messages and benefits of a plant based diet.
Thank you for a good post.
I loved everything about this post! I applaud any restaurant that gives vegan options. Thank you for your eye-opening article😊
This is a kind, sensitive essay. You covered a lot of issues with regard to vegan meal preparation with compassion. A little trick to save time and energy, that I have learned, is to make a very large batch of multi colored dry beans. which I cook over a period of time, and add then in the vegetables such as onion, garlic, green bell pepper, mushrooms and an organic tomato sauce, add in spices and then freeze into small batches so that if I’m tired all I have to do is bake a potato and heat up one of the packages of my homemade bean casserole and pour it on top. I have pretty bad arthritis in one knee and chopping and standing is really hard, but if I make one big batch I can use it over a long period of time. (I am a senior citizen vegan “for the animals “.)
Since my blog has been based on this question for 12 years, I, of course, have my own answer.
Yes, I think that having accessible vegan food at traditionally non-vegan restaurants is VERY IMPORTANT.
1) Just because the Impossible Burger is available at some Burger Kings (or Beyond Meat Tacos at Del Taco), doesn’t mean you have to rush out and start eating there. But now you know the option is there, if you’re in a car full of non-vegan friends and they want to stop at Carl’s Jr., you don’t have to be the odd-man-out, not only getting hungrier by the minute, but also having to field all kinds of questions about why you’re vegan and tolerating the expected “mmmm bacon” taunts.
2) When non-vegans see vegan food in their own comfortable environment, they are more likely to try it. Even if vegan burgers are not necessarily “healthier” than the burgers they are replacing, the MYTH that vegan food is automatically healthier may actually work to our advantage and inspire someone to try a Beyond Burger thinking they’re making a better choice. They *are* making a better choice (for animals & the planet) and maybe they will make the choice more often once they see how easy (and delicious!) it is!
3) The more big chains & businesses (this includes grocery stores, too) that see a call for vegan options, the more options we will have. There are more people who would be likely to choose vegan chicken tenders by Purdue than by Gardein just because they are not being asked to try a “new” thing, but instead choosing a new thing by an “old” company. They are more likely to try a vegan Whopper than a Veggie Grill Burger. You get the idea.
4) There are some vegans out there who are not ashamed to admit they actually “miss” eating trashy fast food. Seriously, I miss Big Macs and Jamocha shakes. Just because I’m vegan, doesn’t mean I stopped jonesing for the drive thru on long road trips. I’m not a vegan nun, I’m a human who was brought up as a non-vegan and enjoyed Happy Meals as a kid. I’m looking forward to the days when I can stuff VEGAN fries into a VEGAN burger and eat myself silly!
So YES! These new vegan options are good for everyone: people & animals, vegans & non vegans, health conscious & the not so much.
An excellent article, Ginny. You, as always, are a welcome voice of reason and compassion in the world of veganism!
Excellent article 🙂
Thank you for posting this article, Ginny. Veganism is a privilege and shamefully many of us won’t admit it.
Is vegan junk food going to kill you? Well no, if eaten twice a month as Ginny suggested. But we all know that’s not what is going to happen. Vegans will eat their own junk food daily just as many American do now with their diets What’s the point of saving the animals if we’re killing our own children with junk food vegan or otherwise. Where’s the compassion in that? What we need to be doing is rallying against junk food makers and junk food eateries to make food healthy regardless of it’s vegan or not. When I look at a veggie burger at Burger King and see 980 mg of sodium which is exactly the same amount in a Whopper I want to gag. There is no reason for this level of that poison in any food
And now we have the Impossible Whopper from Burger King with 1,240 milligrams of sodium compared to 980 milligrams for a regular whopper. I hardly call this a win for vegans. And people are going to eat this garbage thinking somehow they’ll be healthier or that they’ll save the planet. Just goes to show that once corporations get their hand on a good idea they’ll ruin it for humanity.
Does fast food have to have all this sodium stuffed in it to taste good? The answer is no. The standard Five Guys burger has a total of 360 grams of sodium with 310 of those grams coming from the bun. Fast food can taste good and be healthy as the same time. There is no reason a vegan burger can’t be even more healthy than one with meat. Sodium is the deadliest food additive in processed and fast food. We need to be pushing for all food companies to be minimizing this poison. There is no excuse for one vegan burger to contain an entire days recommended sodium level.
When I went vegan my husband didn’t plan to. Then he discovered fake meats were not all half bad, and he decided he could do it. So in that sense, plant based “meats” serve a very important role by making it possible for people who don’t think they could ever give up their old favorites manage to convert. Since going vegan we haven’t been to a fast food burger place because they didn’t have a vegan option. Having options opens up where we can go, especially with a group that’s not vegan. It’s not convincing to people that you can eat well as a vegan, when you all go to a restaurant and there’s literally nothing on the menu that you can eat. They say “see, it’s too hard, I could never do that.” When you can go and just order something they see you have options and so do they.
It is a plus for vegans. More options but it isn’t healthy. Lots of vegan food made by meat eaters is unhealthy.
A well-reasoned and temperate approach! You mention some things I had not considered. I appreciate these products as occasional treats, especially when I’m traveling.
I would never have become vegetarian (now I’m vegan) if not for meat substitutes. And the only reason I decided to become 90 percent whole food vegan a year ago was because I would get to enjoy meat substitutes and more processed vegan food in the other 10 percent of the time. Progress over perfection. Also, why is everyone commenting here seeming to accept that meat substitutes are as healthy as meat? Vegan meat substitutes have no cholesterol, antibiotics, hormones, or cancer-causing IGF-1, which are all things meat contains. Stop playing into the meat industry’s hands and think critically. No wonder our movement has been so slow to grow.