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.