Got the munchies for some fast food but don’t eat meat? Or maybe you do eat meat but want to try a healthier option for a change. This is where, for many of us, vegan fast food comes in.
We’ve all seen the pics on Instagram that make us drool. Like this:
Vegan fast-food restaurants were a total babe when they started popping up in cities around the world. The fake meat revolution was in full swing and vegans everywhere could suddenly get their mouths around succulent burgers drenched in tomato ketchup, hot dogs sizzling with onions and dripping with mustard, and greasy tall, blonde fries that tasted as good as ever.
Meat eaters, on the other hand, could only stop and stare. “Not jealous at all.”
And — unlike meat eaters — vegans didn’t have to feel guilty about anything.
… Or did they?
While there are no animal cruelty issues at play here, there might be a health issue. Curious about the whole vegan fast food revolution myself, I decided to unwrap the truth to find out how good or bad vegan fast food actually is for us.
Why do we eat vegan fast food?
Vegan fast food is on the rise. Vegans eat it because it’s meatless, obvs. We know this. But curiously, according to a market intelligence firm that looked into the purchasing patterns of half a million American consumers, “health and curiosity are the primary drivers of plant-based meat purchases … but vegans and vegetarians are more likely to be motivated by environmental and ethical concerns.”
In other words, health isn’t necessarily the number one reason vegans eat fast food. Moreover, according to a recent report, only 5% of customers who order fake meat fast food are actually vegan or vegetarian. The rest (all 95% of ‘em) are ‘flexitarian,’ which is to say they eat meat often, but also want to do their bit for the environment when they can.
These guys and girls might be eating a one-off vegan burger for health reasons, but they may also be doing it for the novelty factor, for the environment, or because their conscience pricks them now and again about animal welfare.
The novelty factor is an interesting one, with analysts keen to stress that the recent ‘craze’ for vegan fast food might soon die down once the initial novelty and excitement wears off.
Numerator did also note, however, that burger lovers who order fake meat “love the taste and the perceived healthiness. Most significantly, three out of four triers believe plant-based meat alternatives are healthier than real meat.” This suggests that health is a reason more and more of us are turning to vegan fast food options… but are we getting the health kick we’re looking for?
So, vegan fast food is meatless… But is it healthy?
On the face of it, plant-based fast food options should be healthier than meat options, simply because they’re meat-free. However, many of them are still rich in the bad boys of the fast food world — salt, carbs and lashings of fat. And you know, additives.
KFC recently rolled out a brand new meatless sandwich called The Imposter Burger in the UK. It sounds heavenly, it’s definitely not chicken, but — as cardiologist Dr. Andrew Freeman points out — “plant-based ‘meats’ are a step in the right direction, but they really are too high in fat and processed to be healthy on a regular basis.”
This is the case where The Imposter Burger and many others like it are concerned. In fact, any nutritional differences between a fatty meat burger and a meatless burger are minimal. While a meatless burger contains zero meat, it contains almost just as much fat, protein, and carbs, and it also has a similar caloric profile.
The similarities aren’t limited to the burgers either. Take Chipotle’s veggie burrito bowl. It looks good, tastes good and is made up of plant-based ingredients. If you add guacamole, however, calories are ramped up to 600, while the bowl also contains 925mg of sodium and 29.5g of fat. It tips the scales more than Shake Shack’s small hamburger, which delivers just 327 calories.
Does it depend what you order?
Yes and no.
Everyone who has a meat eater in their life knows that meat eaters love cheese at fast food restaurants. A few years ago, Burger King even added the option of cheese to their beloved Chicken Royale burger. Take a meat eater into a fast food joint, and they’ll probably seek out a bit of ‘plastic’ cheese — which isn’t good at all. Vegans, on the other hand, will of course avoid cheese.
Those who opt for vegan dishes can have it better, but how much better depends on exactly what you order. Moreover, you have to look at the whole meal as opposed to each ingredient. Plant-based foods are lower in saturated fat than meat. Avocado, meanwhile, (a key ingredient in guacamole) might add more fat to your veggie burrito bowl, but avocado is, of course, rich in healthy fats.
But there are things you have to watch out for. Take beans, for example. Beans can reduce your saturated fat fix for the day — unless they’re soaked in cream-based curry. And if you go for the burger option — meat or meatless — you’re not really going to notice much of a difference when it comes to health.
A vegan burger might be lighter than a meat burger, and it might leave you still feeling hungry once it’s gone down, but it probably won’t improve your health.
Do calories matter?
A vegan fast food option might have less calories than a meat option, but this doesn’t always make it the healthier choice. A person might reduce the amount of energy entering their system for the day by eating less calories, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve improved their nutritional intake.
For example, I could swap a hefty Double Whopper burger for a vegan burger and thereby reduce my caloric intake. But because both burgers — meat and meatless — are rich in carbs and bad fats, my health will hardly change.
Do we really care if vegan fast food is healthy?
It would seem we don’t.
Indeed, many people are now becoming vegan not for health reasons but because of animal welfare. Moreover, veganism has become more affordable to the masses now that the affordable vegan fast food revolution is in full swing, and consumers “want to eat dirty, too.”
It seems that, at the end of the day, if a person loves dirty fast food and craves it, they don’t particularly care if it’s healthy or not. If it tastes good, if it satisfies their cravings, life is sweet. They’re gonna eat it and if it’s meat-free, the bonus is that they’re doing their bit for the environment and the animals.
Meat or meatless, we just want our greasy good dammit.