How the Rise in Plant-Based Eating Is Transforming the Fast Food Landscape

Meat has long been the main event at most fast food restaurants. It's served in the form of burgers, nuggets, deli meat, and taco beef crumbles, all cheap and conventionally sourced, and consistently flavored and textured so that the burger you have at one restaurant in Milwaukee tastes exactly the same as the burger at another location in New York City or Santa Fe. Meanwhile, eaters who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet have long been resigned to decide between a measly few menu items, or have to ask for various substitutions while ordering.

But that was before the interest in plant-based eating reached never-before-seen levels. According to a report by the Plant-Based Food Association and the Good Food Institute, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods have increased by 11 percent year over year, making it $4.5 billion industry. The same report says the plant-based meat industry alone is worth over $800 million. Those are big dollar signs and in order to not miss out, fast food chains have been working hard to rethink their menus.

"We have seen an increasing demand from consumers for more plant-based foods," says Tara Lewis, a trend expert at Yelp. "One example is the increase in demand for plant-based burgers. Mentions of the Impossible Burger were nearly non-existent before 2016 but spiked in 2018 and were one of the biggest food searches last year," she says. While a few years ago, vegetarian fast food options were limited, Lewis says now they are abundant, especially when it comes to serving up the aforementioned Impossible Burger, which is now found at Burger King and White Castle. (Its biggest competitor, Beyond Meat, is served at Hardee's and Carl's Junior.)

But subbing out beef for an Impossible or Beyond patty isn't the only change fast food restaurants are making. Keep reading to see how many of the major players are making changes to cater to all types of eaters.

Finding foods that taste like meat (that actually aren't)

Burger-and-fry joints are the fast food chains that have had to get the most creative, with the least amount of plant-based entrees traditionally on the menu. While partnering with Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods has been a popular play for several chains, Wendy's has taken a different route by creating their own plant-based "beef" blend in-house. In February, the chain started offering a plant-based burger, The Plantiful, in Canada, made with pea-protein.

"We have been exploring plant-based protein options for some time and decided to formulate our very own," Lisa Deletroz, the senior director of marketing at Wendy's Canada says. She explains that this allows the company to keep a more mindful eye on what's in the alt-meat and ingredient sourcing. She adds that the plan is to expand it into the U.S. too, but the timeline is still TBD.

Testing a plant-based menu item in international markets first is a common move for many American fast food companies. Subway added a Beyond Meatball Marinara sub to their Canadian menus around three years ago; more recently the company started testing cauliflower fritter wraps in Baltimore and Seattle, which are made with white cauliflower and seasoned with onions and garlic. "Offering a variety of fresh veggies and toppings is not new for us, but as the preferences of our guests evolves so does our culinary exploration," Bruce Frazer, Subway's vice president of innovation says. "We’re excited to put the Subway twist on cauliflower and deliver a new flavorful, plant-forward option,” Frazer says.

Other plant-based changes happening outside the burger world include Pizza Hut launching a vegan stuffed cheese pizza in the UK and KFC testing vegan chicken sourced from, you guessed it, Beyond Meat. And you can bet the experimenting won't slow down any time soon.

Some fast food restaurants were already primed for a shift

While some fast food places have had to make big shifts in order to cater to the growing plant-based world, other chains have had the groundwork already in place and are now going bigger with many items they've already had. Pret-a-Manger, for example, has always filled its restaurants' refrigerated shelves with veggie-forward options. Now, it's making the options more visible to eaters with Veggies For All, a menu with all their plant-forward offerings in one place. A sampling of what's included: harissa carrot and hummus sandwich, Mediterranean eggplant wrap, and an avocado and pine nut wrap. Sarah Lee, the president of Pret US, says more items will continue to be added to the menu.

Lee also says that the attention Pret A Manger is giving to plant-based eating doesn't stop at its food offerings. The company recently announced that subbing dairy milk for a plant-based milk in coffee drinks will be free, a service virtually every other restaurant charges extra for (if they even offer it at all). "We see a lot of value in providing this option to consumers that outweigh any monetary loss," she says.

Perhaps the fast food restaurants that have it the easiest in terms of plant-based offerings are Mexican food chains, like Chipotle and Taco Bell, since many of the dishes are inherently vegetarian (or can more easily be adapted). For these restaurants, their biggest move has been to call out the plant-based entrees they already offer in bigger ways. Chipotle, for example, launched Plant-Powered Lifestyle Bowls last year (though none of the ingredients were new). Similarly, Taco Bell introduced a Veggie Mode offering in March pre-pandemic, which shows the 50 different plant-based items eaters can choose from on the self-serve kiosks. (This feature comes after rolling out an official vegetarian menu in September 2019.) "For us, vegetarian isn’t just a trend and it isn’t just for vegetarians," says Missy Schaaphok, the manager of global nutrition and sustainability for Taco Bell. "We are always innovating, and we’re currently making cravable options even more accessible without compromising on flavor."

What's clear is that changes both big and small are happening across the fast food landscape. Whether you're a meat eater or not, the menu expansions are something all eaters can benefit from. After all, burgers and nuggets aren't going anywhere, so if that's still what you want, it's yours for the taking. But if you want something that isn't conventionally farmed or even from an animal at all, that's becoming increasingly easier to find too. It's a win for all eaters.

For more tips on how to eat healthy while eating out, check out these dietitian-approved menu items for The Cheesecake Factory and Panda Express.

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