Can plant-based fast food burgers ever be more than a gimmick?

Keeping up with trends.
Keeping up with trends.
Image: REUTERS/Jim Vondruska
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Plant-based meat is surfacing on the menus of fast-food chains. The latest offering comes from McDonald’s, which plans to roll out its McPlant burger across 600 locations in the San Francisco and Dallas areas Feb. 14.

Co-created with Beyond Meat, the McPlant burger consists of a patty made from peas, rice, and potatoes that mimics the taste and texture of beef. Toppings include pickles, mayonnaise, and American cheese, with a cost roughly in line with similar sized burgers from McDonald’s.

Plant-based meat is growing in popularity for health and environmental reasons. Beef is high in calories and fat, and cattle ranching is a major producer of methane, a greenhouse gas. The global plant-based meat market is expected to reach $18.5 billion by 2028, according to a December report, while the global beef market was valued at around $300 billion in 2017, according to Research and Markets, a research firm.

McDonald’s, which has 14,000 US locations, is testing the burger at eight restaurants in the US and will roll out the McPlant in US regions on customer acceptance or interest for it, said Chris Kempczinski, McDonald’s CEO, on a conference call with investors and analysts in October. The McPlant is already available across all restaurants in the UK and Ireland.

McDonald’s is not the first fast-food chain to sell plant-based meat. Earlier this month, Chipotle announced a plant-based chorizo. Meanwhile, Kentucky Fried Chicken, in partnership with Beyond Meat, brought back the Beyond Fried Chicken nuggets. Two years ago, Burger King partnered with Impossible Foods to roll out the Impossible Whopper.

The decision to offer meatless burgers and nuggets comes as fast food chains fight to stay relevant for consumers with changing diets and priorities. Yet it’s not clear how much the health and environmental benefits of these products actually are.

Is a plant burger healthy at all?

Eating a single burger won’t determine an individual’s health, say nutrition experts. Rather, it’s about their lifestyle choices.

The McPlant has fewer calories than a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder with cheese, but not by much, according to nutrition experts. Despite the McPlant having lower total fat and saturated fat than their meat counterparts, it’s still high in total fat. If the goal is reducing cholesterol intake, choosing the plant-based burger over the traditional burger could make a small difference—but not much when it comes to losing weight, says Leah Groppo, a clinical dietician at Stanford.

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In general, plant-based burgers are healthier if they are made out of whole foods—meaning they have been refined as little as possible and are free from artificial substances, according to nutrition experts. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat has been criticized for using highly processed plant-based ingredients. In 2019, Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol said the plant-based meat companies’ products are too processed for the burrito chain, and goes against Chipotle’s principle of using ingredients made without artificial preservatives.

McDonald’s gives customers what they want, or does it?

McDonald’s is trying to figure out how to maintain growth when its products feel outdated to many young consumers, Kempczinski told the Wall Street Journal. While plant-based food could help grow McDonald’s customer base, just 5% of Americans say they are vegetarians, and even fewer are vegans, according to a 2018 Gallup survey.

For McDonald’s, the McPlant’s health profile is likely a secondary consideration after the marketing impact of having a new menu offering. “I doubt very much that they’re doing it for good health rather than selling new products,” says David Levitsky, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University.

“The problem is, the food industry makes a profit by selling you calories,” he says. “The healthiest thing [McDonald’s can do] is just tell people to eat less.”

Even healthier than choosing a plant-based burger is picking a salad, says Levitsky. McDonald’s added the leafy greens to menus across the US in 1987. But the healthy option did not drive sales. During the pandemic, the fast-food chain took salads off its menus to streamline the offerings.

The fast-food chains aren’t touting the health benefits of plant-based meat but they don’t have to—consumers will make that connection on their own. “I don’t think that companies are marketing these as healthy, but they’re marketing vegetarian and vegan, knowing that they have an aura of health,” says Filippa Juul, a faculty fellow at New York University whose work focuses on nutritional epidemiology. Juul recently led a study on the growth of ultra processed foods in American diets.

It’s similar to the way some granola bars have a perception of being healthy when they’re not, according to Groppo.

McDonald’s declined a request for an interview.

McDonald’s is trying to stay relevant

Three decades ago, consumers turned to vegan and vegetarian food due to health and animal welfare reasons, says Juul. Today, more young people are also considering the environment in their food decisions, she says.

Eating less meat helps reduce carbon emissions. But trends also come and go, and it’s not clear how lasting an impact fast-food chains selling plant-based meat would have on the environment. The partnership between McDonald’s and Beyond Meat is for three years.

To actually reduce meat consumption in the US, there needs to be more substantial public policy measures, according to nutrition experts.

The price of meat should be higher, but it’s kept artificially low by government subsidies on animal feed and tax breaks for cattle ranchers, says Juul. Increased regulation of waste production from cattle farms or animal operations would also make the price of meat more in line with its true cost, she says.