Meatless fast food isn’t necessarily healthier.
The alternative meat market is booming, with plant-based fake meats that look, taste and bleed just like the real thing taking over grocery stores and fast food restaurants. Part of the appeal for diners is that eating less red meat can cut the risk of heart disease and other health risks. But nutritionists and registered dietitians say ordering a meatless burger at a chain — especially one where you can get fries with it — might not be that much better for you.
“Are they healthier as far as sodium, calories and fat content? Definitely not,” Sharon Zarabi, a registered dietitian and bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital, told MarketWatch.
MarketWatch compared the nutritional value of meatless menu items to their meaty counterparts at Burger King QSR, +0.21% , McDonald’s MCD, +0.97% , White Castle and Del Taco TACO, +2.50% . The nutritional profiles are strikingly similar, and though fast food is seen as a cheap option for eaters on the go, the meatless versions of the fast food menu items were more expensive in all cases.
At Burger King, the meatless Impossible Whopper, available at select locations, is 630 calories, compared to the regular Whopper which is 660. (The Impossible burger is made with soy protein, potato protein, coconut oil, sunflower oil and heme, a molecule that makes it look and bleed like real meat).
Both have around the same amount of fat (34 grams of fat, and 11 grams of saturated fat for the Impossible Whopper; and 40 grams of fat, and 12 grams of saturated fat for the Whopper). The meatless version has a whopping 1,240 milligrams of sodium verses 980 for the meaty one.
“It’s almost the same amount of calories as the regular burger. The fat is slightly lower, but the saturated fat is still pretty high,” notes Zarabi of the saturated fat, which is almost the same exact amount in each. Consumers can expect to pay at least 10 cents more for the Impossible Whopper ($4.29), with prices varying by location. In the Bay Area, the meatless Whopper is selling for $6.19 before tax, compared to $4.89 for the original version. (Burger King did not respond to a request for comment.)
Zarabi urges consumers to look at the weight in grams for each menu option. At White Castle, the Impossible Slider is 90 grams in weight, compared to the Original Slider, which is 55 grams. If you don’t look at the nutrition facts, it could easily seem like the Impossible Slider is worse for you, but they’re actually almost on par with each other. The Impossible Slider is 210 calories with 11 grams of fat, and 4 grams of saturated fat, compared to the Original Slider’s 140 calories with 7 grams of fat and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. The Impossible Slider costs $1.27 more. White Castle did not respond to a request for comment.
“It’s a larger size, that’s why the calories are going to be more, that’s why the sodium is going to be more. It means that they’re almost similar in profile,” Zarabi explained.
The Beyond Taco at Del Taco also has a very similar nutritional value compared to a regular taco. Both are 300 calories and contain nearly the same amount of fat and saturated fat. The Beyond Taco, however, contains 100 more milligrams of salt, and costs $1 more. Del Taco did not respond to a request for comment.
Other fast food eateries have experimented with plant-based proteins on a limited basis.
McDonald’s launched a McVegan sandwich, a vegetable-based vegan burger made with soybeans, in 2017, but only in Finland and Sweden. This spring, it added a burger called the Big Vegan TS — made with a patty by Nestle NSRGY, -0.36% — to menus in Germany. Nestle has said it wants to start selling a meatless burger at U.S. retailers this fall and it’s looking to expand its restaurant partnerships beyond McDonald’s, Reuters reported. A rep for McDonald’s did not immediately return a request for comment.
Chick-fil-A has been studying vegan meat substitutes, according to Business Insider, and a spokeswoman for the Georgia-based chicken sandwich chain hinted to MarketWatch that the company could be coming out with a meatless variety in the future, but would not give any further details. “The culinary team at Chick-fil-A is always exploring new trends and possible menu offerings for our customers, and we are still in the early phases of the development process. We currently offer several vegan options for our guests,” Leigh Jackson, a spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A told MarketWatch in an email. (The chain’s hash browns and waffle fries are vegan, among other items.)
Wendy’s WEN, -0.36% tested a black bean vegetarian burger (which customers could turn into a vegan burger by ordering it without cheese) in 2016, but discontinued the item. Wendy’s did not respond to a request for comment.
Dr. Lisa Young, a registered dietitian and author of “Finally Full, Finally Slim,” says meat alternatives become even more unhealthy when you factor in the bread, condiments and French fries that typically round out a fast food meal.
“They often come with white bread, cheese and who knows the oil that they’re grilling in it,” Young said. Another concern: the so-called “health halo” effect. Research has shown that when people eat food they perceive to be healthy, they tend to over-indulge later. Many people perceive meatless foods as being better for them, so they could be inclined to consume more calories later in the day after they eat a meatless meal.
“People get tricked by the ‘health halo’ effect,” Young said. “If they contain similar calories, a similar amount of saturated fat and sodium, not only are you not better off, but you might actually be worse off. If you have one of these meatless burgers, you might think, ‘I can have pizza for dinner.’”
Fast-food restaurants seem to be in a frantic game of catch-up adding meat substitutes to their menues. The market for plant-based of lab-made meat substitutes could swell to $140 billion in the next 10 years, Barclays said recently. The May IPO for Beyond Meat BYND, -25.02% –– the maker of the Beyond Burger and the meat inside Del Taco’s Beyond Taco –– made history, with shares surging from $46 to $65.75 for a 163% gain.
Shares of Burger King parent company Restaurant Brands have been up 28% year-to-date. That’s compared to an 11% gain for the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -0.05% and a 15% increase S&P 500 Index SPX, -0.03%