Could Fast Food Save the Planet?

LikeMeat Like Burger — Soya based, photographer & cook: Line Tscherning

It’s become a well-known fact that billionaire Warren Buffett starts off each morning at the McDonald’s drive-through. His choice of breakfast? Bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit if stocks are up and two sausage patties if they are down. Buffett isn’t alone, roughly 36% of Americans eat fast food every day, according to the CDC. With the recent surge of interest in plant-based meat products from long-established fast-food chains, we have to ask whether or not fast food could save the planet?

Why Does My Fast Food Diet Concern You?

Up until about 2018, academic literature and news headlines were dominated by the impact of fast food on health and obesity highlighted by popular movies such as Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, but the tide has steadily begun to shift. Now, more than ever, we are preoccupied with our environmental impact while struggling to combat a lifetime of addiction to highly saturated fatty, salty, and sugary foods. In addition to fighting against the overwhelming pleasure signals in our brains from these foods (which “adapts and makes more receptors for dopamine,” creating an addiction like dependency — we need more and more of the same substance to receive the same pleasure originally derived), we are facing an industry deeply entrenched in politics, subsidies, monopolies, and lobbyists which have no real motivation to change their course swiftly.

Roughly 50 billion burgers are consumed each year in the United States, or 2.4 burgers per day per person, according to the USDA. (At the time of publication, the exact data for beef dedicated to the fast food industry could not be found however, national McDonald’s burger estimates are around 2.36 billion burgers annually) Followed by China, the EU, Brazil, and India, the United States still remains the largest consumer of beef products. Breaking it down, American beef has a greater greenhouse gas emissions impact than the entire country of the Netherlands.

By replacing every single burger with a plant-based option such as the Beyond Meat product, we would see a reduction of approximately 90 percent water and land usage as well as a sharp reduction of global greenhouse gases, according to a recent Wired article. It’s well known that shifting towards a predominantly plant-based diet will help bring us closer to mitigating the climate crisis.

The Rise of Plant-Based Fast Food

Fast food establishments have been around for over a century, with British fish and chips shops being some of the first. It wasn’t until the rise of the American highway system that we saw a boom in what is now considered modern-day fast-food restaurants. Since then, these iconic companies have been serving up nutrient deficient and environmentally extractive foods we’ve come to depend on.

Surprisingly, plant-based meats have been around for roughly the same length of time. In 1896 John Harvey Kellogg, the very same Kellogg of Kellogg cereals, introduced a peanut-based meatless “meat.” Since then, many became interested in creating their own version of a vegan burger, but it wasn’t until 1984 that the first frozen plant-based burger became commercially available in the United Kingdom: the VegeBurger. With manufacturers seeing the popularity of these alternatives, it was only a matter of time until plant-based meat alternatives made their way into one of the most consumed food sources — fast food.

Nationally, Burger King was the first to adopt a plant-based meat alternative onto their menu: the BK veggie burger in 2002. (In 2012, McDonald’s debuted the McVeggie but with little success.) Other chains have rolled out limited options in specific geographic areas for “testing,” including Domino’s Beyond Sausage Pizza which was discontinued shortly thereafter. Chris Kempczinski, McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer, said, “plant-based products are an ongoing consumer trend.” But data tells us otherwise. Plant-based meat alternatives aren’t just a trend.

Who Really Cares?

A 2019 study found that 23% to 35% of participants were aware of the impact meat consumption had on the environment partially due to the fact that a majority of Americans see the direct impact of climate change. A 2020 Pew Research Poll found that most participants don’t think the government is doing enough to tackle the crisis, and when it comes to an industry that has its hooks into politics, it may not be all that surprising animal agriculture has been left out of climate discussions until very recently.

As plant-based meat options become more widely available at the various local fast food joints, those bellying up to the counter may not be who we immediately think of. An estimated 5% of consumers who order such products are self-described vegans, while the remaining 95% categorize themselves as flexitarian wanting to “do their bit for the environment when they can.”

Why Plant-Based Options Are Important

Putting aside environmental concerns for a moment, plant-based alternatives are important. More than 19 million people in the United States live in food deserts — meaning they have limited or no access to affordable and healthy foods. These areas are predominantly found in geographic areas of lower levels of education, lower incomes, higher rates of unemployment, and disproportionately in Black communities. While grocery stores are lacking, fast-food restaurants often aren’t.

The linkage between fast food and compromised health abound. And those with “limited access to supermarkets…eat more unhealthy fast and processed foods and end up having 7 times the risk of early-life stroke…” among other health ailments including diabetes, renal failure, heart attack, cancer, mental illness, and dementia. Data is very clear on this point: a more plant-forward diet can help to prevent and often reverse many of the health complications that come with eating a meat-forward diet — especially one that is predominately fast food. Knowing millions of individuals lack access to healthy and fresh foods, can fast food plant-based alternatives fill in this health gap?

The overwhelming evidence in mitigating the climate crisis is to choose plant-based options, but that doesn’t always mean the fast-food version is healthier for you. On the surface, meatless fast food may appear healthier, but it comes down to nutritional facts. The issue isn’t the lack of meat or the increase of veggies but the saturated fat, alarming amount of salt, and oils used in production. Some options will be better than others, but yet again, this places the onus on the consumer for both environmental and health cleanup. One British fast-food startup is trying to tackle this very issue.

In less than a few hours, Ready Burger blew past their £1.5 million targets to raise £2 million in a crowdfunding campaign that will provide nutritionally based fast food that is plant-based. Think vegan burgers and nuggets until your heart’s content. With more than 840 investors, it’s clear the interest is there, and being price conscious is helping to move consumers away from the highly saturated products they have come to know and love. If Ready Burger succeeds and others follow suit, particularly in the United States, it’s entirely possible that the fast-food industry may be able to help both the health of the planet and the consumer.

Future Outlook

When McDonald’s failed to mention their McPlant veggie burger (now discontinued in the United States) was a partnership with Beyond Meat, Beyond Meat’s stock dropped 19%, leading to a $1.5 billion loss which indicates a vocal partnership is needed to raise public awareness of plant-based options. McDonald’s, the largest fast-food franchise in the United States and worldwide, is one of the last to consistently introduce plant-based options to their menu, which satisfy those looking to swap out their traditional burger. There may be some hope in knowing the McPlant is still on the menu in Denmark in Sweden — a self-described test market for the company. Further, the franchise signed a three-year global agreement with Beyond Meat leading many to anticipate a menu update in the near future.

Other fast-food chains aren’t dragging their feet nearly as much: Panda Express is now piloting Beyond Meat orange chicken. Little Caesars just debuted their ‘Planteroni’ pizza while Pizza Hut pulled the Beyond Italian Sausage pizza and The Great Beyond pizza — customers were not happy with their decision. Burger King has remained steadfast in its commitment to offering plant-based burger options with their Impossible Whopper along with Carl’s Jr and their Beyond Famous Star Burger, Western Cheeseburger, and Thickburger. Dunkin’s has also thrown their hat into the ring with its Beyond Sausage Breakfast Sandwich, and Subway now offers a Beyond Meatball Marinara sub and Veggie patty at select locations.

At the beginning of 2021, Taco Bell announced an upcoming partnership with Beyond Meat — current sales of vegetarian items account for approximately 10% of all items sold at the popular fast-food chain. White Castle and Nathans’s Famous Hot Dog have also joined the plant-based revolution leading many to be very hopeful about the future of plant-based fast food. Only time will tell whether or not these items are here to stay, but one thing we know for sure is demand will drive the market, but demand for industry overhaul cannot be overlooked.

Fast food serves a purpose whether we like it or not. Current systems support the fast-food model. Does it need an overhaul? Yes. But do we need to embrace equal access to plant-based meat alternatives? Also, yes. So while there is a lot of work to be done on our food systems, we cannot overlook the importance of fast food chains in bringing about plant-based meat alternatives to large segments of the population. Perhaps the role of fast-food restaurants is to work as a broker, introducing individuals to a wider array of options as we get busy transforming our food systems via a just transition.

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