If Fast Food's Meatless Meats Aren't Healthier, Why Are We Eating Them?

The latest "woke" take on vegan fast food, like the Impossible Whopper and Del Taco Beyond Meats tacos, is this: They're not any healthier than the standard meat versions of those items. Outlets from NBC News to Fox Business to CNBC are all sounding the alarm that these menu items often contain roughly the same amount of calories than their beefy counterparts—and often pack in more sodium. But is health even the real reason customers are ordering these Impossible and Beyond options in the first place?

A July 2019 report from NPD Group found that 95% of the customers who order faux-meat fast food options aren't strictly vegan or vegetarian. They're people who do regularly eat meat—"flexatarian", if you will—but perhaps are trying to reduce the percentage of red meat in their diets by incorporating more plant-based ingredients. It's unclear whether those consumers actually think the vegan burgers and tacos are actually healthier, or are interested in those meat-free options for other reasons.

Let's consider some of those other motivations.

  1. First among them might be the novelty factor. Fast food fans might simply be curious about how well an Impossible patty recreates their favorite sandwich, and they want to be able to talk about it around the water cooler (read: Twitter).
  2. Second might be environmental concerns. Much has been made about how eating beef and dairy products contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, so choosing a plant-based burger at the drive-thru might assuage some customers' guilt, or at the very least give them a small boost of self-righteousness.
  3. Third might be ethical concerns about animal welfare. Again, those concerns might not be so serious that a customer chooses to go vegan full-time, but feeling like they can make a meatless trade-off without sacrificing flavor or convenience allows them to feel slightly better about their order.

What's crucial to the longevity of Impossible and Beyond and other meatless meats on fast food menus is how much of customers' motivation is related to number 1 versus numbers 2 and 3. If the novelty and curiosity factor wears off after a year or so, then will the desire to make an environmentally sound or animal-friendly choice be enough to sustain these items? Because it sure won't be calorie savings that keep customers coming back to them.