Plant-based menus are taking over at top fast food chains

July 12, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC

At the start of the fast food franchise boom of the 1950s, the only plants customers were likely to encounter were the lettuce, tomato, and pickles on a deluxe cheeseburger. 

Menus at many popular quick service restaurants have come a long way since then, offering filling options that go beyond a basic side salad. Taco Bell has a modifiable vegetarian menu that claims to have more than 8 million vegetarian and vegan combinations. Starbucks offers plant-based milks that are so popular, the company faced an oat milk shortage earlier this year. And at Burger King, the classic Whopper can now be ordered with an Impossible burger patty made entirely of plant-based protein. Those are just a few of the places where Deborah Brousseau, who has been a vegetarian for 33 years, loves to grab a quick bite to eat.

“We’re in a protein substitute revolution and it’s fabulous. You know when fast food is committing to veggie options, things are changing for the better,” Brousseau, a Los Angeles-based publicist, tells Fortune. Her favorites include potato tacos at Taco Bell and the Impossible Whopper at Burger King.

Burger King’s vegan Impossible Whopper burger is seen in a store in Sunnyvale, Calif. on November 20, 2019.
Yichuan Cao—NurPhoto/Getty Images

A review of fast food menus, including those on the Fortune 500, shows that restaurants are focusing on adding sustainable, plant-based options. According to 2020 data from the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute, the plant-based retail food market has grown 29% in the previous two years to $5 billion, largely driven by plant-based meat and plant-based milks. 

With specific behavioral changes both in marketing, design, and shift in consumer taste, experts say the investments quick service restaurants are making in expanding their plant-based menu options have the long term potential to benefit the environment.

Taco Bell, one of the quick service restaurants owned by Yum Brands, has found an unlikely following among vegetarians. The fast food restaurant—which offers ground beef and chicken tacos, burritos, and quesadillas—became the first major drive-thru chain to create a special menu catering to vegetarians and vegans, along with items certified by the American Vegetarian Association (AVA).

“We understand that the trends towards eating more plant-forward foods and living sustainably are here to stay. Our goal is to find ways to incorporate more plant-forward foods and environmentally-friendly options now and in the future,” says Liz Matthews, global chief food innovation officer at Taco Bell.

Taco Bell sells 350 million vegetarian items per year, accounting for about 10% of all items sold, according to the latest data provided in a company blog post.

“We’ve never seen vegetarian offerings as just a trend, and we don’t see them as exclusively for vegetarians. We pride ourselves on being a place where people of every type of lifestyle can find exactly what they’re craving, and even meat lovers can find themselves opting for a Black Bean Crunchwrap,” Matthews says.

Taco Bell

At the start of 2021, Taco Bell brought back vegan potatoes and announced an upcoming partnership with Beyond. In April, the Cravetarian Taco, which includes a seasoned, plant-based meat was tested in select markets. 

“Our history of innovation never stops, especially in the vegetarian space,” Matthews says. “Every test item and menu change is a result of listening to our fans and seeing how changes are received by both customers and employees. This year, we’ve reiterated our commitment to providing more vegetarian items, since we know customers are seeking more plant-based protein options. That being said, we’re excited to foray into plant-based meat and bring even more plant-based offerings to the masses.”

Daniel Vennard, director and founder of the Better Buying Lab and Cool Food Pledge at the World Resources Institute, works with brands around the world, from IKEA cafes to the Hilton restaurant menus, to help brands promote more sustainable options. He sees quick service and fine dining restaurants moving toward more sustainable choices that benefit the environment, however he says there needs to be a two-step approach in order to create long term benefits for the environment.

“Shifting consumers toward more sustainable diets is achievable, but it requires an intentional effort to redesign the consumer journey,” Vennard says.

That begins with changing the language used to describe the items on a menu. A burger, for instance, may be juicy, but the same mouthwatering language needs to be applied to plant-based alternatives. 

While Vennard sees more plant-based options being added to menus, he says restaurants need to reduce the amount of meat on their menus in order to make a sustainable impact. 

“We have applied this approach to our Cool Foods members,” he says. “The first year, they reduced sales of beef and lamb by 10% and increased sales of plant-based foods by 12%.”

Meat and dairy account for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, but even small diet changes can make a difference.

Len Torine, executive director of the American Vegetarian Association, says flexitarians, people who are part-time vegetarians and vegans, are helping to make a difference when it comes to offsetting the emissions caused by leading the charge.

“People like meat and let them eat what they like,” Torine says.  “No one is keeping score, but the flexitarians are really going to fertilize the  movement going forward because they’re going to see all these options for protein on menus, and they’re the ones who will give it a try.”

Zhang Peng—LightRocket/Getty Images

Annmarie Mercieri Colonna, who lives in Hoboken, N.J., says she eats a plant-based diet 80% of the time, and enjoys many of the meat substitutes at fast food restaurants.

“I’ve tried the Impossible Starbucks breakfast sandwich, which is delicious. The sofritos at Chipotle are also great,” she says, referring to the company’s meat-based substitute. “As of right now these options are great for on-the-go, a treat, or for someone who is just curious to try and doesn’t want to fully commit.”

One small change Vennard loves is blending a vegetable to reduce the amount of meat. His team worked with the Hilton hotel chain to create a burger that uses less beef, with blended mushrooms filling out the rest of the patty. With this approach, Vennard says meat dishes are often elevated in flavor and moisture, and that diners can’t tell they’re missing 20% less meat.

“Shifting consumers to more sustainable diets is achievable, but it requires an intentional effort to redesign the consumer journey and also requires that plant based food to be tasty and delicious,” he says. “When that is done, we can drive a transformation very quickly.”

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