The moment I walk out of Burger King with a warm bag of vegetarian Impossible Whoppers, a plastic voucher is thrust into my hand. “Have you tried Dunkin’ Donuts Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich?” a woman asks. “It is meatless!”
Dunkin’ (formerly Dunkin’ Donuts) is testing its meatless sandwich in Manhattan using Beyond Meat protein. The woman was a “brand ambassador” handing out gift cards to people buying Burger King’s latest vegetarian menu addition and who might want to take their newfound taste for meatless fast food to rival outlets.
A decade ago, this development – and the fanfare accompanying the Impossible Whopper – would have been unimaginable in America’s powerful and ubiquitous fast-food industry.
Fast forward to 2019 and every employee inside a midtown Manhattan Burger King is wearing an Impossible Whopper shirt. There is an Impossible Whopper-themed photo-booth. Customers can try the beef Whopper and Impossible Whopper side-by-side for $7.
In this hopeful moment, it is easy to imagine a fast-food future where all the “meat” is plant-based, entire menus are vegetarian, and the environmental footprint of these convenience foods is significantly reduced – helping stop a climate crisis scientists warn we have only 11 years left to tackle.
Veggie options no longer vie for a dusty corner of the menu in fast-food chains. Now they are jockeying to appeal to climate-conscious young people. Plant-based choices are nearly indistinguishable from their meat counterparts.
“Early indications are that demand for plant-based proteins will continue to grow,” said Tony Weisman, chief marketing officer with Dunkin’ US. He said the company intended to roll out its new Beyond Sausage sandwich nationally soon.
“Given the importance of environmental sustainability among consumers, and especially younger consumers, indications are that demand for plant-based meats will continue to increase as time goes on,” he added.
Two-thirds of Gen Z believe the climate crisis “demands urgent action”, according to the Harvard Public Opinion Project. Given the enormous environmental impact of industrialized meat, companies like Impossible Foods want to drive it into obsolescence. But whether health-conscious young people will come out in droves for plant-based fast food remains to be seen.
The Impossible Whopper is the newest incarnation of a soy-based, genetically engineered veggie burger created by the Silicon Valley company Impossible Foods. It is nearly indistinguishable from the beef Whopper, both in taste and nutrition.
It’s sloppy with wilted lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, ketchup and pickles. It smells enticing, it is even craveable, and as with the real thing, I feel awful after eating it. Not guilty – literally unwell.
Dunkin’s meat-free sausage sandwich also replicates the homogeneity of fast-food meat, the kind you might find yourself eating on a layover. This time, the plant-based meat is cemented to the English muffin lid with cheese and served with a floppy overcooked egg.
Restaurant executives have pitched the burgers as an option for climate-conscious young people on the run and expedited a normally years-long process of innovative dishes appearing first in high-end restaurants and then trickling down to fast-food outlets.
The aim, Weisman said, was to build out vegetarian options, as more young consumers shift to reduced-meat diets for health and environmental reasons.
But the strategy has befuddled some, who point out fast-food options including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are neither organic nor particularly healthy.
The Impossible Whopper meal, which automatically comes with a medium fries and Coke, is a staggering 1,280 calories. There are 34 grams of fat and 1,080 grams of sodium in the sandwich alone. When this was described to a nutritionist with Action on Salt UK, Mhairi Brown, she said: “Oh, my goodness.”
“It’s difficult to say which one is healthier, because ultimately we know a burger is not a healthy choice,” said Brown.
Similarly, Dunkin’s Beyond Sausage breakfast sandwich is a nutritional bomb at 470 calories, 24 grams of fat and 910 milligrams of sodium. If a person ate both in one day, they would have eaten 1,750 calories before dinner, leaving them with 250 calories for the day if they followed the recommended 2,000 calorie per day diet.
Some meat analysts have also argued that, at least for the time being, the Impossible Whopper could actually buoy Burger King’s beef sales by mollifying the “veto vote”, including vegetarians, and people with kosher or halal diets.
“If you have a conventional quick service restaurant burger joint, and you’ve got a carload of people … and one isn’t a beef-eater, traditionally they lost all four of those sales,” said Don Close, vice-president with Raboresearch and an expert in the beef market.
Burger King did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Asked who the audience for the Impossible Whopper is, if it is not healthier and possibly supports beef sales, Close said: “I wish I knew the answer to that.”
A future where Impossible Foods or Beyond Beef – or any other single-source supplier – might dominate the market also poses a problem for restaurants like Burger King. Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat sausages are dependent on Silicon Valley intellectual property rights. It would be a huge economic risk for burger joints to shift their menus toward these products, because they would be held hostage by a single supplier with the magic ingredient.
Some fast-food chains, such as Taco Bell and Panera, are continuing to resist the trend. Taco Bell executives have pointed out the restaurant is already certified by the American Vegetarian Association. Panera executives have said customers are looking for the “whole food solution”.
“By and large the fast-food brands are going to continue to embrace plant-based options, because to some degree they will have to,” said Sam Ochs, editorial director of Food News Media, publisher of food industry publications including QSR Magazine.
Nevertheless, it is easier for Ochs to imagine a Burger King-less future than to imagine a beef-less Burger King. “So long as Burger King exists, it will never be 100% plant-based.”