Drive-thrus are quickly taking over even the vegan food industry (Ava Fasciano / Sun Graphic Designer).

November 3, 2021

Plant-Based Eating Is Taking Root in the Fast Food Industry

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Along with the majority of young drivers, I have long held a deep affinity for drive-throughs. After all, there’s nothing quite like sipping on a refreshing Dunkin’ iced coffee on the way to class or balancing a carton of piping hot french fries in your cup holder. During the first year of the pandemic, as restaurants remained shut down and we were all prevented from socializing, I would often find myself coasting through the Taco Bell line just to feel some sort of human interaction. Drive-through fast food became both a social activity and an appetite-quencher when my friends and I needed a quick snack or just an activity to fill our time. 

I did not grow up with fast food as a large part of my diet, but many Americans did. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 36 percent of children and adults eat fast food everyday. Despite the widely recognized fact that it’s a generally unhealthy and non-nutritious option, many families turn to fast food fare because of its accessibility and low cost. The success of the fast food industry is indisputable, best exemplified by the fact that there are currently 13,673 McDonald’s locations in the United States. And it’s not just the golden arches — many restaurants have established themselves as American “staples,” with franchises available in every major city. It’s now possible to receive low-cost, faster-than-ever servings of almost every cuisine, from burgers to tacos. Drive-throughs give us rapid access to so many different foods but often, one thing is missing: plant-based options. 

Currently, only about five percent of Americans identify as vegetarian and three percent as vegan, according to Gallup polling. However, the plant-based food market is booming, serving as a major source of growth for grocery retailers and racking up a seven billion dollar industry. According to data from the Good Food Institute, the total sales of plant-based food are growing at twice the pace of overall food sales. The contrast between this huge source of spending and the low number of self-identifying vegans is significant. It demonstrates an interest in plant-based eating across the board, even from people who don’t specifically designate their diets. Although many people associate veganism with a preference toward health-conscious eating, a diverse interest in plant-based options suggests that cheap, vegan fast-food is marketable. Research is showing us that our stereotypes about veganism are incorrect; people don’t just eat vegan food because they think it’s healthier. Many go vegan out of curiosity, to lessen their impact on the environment and for ethical reasons. Veganism has often remained restricted to high-income communities, but plant-based fast food options could be the catalyst to change this. When chains like Burger King and Dunkin’ create popular faux-meat menu options, investments in Beyond Meat (these restaurants’ vegan “meat” of choice) spike. These success stories also provide some beneficial competition, encouraging other brands to hop on the vegan wave (look out for the McPlant at McDonalds in the next year or so!). Sustained industry growth isn’t promised; nevertheless, if we want to make veganism more mainstream, now is the time to demand plant-based options from American restaurant chains. 

Some of us are hungry vegans (or vegan-curious), and want a quick bite on a budget. Although the market is lacking, there are definitely solid options if you know where to look. One resource which has proved to be useful for me is PETA’s comprehensive vegan fast food guide. Additionally, PETA has specialized menus for how to order plant-based offerings at individual restaurants. It might take some confidence to ask for an altered order, but it pays off to know that you’re getting exactly what you want. You might wonder what a vegan can order at a place like McDonalds or Five Guys, but the options are there if you know where to look. Keep reading for a basic guide to vegan fast food, all of which you can find right here in Ithaca. 

Dunkin’ 

In addition to the fact that they offer almond, oat and coconut milks, Dunkin’s hash browns and avocado toast are both vegan fan favorites. Additionally, their cinnamon raisin, plain, sesame and everything bagels as well as their english muffins are vegan. The avocado spread can be purchased as a great topping for any of these bases. Although Dunkin’ was one of the first brands to partner with Beyond Meat, you may have noticed that their popular “Beyond Sausage Sandwich” has disappeared from the majority of menus in the U.S., including the Ithaca locations. However, this disappointing news might be a sign that a new meatless option will soon be joining their vegan lineup. Fingers crossed!

Taco Bell

This “How to Eat Vegan at Taco Bell” guide was my go-to during high school. Substitute beef for beans in any taco or burrito to keep some level of protein and flavor. The best trick? Ask for your order “Fresco Style,” and they will replace any mayo-based sauces, cheese or sour cream with fresh pico de gallo. 

Burger King

In August 2019, Burger King launched one of the most universally loved plant-based fast-food items: the Impossible Whopper. If you’re looking for a greasy, salty, fast meal that you won’t believe is meatless, look no further. However, the Whopper has mayo and is cooked on the same broiler as hamburgers at some locations, so make sure that you specify that it is prepared vegan. 

Subway

In the last year, Subway became the next brand to partner with Beyond Meat, unveiling their Meatless Marinara Sub, complete with vegan mozzarella cheese. Unfortunately, the sandwich does not seem to be available at any of the Ithaca locations, but maybe your home franchise will carry it! Otherwise, the Veggie Delite is basically just a DIY salad on bread. Obviously, all of the fresh vegetables are vegan, as well as the yellow mustard, deli brown mustard, mustard seed spread, oil and vinegar, Subway vinaigrette, sweet onion sauce and fat-free Italian dressing.

Papa John’s

Although Papa John’s does not carry vegan cheese and it seems unlikely they will start anytime soon, it’s not impossible to get a plant-based meal there. Their breadsticks are vegan, as well as their doughs and red sauce, so you could build a veggie-packed cheeseless pizza if that sounds up your alley. 

Chipotle

Although I would define Chipotle as more of a “fast-casual” option, their vegan offerings are too good not to mention. They serve “sofritas,” a flavorful, tofu-based faux-meat that is amazing in bowls or burritos. Additionally, the beans, rice and vegetables are all meatless, so Chipotle is an amazing option for hearty, healthy, plant-based meals. 

Before eating anything from a fast-food restaurant, I would make sure to ask questions and be specific about what you ask for. If you are a strict vegan, it’s important to clarify about cross-contamination and make sure your meal won’t be cooked in the same oils as meat. However, trying out some of these alternatives is a great idea for anyone, regardless of dietary preference. By cutting out high-cholesterol meats and dairy-based spreads, your meal will likely become lighter and less greasy. Fast-food is far from a sustainable industry, but as a college student, chances are you’re going to frequent a drive-through once in a while. Switch up your classic order, move around some ingredients and who knows? Your stomach (and wallet) might thank you. 


Sadie Groberg is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].