Choosing plant-based is always better.

More nutrients, more antioxidants, and a reduced risk of processed ingredients.

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Yet, this rule of thumb has been slightly flipped on its head with the introduction of plant-based alternatives to a variety of fast-food chain menus. While plant-based is always a better option — even in the fast-food world — that’s not the entirety of the story.

Yes, you’ll be doing a lot for the planet, which is why I thoroughly encourage you to take the plunge and try out that plant-based burger the next time you hit up your favorite fast-food chain. This is a wonderful way to support the environment and actively take part in fighting animal cruelty put a knife to slaughterhouses. With that said, if you’re choosing the plant-based option based around the idea that it’s the healthier meal, then I, once again, thoroughly encourage you to read on and learn a bit about exactly what you’re eating.

The Environmental Impact of Plant-Based Fast Food Alternatives

PIRO4D/Pixabay

If you want to know the impact your plant-based decision will make, simply look at the numbers.

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Fast food restaurants have reached 160,000 — and are still growing — and “feed more than 50 million Americans each and every day, generating sales of more than $110 billion dollars annually.” That’s an unbelievable amount of establishments, with a crazy amount of mouths to feed, generating an absurd amount of food — primarily animal-based products.

While it’s impossible to remove fast-food chains from the map, you absolutely can make a huge difference by opting for a plant-based alternative and even going the full vegan route, which many of these establishments are beginning to offer.

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How does this decision help?

The more people that choose plant-based options, the more popular they become, which may have the intended effect of reducing the purchase of the animal-based meals.

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What’s the trickle-down effect?

This trend can lead to decreased factory farming, — most “meat, eggs, and dairy products used in fast food is produced at factory farms” — which in turn can lead to decreased greenhouse gasses, — making a burger uses massive amounts of resources from “growing the wheat to make the buns to feeding the cattle, and eventually their slaughter, and even the energy required to pickle the cucumbers” — reduced risk of water contamination, — “pathogens, hormones, drugs, and fertilizers that are used to produce fast food [seep] into our water supplies” — and can even lower the massive transportation footprint caused by distributing trucks that “add to the pollution, emissions, and congestion, all of which contribute to climate change.”

So, the next time you go to a fast-food restaurant and have to make that decision between plant-based or animal-based, think about all the ramifications that single decision may make.

Understanding the Positives versus the Negatives

AnnaliseArt/Pixabay

If you’re going to go for a fast food meal, then definitely choose plant-based! As mentioned, there’s simply no underrating the major impact these alternatives can have on our planet.

With that said, before purchasing that meal, it’s also important to take note of the health factor.

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Let’s take, for instance, a pretty obvious unhealthy option that also happens to use plant-based Beyond Meat. We’re talking about Snoop Dog’s new Dunkin Donut Beyond D-O-Double G Sandwich. The sandwich consists of a “meatless Beyond Sausage patty, egg, and cheese that’s served on a sliced glazed doughnut.”

Yes, this is partially plant-based. No, this is not healthy.

While this is a super obvious example of an unhealthy plant-based meal, there are also a handful of unobtrusive fast food menu items — such as the MacDonald’s Plant. Lettuce. Tomato sandwich — which sounds, well, healthy and is actually marketed to make you think it’s healthier, yet there’s a lot more to this plant-based sandwich then meets the eye.

In an interview with Healthline.com, Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, RD, — senior dietitian at the University of California Los Angeles Medical Center — explains that “she doesn’t necessarily consider Beyond Burgers to be ‘health foods’ to begin with” and she goes on to comment on Snoop Dog’s new Dunkin Donut partnership stating that she’s “offended that they would call this a plant-based sandwich when it also contains eggs and dairy products.”

This marketing technique is not technically wrong — the sandwich does source plant-based materials — yet when the public hears the term ‘plant-based’ they tend to also hear ‘healthy.’

Getting the Facts: An Ingredient Spotlight

StockSnap/Pixabay

I’ve talked a lot about how unhealthy these fast-food plant-based alternatives seem to be, but what am I actually talking about? Well, much of the unhealthy aspect comes from how the food is prepared, as well as the fact that these plant-based food options are not only processed (generally meaning higher sugar content), but they’re also paired with food items such as white flour buns, soda, and fries.

Let’s take a look at three of the plant-based meals currently available at some of the top food chains and see what’s in them!

1. McDonald’s “PLT” Plant. Lettuce. Tomato

McDonald’s PLT/www.mcdonalds.com

McDonald’s has teamed up with Beyond Meat to create a plant-based burger that can be tailored to the design of the customer. The basic design of the PLT includes “crunchy lettuce, soft bun, pickle coins, a hit of white onion, and that trifecta of mustard, mayonnaise, and ketchup,” layered atop a Beyond Burger patty.

The McDonald’s PLT has 25 grams of fat (seven of which are saturated), 20 mg of cholesterol, 42 grams of carbs, 17 grams of protein, and 920 mg of sodium. The PLT is around 460 calories.

What’s in the Beyond Meat burger patty?

On top of the high-fructose corn syrup laced ketchup and white flour bun, the Beyond Burger is created from a combination of water, pea protein, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, pomegranate extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, and beet juice extract.

What should you look out for in this combination of ingredients?

First off, canola oil is an incredibly unstable oil due to the fact that it is “chemically extracted using a solvent called hexane, and heat is often applied which can affect the stability of the oil’s molecules, turn it rancid, destroy the omega-3s in it, and can even create trans fats.”

Secondly, instead of using unrefined coconut oil, Beyond Burger uses refined coconut oil, which is a more processed version of coconut oil. Oftentimes, the creation of refined coconut oil uses bleach and “chemical solvents such as hexane,” much like canola oil.

Lastly, if you want to dig further into the methylcellulose or the natural flavors, then you probably won’t have great luck. The natural flavors aren’t exactly listed on the packaging, therefore you don’t actually know what this term means, and methylcellulose is actually a food additive used in commercially processed foods, generally as a thickening agent.

2. Qdoba Impossible Fajita Bowl

QDOBA Mexican Eats/www.qdoba.com

Qdoba offers a range of fast and easy Mexican inspired meals to take on the go! They have also decided to jump on the plant-based bandwagon with their Impossible Fajita Bowl which includes “plant-based Impossible™ [meat] seasoned with a blend of tomatoes, garlic and chilies” and “topped with hand-sliced, sautéed in-house red and green bell peppers, red onion, corn salsa, a light drizzle of vegan [and] vegetarian-friendly tortilla soup, cilantro lime rice, and seasoned black beans.”

The Qdoba Impossible Fajita Bowl has 12 grams of saturated fat, 32 grams of dietary fiber, eight grams of sugar, 47 grams of protein, and a whopping 1840 mg of sodium and 1930 mg of potassium.

Alright, so what’s in Impossible Meat?

The ingredients list is very similar to Beyond Meat, with a few slight differences. It’s made with water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and natural flavors. On top of that, there is 2 percent or less of potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), and vitamin B12.

What should you look out for?

First and foremost, much like canola oil, sunflower oil is another unstable oil that becomes unhealthy when exposed to heat — for instance, a grilling surface. Sunflower oil has many of the same characteristics as canola oil, including the ability to turn rancid and transform into trans fats.

You’ll also notice more natural flavors and methylcellulose, which haven’t been defined.

Even though there are two percent or less of the following ingredients, it’s still important to note. Cultured dextrose refers to a “cultured, or fermented, food product” that is made by “combining dextrose, which is the simple sugar glucose, with the bacteria Propionibacterium freudenreichii.” Technically, cultured dextrose is used to extend the shelf life of the product, is considered safe, and yet the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “has not completed its assessment and has not given it generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, status.”

3. Baskin-Robbins

Baskin-Robbins/godairyfree.org

It’s not just about those plant-based burger patty alternatives, Baskin-Robbins is now offering a slew of vegan ice cream options including Coffee Caramel Chunk, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, and Chocolate Extreme.

Alright, what’s in these ice cream alternatives!

All these vegan ice cream options share a variety of ingredients and depending on the flavor differentiate. With that said, there’s a lot of ingredients, too many to list individually. For an entire list, check it out here.

What should you look out for?

Here are a few … sugar, brown sugar, natural flavors, refined coconut oil, corn syrup, dextrose, and cellulose gel and cellulose gum — a refined plant fiber made from wood pulp and used as a thickening agent.

We’ve covered the mysterious “natural flavors” and the fact that … well … we have no idea what those actually are. I’ve also touched upon the whole highly processed aspect of refined oils, such as the coconut oil used in this ice cream alternative. Cellulose gel and cellulose gum are both plant-based, yet, once again, highly processed products.

Yet, when it comes to these ice cream alternatives you should really focus on the multiple types of sugar including corn syrup — a high fructose product — dextrose  — a “simple sugar that is made from corn and is chemically identical to glucose, or blood sugar” — and good old sugar and brown sugar.

That’s an incredible load of sugar that can totally mess with your blood sugar levels!

Make Your Own Super Healthy Fast Food Mimics at Home

Pexels/Pixabay

If you’re a fast-food fan seeking to help the environment and the planet, simply choose to go vegan at home! The effect of choosing plant-based foods on your grocery list as well as at a restaurant are equally powerful. Plus, you can make some truly delicious fast-food mimicking recipes that are even more delicious, luxurious, and simple as those you’d buy at the restaurant, yet way healthier. Here are a few recipes to get your creative juices flowing!

1. Super Simple Veggie Big Mac

When it comes to recreating your very own fast food in your very own kitchen, it’s all about simplicity. I mean, besides the flavor and taste, that’s what draws us to fast food restaurants. This Super Simple Veggie Big Mac recipe by Melanie Sorrentino meets all the demands of a fast-food burger — super juicy, super tasty, super simple — and yet it’s also a healthier option. If you’re going for the home run in healthy, swap out the ketchup for a plant-based sweetener such as monk fruit (use far less though!), use lettuce for the buns, and/or go with black beans instead of refried.

2. Buffalo Jackfruit Tacos

Tacos are one of the simplest forms of delicious fast-food, yet it always seems like so much more has to go into these little bits of joy then necessary. Not with this Buffalo Jackfruit Tacos recipe by Gabrielle St. Claire! All you need are the proper ingredients and 20 minutes in your kitchen. If you’re going for super-duper healthy (these are already pretty much a home run), go for a low sugar buffalo sauce and swap out the taco shells for lettuce shells.

3. Breakfast Sandwich With Tofu Egg and Tempeh Sausage

Swinging by a fast-food joint on your way to work for a quick bite might have been your go-to in the past, but this Breakfast Sandwich With Tofu Egg and Tempeh Sausage recipe by Victoria Rand and Christopher Bill could be your new go-to! You’ll need a bit more prep time in order to make these, but they are an excellent option to create in bulk, freeze, and simply pull out and pop in the fridge the night before. This recipe is layered with protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Looking for that healthy home run? Swap out the maple syrup and sugar for monk fruit sweetener.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!

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