In a competitive fast-food market, some chains are seeking an edge by playing up vegetarian menu options.
Whether that’s good for their bottom line or your waistline remains to be seen.
Earlier this year, vegetarian frozen food brand Amy’s opened a drive-through restaurant in northern California.
Chipotle offers tofu as a meat alternative.
Burger King is considering bringing the vegetarian menu it developed for its restaurants in India to the rest of the world.
And earlier this month, Taco Bell made a little fast-food history when it became the first fast-food restaurant to offer menu items, including vegan dishes, certified by the American Vegetarian Association (AVA).
It’s not a new menu, but it’s a move that calls attention to the chain’s existing meatless options.
"We’ve been selling billions of bean burritos for over 50 years and we sell more than 350 million vegetarian menu items each year, but until now, haven’t really talked about it," said Alec Boyle, spokesperson for Taco Bell.
Boyle told Healthline the vegetarian options make good sense, both from a financial and a health standpoint.
"With roughly a quarter of consumers eating more vegetarian now than in 2013, we recognized the opportunity to make access to vegetarian options easier than before,” he said. “If you’re a vegetarian, or just want to go meatless when dining out, it’s tough. You’ve probably been stuck with sides and fries.”
Vegetarian Does Not Necessarily Equal Healthful
The AVA offers two certifications. Its certified logo signifies that a product is either vegetarian (though it may have eggs or dairy) or vegan (no animal by-products).
However, the vegetarian certification doesn't necessarily mean that the food is of better quality or healthier than other options.
"Despite having vegetarian and vegan menu items, I wouldn’t encourage someone to eat more often at Taco Bell as part of a healthy diet,” said nutritionist and food blogger Kristine Duncan. “But I suppose when most of us eat fast food we are deciding that nutrition and food quality are taking a back seat to convenience. As long as we can be sure our basic dietary restrictions are being met, it’s nice to partake in a quick and easy meal every once in a while."
Still, nutritionist Sharon Palmer, author of “The Plant-Powered Diet” and “Plant-Powered for Life,” says Taco Bell is ahead of the game.
"Mexican restaurants should be a really easy choice for vegetarians, but you’d be surprised how many restaurants still use lard in their beans, which pretty much takes everything off the menu for a vegetarian or vegan diner," Palmer said.
"Taco Bell has always had something of a cult status among vegetarians and vegans as one of the few fast-food places you can hit that will have some options,” she added. “By coming out and publicizing their certified menu, they are embracing the fact that there are millions of vegetarians in our country, and they want easy, delicious options, too."
An Industry-Wide Trend
“I’ve been impressed with Chipotle for awhile, especially when they added tofu sofritas to the menu,” said Duncan. “Tofu’s got a negative connotation among the nonvegetarian crowd and most national chains haven’t yet braved it as a menu item.”
Duncan adds that many restaurants remove meat from their menu items and expect vegetarian customers to be happy with that.
“Chipotle could’ve just told the meat-free customers to order black beans, pinto beans, and/or sautéed veggies in place of meat, but they actually added an entirely new alternative. And it’s delicious,” she said.
Amy’s, a staple in many vegetarians’ freezers, broke new ground with its recently opened roadside outpost in Rohnert Park, California.
Amy’s Drive Thru offers organic and non-GMO ingredients and vegetables from a nearby farm as well as gluten-free and vegan options.
“It can be really tough finding vegetarian meal items when you’re on the road or want to stop at lunch with some friends. Doing a little research ahead can help you find choices,” said Palmer.
Duncan says that if vegetarians want more options, they can literally put their money where their mouths are.
“If we make a conscious effort to look for this labeling and certification, we can vote with our dollars to encourage food companies to make this choice and move in this direction,” she said.