A new report by Science Direct compares the nutrition and allergen content of plant-based fast-food menu items to their animal-based counterparts.

Rachel French, Contributing writer

March 1, 2024

2 Min Read
plant-based fast food

At a Glance

  • Plant-based options have less protein and sodium, but more carbohydrates, sugar and fiber compared to meat products.
  • Both types of fast food have similar calorie and fat content, suggesting neither is inherently healthier.
  • While plant-based options may have a “healthy halo,” understanding their complete nutritional profile is crucial.

A recently published study by Science Direct answers the question: Is plant-based fast food healthier than meat options? Key findings indicate plant-based fast-food options served up less protein and sodium, but more carbohydrates, sugar and fiber.

Plant-based foods and beverages have become wildly popular in recent years. In 2020, U.S. retail sales of plant-based foods skyrocketed 27% to reach $7 billion. What’s more, plant-based claims for new global food and beverages increased 37% between 2016 and 2020.

Plant-based popularity extends to restaurant and fast-food menus. Large fast-food chains like McDonald’s have tested the waters of plant-based demand by adding options to their menus (although McDonald’s dropped its McPlant sandwich from U.S. menus following a trial run).

For most consumers, the appeal of plant-based items is tied to the healthy halo associated with plant foods.

“Plant-based meals may be perceived as healthier than common fast-food meals based on not having processed meat,” authors of the study wrote. “However, producers may add fat, salt or sugar to nonmeat fast-food meals to meet consumers’ tastes. Indeed, many plant-based meals are designed to resemble meat products such as sausages or chops.”

The present study sought to discover how the nutrition of plant-based fast-food menu options stacks up to that of conventional animal-based meals.

To conduct their analysis, the researchers collected data from the e-menus of 50 fast-food chains in five countries: the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Canada and Poland. Information collected from the menus included meal type, weight, calories, macronutrients, sodium, fiber and the allergen contents of items.

To compare plant-based menu items with the conventional animal-based items, researchers made sure plant-based and animal-based items were the same meal type, came from the same country and fast-food chain, and did not show a weight difference of more than 10%. Of the 2,455 total meals analyzed, more than three-quarters (1,868) met the criteria to establish a match.

The results showed plant-based meals typically had less protein and sodium compared to their animal-based counterparts, as well as more carbohydrates, sugar and fiber. Neither group — plant- or animal-based — was associated with higher caloric content. The groups contained similar amounts of fat and saturated fat.

The researchers went further to analyze the prevalence of allergens in plant-based menu items versus animal-based items. Animal-based meals more frequently contained allergens such as dairy, eggs, fish, shellfish and mustard, while plant-based options more likely contained allergens like sesame, seeds and nuts.

The findings, the researchers contended, underline the importance of making informed choices at fast-food restaurants.

“As the food landscape undergoes transformations, it becomes imperative to understand what people consume, especially when opting for seemingly healthier choices such as plant-based meals,” the researchers wrote.

About the Author(s)

Rachel French

Contributing writer

Rachel French joined Informa’s Health & Nutrition Network in 2013. Her career in the natural products industry started with a food and beverage focus before transitioning into her role as managing editor of Natural Products Insider, where she covered the dietary supplement industry. French left Informa Markets in 2019, but continues to freelance for both FBI and NPI.

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