A Brief and Meaty History of Vegetarian Fast Food

Over the last 20 years or so, more and more Americans have decided to cut down or eliminate meet from their diets. Vegetarianism is mainstream, and fast food companies have tried to meet those dietary demands by offering meat-free items alongside their usual fare of burgers and fried chicken. It hasn’t always worked out.

The upscale burger joint Shake Shack introduced a sandwich called the ‘Shroom Burger in 2014. It looks like a burger, but it isn’t a burger—in lieu of a beef patty, it incorporates a huge portobello mushroom that’s been fried and smothered in cheese. But “vegetarian” doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy.” The ‘Shroom Burger packs nearly 500 calories, or roughly 100 more than a regular Shake Shack hamburger. Additionally, the vegetarian option contains three times as much sodium as the meat version.

In 2002, Burger King quietly added the BK Veggie Burger to its national menu. The patty is made from soy, grains, and diced vegetables and is served wit all the Whopper accouterments. It’s perpetually ranked among of Burger King’s least popular menu items, but it made enough of a splash to rile competitor McDonald’s. In 2003, the chain debuted the McVeggie as the center of a “Salads and More” menu full of supposedly healthy offerings. One problem: the McVeggie had just as many calories as a Big Mac. The second problem: Not many people sought out McDonald’s for a soy burger, and the product was gone by the end of the year.

A company called Impossible Foods produces a highly processed and seasoned meat-free patty it calls the Impossible Burger. Reportedly tasting more like real beef than any other faux-burger that came before it, the company has gotten its product into chains including Fatburger and White Castle. Miracle product that replicates the taste of beef without all the calories and fat and grazing land necessary for large-scale cattle ranching? Maybe, but the FDA won’t sign off on whether the product’s so-called “magic” ingredient is safe for human consumption. The burgers contain heme, a molecule found in large amounts in animal tissue, but in trace amounts in soybean roots. Impossible uses a genetically-modified yeast to mass produce heme, a process about which the FDA is still on the fence.

For years, hungry vegetarians stuck on a road trip with nowhere more “suitable” to eat could at least rely on McDonald’s—they sell tons of French fries, and those are just made from potatoes, oil, and salt, right? Not really. Before the fries are sent to McDonald’s HQ, the supplier adds a number of chemicals and flavoring agents…including traces of beef.