From chicken nuggets to cheeseburgers, there’s been an explosion in plant-based meat-alternative options at fast food chains across the country. This is due in large part to producers like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, who have created incredibly realistic plant-based proteins that look, smell, and taste similar to the real thing.
These companies are fueling most of the new options out there, and their proteins are so convincing, they make it easy to go meatless when you’re on the road grabbing a quick bite. And they let you satisfy that burger craving without making a big sacrifice in flavor or texture.
Although these proteins are plant-based, using pea or soy protein, they’re not exactly health food. Often, they have more calories and fat than regular meat. And although they make a protein-packed fast-food meal a viable option for vegetarians and vegans, most fast-food companies say their plant-based proteins aren’t guaranteed vegetarian or vegan since there can be cross contamination.
Since faux meat products are proven to have a smaller environmental impact than beef, these new options are mostly aimed at the growing number of omnivores who want to eat less meat for the environment. One University of Michigan study found a Beyond Burger uses 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions and 99 percent less water than a beef burger.
So we tried the new plant-based meat-alternative offerings at five of the biggest fast food chains to see which ones were worth swapping out for your usual favorite—and worth your hard-earned dollars too (yes, they’re more expensive than their traditional meat counterparts). Read on to find out which ones we’d happily order again.
KFC: Beyond Fried Chicken Nuggets
- What it’s made of: Instead of chicken, these nuggets are made with Beyond Meat brand plant-based chicken alternative. Although Beyond Meat’s retail version of plant-based chicken tenders is composed primarily of pea protein, the nuggets they’ve made for KFC are made of soy protein and wheat, according to KFC’s website.
- Where to find it: They launched nationwide January 2022 after test-run popups in Atlanta, Nashville, Charlotte, and Southern California. They’re now available in six- or 12-piece orders either a la carte or in a combo meal with medium fries and a medium drink. Prices start at $6.99 plus tax.
- Review: Thanks to the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices, these nuggets are quite good. The breading is the main source of flavor and it’s not the least bit soggy or mushy. If you like the savory, black-peppery, and satisfyingly crispy coating on KFC’s fried chicken items, you’ll like these.
The “meat” itself is noticeably dense and not as tender and juicy as a regular chicken nugget, but the breading makes up for it. Plus, you get your choice of dipping sauce—Honey BBQ, Ranch, Honey Mustard and KFC Sauce—and the nuggets were great with each one. I also tried them with sriracha mayo and teriyaki sauce from my home fridge and found the nuggets really go with anything.
Nutritionally, the six plant-based nuggets have more calories and fat than McDonald’s chicken nuggets (480 calories, 27g fat, 36g protein) but they also have a lot more protein. They cost $7.99.
Burger King: Impossible Whopper
- What it’s made of: The Impossible brand plant-based beef alternative patties made for Burger King seem to be made from the same ingredients as the patties the brand sells in retail stores. They’re composed of water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and natural flavors.
- Where to find it: The Impossible Whopper launched in August 2019 and is now available at Burger King locations nationwide.
- Review: Even regular Whoppers are pretty basic—no cheese, no mustard, not even “secret sauce.” Just a patty topped with shredded lettuce and slices of tomato, onion, and pickles, with swipes of mayo and ketchup on the bun. As such, their success relies heavily on a tasty patty. Unfortunately, the Impossible patty in this format isn’t very tasty.
I’ve had plenty of really good Impossible burgers at restaurants and pubs, where the patties are thick, so they seem juicy, and a host of flavor-packed condiments happily steal the show. But in the Whopper format, the patties were rather thin and dry, like a school cafeteria burger, and there was nothing else about this burger that could make up for it. It would be better if Burger King allowed customers to swap out the beef for the Impossible patty on its other, more interesting, offerings that feature things like onion rings and barbecue sauce.
The nutrition profile is almost the same as a regular whopper, but the price is over a dollar more ($8.19). As lackluster as Impossible Whopper is, at least it doesn’t taste overtly like soy protein, as many other faux meat patties can. It just doesn’t really taste like anything.
Starbucks: Impossible Breakfast Sandwich
- What it’s made of: The Impossible brand sausage patty on Starbucks’ breakfast sandwich is made of the brand’s usual recipe of water, soy protein concentrate, sunflower oil, and coconut oil. But the sausage has far more flavors and spices than its plain beef alternatives.
- Where to find it: After launching in June 2020, the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich is now available in Starbucks outlets nationwide, although the selection can vary by location.
- Review: Overall this is a tasty breakfast sandwiches. The Impossible sausage patty is very well spiced and yet balanced. The texture and flavor were very realistic for a sausage patty—more so than some other vegetarian “sausage” patties I’ve had in the past. It wasn’t the least bit greasy but also wasn’t dry. Paired with melted cheddar and an egg patty on a tender yet chewy ciabatta roll, it was a satisfying combo.
How does it stack up nutritionally to Starbucks’ other egg-and-ciabatta-bun breakfast sandwich? The Bacon, Gouda & Egg has 60 less calories and 4g less fat but also 3 grams less protein. But it also costs a dollar less than the $5.45 I paid for the Impossible Breakfast Sandwich.
Chipotle: Plant-Based Chorizo
- What it’s made of: Instead of pork used in traditional chorizo, or the soy protein used to make the “soyrizo” alternatives you find at grocery stores, Chipotle’s plant-based chorizo is made from pea protein (no soy), plus chipotle peppers, tomato paste, garlic, and smoked paprika for flavor. Compared to some other faux meat alternatives, the ingredients label is comfortingly recognizable.
- Where to find it: It debuted on the menu in January 2022, joining the soy-based “sofritas” as a plant-based protein option aside from beans. It’s available nationwide for a limited time.
- Review: Flavorwise, this chorizo alternative pales in comparison to traditional pork chorizo and even the Soyrizo we frequently buy at Trader Joe’s. It just doesn’t pack enough of a punch of rich chile flavor. It also has a slight edge of bitterness. In terms of texture, it’s like chewy, dry crumbles and it doesn’t get crispy like traditional chorizo can. For those who want to avoid soy, and meat, but want more protein than just beans can provide, this is a fine alternative. The chorizo gets lost in a burrito (in my opinion this is actually a good thing). It stands out better in one of Chipotle’s salad and burrito bowls.
With 16 grams of protein per 4 ounce serving, the plant-based chorizo has double the protein of Chipotle’s other plant-based meat (sofritas), but it also has more calories (220) and carbohydrates (16g). At $9.20 for a chorizo-based burrito bowl, it’s about a dollar more than the chicken, pork, and sofritas options, and closer in price to the beef.
Carl’s Jr.: Beyond Famous Star with Cheese
- What it’s made of: The Beyond Burger patty is made mostly from water, pea protein, mung bean protein, rice protein, canola oil, and coconut oil. According to Beyond, there’s no GMOs, soy, gluten or bioengineered ingredients.
- Where to find it: It debuted in 2019 and is available at Carl’s Jr stores nationwide.
- Review: This is a classic burger and quite delicious for a fast-food outlet. One taster said it tasted like a “backyard burger.” The Beyond meat patty doesn’t taste beefy, but it’s close enough in texture and flavor to seem like the real thing. And the accompaniments were high quality—crisp slices of onion and lettuce, thick slices of tomato and dill pickle, melted American cheese, special sauce and ketchup with a fluffy bun that wasn’t squished and sad. Unlike the slap-dash look of burgers at other fast-food outlets we’ve tried, where they are clearly assembled in advance and left to steam into oblivion under a heat lamp, this one looked like it was assembled to order and wrapped with care.
The Beyond Famous Star with Cheese costs $7.99, which is about $2 more than a regular Famous Star with Cheese. It also has 100 more calories, 7 grams more fat and 5 grams more protein. Carl’s Jr. says for an additional fee, you can substitute a Beyond Burger patty for the beef or chicken on any of their sandwiches, giving customers a much bigger array of plant-based menu items than most other chains.
More Plant-Based Options at Fast Food Chains
The five fast food chains offering plant-based options on their menus above are just the beginning, Here are seven other fast food chains that have hopped on the plant-based wagon (and what they’re offering). As the year progresses, we’re bound to see even more.
Quiznos’ Plant Based Corned Beef: The Unreal Cali Sub features plant-based corned beef from Mrs. Goldfarb’s Unreal Deli, but it’s currently only available at select locations in Washington and Denver. The sandwich comes with provolone, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, onions, ranch dressing on a toasted roll in 4-, 8-, and 12-inch sizes. Unreal Deli corned beef is made with wheat gluten, chickpeas, beets, tomatoes.
Little Caesars’ Plant-Based Pepperoni Pizza: The Planteroni Pizza swaps out regular pepperoni for Field Roast brand plant-based pepperoni slices, which are made with wheat gluten, potato protein and pea protein. The plant-based pepperoni is also a topping option on any build-it-yourself pizza. Right now, it’s only available in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Portland, OR, and Detroit locations.
McDonald’s McPlant Burger: McDonalds is currently testing out its McPlant burger in select locations in Iowa, Texas, Louisiana, Southern California and most recently the San Francisco Bay Area. The burger has a Beyond Meat patty (pea protein based) with tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, and American cheese.
Subway’s Beyond Meatball Marinara Sub: Available for a limited time in select locations, the meatballs for this warm, marinara-topped sandwich are made with Beyond meat (pea protein based) with Subway’s “proprietary” blend of breadcrumbs and spices.