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From Taco Bell to Carl's Jr., grab-and-go vegetarian options are on the rise

Taco Bell is the first fast-food giant to be certified by the American Vegetarian Association, but expect more endorsements this year.
Image: Taco Bell
A Taco Bell in Miami International Airport. The fast-food chain claims to have 8 million vegetarian-friendly combinations on its menu.Wilfredo Lee / AP

For vegetarians, eating fast food no longer means having to make do with lettuce and tomato on a hamburger bun. Fast-food giants are debuting new menu choices in hopes of getting vegetarians and vegans to the drive-thru window.

Taco Bell claims to have 8 million vegetarian-friendly combinations on its menu and plans to unveil a new menu marketed at nonmeat eaters later this year. Carl’s Jr. added the meatless Beyond Burger to its menu last month. And it’s just the start of a meatless wave in 2019, according to Len Torine, executive director of the American Vegetarian Association.

“It’s amazing the amount of companies that have signed on,” said Torine. It’s not just being a full-time vegetarian or vegan, he added. “Meatless Mondays have now gone mainstream.”

Taco Bell, which is the only fast-food giant to have its menu certified by the AVA, said it sold 350 million vegetarian-friendly items last year, accounting for 7 percent of the items ordered at the Mexican chain.

Max Nussbaum, a vegan in Brooklyn, New York, said he stopped eating meat 11 years ago, but remained a Taco Bell devotee by using some popular menu hacks.

“I order a Crunch Wrap Supreme with black beans and no cheese or sour cream,” he said. “It’s super good. Anything on their menu, instead of meat, you can substitute beans.”

But Nussbaum said he thinks having a dedicated meatless menu, not just at Taco Bell but at other fast-food establishments, would help restaurants attract more repeat meatless customers who are there by choice, not just out of convenience.

“I would go out more, mainly for the novelty of getting fast food,” he told NBC News.

There are plenty of online resources offering up fast-food hacks for vegetarians, including a meatless steak fajita flatbread from Arby’s and a pattyless burger with grilled onions at In-N-Out Burger. Burger King has offered a veggie burger on its menu for years, which can be turned into a meatless Whopper.

“So-called plant-based eating was one the most inescapable food trends of 2018,” said Whitney Filloon, senior associate editor at Eater. “Some of that is due to health concerns, but people are also just more concerned about how the things they buy are affecting the environment — look at the recent bans on plastic straws, for instance — and it’s no secret that meat production has a huge impact on pollution. So it’s simply a matter of fast-food companies giving people what they want.”

The AVA is working with more brands, including sit-down restaurant chains, to help them certify their menus as vegetarian friendly this year, said Torine. While he was not authorized to announce who they’re working with yet, he said restaurants that earn the seal of approval must have a menu comprised of at least 25 percent meatless items.

While it’s a great start at attracting vegetarians and vegans, Filloon said time will be the ultimate test of whether this makes a difference in the bottom line at the fast-food giants, who have also been waged in a battle to win over breakfast customers.

“Whether or not Carl’s Jr. adding the faux-meat Beyond Burger to its menu or Taco Bell curating a menu of vegetarian options will actually get more customers in the door will remain to be seen, but brands like this aren’t exactly known for being healthy or environmentally friendly, so it can only help their reputations,” she said.