The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat aren't healthier. Fast food's meatless marvels are just P.R.

The fast food industry's latest trend is offering vegetarian takes on old standards, with none of the health benefits of vegetables.
Image: Meatless products
Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Erika Nicole Kendall

The impossible isn’t in any sandwich — it’s in changing the American perspective on meat.

Fast-food restaurants across the country are embracing a meat-free mentality nowadays, with several big brands adding meatless sandwiches to their menus. Burger King was among the first to do so, partnering with plant-based burger brand Impossible Foods to create the Impossible Whopper.

Many other brands since then have announced that they will be followed suit. Subway said they are introducing plant-based meatballs from Beyond Meat to create the Beyond Meatball Marinara Sub. White Castle’s Impossible Slider, Carl’s Jr.’s Beyond Famous Star, The Cheesecake Factory’s own Impossible Burger, Del Taco’s Beyond Meat tacos and now KFC’s Beyond Chicken are all meat-free options here now or forthcoming for the person looking to grab something a little healthier on the go.

The challenge here is that these offerings aren’t actually any healthier. The Impossible Whopper, for instance, not only has comparable caloric and fat levels as its meat-based counterpart, but it has more salt per serving; the Del Taco options are comparable. The Impossible Slider has more calories, more fat and more sodium than the meaty original (before you add cheese to either).

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In fact, when you start to compare all of these offerings to their meat-based counterparts, you realize it’s the same story no matter what brands you’re talking about — you might possibly save a few calories or carbs, but you'll probably get way more salt.

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Switching from meat-based fast foods to meat-free, then, isn’t likely to help your health. As always, it's only about helping a corporation's bottom line. In an era in which the public is becoming more aware of the consequences of climate change, the conversation will inevitably turn to livestock, factory farming and the side effects of satisfying the American appetite for beef: The greenhouse gas emissions from livestock make up an estimated 14.5 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Strike one against animal meat.

Beyond that, many people are currently trying to understand why chronic illness is so prevalent. Heart disease and cases of type 2 diabetes are on the rise, no matter where you look, and research has suggested that cutting red meat and processed meats (like bologna and other deli meats) might help people facing these conditions. Strike two against meat.

And an excessive amount of salt in one's diet has been linked in several different ways to heart disease — but it’s not alone. Large quantities of dietary fat, with the potential to clog arteries in an otherwise average American, can contribute, as well. These conditions — heart disease, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes — are linked for a reason: In a diet loaded with the kinds of processed foods you’re likely to find in a big name fast-food restaurant, these conditions all pull one another into a downward spiral, dragging your health down along with them.

So people everywhere are asking themselves, Should I cut bread? What about meat? Is sugar the devil incarnate? So many are scared that they don't know how their perfectly average diets might kill them, and nobody can blame them. Most of us don't truly understand how to feed ourselves in a way that doesn’t leave us susceptible to life-threatening illnesses.

We all hope for a change in the food system that doesn't require us to do anything, and that’s where the big moneyed plant-based meat alternatives come in. Brands like Impossible Foods (a private company with both celebrity and institution investors), Beyond Meat (which recently went public but used to count Tyson Food among its investors) and Morningstar (owned by Kellogg) are theoretically solving a two-for-one problem: “Plant-based” sounds so much healthier, and plants are better for the environment than cows, right? The dual halo of “healthy” and “better for the environment” becomes something that can easily be sold, both so that people can feel like they’re eating better and so that fast food brands in need of a financial windfall can take advantage, too.

The latter is precisely what has Big Meat up in arms. A flurry of bills have been making their way through state legislatures across the country seeking to restrict the use of words like “meat,” “sausage” and “hot dog” solely to products made by “that which comes from an animal.” To make matters worse, the bills are levied as protection against “confusing” the consumer. (This is particularly rich coming from an industry that routinely lobbies against country-of-origin labels or GMO-labeling, lest consumers start making decisions that are bad for Big Food’s bottom line.)

That bottom line, though, is unfortunately what all of this all boils down to. If eating more realistic fake meat was about health, the offerings would be far lower in salt content, contain fewer calories and have a bit less dietary fat. None of them do, because the point was never to live up to the marketing of healthier eating. It was to simply act as a smooth replacement for the meat we worried about eating in our day-to-day lives.

It should be lauded that we, as a society, are trying to find ways to separate ourselves from a food product that might be causing us as well as our environment harm. But the answer is not to switch from gorging ourselves on one particular item to another because a corporation makes it easy to do so. The answer has to include consuming less — and not just buying less, but eating less as well. Our desire to overindulge might be as hard to conquer as climate change, but it isn’t impossible to make the necessary changes both for ourselves and our planet.