Decent vegetarian fast food options are few and far between. In a burger-mad world, vegetarians are regulated to the fast food sidelines, where sad pre-made salads await (once you pick the dry strips of chicken out of them). But in a move to court plant eaters, Taco Bell is touting its vegetarian options as an oasis in a sea of meat.
Taco Bell recently ran a blog post proudly highlighting its meatless offerings, 11 of which were certified vegetarian by the American Vegetarian Association last October in a first for a fast food restaurant. The AVA allows for dairy and eggs, so vegetarians that abide by their rules aren't banished to some queso-less burrito desert. Among the vegetarian-approved items are "Veggie Power Burritos" and quesadillas.
Vegetarians present a $2.8 billion dollar opportunity to restaurants, and a lot of fast food joints are leaving cash on the table. McDonald's doesn't offer a veggie burger in the US, for example. But fast food restaurants may be realizing that they're missing out. Wendy's has started to roll out a black bean burger at a few locations, and Burger King has been doing the same with a veggie burger for a few years.
McDonald's made a half-assed effort to test a veggie burger in some US locations in the early 2000s and continues to sell them abroad, but stateside, no one was buying them—former CEO Don Thompson said that stores were selling about four a day. But veggie burger technology has improved significantly, maybe things will change with Impossible Foods' "bloody" plant-based burger or Beyond Burger's in-demand Beyond Burger, made with pea protein.
But Taco Bell has fared differently, thanks in part to the staples and malleability of Mexican cuisine, and has been something of a vegetarian haven for some time. The chain sells 350 million vegetarian items each year.
"Our bean burrito is our second most sold item on our menu—so even people who are not vegetarians are eating vegetarian at Taco Bell," Taco Bell spokesperson Alec Boyle told MUNCHIES. "You can customize nearly any menu item at Taco Bell to make it vegetarian-friendly by substituting beans for meat."
Strict vegetarians eating at fast food restaurants may still need to be careful—some seemingly meat-free items are cooked in the same oil as meat, which may cross a line for some. But vegetarians, who are by necessity expert label-readers, probably already know that.
Julieanna Hever, a vegetarian dietitian and the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition, told MUNCHIES that she applauds Taco Bell for highlighting their vegetarian options. "Because of their wide accessibility around the country, it improves the ease for vegetarians to find options while on the go," she wrote in an e-mail. "For restaurants to stay on top of trends, with 12 percent of Millennials faithfully vegetarian and 36 percent of Americans eating meat and dairy alternatives, it will be in their favor to offer more plant-based dishes."
Hever says the growing popularity of plant-based meat and dairy imitation products will make it even easier for restaurants to add a substitute for animal products, similar to the beans-for-meat substitute at Taco Bell. "Places like Chipotle have simplified this model."
Maybe we'll see more vegetarian items at fast food restaurants as they latch onto health trends and seize an economic opportunity. But for all the vegans out there: Sorry, you're still probably out of luck.