The Sad State of Plant-Based Eating at Big Chain Restaurants

Trying to eat meatless at travel plazas...good luck

I recently drove across the country to move from New Jersey to Oregon. My biggest worry was my cat, who, after making some valiant attempts at escape, resigned herself each day to a cramped, half-sleep mode in her carrier. But my major annoyance came from the food options on Interstate 80. Major chain restaurants dominate the travel plazas, often with abbreviated menus--not that it would have helped to have the entire menu when you're looking for plant-based foods. Let's just say that in some of the "I" states, I had to piece together uninspiring bread, limp chopped vegetables, and nasty bottled salad dressing to put something in my stomach. I was so happy to get to a kitchen in Oregon so I could cook for myself.

Marketing, food science and convenience conceal the dangers

The fast food industry offers very inexpensive food all hours of the day, ready within minutes of your order, and usually with a smile. The convenience is hard to resist. Their food scientists create alluring tastes, textures and aromas that mask the dangers lurking beneath. The millions of dollars the companies spend on marketing has help embed their brands in our psyches, to the point that in one study with preschoolers, most of the children liked foods more if they were told the foods were from McDonald’s. The companies may call their food "happy meals," but most of what they offer presents a major risk to the health of this country. For a summary of what, exactly, is in chicken nuggets, see here, and for what's in fast-food burgers, see here.

Top dozen chain restaurants's plant-based offerings are abysmal, except for two of them

After my drive across country, I switched into research mode and found out which chains were the largest and what each one offered. My first pass covered the twelve largest chain restaurants, starting with McDonalds, which took in over $35 billion over the last year, far ahead of the next highest, Starbucks, at $13 billion. The two places that came out best in the top-grossing dozen were Panera and Taco Bell. You can actually get a decent plant-based entree or two at these places, although they don't offer near the selection of plant-based options as they do for animal-product options. The other ten chains are pretty hopeless, with McDonald's earning a special badge of shame because they are so massive and offer such a pathetic choice of plant-based dishes. You really can't call them "dishes"--more like "accessory foods": oatmeal (no milk or cream), apple slices, a side salad, and a plain bagel.

Supply and demand--it's our choice

These restaurants will change only if people stop going to them and/or demand plant-based options (they all have ways to contact them from their websites). As author and professor Michael Pollan has said many times, "The wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day." We all need to think carefully about our votes every day. 

For a copy of the short guide to the top dozen chain restaurants, see here

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