This week, Burger King, the second largest burger chain in the United States, announced it will offer an Impossible Whopper — a vegetarian version of their flagship sandwich.
The new veg-friendly option uses a patty from Impossible Foods, a California-based startup that develops plant-based alternatives for meat. Despite the switcheroo and new green paper wrapper, BK wants consumers to know that the sandwich is still 100% Whopper, despite the lack of beef.
Burger King isn’t the first fast-food chain to roll out new vegetarian options based on innovative developments in the world of plant-based alternatives to meats — but it’s by far the largest to date.
Carl’s Jr. began offering a Beyond Famous Star in January of this year — a vegetarian version of their famous sandwich that uses a plant-based patty from Beyond Meat, an Impossible Foods competitor.
White Castle also has an Impossible slider available nationally since late 2018.
For now, Burger King will begin a limited run of their Impossible Whopper in 59 restaurants in and around the St. Louis area. The rollout makes Burger King the first coast-to-coast fast-food chain to use the Impossible Burger, according to a Burger King press release obtained by Healthline.
Despite being a vegetarian option, the company hasn’t been touting the food based on its health options. Instead, their message to consumers has been that you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Those sentiments were echoed by Burger King’s chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, who told The New York Times, “People on my team who know the Whopper inside and out, they try it and they struggle to differentiate which one is which.”
Is this plant-based Whopper actually any healthier for you than the meat-based version? Not really.
“Health-wise I don’t think it makes much of a difference,” Sharon Zarabi RD, director of the Bariatric Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.
“I wouldn’t define it as healthier, I would define it more as ethical,” she said.
The original Whopper clocks in at 660 calories (more than half of them coming from fat), 40 grams of fat, and 28 grams of protein. The Impossible Whopper comes in at 630 calories (again, half from fat), 34 grams of fat, and 25 grams of protein.
The Impossible Whopper does have significantly lower cholesterol — 10 milligrams compared to 90 milligrams — but has more sodium at 1,240 milligrams compared to 980 milligrams.
Over at White Castle, the Impossible slider actually contains more calories than a traditional slider. Its nutrition information is more aligned with what you’d find in a double slider.
“What contributes to obesity is your calorie intake and obviously the quality of your calories, so when you’re still getting the fries and the bun and the soda, unfortunately having an Impossible burger is not going to wipe out the calories from the other foods,” said Zarabi.
“It does equate to the same amount of calories as having the Impossible burger versus a meat-based burger,” she said.
Despite not being healthier in terms of calories and fat, the presence of plant-based alternatives available from national restaurant chains, especially those with limited options for vegetarians, is promising.
“It’s a step in the right direction as more and more studies indicate the potential harms of consuming excess red meat,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed registered dietitian who is manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Healthline.
Kirkpatrick said the rise of veggie-based burgers gives consumers more options.
“As much as I would love to say that fast food is now a thing of the past, the statement is not concurrent with consumer trends,” she said. “People are still eating fast foods, despite efforts to mitigate it. At least they have an option outside of the fried and meat options — they now have a choice. I think this is just the beginning as more people, concerned with health and environment, look for alternative options.”
Serving a plant-based burger might seem like an exercise in futility, when it sits alongside oversized sodas and fries, but on the other hand, it might be the most practical way of actually reaching consumers.
Fast food remains as popular as ever, but the willingness of brands like Burger King to take on plant-based alternatives says something significant about America’s changing attitudes toward meat and health.
“It’s nice to see a trend moving toward plant-based eating,” said Zarabi.
“I think that we’re going to see with the future of food a lot of food imposters, similar to milk. A lot of people have moved away from dairy and are now substituting with [milk alternatives], which is great, but I think a lot of people need to take a step back and ask themselves why they are swapping from one item to another and really consult with dietitians or health professionals,” she said.