Burger King has officially unveiled its first-ever vegan branch, with the fast-food chain’s flagship Leicester Square restaurant in London going completely plant-based for a month.
A few years ago, the idea of such a notoriously meat-based company embracing veganism to this extent would have been laughable. The move comes after a recent boom in demand for meat-free options in mainstream restaurants, and it feels like a genuine milestone in the vegan movement.
Predictably, though, the rise of vegan fast food hasn’t been without controversy. The new Burger King range – just like other recent similar launches – has been criticized by some for its perceived ‘unhealthiness’.
This criticism stems from a common misconception of what veganism actually is. It is often believed to be nothing more than a diet, meaning the influx of vegan fast food can be seen as redundant. By labeling it as unhealthy, many have argued that it’s pointless to choose it over its meat counterpart.
But whether or not the Plant-Based Whopper, McPlant, or any of their equivalents are ‘healthier’ than their meat versions is irrelevant. Most vegans aren’t under any illusion that their fast food is particularly ‘healthy’, and neither do they care.
Social justice movement
Veganism is a social justice movement, not a fad diet. While the overall health benefits of plant-based eating are undeniable, most people choose these options to reduce animal suffering, not to be healthy. It of course isn’t recommended to eat junk food regularly, but doing so isn’t at odds with veganism.
Just like the general public, some vegans will choose to eat ‘healthily’ all the time, some will enjoy fast food in moderation, and others will choose to eat whatever they please.
Despite this, The rise of vegan junk food has led to an influx of misguided discussions about whether or not we should choose it over meat, and many articles on the subject have come up with what they presumably think to be damning claims about the apparent unhealthiness of plant-based fast food.
Earlier this week, a paper branded vegan meat alternatives ‘the worst junk food of all’, citing the fact that they are ‘ultra-processed food’ (it’s worth noting that many breads and cereals also fall into this category).
When the Plant-Based Whopper was first introduced back in 2019, it sparked a number of articles comparing it with the original. One tabloid newspaper noted its high sodium and fat content, adding: “at the end of the day, it’s no healthier than a classic beef burger”.
A dietitian quoted in the piece also ‘recommended’ opting for beef burgers due to the “GMO foods, colors, flavorings” in the vegan option.
In an article about the McDonald’s McPlant burger, another publication described its high salt content as a “disappointing downside”. Following the launch of the Greggs vegan sausage roll, a separate article titled “Why vegan junk food might be worse for your health” described the “unseen risks” of plant-based fast food.
Cruelty and exploitation
Claims such as these have been disputed, and a number of studies have found that vegan burgers are in fact healthier than their counterparts, but this still isn’t the comparison we should be making. When weighing up the two options, we should instead be looking at their levels of cruelty.
Cows exploited and killed in the ‘beef’ industry are subjected to unimaginable torture throughout their terrible lives. Soon after they are born, calves will often have their ears tagged and horn buds painfully removed with a hot iron, and many cows will spend their entire lives on the concrete floors of factory farms.
When they are ready to be killed, usually when they are between 12 and 24 months old, they will be transported to the slaughterhouse. These journeys can take hours, and many cows will die on the way due to stress and lack of food and water. After they arrive, they will be forced into a stun box and shot in the head with a captive bolt.
This should in theory render them unconscious, but improper stunning is rife within the industry. This means that cows can often feel everything when having their throats cut, and are sometimes still alive when being skinned.
Eggs and dairy
The dairy cheese in a regular burger is taken from a cow who was repeatedly impregnated by artificial insemination until her worn-out body was sent to the slaughterhouse. Just like humans, cows form powerful bonds with their babies, and will often bellow and cry out for them for days when the farmer takes them away hours after birth so humans can take their milk.
If your burger contains mayonnaise, it comes from an industry that routinely puts newly-hatched male chicks in an industrial macerator that grinds them up alive because they’re ‘surplus’ to requirements. The female hens have been selectively bred to produce 300 eggs a year (as opposed to the 10-15 they naturally would), meaning they suffer from osteoporosis and broken bones due to calcium deficiency.
Egg-laying hens generally spend most of their lives in cramped barns with thousands of other birds, and the air will be thick with ammonia from their waste.
When faced with the reality of where meat burgers come from, the idea of disregarding vegan versions for vague and disputed claims of their relative ‘unhealthiness’ seems absurd.
A philosophy and way of life
If you’ve been vegan for any length of time, you’ll be well-accustomed to being bombarded with unsolicited comments about your health.
We’re all used to being told veganism will make us ill and having strangers demand to know where we get our protein from, but now we’re being asked why we’re choosing such ‘unhealthy’ junk food, not in line with our supposed healthy eating plan. This further demonstrates that, when it comes to criticism of our lifestyle, we really cannot win.
The definition of veganism, as outlined by The Vegan Society, is “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
There are, of course, people who go plant-based purely for health reasons – and this is a very legitimate route to take – but the vast majority of vegans aren’t any more interested in healthy eating than the average person. While living off nothing but vegan burgers is probably unwise, and we should of course all aim to eat a balanced diet, this criticism of our food is unwarranted and pointless.