How healthy is vegetarian fast food?
It's simple to eat healthy food at home, but what are your chances when eating out? If you're vegetarian – or just want to reduce your meat intake and choose healthier food when you're out and about – what are you faced with at the big fast food chains?
For starters, don't make the mistake of assuming the veggie meal will be the healthiest option on the menu – or even that it'll be suitable for vegetarians. Some of the big name chains don't even give vegos a look-in on the menu, and when they do, the options are often limited.
We give you the lowdown on:
Cheese as a kind of meat: the problem with protein
Fast food chains are often guilty of creating a vegetarian meal by simply replacing the meat protein component of the dish with cheese
. The result can be tasty, but it also bumps up both the salt and saturated fat content of the meal.
Pizzas are prime examples. Eating just one slice can contribute a sizeable chunk to the maximum recommended intake of both salt and saturated fat, but chewing through two or more slices can break the nutritional bank – don't even contemplate ordering these with the cheesy crusts.
Cheese can even play havoc with a salad, boosting the saltiness of a regular bowl of greens to nearly the total maximum recommended daily intake of sodium.
Look for veggie offerings using plant protein sources, as these tend to be more nutritious. Protein sources such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, nuts and tofu are higher in fibre, antioxidants and other protective phytochemicals – without the sodium and saturated fat of cheese.
May contain traces of cow
Strictly speaking, foods that contain animal by-products such as gelatine, animal-derived rennet and animal fat are a no-no for vegetarians. The frequently cheese-laden veggie menu items in particular are a potential minefield for herbivores, as cheese commonly contains animal-derived rennet.
In 2012 we surveyed the major fast food chains asking if any of its non-meat menu items contain animal by-products.
- McDonald's famously once used beef tallow as its frying oil, but told us it now uses a vegetable oil blend to cook its fries.
- Hungry Jack's told us it doesn't market any of its products as vegetarian and that the cheese in its Veggie Burger may contain animal rennet. Its website states that both the cheese and the patty contain animal rennet, but Hungry Jack's didn't respond to our requests for confirmation.
- The four pizzas on the Domino's menu marked 'V' for vegetarian all come with animal-rennet-free cheese.
- Subway told us its cheese contains animal rennet – but its vegetarian menu options are cheese-free.
- Only Go Sushi and SumoSalad told us its non-meat menu items are free from animal by-products.
The remaining chains didn't respond to our queries.
According to Vegetarian Victoria, there are many different forms of vegetarianism
- pure vegetarians – eat vegetables, vegetable oils, grains, legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas and dried or canned beans), soy products (such as tofu and tempeh), nuts, fruit and seeds, but no meat, poultry, fish, seafood, milk, dairy products or eggs (honey is usually seen as being optional).
- lacto-ovo-vegetarians – don't eat meat, poultry, fish or seafood, but still eat milk, dairy products and eggs.
- vegans – exclude animal products from their entire lifestyle (including honey, wool and leather clothing, for example).
Which fast-food chains cater to vegetarians?
The 2012 survey results saw the chains fall into one of four categories for their vegetarian offerings:
- KFC and Red Rooster declined to participate in our survey, saying that vegetarian options aren't part of their primary offering. So unless you're happy to cobble together a meal by ordering sides like fries, mashed potato, coleslaw, corn cobs, peas, dinner rolls and/or garlic bread, vegetarians are better off eating elsewhere.
- McDonald's told us that the majority of its McCafe menu items are suitable for vegetarians, but they class them as snacks, and the McCafe menu isn't available at all McDonald's outlets. There are no vegetarian offerings on its regular menu other than sides such as a garden salad or fries.
The meat-free offerings from these chains contained ingredients which render them unsuitable for vegetarians.
- Hungry Jack's Veggie Burger contains 66% of the maximum recommended daily sodium intake, a hefty serving of saturated fat (45% of the recommended intake – Hungry Jack's has meat options with less), and more kilojoules per serve than all other vegetarian meals in our review – 34% of the recommended intake. More to the point, both the cheese and the veggie patty in the burger contain animal rennet.
- The Noodle Box website states that all meals can be made vegetarian, but its online menu shows just one veggie main – the Gung Ho Soy Box. However its allergen guide reveals that the sauce in this dish contains crustacea. And if you're trying to limit your intake of kilojoules, fat and sodium, then serving size is key. A large Gung Ho Soy Box contains 42% more sodium, kilojoules and saturated fat than a small, which already contains almost three quarters of the maximum recommended daily intake of sodium.
Vego question mark
These chains didn't respond to our survey, and while they do have veggie menu items we can't guarantee the ingredients are free from animal by-products.
- Nando's offers a veggie patty which you can have either in pita or as a burger, according to its website. The Vege Pita is the healthier (and smaller) option, providing fewer kilojoules and less sat fat and sodium than the Vego Burger.
- Oporto doesn't have vegetarian options as part of its primary offering, a representative told us, though its Veggie Burger is one of just seven burgers on the menu. Unfortunately for vegetarians, it has more saturated fat than any – and more sodium than most – of Oporto's single and double fillet meat burgers. And of the vegetarian meals we reviewed, only the Hungry Jack's Veggie Burger has more kilojoules.
- Pizza Hut has one vegetarian pasta and eight different meat-free pizza toppings on the menu. As at Dominos, even the healthier options push the boundaries with kilojoules, saturated fat and sodium, so limiting the number of slices you eat and avoiding the cheesy toppings and cheese-stuffed crusts is important. Choosing the Mia Veggie (Perfecto crust) over the Signature Four Cheese (Perfecto crust) reduces your saturated fat intake by 62%.
Vegos get a look-in
- Domino's flags four pizzas on its menu as vegetarian. The healthiest of these options still make a sizeable contribution to your intake of kilojoules, saturated fat and sodium, so limit the number of slices you eat and avoid cheese-packed extras. You can reduce your saturated fat intake by 78% by choosing the Vegorama (Classic crust) over the Simply Cheese (Square Puff crust), for example.
- Go Sushi has five options on the menu suitable for vegetarians. The hazard with sushi rolls is the salt – just one 110g Vegie Deluxe Sushi Roll has 689mg sodium, or 30% of the maximum recommended daily intake. So if you're watching your salt intake its best to stop at one roll – and refrain from adding a squeeze of soy sauce.
- Subway's menu has two vegetarian fillings available in the form of a sub, wrap or salad – although all menu items can be tailored to your requirements on request, and you can pile up a sandwich just with salad items if you prefer. The veggie menu items are cheese-free, but don't be tempted to ask for a slice as Subway uses cheese containing rennet. The dressings and sauces on offer also bump up the kilojoules, saturated fat and sodium, so pass on these when they're offered.
- SumoSalad has abundant vegetarian options – over 30 at our count. While the options are generally healthy, a few have nutritional drawbacks, such as the 11.9g saturated fat (50% of the recommended daily intake) in its Pear, Brie & Rocket Long Roll and the 1908mg sodium (83% of the maximum recommended daily intake) in its Balsamic Beetroot Salad (regular).
All nutrition data referred to above is per serve. Where the serve size options were small, regular and large we used information for regular, and if the options were small and large we've used small.
The total daily intake for the average adult is 8700kJ, 24g saturated fat and 2300mg sodium – but needs vary depending on your gender, size and activity level. Requirements for many people will be much lower.
Choosing healthy vegetarian fast food
Accredited practising dietitian Kate Marsh gave us her top tips for choosing the healthiest vegetarian fast foods:
- Be mindful of cheese overloads – steering clear of cheesy pizzas and salads and removing the cheese from burgers will help keep salt and saturated fat to a minimum.
- Avoid deep-fried veggie foods (spring rolls, fried tofu, tempura veggies) and creamy sauces or dressings – these can be as fatty as meat-based items.
- Look for alternative protein sources on the menu, such as lentils, chick peas, tofu, soy beans and other beans or nuts – not just dairy and veggies.
- Add a vitamin-C rich food to your meals such as citrus fruit, tomatoes, a green salad, capsicum, salad sprouts or berries. Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron, so it's particularly beneficial when you're getting your iron from non-meat sources where it's less readily available.
- Wholegrains such as quinoa, barley, cracked wheat, brown rice and wholegrain breads add valuable nutrition to vegetarian meals.
- Tailor your order to your own requirement. Often you can ask them to remove the meat (and cheese if you're vegan), use wholegrain instead of white bread for extra fibre, get them to hold the sauce, mayo or other dressings to further reduce fat and salt content, or even ask for extra veg or salad to get more vitamins and minerals.
- Opt for the smallest serving size to help keep your kilojoule, saturated fat and sodium intake in check.
Looking for vegetarian fast food?
The following chains that we came across during our research may be worth checking out:
- Grill'd (ACT, NSW, QLD, VIC, WA) offers a selection of genuinely vegetarian burgers.
- Falafels reign at chains Sabbaba (NSW) and Ali Baba (ACT, NSW, QLD, VIC), with Ali Baba even going to the extent of using different equipment and utensils to prepare vegetarian meal options to avoid cross-contamination. All menu items at falafel chain Maoz (WA) are vegetarian friendly.
- The entire menu at Lord of the Fries (VIC, NSW) is 100% vegetarian – made from textured vegetable protein, they have patties and hot dogs with the taste and texture of beef and chicken.
- A hot dog vendor is unlikely to be a vegetarian's first port of call, but the potato, smoked apple & sage offering from Snagstand (NSW, VIC) may change this.
- Pie Face (ACT, NSW, VIC, QLD) has vegetarian pies, sausage rolls and other savouries on the menu.
And even if you're not vegetarian, finding healthy fast food isn't easy, as you'll see in our fast food survival guide.