Vegetarian fast food is growing in demand.
Whilst there are clear health benefits to plant-based living, a herbivorous outlook does not have to be an exclusively healthy one.
Here, we take a look at the growing demand for vegetarian fast food – and why the fast food industry needs to listen.
Our love of fast food explained
There are many reasons for our modern love affair with fast food - speed, price, convenience and, above all, taste.
Fast food is designed to make us feel good, containing high levels of fat, salt, sugar and many other dangerously delicious ingredients.
While large amounts aren't advisable for a healthy diet, the reaction they provoke is instantaneous and gratifying.
The modern fast food industry is essentially a box-ticking exercise for our pleasure receptors. Every famous franchise has found a way to deliver the right combination of tastes and textures that keep us coming back for more.
The challenge for vegetarian fast food
For some cultures, vegetables are absolutely integral. However, they have often been maligned in the modern Western world – where indulgence is synonymous with fried.
Science can help explain this divide. Vegetables are clearly not as salty, fatty or sugary as meaty alternatives. They also lack the more naturally stringy, chewable texture of flesh, which makes for a different eating experience.
But it's not just the difference in taste and texture that vegetarian options must overcome. Despite how essential vegetable dishes have been throughout history, there is a new, modern and peculiarly Western attitude to vegetarianism and veganism.
Often, vegetarian and vegan diets are unfairly labelled as pretentious lifestyle choices. Unfortunately, this is not what people want from their comfort food.
All in all, vegetarian fast food has faced an uphill campaign to win hearts and minds, challenge common misconceptions and overcome an inconvenient scientific reality.
The rise of vegetarian fast food
Perhaps the earliest attempt at Westernised vegetarian fast food was the veggie burger.
The DNA of the modern veggie burger is in many ancient Eurasian cuisines.
But it wasn't until the 1980s that what many of us would consider as the archetypal example was created.
The patty has many forms, and can be made from beans, mushrooms, legumes or grains. When the first version was created in London, the invention quickly took over to become the staple vegetarian option of fast food.
Though the veggie burger was undoubtedly a game-changer, it still lacked something - the intangible and unique texture of “meatiness”. Somewhere between sinewy and soft, this quality is impossible to replicate through a “traditional” vegetarian approach.
Unaltered fruit and vegetables simply do not have this consistency. This is why vegetarian food companies are trying to replicate the “feel” of meat. In recent years, this has given rise to a new batch of meat alternatives.
What is seitan?
Arguably the most successful modern meat surrogate is seitan.
Though seitan has been around since the 6th Century, its use in Western fast food is relatively new.
Seitan provides both the chewy consistency and the structure to handle cooking techniques such as deep frying. These attributes have helped the western fast food industry embrace the product with open arms.
In London, restaurants like Temple of Seitan go to show the popularity and potential of the meat substitute. It's fair to say that products like seitan have helped veggie options become a staple on fast food menus.
The future of vegetarian fast food
Vegetarian fast food has come a long way over the last ten years.
In fact, it has helped challenge our perceptions of what junk food has to be.
Today, there are a host of companies developing new ways to take veggie food to the next level.
With global concerns about the amount of meat we’re eating, meat supplements could takeover the food industry.
Bearing this in mind, it seems unlikely that we will be able to taste the difference.