Business

Plant-based eggs join meatless options at Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons is testing an eggless, vegan omelette with customers. If it's a hit, the product will join the growing number of plant-based fast food items being served up to meet a demand for less meat.

Customers are buying in because the alternatives to meat taste like the real thing

Saliy Shaker-Elmes, her husband Matthew Elmes and son Yusef are vegans. (Submitted by Saliy Shaker-Elmes)

As a committed vegan, Saliy Shaker-Elmes' menu choices are limited. So she was pleased to discover this week that her local Tim Hortons now offers its meatless breakfast sandwich with a vegan-friendly topping: a plant-based, eggless omelette.

"It is such a step forward," said Shaker-Elmes, who lives in Kitchener, Ont. "These businesses are becoming more aware that there is a demand."

Tim Hortons is testing the fake omelette — made with mung bean protein isolate — in two regions in southern Ontario. If it's a hit, the product will join the Beyond Meat plant-based burger and breakfast sausage already on the menu at Tim Hortons and A&Ws across Canada.

The fast food chains are meeting a growing demand for plant-based proteins from Canadians who've cut out or cut back their meat consumption, often for health reasons.

It's questionable what nutritional value customers will get from plant-based meals prepared at a fast food chain. But the menu items appear to be winning over customers on taste. California-based supplier Beyond Meat has designed its pea-protein burgers and sausages to taste just like meat.

"It basically tastes good," said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. "It's not like the veggie burger of McDonald's a few years ago."

Tim Hortons is testing a new plant-based omelette at select stores as it looks to cash in on the meatless meal craze. (Submitted by Saliy Shaker-Elmes)

McDonald's introduced a McVeggie Deluxe soy-based burger in 2002 and quietly dropped it from the menu three years later due to soft sales. 

Charlebois has a theory why it bit the dust: "It was disgusting," he recalled. "That's what changed with Beyond Meat. They actually provided the market with a half-decent product for the first time."

Vegan omelette tasty, too

Shaker-Elmes says Tim Hortons' eggless omelette is also tasty — just like the real thing. "It's so really good," she said after trying it twice. "They're doing something outside of the box."

The omelette is supplied by Just, a California-based company that's also selling its eggless product in the U.S. and parts of Asia. 

Tim Hortons wouldn't comment on how the product is faring with customers. 

"As we continue to test and get feedback, we will consider expanding plant-based options into other menu items," spokesperson Jane Almeida said in an email to CBC News. 

A&W is also considering beefing up its plant-based options — as long as customers bite. 

"We're looking all the time," CEO Susan Senecal said during a conference call with analysts this week. "We're interested in anything that tastes great and that meets our guests' needs."

Going flexitarian

According to a recent survey by Dalhousie University, many Canadians are hungry for meatless alternatives. 

Out of 1,027 people polled in September, only seven per cent identified themselves as strict non-meat eaters. However, another 10 per cent said they were flexitarians — vegetarians who occasionally eat meat. 

On top of that, more than half of respondents said they would be willing to cut down on eating meat, and almost one-third said they intended to reduce their meat consumption within the next six months.

Tim Hortons' plant-based Beyond burger has 1,060 milligrams of sodium and nine grams of saturated fat. (Tim Hortons)

Charlebois was the study's primary investigator. He says the growing number of meat eaters cutting back is key in driving fast food sales of Beyond Meat's plant-based products. 

"They're still attached to meat," he said. "[They're] looking for the product that tastes like the product they're attached to, but with less guilt."

According to the Dalhousie survey, reasons behind the guilt include concerns over animal welfare and the environmental impact of livestock farming. Health benefits were the top reason people gave for curbing their meat intake.

For optimal health, Canada's new food guide advises eating less processed and fatty meat and more plant-based protein foods.

But there are questions concerning the added health benefits of processed plant-based products, especially ones served at a fast food chain, because they're often high in sodium and saturated fat — just like their meaty counterparts. 

However, that doesn't appear to be a deal breaker for customers such as Joe Schwarcz. He isn't a vegetarian, but he's trying to eat more plant-based foods for health reasons. 

He recently did a blind taste test comparing A&W's Beyond Meat burger with its Teen beef burger, and found little difference in taste.

"They've managed to make it taste decent," said Schwarcz, a chemistry professor and director of McGill University's office for science and society.

McGill chemistry Prof. Joe Schwarcz recommends eating a plant-based fast food burger for environmental reasons. (Submitted by Joe Schwarcz)

However, Schwarcz isn't thrilled with the burger's high sodium content: 1,110 milligrams when served with all the trimmings, which is higher than most of its beef burgers. The Tim Hortons Beyond burger tops out at 1,060 milligrams.

The plant-based breakfast sandwiches at both chains also tend to be high in saturated fat. 

But Schwarcz said the fast food items can still be enjoyed as an occasional treat — one that could be less taxing on the environment. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock accounts for nearly 15 per cent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

"Don't think that you're doing your health much good by eating this," he said. "But you may be doing the environment some good."

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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