Could McDonald’s Replace Beef Burgers With Seitan? Would Anyone Notice?

When Friday rolls around, I sometimes like to write harebrained posts postulating some kind of zany idea. So here’s today’s:

I ate at an airport McDonald’s the other day for the first time in ages. It was at once delicious and disturbing. I looked at the beef. Was it really beef? I mean, seriously, it was definitely some kind of beef-flavored-matter, and the advertisement did say 100% beef. But as I walked off with that greasy post-McDonald’s flavor (that lasts for hours) in the mouth, I got to thinking: that patty was almost no different than the wheat or soy-based stuff used to make vegan food (seitan and so on).

I walked away 100% convinced that McDonald’s could replace all its beef with beef-flavored seitan and NO ONE would notice the difference. McDonald’s would save a fortune, health would be improved, and the carbon and resource footprint of McDonald’s would be massively slashed.

Does anyone think I’m right?

It’s not that I’m against eating meat in moderation. But everyone knows that eating lots of meat, especially the highly processed, ultra cheap, ground beef McDonald’s uses, is not healthy. Not only that, but it’s phenomenally costly to the environment at large. Read some Michael Pollen if you need to catch up.

I decided to Google around and think about the impacts…

Seitan, aka wheat gluten, is often used as a “mock meat,” especially in Asia. You wouldn’t sit down to eat a steak of it and expect it to resemble filet mignon, but it works astonishingly well when replacing such meats as duck or cheaper cuts of beef. My theory (and grand assumption) is that the food scientists at McDonald’s could craft something out of it that would wind up being so close to a big mac burger, few would notice in a blind test. Maybe they’ve already done it.

Whether or not it’s actually “healthier” than beef probably depends on how much processing is done to it and how many additives my hypothetical McDonald’s burger might include. But in its straight form it apparently has more protein than beef, and zero fat. So right there we might take a large chunk, no pun intended, out of the world’s obesity crisis and other health epidemics.

Then there’s the small matters of water use, land use, methane production, rain-forest devastation, factory farms, antibiotics, e-coli, carbon footprints, and insane government subsidies. Each of these would be pared down hugely if a giant beef buyer like McDonald’s moved away from meat.

Fantasies, fantasies…

Of course, at the end of the day, it all comes down to marketing and the psychology of the customer. McDonald’s couldn’t legally or morally switch the patties without telling anyone, and they’d have a nightmare of Joe Sixpack rebellion on their hands if they dared try. Even if you did a blind taste test and no one could tell the difference, a lot of people would have a hard time eating something in a burger they were told was not meat. Rival chains wouldn’t help matters when they inevitably started advertising their commitment to real beef.

But maybe there’s still an opportunity. McDonald’s does in fact sell something they call the “McVeggie” in Greece of all places. It doesn’t look anything like a Big Mac, and is made of some kind of deep fried grain. Could this be an early test market for the concept? What if McDonald’s got creative with the marketing? Could they phase in veggie burgers and call them something like the “Modern Mac”?

Assuming McDonald’s commitment to sustainability is for real, the global introduction of some kind of tasty non-meat sandwich that’s bold enough to challenge the status quo might just ignite enough fire to make a real impact. It might even get rivals on board with their own veggie offerings. Market it as healthful, responsible, and fit for the 21st century. Throw in a toy Prius for the kids. Heck, they could even start importing from Brazil again and profit off the carbon credits they could earn by leaving rain forest intact.

Happy Friday.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.