July 30, 2013 -- Adios meat. Hola tofu. On Monday, Chipotle Mexican Grill introduced Sofritas, the first vegan meal offered by a national fast food chain that's not a salad or a veggie burger.
The spicy, shredded, organic tofu dish sells for around $6.50 and can be mixed with rice and beans in a bowl, taco or burrito wrap. It first appeared on the menu at Chipotle's seven San Francisco locations in January. It's now available in Oregon, Washington State and Vancouver, British Columbia.
If consumers in test markets bite, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said, the chain will eventually roll out Sofritas at all 1,450 of its restaurants nationwide.
"Where we offer it, it already accounts for 4-5 percent of sales," he said. "We don't have any specific timeline but we are definitely considering making it available in other markets by the end of the year."
The new menu item should appeal to vegetarians and to vegans, who practice a stricter form of vegetarianism that eschews animal products of any kind, including dairy, eggs and honey. Arnold said Chipotle hopes that consumers who are aren't exclusively veggie eaters but are still looking for healthy options will also give it a try.
Surveys show that Chipotle could be onto something.
The most recent Harris Interactive poll conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that only about 4 percent of Americans say they never eat meat, poultry or fish, and a 2012 Gallup poll found that about 2 percent of Americans say they are vegan. However, the Harris poll revealed that an additional 47 percent eat at least one vegetarian meal per week, while an Academy of Dietetics and Nutrition survey found that half of Americans are consuming more fruits and vegetables than they did five years ago.
Charles Stahler, co-director of the Vegetarian Resource Group, said more people than ever are open to considering a vegetarian meal when they dine out, even if they aren't strictly vegetarian. Some do it for health reasons, others because of environmental concerns and others because they don't want to harm animals, he said.
"All three of these movements have grown in recent years so that vegetarianism has become more mainstream," he said.
Stahler also said "the veto factor" may help ensure Sofritas' success.
"When a group of people go out, it's more and more likely that one of them will be vegetarian, so the group has to choose a place that has at least one vegetarian option on the menu," he said. "You have to be able to please everyone in the group or they can go somewhere else."
And even someone who isn't a militant vegan can reduce the risk of chronic disease and stay leaner by eating more fruits and greens. For example, a European study of 22,000 men and women found vegans had the lowest body mass index and rate of weight gain over a five-year period, while meat eaters had the highest. Vegetarians and semi-vegetarians fell somewhere in between.
However, just because you remove meat from your diet, doesn't necessarily mean you are eating a more healthy diet, registered dietitian and nutritionist Cynthia Sass said.
"There are so many vegan products on the market now that it's easy to be what I call a 'junk food vegan,'" Sass said. "Years ago vegans had to make most of their meals from scratch and rely on whole foods like lentils, beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
"Today there is an endless supply of highly processed vegan foods, from faux pepperoni pizza and hot dogs, to cookies, candy and ice cream," she said. "I have seen some vegans who never touch fruits and vegetables, and when that's the case, you're unlikely to see the same kind of weight control and health benefits."
Taken on their own, Sofritas are a relatively healthy choice. Paired with veggies and brown rice in a bowl, a meal contains approximately 425 calories per serving compared to 475 for a chicken, steak or carnitas bowl. They also have significantly less cholesterol and saturated fat than the other protein choices. On the downside, they have double the sodium and contain 3 grams more total fat.
Jayne Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist for Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she is concerned with Chipotle meals in general, because of all the extras like sour cream, cheese, and white flour tortillas that run up the calorie, fat and sodium count. She's not completely sold on the Sofritas either.
"My advice for people cutting back on meat? Stick with the black beans. They have most of the protein, one-third the sodium and four times the fiber of the Sofritas tofu option," she said.
Whether you're trying to figure out how to get your kids to eat more broccoli or you're a dedicated vegan trying to change the world one soybean at a time, come listen to what our top experts have to say about vegetarian diets and share your views.
Dr. Richard Besser, chief health and medical correspondent for ABC News, will be moderating a tweet chat today at 1 p.m. ET. Anyone can join in. Click here to find out how.