These days, it seems you can’t open a menu (or a food and beverage SmartBrief!) without seeing a plant-based burger. Impossible Foods and Beyond Burger have been making headlines as their products show up on more grocery shelves and restaurant menus, driving the brands to increase supply to meet rising demand.
Part of what sets the two burgers -- and other modern meat alternatives -- apart is that they are designed to please the palates of the general population, not just vegans and vegetarians. Offering options that appeal to meat-eaters is key to the success of the growing plant-based category, because it reflects the way that most people eat today.
The number of US consumers who consider themselves to be vegetarian hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. In fact, the percentage decreased from 6% in 1999 to just 5% last year. Despite the stagnant number of strict vegetarians, a growing number of US consumers are showing interest in eating less meat.
The future is flexitarian
For many US consumers, flexibility and convenience are key factors when choosing what to eat. Rather than subscribe to a strict diet, they build meals around what they feel like eating at the time -- which for a growing portion of the population means plants.
Nearly one in five (18%) US adults are trying to get more plant-based foods into their diets, according to NPD Group, which reported that nutrition, sustainability and animal welfare concerns are driving the desire for plant-based meals. While expressing interest in eating more plants doesn’t necessarily always translate into a desire to eat less meat, that actually does seem to be the case for many consumers. Sixteen percent of adults who consider themselves meat eaters would like to change how they eat in the future, according to a study from Changing Tastes, which found that the top choices for doing so are to eat smaller portions of meat or to eat fish and seafood instead.
Meat is still in the mix
The Changing Tastes report, titled “Plant Forward: A Decade On”, examines how the plant-forward strategy created by Changing Tastes founder Arlin Wasserman has helped shift diner preferences over the last decade. The plant-forward strategy emphasizes vegetables, fruits, grains and pulses, while downplaying the role of animal protein on menus. The approach is gaining popularity with chefs, and it’s one of the guiding principles of the Menus of Change initiative co-sponsored by Harvard and the Culinary Institute of America.
Of those surveyed who said they want to eat less meat, only 8% said they are interested in going completely meatless, while 43% said they would be interested in reducing the portion size of meat in a meal.
One strategy for reducing the amount of meat in a meal is using animal protein as a finishing element, such as a few ounces of chicken on top of a grain bowl. Another approach is combining meat with other ingredients to create a blended burger or other dish. The technique of mixing meat with vegetables or grains has been gaining buy-in from chefs for several years. The James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project, which calls upon chefs to compete to create the best burger made from a blend of meat and mushrooms, is now in its fifth year. Crafting these types of custom blends allows chefs to tailor textures, nutritional information and flavor profiles for different concepts, which isn’t always possible with pre-made meat alternatives. Chefs can reduce the amount of meat in a dish by as much as 30%, but the fact that they’re still serving a burger made with beef (or sometimes turkey), means they can still appeal to diners who would never go all-in on a veggie burger.
The blended approach is anticipated to make a bigger showing in supermarkets in the coming year. Whole Foods named meat-plant blends among its top 10 food trends for 2020. Tyson recently launched its Raised and Rooted line that includes a burger made from a blend of beef and pea protein, and it’s likely we’ll see more blended products hitting the shelves.
Plant-based and blended foods have seen strong success in the grocery channel partly due to the fact that consumers prefer to eat meatless meals at home more than in restaurants. More than half of consumers eat vegetarian meals at home, according to the Changing Tastes report, but about the same percentage said they never order meatless meals in restaurants.
Celebrating with vegetables
While there are some plant-based success stories in foodservice – such as Burger King’s Impossible Whopper – most mainstream eateries haven’t had much success getting customers to opt out of meat when they’re eating out. For many consumers, eating at a restaurant is a chance to indulge, and many menus will offer just one meatless dish that can seem like an afterthought when considered next to all the other meat-centric main courses.
Just 27% of consumers who say they sometimes eat vegetarian dishes think restaurants do a good job of providing options that taste good, according to Technomic.
This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for restaurants and food companies, to create plant-forward meals that diners can get excited about. Although plant-based burgers and other meat analogs may be the hot food trend of the moment, consumers are actually more interested in plant-based dishes made from scratch than they are in manufactured meat alternatives, according to the Changing Tastes report.
For chefs, this should read as a call-to-action to create dishes that present plant-based foods in their best possible light. Meat may always have a place in some US consumers’ diets, but a menu built upon plants is more cost-effective for restaurant operators, healthier for diners, more sustainable for the planet and maybe – with the right approach from chefs – more delicious.
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