What’s Hot for 2020: Plant-based, many ways

Plant-based proteins came out on top of the culinary trends ranked by chefs in a new report from The National Restaurant Association, but the survey also sheds some light on other trends we can expect to see in plant-forward dishes this year.

The annual What’s Hot Culinary Forecast produced by the association with research firm Technomic compiles survey responses from more than 600 American Culinary Federation chefs. Respondents rank about 130 items in a dozen different categories to identify the trends that will shape menus in the year to come.

Chefs ranked plant-based proteins as the No. 2 trend overall -- behind sustainable packaging. Meat alternatives such as those from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat had a meteoric rise on menus in 2019, showing up at independent eateries and national chains alike. The popularity of plant-based versions of burgers, sausage and other meats will surely continue to grow this year, but the survey also suggests we’ll see another type of plant-forward cuisine rising up on menus in 2020.

Plant-based proteins are only one piece of the plant-forward equation. While they offer a simple substitution for restaurants and can be an almost imperceptible swap for diners hesitant about giving up meat, they don't offer much for consumers who are interested in the health benefits of plant-based diets. This year, it's likely we'll see the plant-based movement level up, with more chefs and restauranuts focusing on dishes that put produce in the spotlight. Panera did just that with the announcment earlier this month that its effort to serve more plant-based foods will center around new dishes featuring whole foods rather than adding plant-based meat alternatives. With an eye toward versatile vegetables, it's possible that other restaurants will follow suit.

Mushrooms took the top spot in the produce category, possibly because they have a hearty texture and earthy taste that many chefs turn to when looking to mimic the feel and flavor of meat in a dish. In fact, the No. 2 trend in the protein category, behind plant-based, was specialty burger blends, such as mushroom-beef burgers. These blended burgers have been gaining steam on menus for several years, and offer diners a way to reduce their meat intake while still satisfying their hunger for a hamburger.

Beyond a desire to decrease their intake of animal protein, diners’ hunger for plants is also driven by a desire to increase their intake of nutritious vegetables. In the grains and pasta category, vegetable-based options edged out actual grains and noodles such as farro and soba. Chefs ranked vegetable noodles and rice as the top trend in the category, followed by edamame noodles. Vegetable-based noodles have proved popular with diners looking to limit carbohydrates, eliminate gluten or simply add more vegetables to their diet.

One plant ingredient we may not be seeing more of this year is seaweed, which chefs ranked at the bottom along with other once-hot trends such as insect ingredients and whey protein.

Check out the full What’s Hot report to see what other trends are on tap for 2020.

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