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Familiar formats can boost appeal of plant-forward meals

The plant-forward movement is continuing to gain momentum, and restaurants can appeal to a wide range of consumers by putting a plant-based twist on familiar flavors and formats.

Using whole food ingredients, rather than processed meat alternatives, can help foodservice operators appeal to vegans, meat-eaters and everyone in between, researchers and chefs said during The Culinary Institute of America’s virtual Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of consumers follow a diet that eliminates meat to some extent, according to Mintel research presented by Associate Director of Foodservice Amanda Topper.

Plant-based proteins are a key part of well-rounded meals that don’t include animal protein, and consumers are interested in seeing a wider variety of protein sources for meat alternatives. A majority (51%) of consumers who eat plant-based proteins said they want to see more variety in plant-based protein sources, and 47% said they want to see more variety in formats, according to Mintel. 

Topper pointed out that different occasions may call for different meat alternatives. Meat substitutes have grown 41% on US menus between 2015 and 2020, but just a few brands and products are responsible for much of that growth. Beyond Meat uses a combination of proteins derived from peas, mung beans, fava beans and brown rice in its meatless burger patties and sausage products, while rival Impossible Foods relies on soy and potato proteins for its beef and pork alternatives. While these formats might be the best fit for certain dishes or situations, they rely on processing to create a consistent product that closely resembles animal protein. 

For many consumers, processed products aren’t the ideal foundation for plant-based dishes. More than half of those surveyed by Mintel (54%) said they prefer whole plant-based proteins over processed meat substitutes.

One reason consumers may say they don’t prefer processed products when ordering plant-based foods is because they see whole food options as healthier. In Mintel’s survey, 56% of respondents who eat plant-based foods say they do so to be healthier. Another reason could be that whole foods are simply more familiar. Topper pointed out that most US consumers already eat plant-based proteins from familiar sources, such as beans, lentils and quinoa.

Familiar formats let consumers stay in their comfort zone

Chefs can use these common whole food ingredients to create plant-forward dishes that are interesting yet familiar.

“As consumers return to restaurants, plant-based dishes with a comfort food edge can satisfy desire for comfort and health,” Topper said.

Zak Weston of the Good Food Institute concurred, saying familiarity and tradition are strong drivers when diners are deciding what to eat. When putting a plant-based spin on classic comfort foods, he cautioned that these dishes should “scream flavor and whisper health,” to best approximate the crave-worthy originals.

Plant-based burgers are just the beginning

The growing availability and acceptance of plant-based beef alternatives make burgers an obvious entry point into plant-based menus. Plant-based burgers were the second fastest-growing dish on menus in 2019, with 811% 4-year growth, according to Datassential MenuTrends.

However, restaurants can tap into diner demand for whole food options and differentiate themselves from a sea of plant-based burgers with a wider range of meatless sandwiches that put produce center stage. 

Chefs Bill Billenstein and Richard Landau took the virtual stage at the summit to share a few of their recipes for standout plant-forward sandwiches.

Billenstein, senior director of culinary and nutrition strategy at Guckenheimer, pointed to the versatility of sandwiches as a meal that can travel well, which many operators have the need for while dining rooms are still closed due to the pandemic. He demonstrated the technique for a celery root reuben that uses the root vegetable as the bulk of the sandwich filling and incorporates a bit of meat with a sauce made with pastrami scraps.

“Anybody can grab an analog deli meat and put that in there,” he said of his decision to use celery root, which absorbs just the right amount of flavor from a pastrami-style brine before being roasted for texture.

Landau, who is the chef-owner of Vedge and V-Street restaurants in Philadelphia and Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C., said, “sandwiches are one of the easiest go-to items...to transition people to plant-forward.”

He demonstrated a spin on the Argentinian choripan sandwich that swapped out the traditional chorizo for a roasted carrot, as well as a riff on the classic BLT made with mushrooms instead of bacon.

Building layers of flavor goes a long way towards making plant-forward meals just as delicious as their meaty counterparts, Landau said. 

He said the sandwich is an especially successful vehicle for plant-based meals, because condiments and toppings offer easy ways to pile on flavor.

“Once you put something between bread or on a roll, you have a lot of forgiveness,” he said.

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