Half-pound bacon cheeseburger for dinner tonight? Not so much these days, with more health-conscious restaurant customers scouring menus for plant-based ingredients.
The adoption of a whole food, plant-based diet has shown to help improve—and even reverse—chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, and cancer, according to The Centers for Disease Control. And, in fact, a recent survey by The NPD Group showed the heaviest users of plant-based foods are those who are more likely to be on a diet or to have a medical condition.
Along with mounting interest in plant-based alternatives, there’s less demand for meat-based protein, says Lisa Jarrell, national director of sales-foodservice for Dr. Praeger’s Purely Sensible Foods. “Consumers are looking for meatless menu options that taste good and feature real ingredients—like whole vegetables—and have the added benefit of plant-based nutrition.”
Beef alternatives make up 44 percent of the plant-based categories being shipped to independent and micro-chain restaurant operators, The NPD Group also reported, while research firm Mintel says that whether flexitarian, vegetarian, vegan, or simply “eating healthy,” plant-based foods are catching on among consumers.
The interest in a plant-based diet can’t be understated. Consider that 6 percent of the U.S. population is now identifying as vegan—a remarkable rise from 1 percent in 2014—and 30 percent are leaving meat off their plates altogether and seeking out plant-based alternatives, according to the CDC.
Jarrell also cites significant crossover between the plant-based eating and clean-eating movements, adding that clean eating is extending to restaurant dining, where customers are looking for recognizable ingredients they know and trust. “Eating clean often goes hand-in-hand with the adoption of a plant-based lifestyle,” she says, “and it isn’t limited to packaged goods.”
A national survey called “What’s Trending in Nutrition,” which included more than 2,000 registered dietitian nutritionists by Pollock Communications and Today's Dietitian, made it clear that consumers will be “going with their gut,” meaning that fermentable foods top the superfoods list, by choosing foods that improve gut health and overall well-being. In 2012, the survey forecast that consumers would move toward "natural, less processed foods.” RDNs predicted consumers were trending toward "simple ingredients" and a greater focus on "plants." This has been borne out today by consumer demand for foods and products that fit this way of life.
Now, to ensure they’re serving their customers clean products, restaurant operators should be on the lookout for ingredients they know and recognize, Dr. Praeger’s Jarrell says. Labels should be plant-forward, with a range of vegetables and grains and no artificial ingredients or fillers. What’s more, she says, today’s consumers want food that’s not just plant-based, but as close to nature as possible with minimal processing, no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives, and simple ingredient lists.
As the popularity of plant-based eating continues to grow, to more effectively market this concept to customers, Jarrell says, restaurants should lean into their plant-based offerings, advertising menus that highlight meat alternatives and veggie-forward dishes. “Operators should also cater to a variety of dietary needs, from gluten-free to vegetarian and vegan, and focus on simple recipes that pack a lot of flavor, using clean, nutritious ingredients.”
Restaurants can benefit not only from serving these types of products, but also positioning themselves as brands that their customers can trust, says Jarrell.
Being transparent about what’s in a restaurant’s plant-based offerings builds trust and loyalty between a business and its customers. “When consumers are looking for clean, plant-based menu items and find a restaurant that meets their needs,” Jarrell says, “it becomes a go-to destination. This means repeat visits and friend-to-friend referrals, ultimately resulting in increased sales.”