As consumers become more health-focused, restaurants are changing their offerings.

For the restaurant industry, health-consciousness is becoming a defining mandate with growing consumer demand for plant-based protein options and interest in environmentally-sustainable food-sourcing practices. The Organic Trade Association pegs millennials—the demographic most likely to dine out—as representing more than half of all organic food consumers. Cornell University’s T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies reports that, “whether it’s for environmental, ethical, or health reasons, the younger generation is embracing meat alternatives and a more plant-centric way of eating, with nearly half (48 percent) of 16 to 19-year-olds and 40 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds agreeing that a diet of eating less meat is better all around.”

With the Culinary Institute of America’s launch of The Protein Flip, which promotes the use of more plant-forward offerings in foodservice, the restaurant industry has likewise been responding to evolving consumer demands with an expanding array of vegetarian and plant-based protein menu options.

“There are so many delicious and satisfying plant-based protein options today,” says Lanita Isler, senior brand manager and business development for MARS Foodservices. “Gone are the days of salad and tofu-only options for previously marginalized vegetarian and vegan diners. From veggie bowls and wraps to flatbreads and desserts, plant-based proteins represent massive potential for appealing to practically every customer, regardless of their diet, as indeed even health-conscious meat-eaters are increasingly interested in more plant-based menu offerings.”

One superfood with powerhouse potential, quinoa is the only plant-based protein that includes all nine essential amino acids. With a nearly 200 percent increase in quinoa menuing over the past four years, according to Datas sential’s MenuTrends research, quinoa is an extremely versatile food, making it a favorite of both consumers and chefs, including Mike Buononato, corporate executive chef with MARS Foodservices.

“Quinoa is a force to be reckoned with and is a successful part of modern menu offerings,” Buononato says. Plus, one of the benefits of quinoa over meat, he adds, is that “it doesn’t go through shrink or yield loss and has an improved holding time without a degradation in quality.”

In terms of incorporating quinoa into recipes, Buononato encourages experimentation. “Cook the quinoa to al dente and then incorporate complimentary flavors such as browned butter, caramelized onion and roasted chickpea,” he says. “Don’t be shy. Quinoa is a very forgiving product and offers chefs the ability to be creative and health conscious simultaneously.”

Like so many other chefs, Buononato is thrilled by the evolving food landscape and hopes the industry continues to embrace it and see it not as a threat to the status quo but an opportunity for renewed creativity. “The sky is the limit and we are truly in the age of food pioneering when it comes to plant-based protein usage,” he says. “Blending a portion into an existing animal recipe; replacing it altogether; utilizing older methods such as fermentation or brining … Everything old is new again and there are no guardrails on the path to culinary creation with plant-based proteins.”

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