Leveraging the ‘flexitiarian’ trend with plant-based proteins

Key Points

  • ‘Flexitarian’ diets are being driven by consumers seeking to reduce the amount of meat in their diets as well as a rising awareness of environmental sustainability issues
  • Foodservice manufacturers are responding innovatively by creating plant-based protein ingredients which taste, present and cook like meat
  • Consumers typically don’t know they’re eating a plant-based protein as they’re usually added to the menu without calling out the fact
  • These products are now being made and marketed in Australia and pizza toppings are an ideal application

THE DESIRE of many consumers to reduce the amount of meat in their diet, coupled with a rising awareness of the importance of environmental and food sustainabillity, are two factors driving the growing ‘flexitarian’ trend.

‘Flexitarians’ are people who don’t follow an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet but who want to replace some of their animal meat intake with plant-based foods. As more consumers adopt this approach, we’re now seeing an innovative response from food manufacturers – ingredients made from plant-based proteins which taste, present and even cook like meat.

For the past several years, plant-based protein ingredients have been a key attraction at the world’s biggest foodservice tradeshow, the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, US. From plant-based sausages and burger patties, to plant-based proteins which taste and present like pulled pork or prosciutto, these ingredients are becoming increasingly commonplace in the US and European markets and are now entering Australia.

Key to their success is their ability to mimic the presentation, texture, taste and cooking attributes of animal meat. This means consumers typically don’t know they’re eating a plant-based product, and chefs find them easy to cook without having to modify any of their usual techniques.

In contrast to products designed primarily for vegetarians or vegans, these plant-based protein ingredients are usually added to the menu without necessarily calling out the fact to customers. The idea is that those customers who are actively seeking out a meat-free meal will usually educate themselves to seek out and identify such ingredients. But using plant-based proteins also allows you to cater for a wider cross-section – those customers following the flexitiarian trend and those who will order and enjoy the food without caring about whether or not it contains meat.

“Consumers today are not so worried about food categories – the focus is more around taste, whether it’s good for you and environmental sustainability,” says celebrity chef Simon Bryant of ABC TV’s The Cook and the Chef. “If you ask someone what they had for dinner last night, they won’t say ‘Oh, we ate vegetarian’ – they’ll describe the meal. We’ve gone away from labels and it’s all just become food. A lot of chefs have helped with that process – consumers have been subverted from their old habits without their even noticing it. It’s a big shift.”

Last year’s FABI Award, which the National Restaurant Association gives to products it believes “will shape the future of foods and beverages in the restaurant sector”, went to the meat-free Impossible Burger which is now on the menu in the heart of American cattle country and is targeting the Asian market.

In Australia, companies like the Alternative Dairy Co, which has introduced a meat-free burger pattie now being used at millennial favourite burger chain Huxtaburger, and Simplot, which has launched 100% Not Beef and 100% Not Chicken, are extolling the benefits of adding plant-based proteins to the menu.

All these products are designed to perform like animal meat and have an appearance, texture and taste profile which makes it difficult for consumers to tell the difference. Pizza toppings are being pushed as an ideal application for plant-based protein ingredients – with 100% Not using photos of its products atop pizzas to showcase their versatility and consumer acceptance.

Plant-based proteins such as these have been designed to deliver not only on sensory attributes but also to provide a ‘clean label’ ingredient – an important consideration for many customers adopting the ‘flexitarian’ diet. Clean label products are those free of artificial additives and chemical-based ingredients such as emulsifiers and binders. So in choosing plant-based ingredients, look for those which have achieved their presentation and texture through natural ingredients, as these are more likely to tick the boxes for your flexitarian customers.