Research Perspective and Comments & Analysis
Seafood And Vegetarian Diners Seek Innovative Plant-based Dishes
By Maia Chang
Healthy eating is undoubtedly one of the most important and impactful trends in the foodservice industry. Consumers are paying more attention to what they’re eating, and they want to eat more unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables. Research conducted in Technomic’s 2016 Healthy Eating study shows that 72 percent of consumers say they are more likely to buy foods and beverages labeled as unprocessed. Further, 78 percent of consumers also state greater likelihood of buying items labeled as containing a full serving of vegetables, and 74 percent of consumers say the same for items containing a full serving of fruits.
Consumers of all ages are making an effort to eat more healthfully, and that desire is driving an uptick in vegetable consumption. Research from Technomic’s 2017 Center of the Plate: Seafood and Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report shows that 41 percent of consumers report eating more vegetables now than they did a year ago. The study compiles findings from Technomic’s Digital Resource Library, Menumonitor and an online survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 consumers who eat meals with seafood, vegetarian or vegan items.
As consumers strive to eat more healthfully, trends indicate that animal protein sizes will shrink and vegetables will grow to be a larger portion of the plate. Further, data from the Seafood and Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report also suggests that vegetables will increasingly hold their own and play the starring role on menus. As vegetables move center stage, in many cases they will take on meat preparations and presentations. Interesting preparations, like blackened, smoked and charred vegetables, can further drive the impression that these dishes are equal in value and taste to dishes with meat. Animal proteins will no longer necessarily be the essential component of a dish. Vegetables will increasingly be the star player called out in menu titles — even if there is meat or seafood present, such as a “charred cauliflower Panini with chicken” or “cucumber dish with strawberries, radish and shrimp.”
This “flipping the plate” trend will lead to more vegetable-centered entree plates. To balance these dishes, operators will offer meatier and carb-heavy side dishes. Prices for these vegetable-centered dishes will remain on par with those of meatier entrees. Restaurants will justify these prices with interesting and unique preparations such as spiced-up vegetables at the center of the plate, featuring Indian, African and Middle Eastern flavor profiles.
Further, data from the report shows that the growing variety of vegetarian and healthy dishes is drawing some consumers’ attention to meatless dishes. Research shows that on occasions when consumers order vegetarian or vegan dishes, they are purposefully ordering vegetarian or vegan dishes only 34 percent of the time. This suggests that consumers who order meatless dishes frequently do so because they are looking for healthier options or simply because the item sounds tasty. It’s worth noting that younger consumers — ages 18-34 — are slightly more likely than their older counterparts to specifically seek out vegetarian or vegan items on menus.
Beyond just offering more vegetable-forward dishes, research also shows opportunity to grow vegetarian or vegan offerings. Consumers are becoming more comfortable with these types of items — as eating vegetarian and vegan items becomes more common. In fact, nearly half of consumers (45 percent) who eat these items have family or friends who are vegetarian or vegan, underscoring the importance of offering tasty meatless meals that can help negate the veto vote.
Positioning these items as plant-based rather than meatless or vegan may help these dishes gain traction. Plant-based can appeal to a wider audience and help overcome negative value connotations. To capitalize on interest in vegetarian or vegan options, restaurants will innovate meatless options with bold flavors and new types of meat alternatives like those made from jack fruit or dishes that allow plant-based ingredients to shine. Specifically comparing protein content will help signal that these dishes are nutritious and filling.
As consumers’ needs and palates shift, vegetables will grow to play an increasingly important role on consumers’ dishes. Whether as an ingredient that adds flare to the dish or as the leading ingredient, vegetables will increasingly influence consumers’ considerations as they peruse menus. Taking advantage of that opportunity to innovate new, unique dishes, while playing up the health aspect, will spark interest among consumers and may help drive traffic.
Will Today’s Restaurant Reality & Yield To A Plant-based Future?
What are we to do when research indicates one thing, but the marketing of today’s largest restaurant chains, those that have real money on the line, tells us those same consumers are not representative of their customers?
It is obviously true, and important, that seafood and vegetarian consumers respond to Technomic by saying they are interested in produce-heavy, unprocessed food. But the fact the consumers surveyed are limited to a small subset of restaurant patrons who “eat meals with seafood, vegetarian or vegan items” may be a more significant distortion factor than is recognized by the typically white-collar, well-educated and affluent users of studies such as these.
We would love to see this research presented without filters, with the results representing the U.S. consumer in toto. Without a true representation of the population, we can only look at the Technomic research with an eye toward possible trends if the future were to change dramatically and more consumers intended to follow a stricter seafood and vegetarian diet.
Do most consumers today really strive to eat more healthfully? Are consumers yearning for blackened, smoked and charred vegetables to take center stage on their plates? Certainly some consumers act this way, and the Technomic study highlights this cohort of diners. But in reading these types of studies, one has to remember we have no statistical information that indicates produce consumption is on the upswing. Our best data is disappearance data – production minus exports plus imports – and that has been basically flat for years.
Of course, the data is imperfect, so we look for other clues. Large restaurant chains are sending us some serious messages that the consumers they serve are not focused this way. McDonalds is the biggest of all, and its big promotion right now centers on the Big Mac, which is available in three sizes, including a larger, 860-calorie “Grand Mac.”
Burger King is pushing its BBQ Bacon King Sandwich – an 1,100-calorie paean to beef, cheese and bacon – eliminating all those vegetables one will find on its traditional Whopper. Over at Wendy’s, the official hamburger of the NCAA is Dave’s Double, which is 810-calories, a bit less than Dave’s Triple, which is 1,090-calories. These are not the largest burgers sold, but they are all being promoted now — which does not seem the path these chains would take if their customers were demanding healthy, plant-based menu items.
Even chains that are supposedly examples of healthy eating trends often seem more image than reality. A couple of years ago, The New York Times analyzed a large group of online orders for Chipotle and determined the following:
With the help of a large sample of online orders, we set out to answer a question that piques our interest every time we walk into a Chipotle: What do people actually order? How healthy is a normal Chipotle meal?
Today, we have a ballpark estimate. The typical order at Chipotle has about 1,070 calories. That’s more than half of the calories that most adults are supposed to eat in an entire day. The recommended range for most adults is between 1,600 and 2,400.
The spike around 1,000 calories represents “standard” burrito orders – a meat burrito with typical additions: cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, rice and beans. If you order Chipotle’s meat burrito with these toppings, it is likely to reach 1,000 calories.
Would a similar Chipotle study done today show radically different eating habits? We don’t know, but vendors don’t report a dramatic shift in consumption toward plant-based meals.
Sometimes the quest to eat healthy is complicated by changing nutritional guidance. It wasn’t long ago French Fries were villainized because they were fried. Now with trans fats mostly out of the oil and nutritional information advancing, many public health experts would say the oil is the healthiest part of the French Fry!
Even consumers who claim to be vegetarian or vegan often don’t follow the official definition of these terms. Though the data is weak, the Internet had some fun with a study that found 37 percent of vegetarians admitted to eating meat when they were drunk – and 69 percent of those kept it a secret.
So what sense is there to be made of a study such as this? The best retailers often attend trade shows focused on the latest upscale and trendy specialty food items. Many of the vendors at these events couldn’t possibly supply a big supermarket chain, and the sales of many items would be too small to justify a slot at major retailers. But large retailers attend because these specialty food trends may go mainstream in the future.
Studies such as this Technomic report are probably not representative of Americans today. But by focusing on a certain class of leading-edge consumers, they provide insight as to what may yet be the great consumer trends of tomorrow. If this unfolds, the future of the produce industry is bright indeed.