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Plant-based protein moves into the spotlight

Sysco Shape July 2014

Americans must broaden their use of plant-based protein and rethink how they view animal protein if they wish to live healthier lifestyles and support a policy of sustainability, say the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard School of Public Health's nutrition department, joint presenters of the Menu of Change conference in June.

“What we as chefs and operators choose to offer as a plate of food has enormous consequences, for the health of our customers and our planet,” says CIA president Tim Ryan.

That message reflects a growing mindset among culinary and health experts who say Americans need to move away from the traditional Western-style diet based on the consumption of large portions of animal-based protein. And, observes Adam Busby, the CIA's director of special culinary projects and a conference presenter, "It starts with recognizing that getting enough protein for most people in the United States is not a problem. People here eat enough."

In fact, a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted in 2007-2008 found Americans consume more than twice the recommended daily protein allowance as suggested by national dietary guidelines.

What is more problematic, Busby notes, is that the demand for animal-based protein is expanding as the Western diet spreads in popularity around the globe. "As the planet's population grows, eventually we're going to run out of corn and soy used to feed these animals," he says.

At the same time, livestock production creates large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that many say contributes to global warming.

However, Busby says, "If we switch our protein focus to plant-based — even slowly — we believe we could produce enough protein to support all future protein needs."

In addition to negatively impacting the burgeoning movement toward sustainability, our tendency to consume large portions of red meat can affect the population's health. "We're overdoing it on meat and cholesterol," says Neil Doherty, Sysco's senior director of culinary development. "And that can lead to heart disease and diabetes."

Proponents of a less meat-heavy diet urge a greater use of plant-based proteins that are nutrient-dense. Among the foods they cite are vegetables like avocado, spinach and kale; legumes such as soybeans, garbanzo beans, lentils and kidney beans; nuts and seeds like cashews, sesame seeds, pistachios and almonds; and grains like quinoa, amaranth and oatmeal.

And while observers agree that Americans have a long way to go before any seismic shift in their dietary behavior can be registered, the trend nevertheless is growing gradually. According to a 2012 Harris Poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group, 4 percent of Americans are vegetarian, but 43 percent of the people polled who are not vegetarian or vegan say they eat one or more vegetarian meals per week.

"More consumers want to get away from animal protein and are looking for more interesting vegetable-based protein," says Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and nutritionist based in Los Angeles, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Chefs also are beginning to respond to this emerging shift in eating habits. In the National Restaurant Association's 2014 What's Hot Culinary Forecast — which polls chefs around the country — vegetarian appetizers was listed as one of the top new trends.

"Before, you would barely see vegetarian options on the menu," Sheth says. "Now, with more consumers requesting them, restaurants want to cater to those guests. We're definitely seeing more vegetarian selections on the menu."

One response to the consumer's desire for more vegetarian meals is the return of Meatless Monday, a movement first instituted during World War I to further the war effort. Today, a growing number of chefs and foodservice operators in urban centers as well as college towns are promoting meatless menus one day a week that prominently feature plant-based protein.

"Meatless Mondays are starting to pick up," Doherty says. "And it's a smart move for operators. Monday is traditionally a slow day; it's a great opportunity to cater to a whole other demographic."

Sheth agrees that Meatless Mondays can offer a largely untapped opportunity for chefs and restaurateurs. "There's more demand for it," she says. "It's a great way to introduce more plant-based foods to the menu ... and you might see them spill into the rest of the week."

However, she cautions, "You have to be creative to make [such dishes] interesting."

To compensate for the loss of big, savory meat flavors, professional culinarians recommend using interesting cooking techniques like grilling, charring and smoking; the inclusion of flavored oils, herbs and spices; and the adoption of traditionally meat-lite recipes from areas as the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Africa and India."We should look at countries with a deep food history and eating patterns that are healthier than ours," Busby says. "We can look back to historical recipes and put our spin on them."

Plant-based proteins are not only being featured on vegetarian or vegan plates at restaurants. Chefs also are exploring the blending of grains or vegetables like beets or mushrooms with animal protein. Mushrooms, for example, lend themselves to the blending process because they contain an abundant amount of glutamate, a naturally occurring compound directly linked to the taste sensation know as umami. Chefs are finding that by blending mushrooms with ground meat, they can create items that are more flavorful, moister, more nutritious and have a better texture.

In addition, there is a growing movement among chefs to use meat as a garnish and supplement it with more plant-based proteins. "Menus are now animal-protein-centric and guests make menu decisions based on protein," Busby says. "We need to reduce the size of animal-based protein on the plate ... and still give perceived value for money."

Busby cites Vietnamese Pho soup as an example of a preparation that employs meat as a garnish rather than as the central component. "It's a dish built around noodles, vegetables and fresh herbs, with a small amount of meat," he says. "How can we apply the Pho principle to other dishes right now?"

At the same time, some experts suggest that de-emphasizing the mention of animal-protein on printed menus will help to change how consumers' order. "Don't lead in menu verbiage with the animal protein," Busby suggests. "Start reducing the focus on [animal protein]. Sell the flavor, don't sell the protein."

While the shift away from serving large portions of meat is occurring gradually in this country, many predict that it will continue to gain momentum over time. "I see restaurants using more plant-based protein in the future," Doherty says. "There will be less protein [on the plate] and other items around it.  We're already starting to see some restaurants feature smaller amounts of meat. It will lead to a healthier diet."

Sheth agrees, saying chefs and restaurateurs realize this trend is here to stay. "The average consumer is being flooded with messages about health," she says. "I think it's becoming more mainstream and expect to only see it growing in the future."

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