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The rise of non-meat proteins

SHAPE December 2016

Chefs, operators appeal to health-minded patrons by adding more non-meat proteins in their menus.

As nutrition-minded Americans pursue a more healthful lifestyle, chefs and restaurateurs are seeking to provide them with a greater range of menu choices by offering flavorful non-meat protein options.

For the most part, the traditional Western-style  diet continues to be based on the consumption of large portions of animal-based protein — which can be high in saturated fat and increase the risk of stroke, coronary heart disease and diabetes. However, many experts advise culinarians that the time is right to broaden their protein palette. They recommend featuring pulses such as soybeans, garbanzo beans, lentils and kidney beans; vegetables like avocado, spinach and kale; nuts and seeds such as cashews, sesame seeds and almonds; dairy products like cheese and yogurt; and whole grains like quinoa and oatmeal.

While consumers are beginning to move away from meat-heavy menus and toward more non-meat-based selections, the trend remains a gradual one. Nevertheless, a change is underway, experts say. According to a 2012 Harris Poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group, only 4 percent of Americans were vegetarian, but 43 percent of the individuals polled who are not vegetarian or vegan say they eat one or more vegetarian meals per week. Increasingly, consumers are recognizing the potential health benefits of going meatless.

And chefs and operators are listening to their customers. According to the National Restaurant Association's What's Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast, 59 percent of the nearly 1,600 chefs polled call vegetarian appetizers a hot trend, and 59 percent characterized meatless/vegetarian items as trending.

“Patrons want creative and nutritionally balanced menu options,” says Adam Sacks, chef instructor and nutritionist, department of culinary nutrition, Johnson & Wales University in Denver. He recommends the utilization of pulses and other legumes, whole grains and nuts in all aspects of menu development.

And though Sacks cautions that most beans, whole grains and nuts are incomplete — meaning they have a deficiency in one or more of the essential amino acids — “when combined in a meal they will be  complementary and will be considered a complete protein.”

Many chefs are turning to pulses as good substitutes for meats. Harvested for their nutrient-rich seeds, pulses — which include dried peas, edible beans like soybeans, lentils and chickpeas — are finding a place on more menus. Chicago-based research firm Datassential says the mention of lentils is up 75 percent on menus since 2005 and 15 percent over the last four years. Other pulse proteins include chickpeas, up 107 percent on menus since 2005; and pinto beans, up 31 percent since 2005.

In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations designated 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. The campaign was designed to underscore the importance of pulses, not only as it relates to their protein and amino acid content but also because they offer economically accessible fare and contribute to food security. They even foster sustainable agriculture as pulses can improve soil fertility and increase biodiversity.

“They reduce food cost, broaden [a restaurant's] customer base and help to save the planet,” Sacks says.

However, chefs also are availing themselves of other non-meat proteins in an effort to cater to changing eating behavior. Toby Smithson, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says, “Providing meatless options offers more variety for the consumer,” but then she reminds chefs that “meatless does not mean tasteless. Chefs can create delicious and nutritious foods using non-meat protein.”

Along those lines she suggests the following menu selections:

• Tofu, served grilled or marinated, as a sandwich or an entrée with roasted vegetables on brown rice.
• Tempeh, served grilled or marinated in a sandwich or as a stir fry. Tempeh Reuben sandwiches are showing up in a number of restaurants, she observes.
• Spaghetti squash with roasted vegetables and melted cheese — or vegan-soy cheese — served with a whole grain roll.
• Edamame, steamed, served as an appetizer with spices or in dumplings, or mixed into dishes such as stir-fry or vegetable entrées.
• Nuts served in salads or on a sandwich like peanut butter and jelly.
• Beans, served in bean burgers, vegetable stews or soups, or as appetizers such as roasted garbanzo beans or chickpea salad.
• Salads that can be topped with a choice of grilled tofu, beans or tempeh

Many operators, in fact, are pursuing a policy of offering customers the choice of going meatless. “I have seen more vegetarian options on menus — especially in fine dining restaurants,” Smithson says. “There is usually at least one non-meat protein choice on restaurant menus.”

Datassential Menu Trends identifies several non-meat protein selections which have debuted on menus over the past year:

• Chipotle black bean veggie burger topped with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, cilantro-lime aioli, and served on a whole wheat roll with jicama slaw.
• Quinoa greens salad with romaine, mixed greens, arugula, quinoa, garbanzo beans, cucumber, salsa, feta cheese, toasted almonds, parsley and a lemon dressing.
• Roasted spiced butternut squash with black-eyed peas, grilled escarole and coconut yogurt.
•Vegetables rancheros with vegetables steamed to order and served over organic brown rice topped with ranchero sauce and jack cheese, accompanied by sage mashed potatoes and a choice of black beans, black-eyed peas or gluten-free pinto bean chili.
• Organic vegan chili with black beans, garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas, onions, zucchini, roasted garlic, bell pepper, chard and organic brown rice.

While there remains an important place for animal protein in the American diet, many experts note that consumers no longer need to rely on meat to live a healthful and thriving lifestyle. “The definition for consumers and operators of what healthy food is has evolved over the last 30 years,” says Datassential. “We think that the trend toward the use of alternative proteins will continue for years to come.”



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