Consumers have become increasingly more health conscious and ingredient-savvy in recent years. No longer satisfied with simply “apple” or “bread,” we want to know how and where that apple was produced and what chemicals and preservatives were put into that bread; we want to know whether our food was sprayed with pesticides and how nutritious it is for us.
But this shift in consumer attitudes represents more than just a health movement. Food has become a question of ethics for many people, too. It isn’t as though an increasing number of people has decided they dislike the taste of meat. Rather, they cannot condone supporting an industry which relies on the torture and confinement of animals in order to sustain itself. Factory farming is a modern day horror, and the more we learn about it, the harder it becomes to ignore.
There are also environmental issues to consider. Meat has a far greater water footprint than grains, vegetables, or beans, as it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of meat, according to PETA. And animals raised for meat consume vast amounts of food — food that we ourselves could be eating, and then some — for which enormous swaths of land must be farmed. The world’s cattle alone consume a quantity of food equal to the caloric needs of 8.7 billion people — more than the entire human population on Earth.
And while the vegetarian movement continues to gain momentum as education and awareness about these moral and ecological implications increases, the healthier dining guest isn’t solely seeking more plant-based menu options because they don’t eat meat. As we are slowly discovering, plant-based food tastes incredible, and leaves enormous room for creativity.
Menus of Change
Not wanting to be behind in the times, the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are on a mission to redefine what a complete meal looks like in restaurants by shifting the focus away from meat proteins and onto plant-based ones instead. They are encouraging the restaurant industry to do a “protein flip” and offer less animal meat in meals.
“It came about in response to a clear need among foodservice leaders for an integrated, comprehensive, evidence-based set of guidelines for addressing the most pressing health and environmental concerns through business strategies that will keep their culinary operations thriving for decades to come,” said Sophie Egan, director of programs and culinary nutrition for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America.
The CIA and Harvard’s “Menus of Change: The Business of Healthy, Sustainable, Delicious Food Choices” aims to promote health and sustainability in the foodservice industry. Three of the program’s initiatives, listed below, involve using plant-proteins. From their website:
- Leverage globally inspired, plant-based culinary strategies. Scientific research suggests that the most effective way to help diners make healthy, sustainable food choices is to shift our collective diets to mostly plant-based foods. Growing plants for food generally has less of a negative impact on the environment than raising livestock, as livestock have to eat lots of plants to produce a smaller amount of food. In fact, no other single decision in the professional kitchen—or in the boardrooms of foodservice companies—can compare in terms of the benefits of advancing global environmental sustainability. From the well- researched Mediterranean diet to the cuisines of Asia and Latin America, traditional food cultures offer a myriad of flavor strategies to support innovation around healthy, delicious, even craveable cooking that rebalances ratios between foods from animal and plant sources.
The CIA recommends nuts and legumes as alternative sources of protein.
- Move nuts and legumes to the center of the plate. Nuts and legumes are full of flavor, contain plant protein, and are associated with increased satiety. Nuts contain beneficial fats, while legume crops contain fiber and slowly metabolized carbohydrates. Legumes also are renowned for helping to replace nitrogen in the soil and produce impressive quantities of protein per acre. Nuts (including nut butters, flours, and milks) and legumes (including soy foods and legume flours) are an excellent replacement for animal protein. They also are a marketable way to serve and leverage smaller amounts of meat and animal proteins.
- Serve less red meat, less often. Red meat— beef, pork, and lamb—can be enjoyed occasionally and in small amounts. Current guidance from nutrition research recommends consuming a maximum of two 3-ounce servings per week. Chefs and menu developers can rethink how meat is used by featuring it in smaller, supporting roles to healthier plant-based choices, and experimenting with meat as a condiment. From at least some environmental perspectives (e.g., GHGE, feed efficiency ratio), pork is the better choice among red meats (though not distinguishable from a nutritional perspective). Saturated fat is one health concern associated with red-meat consumption, but it’s not the only issue. Chefs should strive to limit bacon and other processed and cured meats, which are associated with even higher incidence of chronic disease than unprocessed red meats. Many diners choose to splurge on red meat when they eat out, and there will always be an appropriate place for meat-centered dishes. But chefs can help to shift eating patterns by building a sense of theater and value in menu concepts that don’t rely so heavily on a starring role for animal protein. For example, they might offer delicious meat/vegetable and meat/legume blends, or smaller tasting portions of red meat as part of vegetable-rich, small-plate formats.
It’s important to note that the CIA is not saying restaurants need to remove meat from their menus, but rather that it should function as more of a condiment than the main focus of most dishes.
They also admit that because many restaurant-goers view both dining out and eating red meat as a treat, they want red meat to be the focus of their meal, in order to get their money’s worth and make the most of the special occasion. But Menus of Change asks restaurants to start shifting this paradigm, luring diners away from the traditional large hunks of meat and towards dishes that offer a blend of either meat/vegetable or meat/legume.
This isn’t about demonizing meat, particularly if it has been ethically and sustainably produced, and it’s not about convincing consumers to choose healthy foods even when they want to treat themselves. It’s about changing how we define a meal: “Menus of Change discourages foodservice leaders from hitting diners over the head with messages about a food’s health benefits. Instead, we always lead with flavor. In fact, that is one of the 24 Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus: ‘Lead with menu messaging around flavor.’ Because if it doesn’t taste delicious, the rest won’t matter. Research shows that taste trumps just about everything. So the healthier, more sustainable options can’t merely taste pretty good; they have to be so delicious they’re craveable. They’ve got to make diners want to come back to your restaurant time and again,” said Egan.
Giving Restaurants Alternative Protein Recommendations
“The Protein Flip showcases some of the ways that chefs around the country are offering creative plant-forward dishes, from cauliflower steak at restaurants like Chalk Point Kitchen (of chef Rebecca Weitzman, a CIA graduate) to a broccoli dog and other center-of-the-plate celebrations of vegetables at Dirt Candy (of chef Amanda Cohen). For plant-based proteins specifically, one of the many ways we are seeing chefs use them to achieve fantastic flavor is with blended burgers, like juicy patties made from combinations such as peanut, mushroom, and farro, or lentil, barley, and black bean, just to name a few,” said Egan.
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