People around the world revere good cooking, and members of the global produce industry are no exception.
Along with chefs and foodservice operators, industry members fully appreciate the gastronomic possibilities of fresh produce when enhanced by a culinarian’s touch. Chefs often find inspiration in regional cuisines, where home cooks create familiar and authentic dishes with local and culturally specific flavors and techniques. Chefs also elevate everyday cuisine by expertly transforming fruits and vegetables into explosions of flavor that often evoke comfort and reflect cultural influences.
While these aren’t trade secrets, today’s foodservice industry operates at a unique time in food history. It’s one in which global connectivity fosters adventurous palates. It’s also one in which foodservice, including off-premises dining and foodservice at retail, has become the epicenter of eating in much of the world, making this industry increasingly responsible for providing everyday food choices to a substantial segment of the population. In the United States, “food-away-from-home” spending outpaced “food-at-home” spending for the first time in 2010 and has risen ever since. In 2017, 53.8 percent of people’s total food spending was spent on food-away-from-home purchases, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The foodservice industry today also operates amid a climate of social accountability, which is converging with an increasing prevalence of chronic disease and obesity and fast-paced, pressure-filled lifestyles undermining people’s best intentions to eat healthfully. This cocktail of circumstance presents a significant opportunity — and responsibility — for the foodservice industry to be forerunners in growing the trend of getting more fruits and vegetables on plates to be a critical mainstay for the benefit of all.
Changing menus for good
It’s a fact: People simply aren’t eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables to meet their basic nutritional and health needs. Federal nutrition guidance advises everyone to fill half their plates with produce at every eating occasion, every day, to reduce their risk of many chronic diseases. Yet, we’re nowhere close. Just one in 10 adults meets these recommendations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent study from DuPont Nutrition & Health found 52 percent of U.S. consumers say they’re trying to eat more plant-based foods and beverages. Roughly 60 percent of them also say switching to plant-based foods would be permanent, or they hope it would be. Taste, they say, is the main obstacle to making this healthy habit stick. The foodservice and produce industries—working together—must help fix this dichotomy.
The Culinary Institute of America uses the term “plant-forward” to refer to a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and celebrates, but is not limited to, plant-based foods — including fruits and vegetables (produce); whole grains; beans, legumes (pulses), and soy foods; nuts and seeds; plant oils; and herbs and spices. Plant-forward also reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability. As food professionals, we know plant-forward can be tasty, versatile, and satisfying.
That’s why we’re appealing to the foodservice sector to make fresh produce more available in all areas of the menu or store—and to create craveable tasting experiences that keep customers coming back for more.
Many chefs and operators are already heeding the call. Plant-forward and plant-based dining graced nearly every major trend list of the last couple of years, including both the top trends and hot concepts identified by the National Restaurant Association. The exciting plant-forward menu items popping up in restaurants, convenience stores, hospitals, canteens, and retail stores satisfy guests’ desire for convenience, flavor, and fun in addition to fresh and healthy. These outlets are offering more produce-centric dishes and applying a variety of culinary techniques. They’re featuring blended dishes like burgers (beef with a third or more ground mushrooms), mashes (cauliflower with potatoes), and cake (chocolate with beet), as well as such flavor bombs as whole-roasted, Mediterranean-spiced carrots and brined watermelon with mint and feta. And of course, the tried-and-true salad offers a canvas for endless variations. In all these cases, the healthy choice is the delicious choice and diners are eating it up.
While this rise in plant-forward offerings is certainly worth celebrating, it’s too important to let fade away as a mere fad or trend of the year. From a business perspective, the momentum is also too great not to seize upon by encouraging more operators to increase plant-forward items on their menus. Featuring more fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods in foodservice holds the greatest potential to drive sustainable improvements to personal longevity and public health. To this end, The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—Department of Nutrition started
Menus of Change
®: The Business of Healthy, Sustainable, Delicious Food Choices seven years ago. The initiative works to realize a long-term, practical vision for integrating optimal nutrition and public health, along with environmental stewardship and social responsibility concerns, within the foodservice industry and the culinary profession. Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstone of plant-forward gastronomy, which is why “think produce first” sits high among the initiative’s tenets. Recently the CIA has doubled down on this veg-centric menu innovation direction with the launch of its
digital media platform and annual
Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit
Given the foodservice channel’s increased influence on everyday eating occasions and ability to overcome the biggest mental barrier to eating produce – taste – chefs hold the power to help support consumers’ desire to eat more fruits and vegetables. While fresh produce has long been known to be healthy, that very affiliation may be working against it. That’s because health is just one of many reasons people choose foods, as demonstrated by a recent study conducted for Produce Marketing Association by Sentient Decision Science on understanding the experiences people want from food. The research finds a stronger incentive for people to choose fruits and vegetables when health claims are served alongside messaging of how fruits and vegetables satisfy broader needs and wants like taste, convenience, emotional and cultural connections.
This makes a case for not relegating produce to the health section on menus or leading with health messaging, making customers think these dishes might be somehow different (i.e., worse tasting) than the rest of the menu. Chefs know how to make plant-forward dishes varied, enticing, flavorful, and delicious by exercising tech savviness in the kitchen – not with smartphones or artificial intelligence, but with time-honored techniques like roasting, sautéing, julienne, purees, and the use of spices and condiments expertly applied to make produce sing. Doing so invites incorporation of dishes rich in fruits and vegetables to every section of the menu. Furthermore, menu descriptors that offer tempting details around plant-forward items rather than health statements position such selections as equally delicious as everything else on the menu. Take a lucky guess which dish Stanford University students picked during a food marketing study: “light ‘n’ low-carb green beans and shallots” or “sweet sizzlin’ green beans and crispy shallots.
In addition, greater fascination with cultural discovery and novel flavors is making diners’ palates more adventurous, opening the door to a long-term opportunity for creative menu R & D—one that stands to make produce a bigger and more vital role in people’s diets. From the well-researched Mediterranean diet to the cuisines of Asia and Latin America, traditional food cultures offer myriad flavor strategies to support innovation around healthy, delicious, even craveable plant-forward cooking.
Food for the ages
Rising preferences for healthy, sustainable, plant-forward food choices—when matched with culinary insight—can transform palates and make plant-forward dining a mainstream concept. Beyond rational appeals of health messages, plant-forward restaurants also allow an American public, who increasingly wants someone else to do the cooking, to not be cornered into sacrificing taste and well-being when dining out. A fresh approach also empowers chefs and foodservice operators to assert their expertise and influence to grow a healthier world where people, businesses, and our planet thrive.
Not all culinary professionals and foodservice companies will answer this call to action. But as more and more respond to demand and find success in the business of serving healthy, sustainable, and truly delicious food, the rest will follow suit to seize this significant market opportunity.
Greater abundance of unapologetically delicious fruits and veggies on menus is a win-win, allowing all of us to have our cake (chocolate beet, of course) and eat it too.