Offering plant-based proteins is a profitable choice for operators

By Nandini Roy Choudhury

As sustainability continues to drive consumer demand, alternative proteins on menus are starting to become a powerful tool to combat climate change across the globe and boost restaurant bottom lines. Leading companies, stakeholders, and suppliers are steadily investing in the development of new capabilities and resources to address the challenges associated with climate change, and that can be an asset for operators.

According to the World Resources Institute, the environmental impact related to an individual’s diet can be cut by around one-half with less dairy and meat product consumption. For health and environmental benefits, conscious consumers are lowering their consumption of animal-based protein. Studies show that about 11 per cent of consumers now call themselves flexitarian, an increase of seven per cent over last year, so the practice of cutting meat consumption continues to be on the rise, making it relevant for restaurant menus.

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The environmental impact of eating meat

The impact of meat consumption on the environment continues to be a concern for consumers. Reduced beef consumption can lower the per-person agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and land usage by 15 to 35 per cent, whereas a reduction of animal all protein intake would lower the same by about one-half.

In 2009, the average per-person protein intake across the globe surpassed the regular dietary needs of each individual, totalling about 68 grams of protein every day. In some wealthy countries, protein consumption has remained at high levels since then, but consumers across the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States have significantly cut their animal protein intake to reduce their environmental impact and better their health.

However, sales of alternative proteins have slowed across some emerging economies in the last few years, due in part to inflation and the perception of healthy food choices.

In some developing countries, fewer consumers are seeking premium products that cost a higher price due to inflation. With the continued rising food prices, consumers may be finding it difficult to pay more for alternative proteins. Many are looking for conventional fresh food and beverages that are relatively low-cost compared to premium protein-based products.

To address diner demand, operators should focus on creating tasty, affordable, plant-based dishes on their menus to interest consumers, attract attention, and stand out from the competition.

Shifting consumer diets

There are many factors affecting consumer diets and the shift to choosing more plant-based alternatives. Government and private agencies across the globe have taken several initiatives to shift focus toward alternative proteins. These initiatives have centred around providing education and creating awareness programs to promote eating more plants.

To complement these efforts, many in the global food and beverage industry are focusing on experimenting with novel strategies to enhance the intake of plant-based proteins and compete with traditional protein sources. In some cases, partnerships with start-up companies and distributors are being made to offer plant-based items at an affordable rate to make these options more accessible to consumers.

More operators are leading the way in offering innovative, affordable plant-based menu options to showcase taste, versatility, and a healthier way to treat the planet. As an example, in February 2024, Nestlé India collaborated with BOSS Burger and SOCIAL, two leading cafés, for a trial launch of plant-based offerings on the menu.

Similarly, in March 2024, Planted, a Switzerland-based food technology firm, introduced its fermented vegan steak, containing natural ingredients, with vitamin B12, fibre, iron, protein, and without additives.

Leading the charge for plant-based proteins

Certain generations are more motivated to order plant-based dishes off the menu, and Gen Z and millennials top the list. Studies show that 15 per cent of Gen Z and 18 per cent of millennials say that they eat and drink plant-based products regularly. This is a market segment that restaurateurs should target when adding vegetarian or vegan items to the menu.

Gen Z is amenable to alternative protein sources as part of their regular diets. In fact, a study by Sodexo found that around 81 per cent of college students choose plant-based food items over animal protein when it is offered as a default option. Highlighting plant-based items on the menu and promoting them on platforms where this age group frequents can help attract more customers and get more people talking about restaurant menus.

What does the future hold?

Increasing concerns about climate change, food insecurity, and surging global population are propelling the need to de-risk food production methods and supply chains for restaurants.

Creating alternative sources of protein and developing cutting-edge technology is significant for providing healthy and sustainable diets and appealing to consumers. Alternative proteins have several benefits, including zero risk of transmission of zoonotic disease, high adaptability to supply chain issues, reduced emissions, and less national security concerns – as well as being a draw to consumers.

The global plant-based protein market is set to attain a value of US $42.55 billion by 2034. Consumers are looking for plant-based products to maintain their health by following a balanced diet as a way to help prevent the risk of heart disease and stroke, and restaurants can benefit from this healthy and sustainable wave by including dishes featuring alternative proteins on their menus.

Sustainability and healthy living are trends that are here to stay, so restaurateurs who adopt plant-based dishes can capitalize on that demand, distinguish themselves from the rest, and increase restaurant revenues.

Nandini Roy Choudhury has an MBA in Finance from MIT School of Business. She also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from Nagpur University, India. Nandini has authored several publications, and quoted in journals including Beverage Industry, Bloomberg, and Wine Industry Advisor.