Old Diet, Meet New Diet: Flexitarianism is going mainstream

By Jo-Ann McArthur

Fads burn bright, then burn out. Plant-based eating may have seemed like a niche trend at one point, but it’s now an established and evolving in the mainstream. The far end of the spectrum, veganism, which advocates for quitting all animal-derived products, including meat, eggs, dairy and even honey, is still uncommon. Towards the middle of that spectrum, however, is flexitarianism, which is exactly what its name suggests: being flexible and ethical about food decisions. It’s also referred to as a blended diet, and it’s blurring the lines between veganism, vegetarianism and old-fashioned meat-eating, and it’s catching on in a big way.

Paradigm Shift

Consumers typically don’t adhere to one definition, but the majority are reducing their meat consumption, a decision now endorsed by the federal government. This year, the Canada Food Guide will be updated for the first time since 2007. A draft released earlier this year showed a significant change from the old four-food group model. Meat and dairy are now a single category, and there’s an overall shift to vegetables, grains and more plant-based protein. It’s in line with other national approaches to food and nutrition, as well. In 2017, the French food agency ANSES recommended increased consumption of pulses at the expensive of red meat and poultry, bringing it in line with other EU countries, and Switzerland’s new food guide suggests reducing meat consumption by 70 per cent.

Academia’s on board, too. In January, the Lancet published a report that recommended halving the global consumption of red meat, and reducing it by 80 per cent in developed countries. While promising to be good for your health and good for the globe, it didn’t eliminate entire categories of food the way veganism does. In effect, it recommended a balanced approach to eating — a blended diet — which Canadians are eagerly taking up.

A recent Dalhousie University study notes that more Canadians across cultures and across generations are reducing meat consumption for animal welfare, the environment and for their own health. The Dalhousie study also reported that vegetarians and vegans now account for nearly 10 per cent of Canada’s population — that’s more than 2.3 million vegetarians and 850,000 vegans. Sylvain Charlebois, who lead the study, says the survey also shows people under the age of 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than people 49 or older. Regardless of labels, it’s clear that flexitarianism or some other form of blended diet is on the rise. You need to plan your menu to appeal to vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, and meat-eaters. The Dalhousie study notes that, worldwide, selective eaters outnumber omnivores; plan accordingly.

Taking Advantage

When thinking of blended options, consider how your customers engage with flexitarianism and blended eating. Are they going meatless before 6 p.m.? Are abiding by meatless Mondays? Did they observe Veganuary? Launched in the U.K. in January 2014, Veganuary is a registered charity that encourages people to adopt a vegan lifestyle for the month. Both in sum total and sustained interest, Google Trends shows that searches for Veganuary are still dwarfed by searches for flexitarianism, but it still generates a surge of engagement in January. More to the point, it demonstrates how flexible flexitarianism really is. Despite the abundance of different labels, people engage with blended diets in different ways. There’s no single approach.

Are we at a pivotal point in dietary history? Are consumers ready to ditch the divisive labels associated with plant-based diets? What are the major players in the industry doing to stay relevant and profitable? Research shows that customers are more likely to try a vegetarian meal when dining out due to their own lack of confidence in cooking these foods at home. How can you make your menu more flexitarian-relevant?

A&W Canada was successful with its foray into flexitarianism, running out of its Beyond Meat Burger within a month of its launch. Why was it so successful? It promised the same indulgent experience as a regular A&W burger. It normalized the offer by treating the Beyond Meat Burger as part of its regular menu and serving it in a similar way to the other burgers on the menu. They made it easy for customers to refrain from eating meat and feel a little virtuous about it, kind of like opting for those sweet potato fries over French fries on the side.

U.S. burger chain Sonic enjoyed some flexitarian success last year with its Slinger, a classic burger made with a blended meat and mushrooms patty. It was so popular the Slinger returned in the fall of 2018 after its initial summer-only run. The blended burger allows customers to enjoy a tasty burger while reducing their meat intake. Plus, mushrooms cost a lot less than beef, making for a healthier bottom line, as well. Taco Bell took it a step further, testing a vegetarian menu and becoming the first QSR to be certified by the American Vegetarian Association. It’s a logical extension of its already veg-heavy menu (think beans, guacamole and salsa) and makes meatless meals accessible to the masses.

A&W, Sonic and Taco Bell played to their strengths and made it easier for their customers to reduce their intake of meat and add more plant-based food. A&W and Sonic are known for burgers and several of Taco Bell’s ingredients and preparations were already amenable to flexitarianism; each chain didn’t attempt to reinvent itself or ask customers to alter their perception of the brand. They lowered the barrier to entry.

And, don’t forget beverages. No longer just about refreshment, drinks are increasingly being used as meal replacements and gap fill-ins. Should you be offering a plant-based milk, as well as protein powder options? How can best work alongside your existing menu? (Bottom-line bonus: customers have already been trained by the coffee shops to pay more for that plant-based option!)

Niche No Longer

So what shouldn’t you do? Don’t relegate vegetarian or flexitarian options to a separate section. Make it clear which dishes are plant-based, but treat their descriptions like you would any other dish. Taste is still number one, so make it sound delicious while also having that health-and-planet halo. Position reduced-meat blended and meat-free options at the top of the menu (not as an add-on) or at the front of self-service counters. Make it part of your overall menu.

Tie into existing promotional campaigns like meatless Mondays. Promote diverse cuisines and dishes where pulses and vegetables are the stars of the meal. Consider serving smaller portions of free-range, organic, pasture-reared and locally-sourced meat, and market them as a distinctive specialty. Develop plant-based food options that appeal to your entire customer base, not just the preconceived notion of who’s a vegetarian and what they like — who they are and what they like have changed. The large-scale dietary shift isn’t a burden; it’s an opportunity.

Want to know more about blended diets and other trends, and how they’re going to affect your business? Download your free copy of the 2019 Nourish Trend Report today.

Jo-Ann McArthur is the President and Founding Partner of Nourish, a marketing agency that specializes in Food & Beverage, working across all aspects of the food ecosystem. Clients include producers, processors, retailers, manufacturers, food service, and restaurants. Nourish has offices in Toronto, Guelph, and Montreal. Want to know more? Jo-Ann can be contacted at j@nourish.marketing, or sign-up for the agency’s monthly newsletter at http://www.nourish.marketing/


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