Protecting your bottom line with plant-based purchases

By Riana Topan

Plant-based purchases may be the key to cost savings for restaurants. With food prices alarmingly high and threatening already-narrow profit margins, food service owners and operators are struggling to find ways to contain costs. According to Restaurants Canada, the price of food at grocery stores rose by 10.1 per cent between June 2021 and June 2022. Meanwhile, menu prices are expected to increase by 7.8 per cent by the end of 2022 compared to the end of 2021 – the highest increase since the introduction of GST in 1991.

The good news is, that incorporating more plant-based foods into menus could lead to significant savings. Most industry professionals already recognize that meat purchases are often the most expensive part of an operation’s food budget – which is why numerous restaurants and other food service outlets report a double-digit drop in food costs when they swap out animal proteins for plant-based ones.

Here are a few specific examples from a guide to plant-based substitutions developed in 2021 for the Forward Food program, to help food service professionals feature plant foods more prominently on their menus:

  • Replacing ground beef with brown lentils can reduce costs by 74 per cent
  • Replacing ­chicken breast with tofu can reduce costs by 56 per cent
  • Replacing tuna with chickpeas can reduce costs by 68 per cent
  • Replacing ­eggs with flaxseed (in baking) can reduce costs by 32 per cent
  • Replacing ­cream with coconut milk can reduce costs by 90 per cent

This trend is reflected in research as well. Researchers at Oxford University recently examined the cost of food in 150 countries based on 2017 data. They found that vegan diets are the most economical and could reduce food spending by as much as 34 per cent in developed nations like Canada, compared to the grocery costs of a typical Western diet. Vegetarian diets were almost as beneficial, offering up to 31 per cent in cost-savings, followed by flexitarian diets which can reduce costs by up to 14 per cent. Pescatarian diets, which exclude meat and poultry but include fish, could actually increase costs by 2 per cent.

The same study looked at costs not captured by a food item’s retail price, to determine how the hidden costs of our food choices impact environmental, social, and health metrics. The researchers reported that vegan diets would be 45 per cent more cost-effective than standard Western diets if climate costs were accounted for in food prices. And, if health-care costs were included, a fully plant-based dietary pattern would reduce food costs by 47 per cent. If both types of costs were included in retail prices, a plant-based or vegan diet would cut grocery bills by a whopping 53 per cent.

Of course, some plant-based proteins can be more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. Plant-based meats (burgers, sausages, tenders, nuggets, strips, and so on) still carry a relatively high price tag, largely because of the comparative lack of public funding allocated to the industry. Despite the fact that animal protein production carries heavy costs for our environment, our personal health, and animal welfare, the animal agricultural sector receives billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded subsidies each year. (The dairy, poultry, and egg industries receive additional special support under Canada’s supply management system, with billions more dollars allocated to prop up these specific commodities.)

As consumers increasingly gravitate towards alternative proteins, and public and private investors become have become more interested in the plant-based food sector, food manufacturers have taken notice and the production of plant-based meats has increased. In time, we will see the cost of these animal-free food options come down. In the interim, food service operations can experiment with various ways to diversify their menu offerings while keeping spending in check, probably with a combination of affordable whole plant-based foods – beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices – and plant-based meats.

For recipe ideas that prioritize cost-effective plant-based ingredients, please explore our food service industry recipe packet. It’s one of many free resources we offer to help the restaurant and hospitality industries bring plant-based food forward. We also invite you to sign the Forward Food Pledge and commit to converting 20 per cent of your current offerings to plant based.

Across the world, particularly in non-Western cultures, people have been eating plant-based diets for centuries. Today, more than four billion people globally consume a predominantly plant-based diet. A continued shift towards more plant-rich menus across Canada will bring enormous benefits – to our well-being, our planet, the animals we share it with, and our wallets.

Riana Topan is a campaign manager with Humane Society International/Canada. She runs the organization’s Forward Food program, which helps institutions across Canada increase their offerings of delicious and nutritious plant-based options that are better for animals, the environment, and human health.