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Taking Plant-Forward Mainstream

Thu, September 15, 2016

Members of the Menus of Change community are accustomed to hearing about the importance of a plant-centric diet. For several years now, consumers have been demanding more vegetable-forward options, as part of a larger shift in diner preferences whereby red meat has begun assuming a reduced role in foodservice settings. Chefs have stepped up to the plate, literally and figuratively. Just the latest in a long list is acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who is set to open a meatless restaurant in New York City this month. Though as he told Grub Street, he prefers to call it a “vegetable restaurant.” Officially named abcV, the restaurant will “celebrate roots and shoots and leaves without trying to mimic meat,” Grub Street reported.

Protein Plays

Inventive offerings feature a variety of the protein strategies advocated by Menus of Change as part of the Protein Flip and a reimagined “protein portfolio.” These culinary innovations include serving meat as a condiment (just a few ounces atop a plate full of plants), blended burger options (with combinations from mushroom-meat to lentil-quinoa), and occasionally meatless options that don’t mention their meatlessness but instead celebrate the inherent deliciousness of dishes that just so happen to be vegetarian or vegan. Along with more vegetable-centric cooking, chefs are also swapping out red meat for superior choices of animal protein, trading down the food chain in recognition of the fact that fish and poultry are far better for human and planetary health than beef or pork.

At the same time that change is afoot bottom up—from consumers, with chefs helping pave the way through flavor and creativity—so too are plant-forward initiatives coming from top down. That’s right: the good old public service announcement. In light of the livestock sector’s unsustainable contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions—paired with the World Health Organization’s announcement that consumption of red and processed meats can increase the risk of certain cancers—it shouldn’t come as any surprise that government officials across the globe have also gotten involved in the shift to plant-based eating patterns. But what might raise eyebrows is how various countries are going about doing so.

China, for its part, has enlisted Arnold Schwarzenegger to help spread the message about reducing meat consumption. As part of China’s recently released national dietary guidelines, a nonprofit organization called the Chinese Nutrition Society teamed up with advocacy group WildAid to develop a public service campaign starring the Hollywood actor and former California governor, along with Hollywood director James Cameron (known for the films Avatar and Titanic). The PSAs use Schwarzenegger’s humor while underscoring how eating meat hurts the environment.

This new campaign is particularly encouraging given that China consumes over a quarter of the world’s meat. It consumes half of its pork. (The four countries that consume the most meat are China, the United States, Britain, and Brazil, though red meat consumption in the United States has been on the decline since the 1970s.) While China’s population has increased by 30 percent since the early 1980s, its meat consumption has increased by almost 500 percent.

In May, the Netherlands Nutrition Centre recommended that people eat no more than two servings of meat per week. It made the announcement using a visual graphic distributed to the public called the “Wheel of Five,” which is similar to America’s “My Plate” diagram. This was the first time a specific limit had been set, and the amount was based on five years of government research on both the human health and ecological impacts of eating meat.

The government of Denmark, an early leader in the movement to ban trans fats, is now considering a red meat tax, a measure that the United Nations has discussed as a potential recommendation. Proponents of a red meat tax are inspired in part by recent soda tax efforts, from Berkeley and Philadelphia to Mexico and the U.K.

In addition, over the past decade we have seen significant growth of the Meatless Monday campaign. Led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future, Meatless Monday urges people to skip meat on Mondays to boost their own health and that of the planet. Celebrities such as Oprah and Paul McCartney have become program ambassadors, and the program has been adopted in 36 countries.

So far, there doesn’t appear to be one best strategy; instead, it’s this braid of approaches that collectively seems to be driving the market in this direction. But one thing is for certain: Consumers’ embrace of plant-based diets is happening at a remarkable clip. And it shows no signs of slowing down.

In a recent New York Times restaurant review, entitled "At Nix, Vegetables Get a Dash of Sex," food critic Pete Wells offered perhaps the clearest sign of where plant-forward cooking is heading: "The crackle in the air at Nix and other recent meatless restaurants is what you get when you liberate vegetables from vegetarianism. Stripped of ideology, Nix is freed up for hedonic pursuits."


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