Plant-based alternatives at home and in restaurants

Nutritional OutlookNutritional Outlook Vol. 27 No. 5
Volume 27
Issue 5

How home cooks and restaurant chefs are using plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, and what you need to know to meet their needs.

Photo ©

Photo ©

It used to be that one would be made fun of for eating tofu or other meat-free protein sources. But those days are long gone for most Americans. In 2023, the Good Food Institute (GFI) found that six out of ten U.S. households purchased plant-based foods.And those figures mirrored similar statistics captured in 2022. Statistics released by GFI and the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) showed SPINS sales data supports this trend. In 2023, the plant-based foods market in the U.S. was worth $8.1 billion.1

Clearly, eating plant-based products has moved from “fringe” to mainstream. Is the way home cooks use these products different than how restaurant chefs do though? What do manufacturers need to keep in mind to design delicious plant-based foods? And what trends are currently on the rise in this market?

Restaurant Chefs vs. Home Cooks

There are important things to consider when it comes to using meat-free ingredients depending on whether they’ll be used at home or in a restaurant. That’s what John Stephanian, vice president of Global Culinary & Innovation, at ADM, (Chicago, IL) says.

He notes that there’s a high bar set for both taste and texture when it comes to plant-based foods. Additionally, whether they’re eating at home or dining in restaurants, individuals desire taste exploration. This is particularly true in restaurants where patrons often try dishes that would be difficult to replicate at home. Shopping for plant-based foods for the home kitchen on the other hand, is often influenced by clean labels and nutrition panels. Stephanian says these are less influential when choosing a meal from a menu.

“For chefs, clean-tasting plant proteins that can be turned into delicious entrées using culinary creativity, flavors, and tools are especially appealing,” he explains.

At Puris, (Minneapolis, MN), research chef Ian Heieie, shares that careful consideration is taken when it comes to plant-based products. “Restaurants need versatile ingredients that adapt across cuisines, perform well under high heat, and integrate seamlessly into their workflows,” he says. While shelf life, ease of preparation, and bulk packaging are crucial for efficient operations, he notes, the final product that a home chef desires is different than that of a professional chef. “Consumers seek convenient, ready-eat options that taste great,” Heieie says. “Restaurants prefer to receive more versatile, unprepared foods.”

Designing Plant-Based Alternatives

One key element in designing delicious plant-based meat alternatives is texture. There needs to be an element of chewiness but also moistness. This can be a hard thing to replicate. At ADM, global protein and savory marketing director, Jacquelyn Schuh, states that the company has worked hard to make this a priority. “Modern-day consumers are looking for expanded protein choices with additional dietary diversity and, as a result, we’ve combined soy and pea proteins,” Schuh notes. This pairing increases protein fortification and diversity. It also creates the ideal taste and texture for both dairy alternatives and plant-based meat products. One example is the company’s plant-based Greek-style yogurt which retains the expected creaminess and full-bodied texture that the dairy version contains. “These versatile plant proteins are also utilized in our AccelFlex Texture Systems (TS), which help manufacturers overcome textural, structural, and functional hurdles in plant-based alternatives to chicken, pork, beef or fish, achieving the desired ‘bite’ and ‘chew,’” says Schuh.

Plant-Based Trends and Who’s Buying Now?

Not all plant-based consumers are vegan or vegetarian, therefore not all products need to be fully vegan or vegetarian. As a result, one emerging trend noted by Schuh is hybrid food. Known as blends or blended meat products, these hybrids use animal-derived proteins and “. . . a mix of familiar plant sources like soy or pea and emerging ones like chickpea or lupine, with or without the combination of other wholesome plant-based ingredients and vegetables like beans, pulses, mushrooms, grains, seeds, or vegetable blends,” Schuh explains. While there are a number of smaller companies getting on the hybrid meat train, Perdue is one of the largest. One example is the company’s Chicken Breast and Vegetable Dino Nuggets. Chicken breast is blended with cauliflower and chickpeas, creating a healthier option for kids’ meals.

Mark Fahlin, the category marketing manager at Cargill (Wayzata, MN) notes that a key motivation for individuals when it comes to seeking out plant-based alternatives is choice. “Consumers are looking for [food] choices; plant-based dairy and meat alternatives give them more options,” he explains. While consumers enjoy options, there are a range of factors that influence consumers’ decision to reach for plant-based products. “Health and wellness trends are a part of that, as is our increasing ethnically diverse demographic,” says Fahlin. “Add in consumers’ growing concerns about the environment, all the technological advancements already here or on the near horizon, and the impact of dietary restrictions like lactose intolerance, and it’s clear that these products still have plenty of room to grow.”

The demographics around plant-based meat and dairy shoppers are clearly changing as more consumer embrace plant-based options, while not necessarily embracing a plant-based lifestyle. “Originally, the first plant-based meat and dairy alternatives appealed to a very small segment of consumers – typically those who followed a strict vegan or vegetarian lifestyle,” explains Fahlin. “Today, with the rise of the flexitarian eater, there’s a much larger, more mainstream appetite for plant-based eating. For these consumers, eating plant-based isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, it’s an occasion-based choice.”

Heieie states that several factors play into the decision to eat plant-based products. These include health, convenience, being environmentally friendly and ethically sourced, and tastiness. “When it comes to choosing a dairy alternative beverage, flavor reigns supreme,” explains Heieie. “Consumers want plant-based options that taste great and don’t compromise on enjoyment. This differs from the traditional dairy market, where price often dictates buying behavior.”

The Future of Plant-based Alternatives

Sustainability, as noted by both Fahlin and Heieie is important in this market. “As we continue to build upon our plant-based ingredients library, we are also investing in local capabilities and sourcing,” Schuh noted. “We believe local capabilities must be supported to ensure we are able to feed the growing global population with nutritious, delicious, and affordable options while keeping the planet in mind.” She uses ADM’s SojaProtein facility in Serbia as an example. The company taps into locally sourced non-GMO soy. Locally sourced in this instance means the soy is grown within 100 kilometers of the facility.

“As we keep a pulse on consumer behavior shifts and demands, we will soon have a new consumer insights report detailing consumer perceptions, motivations, and affinities in the new blended meat-plant protein space,” says Schuh.

Fahlin believes precision fermentation is something that could be a big unlock for both categories. “On the dairy-alternative side, dairy proteins made through precision fermentation offer new possibilities, including lactose-free dairy proteins and the potential for more soluble proteins that enable even higher protein fortification levels in beverages.” The process has similar advantages to the meat-alternative category, he states. Cargill uses mycoprotein to develop products with more meat-like textures, enhanced nutrition profiles, and stronger sustainability stories, Fahlin explains.

It will be interesting to see how the plant-based meat and dairy market continues to grow, morph, and change over time.


  1. Pierce, B.; Ignaszewski E.; Gertner, D.; Leet-Otley, T. U.S. retail market insights for the plant-based industry. Good Food Institute.

Joy Choquette writes from Vermont.

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