Seafood And Vegetarian Diners Seek Innovative Plant-based Dishes

Will Today’s Restaurant Reality & Yield To A Plant-based Future?

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

What are we to do when research indicates one thing, but the marketing of today’s largest restaurant chains, those that have real money on the line, tells us those same consumers are not representative of their customers?

It is obviously true, and important, that seafood and vegetarian consumers respond to Technomic by saying they are interested in produce-heavy, unprocessed food. But the fact the consumers surveyed are limited to a small subset of restaurant patrons who “eat meals with seafood, vegetarian or vegan items” may be a more significant distortion factor that is recognized by the typically white-collar, well-educated and affluent users of studies such as these.

We would love to see this research presented without filters, with the results representing the U.S. consumer in toto. Without a true representation of the population, we can only look at the Technomic research with an eye toward possible trends if the future were to change dramatically and more consumers intended to follow a stricter seafood and vegetarian diet.

Do most consumers today really strive to eat more healthfully? Are consumers yearning for blackened, smoked and charred vegetables to take center stage on their plates? Certainly, some consumers act this way, and the Technomic study highlights this cohort of diners. But in reading these types of studies, one has to remember we have no statistical information that indicates produce consumption is on the upswing. Our best data is disappearance data – production minus exports plus imports – and that has been basically flat for years.

Of course, the data is imperfect, so we look for other clues. Large restaurant chains are sending us some serious messages that the consumers they serve are not focused this way. McDonald’s is the biggest of all, and its big promotion right now centers on the Big Mac, which is available in three sizes, including a larger, 860-calorie “Grand Mac.”

Burger King is pushing its BBQ Bacon King Sandwich – a 1,100-calorie paean to beef, cheese, and bacon – eliminating all those vegetables one will find on its traditional Whopper. Over at Wendy’s, the official hamburger of the NCAA is Dave’s Double, which is 810-calories, a bit less than Dave’s Triple, which is 1,090-calories. These are not the largest burgers sold, but they are all being promoted now — which does not seem the path these chains would take if their customers were demanding healthy, plant-based menu items.

Even chains that are supposedly examples of healthy eating trends often seem more image than reality. A couple of years ago, The New York Times analyzed a large group of online orders for Chipotle and determined the following:

With the help of a large sample of online orders, we set out to answer a question that piques our interest every time we walk into a Chipotle: What do people actually order? How healthy is a normal Chipotle meal?

Today, we have a ballpark estimate. The typical order at Chipotle has about 1,070 calories. That’s more than half of the calories that most adults are supposed to eat in an entire day. The recommended range for most adults is between 1,600 and 2,400.

The spike around 1,000 calories represents “standard” burrito orders – a meat burrito with typical additions: cheese, salsa, lettuce, sour cream, rice, and beans. If you order Chipotle’s meat burrito with these toppings, it is likely to reach 1,000 calories.

Would a similar Chipotle study was done today show radically different eating habits? We don’t know, but vendors don’t report a dramatic shift in consumption toward plant-based meals.

Sometimes the quest to eat healthily is complicated by changing nutritional guidance. It wasn’t long ago French Fries were villainized because they were fried. Now with trans fats mostly out of the oil and nutritional information advancing, many public health experts would say the oil is the healthiest part of the French Fry!

Even consumers who claim to be vegetarian or vegan often don’t follow the official definition of these terms. Though the data is weak, the Internet had some fun with a study that found 37 percent of vegetarians admitted to eating meat when they were drunk – and 69 percent of those kept it a secret.

So what sense is there to be made of a study such as this? The best retailers often attend trade shows focused on the latest upscale and trendy specialty food items. Many of the vendors at these events couldn’t possibly supply a big supermarket chain, and the sales of many items would be too small to justify a slot at major retailers. But large retailers attend because these specialty food trends may go mainstream in the future.

Studies such as this Technomic report are probably not representative of Americans today. But by focusing on a certain class of leading-edge consumers, they provide insight as to what may yet be the great consumer trends of tomorrow. If this unfolds, the future of the produce industry is bright indeed.