Plant-based diets themselves are pretty simple and straightforward, but the effect they’re having on the foodservice industry is anything but that. Businesses are adjusting to this new culinary landscape as consumer trends dictate menu changes.

Nearly two in five Americans are trying to add more plant-based foods into their diet, and more than half agree restaurants should offer more plant-based protein options, according to Mintel. Foodservice operators looking to add more plant-based menu items should focus on striking a balance between healthy plant-forward dishes and processed meat alternatives, the market research firm says.

Health is the main driver for consuming plant-based proteins, but taste is also important. More than half of consumers select a mix of healthy and indulgent options when eating out, according to Mintel’s research. The challenge moving forward will be for businesses to find ways to please consumers with vastly different dietary and taste preferences, especially when a majority of consumers report no specific dietary restrictions.

In the years to come, a priority for foodservice establishments will be the taste of meat with the health of plants. A study from Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) revealed that 44% of U.S. consumers now identify as flexitarian (a person who has a primarily vegetarian diet but occasionally eats meat or fish). This powerful group is driving demand for foods and beverages with plant-based proteins, which is why this category dominated the food and beverage landscape in 2019.

“The plant-based food and beverage movement has been gaining momentum over the past 12 months, and this is going to be another breakout year for the category,” says Kurt Long, director of Flexitarian Solutions, ADM. “We expect to see even more new and enhanced protein options hit the shelves in the coming months, and to get an edge in this growing space, manufacturers have to respond quickly with on-trend products.”

According to the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of American Culinary Federation members, plant-based proteins are one of the top trends on menus in 2020. The survey, which gave a list of 133 items in 12 categories to 600 American chefs, determined that American diners are looking for meat alternatives that taste great, mimic meats, and fit a variety of diets.

ADM’s study identified innovation as the force that will move this category forward. Burgers led the plant-based protein craze in 2019, but in the coming year, new proteins will start to take center stage. The market is already seeing an increase in alternatives to chicken, sausage, and even seafood. The key to success with these new products is achieving a flavor and texture similar to their animal-based inspirations. Developed exclusively for Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) by Beyond Meat, Beyond Fried Chicken was the first plant-based protein to be offered at a national chicken chain in the U.S. The primary source of protein in Beyond Fried Chicken comes from soy, wheat, and pea proteins. There have also been vegan products making appearances in breakfast sandwiches (Beyond Sausage sandwiches at Dunkin’, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s), pizza (spicy vegan chorizo at Blaze Pizza), and tacos (Qdoba’s plant-based crumbles), among other foods.

Expanded nutritional benefits with function-forward health features like added fiber, antioxidants, probiotics, and vitamins (“Protein Plus”) don’t just drive demand; they also command a higher price point. Research shows consumers are willing to pay a premium for products higher in protein, fiber, whole grains, and vitamins.

Clean label is also a big factor for plant-based proteins. Sixty percent of consumers say recognizable ingredients influence their purchase decision, and 66% say they are looking for labels with the shortest ingredient list. These numbers are sure to rise over the course of 2020.

Additionally, comfort is important to consumers, so being able to integrate these products into comfort foods will be key. These consumers, especially those with children, will be looking for plant-based versions of family-friendly foods like mac and cheese and pizza.

Foodservice success can hinge on consumer trends, and it’s clear that consumers want foods that make them feel better about themselves. Flexitarian diets are helping them to bridge the gap between being a vegan/vegetarian and a carnivore.

“This category for decades was defined by a niche audience of vegans and vegetarians,” says Zak Weston, foodservice analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Good Food Institute, a consulting firm. “But now there’s a much larger market of flexitarians and omnivores who might eat beef one night and a plant burger another night. It’s the same indulgent experience, but in their minds it’s healthier, it doesn’t have cholesterol.”

It’s also fairly easy for foodservice establishments to adapt to, as many plant-based proteins cook just like regular meat.

“If you’re a limited-service restaurant focused on operational efficiency, these analog products are pretty straightforward,” Weston says. “You cook the product on the grill or toss it in the fryer the same way you would cook meat items. You don’t have to retrain the staff.”

Weston also has some suggestions for marketing these products to consumers. Don’t segregate them on your menu – mix them in with the regular menu so that diners know these options are for them also.

You should also stress that these items are both tasty and familiar. Focus on what the product is (plant-based), not what it isn’t (meatless). Finally, good photography can help highlight how plant-based products look and taste just like many other menu items.