5 June 2024

The financial and environmental benefits of plant-based menu options

Making a conscious effort to include more plant-based foods in your meal and menu planning not only appeals to the health-conscious but can also boost the profitability of your food and beverage business. Although a vegetarian dish might not attract the same price as a rib-eye steak, today’s diners are more than happy to pay for delicious, nourishing meals that are thoughtfully prepared. 

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat as a ‘Group1 carcinogen’, putting it in the same category as smoking and asbestos. Red meat didn’t fare much better, being classified as ‘Group 2A, probably carcinogenic’. Because of this, WHO recommends cutting down on these meats and adding more plant-based foods to our diets. This is a great opportunity for the hospitality industry to make plant-based foods, namely plant-based proteins, a hero ingredient in our menus.   

The growing demand for sustainable, meat alternatives 

Eating a diet high in protein has been making headlines for some time now, and this trend is set to keep growing in 2024. People are on the lookout for protein sources beyond the usual meat, eggs, and dairy – they want options that are kinder to the planet too. 

In today’s market, besides the classic omnivore, chefs and caterers are faced with at least eight different plant-based approaches to eating: 

  1. Flexitarian: actively chooses to eat less meat through their “flexible” behaviours towards food.
  2. Vegetarian: doesn’t eat meat but consumes animal by-products such as eggs and dairy. 
  3. Economic vegetarian: avoids meat because it is more expensive. 
  4. Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats dairy products and eggs, but not meat. 
  5. Ovo-vegetarian: eats eggs, but not dairy products or meat. 
  6. Lacto-vegetarian: eats dairy products, but not eggs or meat. 
  7. Pescatarian: eats fish, seafood, eggs and dairy products, but no meat. 
  8. Vegan: doesn’t eat meat, eggs, dairy products, or any other ingredients created from or produced by animals. 

Balancing ethics, cost, and nutrition with plant-based proteins 

For many people, eating less meat is an ethical choice, but it can also be quite cost-effective, especially when using tinned items to replace meat products. 

When considering cost, plants can be divided into plant-based proteins and those that are more fibre-dense and lower in protein. Plant-based proteins are routinely used to replace meat or fish in dishes. Substituting things like chicken for chickpeas, beef mince for red lentils or pork for cannellini beans. And typically, more fibre dense plants include familiar fruits and vegetables like broccoli, apples, bananas and potatoes. 

Cutting down on meat doesn’t mean you have to go-all-or-nothing with plant-based options. Instead, it’s a chance to reduce the meat in a dish and add more plant-based protein and fibre – all while improving the profitability of your menus. According to The British Nutrition Foundation, people in the UK only get about two-thirds of the recommended daily fibre amount. So, by adding more plant-based ingredients to meals, we can lower costs, reduce our carbon footprint, and boost fibre intake all at once. 

Be cautious with the cost of plant-based meat substitutes

When we talk about eating more plant-based foods, it’s important to mention that this largely excludes plant-based meat substitutes. These products can be quite expensive and often lack nutrition, containing high levels of salt and many ingredients to mimic the texture of meat. An independent price comparison by Which found that meat-free products like burgers, sausages, and ready meals are usually more expensive than their meat counterparts. Mintel also reported that many consumers are changing their attitude towards these products given their ultra processed nature and negative media attention. 

Comparing the costs of meat vs plant-based proteins 

In 2022, The Vegan Society conducted a cost analysis comparing common plant-based proteins with meat items. The results highlighted the potential for significant savings by reducing the meat content in dishes and incorporating pulses or beans. Here are some key costs per portion, illustrating how these changes can improve margins without altering consumer prices. 

Dried split red lentils = 11p per portion 
Lean beef mince = 62p per portion 
Tinned chickpeas = 23p per portion 
Fresh chicken thighs = 19p per portion 
Tofu = 53p per portion 

In their 2023/24 food and drink report, Waitrose highlighted a surge in the sale of tinned beans. With consumers recognising their versatility in the kitchen as well as their nutritional benefits. Tinned beans are not only cheaper than meat or fresh vegetables, but they also have a long shelf life, making them a smart addition to curries, stews, and salads. It makes sense to consider them essential ingredients in your next recipe creation. 

    Incorporating plant-based proteins to lower costs in meat-based meals

    There are some really great ways to boost the amount of plant-based protein in meals that still contain meat and effectively lower the cost per portion. Integrating these eco-friendly choices doesn’t have to be time-consuming or unproductive. When we talk about reducing costs, it includes both time and labour savings. With recipe management software, you can quickly and easily swap ingredients and adjust recipes and menus without any hassle.  
    Let’s explore some methods to make your menus healthier and more sustainable: 

    • For mince-based dishes like bolognese, lasagna, moussaka, burgers, tacos, meatballs, shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, and chili, replace half the mince with dried red lentils. Remember to add extra liquid for the lentils to swell. For an added fibre boost, include grated courgette, sweet potato, carrot, and celery. 
       
    • For meat or fish-based curries, replace half the meat or fish with tinned lentils or kidney beans. For added texture and protein, top the curry with crushed peanuts or toasted sesame seeds. 
       
    • Tofu can be expensive as a meat alternative, so pair it with other proteins like chickpeas or edamame beans. When adding tofu to a curry, use it sparingly and include extra peas, which are also a great source of protein. 
       
    • Chicken is more affordable than red meat and fish, and it has a lower carbon footprint. By mixing chicken with red meat in stir-fried dishes, you can reduce your costs per portion while decreasing the overall red meat content.  

    The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reports that diets with less meat and more plant-based foods can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 20-50% and improve population health. 

    Understanding the carbon footprint of your dishes will help you reach milestones in your sustainability efforts, bring you closer to your customers and ultimately help save our planet. From analysing the carbon footprint of individual dishes to assessing the overall sustainability of your operations, carbon footprint data equips businesses like yours with the tools you need to make smarter, more sustainable choices. 

    Boost the profitability of menus with plant-based proteins

    So, let’s wrap up, we’ve discussed the growing demand for more sustainable meat alternatives, how including more plant-based proteins can improve your bottom line, and a few smart options for updating your recipes and menus for today’s eco-conscious consumers. Here are a few actionable key take-aways from today’s insights: 

    1. Try to avoid meat substitutes due to their high salt content, price and ultra processed nature.
    2. Reduce the percentage (and costs) of meat by adding beans and pulses to main meals. 
    3. Reduce the amount of red and processed meat on menus in general. 
    4. Ensure protein features on all menus through both plant and meat sources. 
    5. Examine current menus and recipe databases to assess where improvements can be made. 
    6. Understand the carbon footprint for each of your dishes and share it with your customers. 

    The IndiCater team have been dedicated to helping food and beverage businesses boost profits, streamline operations and improve their sustainability for over 20 years. Whether it’s an assessment of food waste, bringing you up to date with electronic invoicing or giving you the data you need to anaylse your costs and carbon footprints – we’ve got you covered. Reach out to the team today to discuss your current sustainability practices and we’ll share how we can give you that extra boost.  

    Photo by Jacopo Maia on Unsplash