Why the Culinary Institute of America Wants Restaurants to Serve More Plant-Based Proteins

By Kerri Adams, Editor-at-Large

Consumers are not only more concerned than ever about what foods they are eating, but they are more educated about food sourcing. They want to know where their food is from, why isn’t it local, how fresh it is, if its organic and how many calories it has.

But it’s also much more than a health movement for consumers, some are making a moral decision to reframe from eating meat. There are several reasons consumers decide to stop eating meat. One is that the food media has exposed slaughterhouses in action and these often don’t leave a viewer with a good taste in their mouth. But, it’s also an ecological and sustain issue. Meat has a much bigger water footprint than grains, vegetable or beans. It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce just 1 pound of meat, according to PETA.

It’s important to note that although the vegetarian movement has gain some momentum due to the moral and ecological implications of meat, the healthier dining guest isn’t solely gravitating to plant-based meals because they don’t eat meat. Restaurants are appealing to their palates with delicious menu options that feature a vegetable, grain or bean as the centerpiece of the dish.

Menus of Change

With all of this being said, the Culinary Institute of America and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is on a mission to make plant-based protein focused dishes no longer an afterthought. They are encouraging the restaurant industry to do a “protein flip” and offer less animal meat in meals.

“It came about in response to a clear need among foodservice leaders for an integrated, comprehensive, evidence-based set of guidelines for addressing the most pressing health and environmental concerns through business strategies that will keep their culinary operations thriving for decades to come,” said Sophie Egan, director of programs and culinary nutrition for the Strategic Initiatives Group at The Culinary Institute of America.

The Goal of the Program  

The objective of CIA and Harvard’s Menus of Change: The Business of Healthy, Sustainable, Delicious Food Choices is to promote sustainability and health with foodservice practices that support these issues. Several of the initiatives in the Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus revolve around plant-based proteins, specifically the three mentioned below–

  •  “Leverage globally inspired, plant-based culinary strategies. Scientific research suggests that the most effective way to help diners make healthy, sustainable food choices is to shift our collective diets to mostly plant-based foods. Growing plants for food generally has less of a negative impact on the environment than raising livestock, as livestock have to eat lots of plants to produce a smaller amount of food. In fact, no other single decision in the professional kitchen—or in the boardrooms of foodservice companies—can compare in terms of the benefits of advancing global environmental sustainability. From the well- researched Mediterranean diet to the cuisines of Asia and Latin America, traditional food cultures offer a myriad of flavor strategies to support innovation around healthy, delicious, even craveable cooking that rebalances ratios between foods from animal and plant sources.” (Menus of Change)

So with that being said, what are some alternative proteins that the CIA recommends? Nuts and legumes.

  • “Move nuts and legumes to the center of the plate. Nuts and legumes are full of flavor, contain plant protein, and are associated with increased satiety. Nuts contain beneficial fats, while legume crops contain fiber and slowly metabolized carbohydrates. Legumes also are renowned for helping to replace nitrogen in the soil and produce impressive quantities of protein per acre. Nuts (including nut butters, flours, and milks) and legumes (including soy foods and legume flours) are an excellent replacement for animal protein. They also are a marketable way to serve and leverage smaller amounts of meat and animal proteins.” (Menus of Change)
  • “Serve less red meat, less often. Red meat— beef, pork, and lamb—can be enjoyed occasionally and in small amounts. Current guidance from nutrition research recommends consuming a maximum of two 3-ounce servings per week. Chefs and menu developers can rethink how meat is used by featuring it in smaller, supporting roles to healthier plant-based choices, and experimenting with meat as a condiment. From at least some environmental perspectives (e.g., GHGE, feed efficiency ratio), pork is the better choice among red meats (though not distinguishable from a nutritional perspective). Saturated fat is one health concern associated with red-meat consumption, but it’s not the only issue. Chefs should strive to limit bacon and other processed and cured meats, which are associated with even higher incidence of chronic disease than unprocessed red meats. Many diners choose to splurge on red meat when they eat out, and there will always be an appropriate place for meat-centered dishes. But chefs can help to shift eating patterns by building a sense of theater and value in menu concepts that don’t rely so heavily on a starring role for animal protein. For example, they might offer delicious meat/vegetable and meat/legume blends, or smaller tasting portions of red meat as part of vegetable-rich, small-plate formats.” (Menus of Change)

The CIA isn’t saying that meat needs to be removed from most of the menu, they are just encouraging the industry to make it more of a condiment than the having it as the starring role in dishes.

They also point out that diners often see both red meat and dining out as a treat, so it’s common for a guests to want red meat to be the focus of their dish. But, the CIA urges restaurants to try to lure them away from these meal-focus plates with enticing dishes that offer a blend of either meat/vegetable or meat/legume.

It’s all about the subtle messaging. “Menus of Change discourages foodservice leaders from hitting diners over the head with messages about a food's health benefits. Instead, we always lead with flavor. In fact, that is one of the 24 Principles of Healthy, Sustainable Menus: ‘Lead with menu messaging around flavor.’ Because if it doesn't taste delicious, the rest won't matter. Research shows that taste trumps just about everything. So the healthier, more sustainable options can't merely taste pretty good; they have to be so delicious they're craveable. They've got to make diners want to come back to your restaurant time and again,” said Egan.

Giving Restaurants Alternative Protein Recommendations  

Besides providing restaurant professionals with these guidelines, Menu of Change released Protein Plays, an 8-page toolkit that outlines less-meat focused protein solutions and an infographic called The Protein Flip.

“The Protein Flip showcases some of the ways that chefs around the country are offering creative plant-forward dishes, from cauliflower steak at restaurants like Chalk Point Kitchen (of chef Rebecca Weitzman, a CIA graduate) to a broccoli dog and other center-of-the-plate celebrations of vegetables at Dirt Candy (of chef Amanda Cohen). For plant-based proteins specifically, one of the many ways we are seeing chefs use them to achieve fantastic flavor is with blended burgers, like  juicy patties made from combinations such as peanut, mushroom, and farro, or lentil, barley, and black bean, just to name a few,” said Egan.