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Report: Appetite for healthy, plant-forward menus growing, but more work needed on climate issues

Menus of Change 2017
(Image credit: The Culinary Institute of America)

The foodservice industry is succeeding in driving consumer enthusiasm for healthy, sustainable menus that emphasize plants over animal proteins, according to the 2017 Menus of Change Annual Report released yesterday at the 5th Annual Menus of Change Leadership Summit. The summit and its leadership initiative, launched by The Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, aim to offer guidance to foodservice operators and suppliers and measure progress in the industry related to public health and environmental goals.

The industry is making progress or at least holding steady on 13 of the 16 key issues identified in this year’s report, with strong gains in innovation, food industry investor standards and chefs’ influence on consumer habits leading the way.

One major influence chefs and other foodservice professionals are having on consumer behaviors is the rise of plant-forward menus. Plant-forward, which Menus of Change defines as “a style of cooking that emphasizes and celebrates — but is not limited to — plant-based foods,” has been a mainstay of the initiative since it was founded. In addition to being more nutrient-dense than animal proteins, plant-based foods are more sustainable to produce, requiring fewer resources and none of the antibiotics that the meat industry is currently working to remove from livestock production.

“The idea of plant-forward eating moved from a burgeoning term in the prior year to the default phrase for capturing the rising status of vegetables and plant proteins on American menus,” the report says. During his opening remarks at the summit, Greg Drescher, vice president of industry leadership and strategic initiatives for the CIA, announced the CIA’s partnership with the the Stockholm-based EAT Foundation on Plant Forward Global 50, a list of 50 chefs and restaurants from around the world that are advancing plant-forward food choices and providing inspiration for change. With chefs such as Jose Andres and Dan Barber leading the charge, the entire food industry is jumping on the plant-forward bandwagon. Innovations are bringing more plant-based food options to grocery shelves and quickserve and fast-casual eateries, and equity is going into companies that specialize in plant-based and other healthy, sustainable foods, the report says.

While consumer attitudes about trading meat for vegetables were a high point in this year’s report, the areas identified by the Menus of Change Scientific and Technical Advisory Council as needing the most improvement are climate change, water sustainability and sustainable seafood sourcing.

In the case of climate change, more chefs and foodservice companies are beginning to prioritize low-carbon options, but the industry needs to increase its efforts apace in order to combat the growing risks of climate change.

“It’s very clear that the world is warming…it’s not a hoax,” said Walter Willett, chair of the Menus of Change Scientific and Technical Advisory Council and professor and former chairman in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School.

“Dietary improvements over the last decade are already contributing to better health of Americans, and the many positive contributions of the foodservice industry are impressive,” Willett said. “However, with the abdication of national leadership in addressing climate change, our efforts to deal with this existential issue must be redoubled. The food sector has a central role to play by creating meals that delight diners and significantly contribute to those efforts.”

The Menus of Change Summit runs through Thursday, June 22 at the CIA’s campus in Hyde Park, N.Y. Check SmartBrief’s Food & Beverage page for more coverage from the summit, and subscribe to ProChef SmartBrief to receive culinary news and insights in your inbox every day.


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