There is a growing consensus among food and health policy leaders in America that transitioning to a plant-based diet is essential for our health, and that of the planet.
At institutional settings and innovative restaurants nationwide, T-bone steaks, quarter chickens, and slabs of baby backs are slowly being replaced by healthier, more colorful foods.
Imagine your meat served as a condiment, or meat chopped up and mixed with vegetables. Or blended burgers, where meat is just one of the ingredients, together with vegetables, legumes, or nuts.
Plates like these are already a reality at hundreds of institutional settings and corporate offices across the country, not to mention at countless innovative restaurants operated by chefs and restauranteurs who are at the cutting edge of change.
The influential Culinary Institute of America (CIA), in partnership with Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been collaborating for 15 years now to examine the science on public health and the environment, and to integrate their findings into the fabric of our food service industries.
An annual report will be released to the public June 14, in conjunction with the opening day of a three-day Menus of Change conference at the CIA’s Hyde Park, New York, campus.
Discussions are expected to further what can be described as a sea change for the American diet that the group has dubbed “The Protein Flip.” Their suggested strategies, available online, are both a treasure trove of practical advice for home cooks, and a set of practical steps for industry that are already being implemented in commercial kitchens nationwide.
Perhaps the most obvious way to reduce the environmental footprint of the American diet is to find a way to reduce consumption of one of America’s most popular foods: the all-beef hamburger patty.
Americans eat an average of three burgers per week, according to Protein Flip. That is 50 billion pure beef burgers per year.
It takes 320 gallons of water to produce a three-ounce hamburger patty, versus 39 gallons for the same amount of chicken, and 58 gallons for an equivalent portion of beans, according to USDA data compiled by Menus of Change researchers.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram produced, beef is associated with over twice the amount of emissions (27 kilograms) than the next largest emitter, which is cheese (13.5 kilograms).
To get Americans to eat less beef, a research team from CIA, Harvard, and the University of California, Davis, realized they had to address the age-old problem that has limited vegetable consumption in America. The problem: vegetables don’t taste as good, and they aren’t as satisfying.
The researchers looked for a food that would excite our taste buds, and they found this in the lowly mushroom. Mushrooms have significant concentrations of glutamic and aspartic acids, which are flavor-enhancing compounds associated with the umami, or savory taste.
They found that substituting white mushrooms for 50–80 percent of the beef could even enhance the overall flavor of the food.
A blended taco meat preparation not only tasted better in certain instances, it delivered the improved nutritional quality of reduced sodium, calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
“The Blend,” as it is has come to be known, is already served at Harvard University on menu items from beef chili to shepherd’s pie. The Harvard team estimated that their single five-pound meatloaf recipe reduced CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases by 44 pounds.
This concept is actually not novel. People in Asian countries have long enjoyed a beef blended burger, not for environmental reasons, but because it can be a cheaper product.
Plant-based protein expert Henk Hoogenkamp said he was part of a team who produced a blend of beef and plant protein sources for McDonald’s Philippines, called the McDo, which became the chain’s best-selling burger per capita.
When it was created, the McDo hamburger was 70 percent beef. Today, its down to 28 percent beef, according to Hoogenkamp. “This is probably the most unique product showing how the world has changed,” he said.
McDonalds did not respond to a request for comment.
Hoogenkamp said in a telephone interview that in the United States beef has been so plentiful that consumers have not historically had a reason to tolerate a blended burger. He also said if meat or seafood products were to be blended with ingredients like soy or pea proteins, it would not be advertised by the manufacturer.
Food service operators, who typically make their own burgers, clearly see an advantage in the blended burger concept.
According to a 2015 industry survey of 600 foodservice operators conducted by the CIA, 77 percent have a burger on the menu with plant or vegetable components, either blended, or completely vegetarian—and good news for them, it typically sold at the same price as full beef!
U.S. meat consumption is also down slightly in recent years, from 28.1 billion pounds in 2007 to 24.1 billion pounds in 2014, according to the USDA.
The Power of Clout
Major food industry providers have already adopted some of the plant-based strategies outlined by the world’s premier culinary college and Harvard, prompting huge ripple effects in American food culture.
Google is a world leader in many things, including its corporate food program. Recently, the company has been hard at work re-imagining what their in-house salad bars would look like if they implemented The Protein Flip strategy.
Working with their institutional food service provider, Bon Appétit Management Company, they have imagined bringing a grill into a buffet-style salad station to offer two ounces of grilled shrimp or chicken to a salad, according to the Flip document.
Or, how about a traditional wood-fired bread oven to add a healthy whole grain accompaniment for a salad? Or a live-action station for wok-fried vegetables mixed with bits of meat, such as in Asian stir-fry?
Google did not respond to a request for comment about their food program.
Plant-based culinary traditions and techniques from the Mediterranean, Asia, and Latin America, where meat does not play such a dominant role in the diet, offer a treasure trove of inspiration for chefs, according to the Menus of Change document “Protein Plays.”
Another idea is to apply techniques used for cooking meat, such as searing, grilling, and smoking, to vegetables, to enhance their flavor.
This is already popping up everywhere, from charred scallion ashes at food and technology company Chef Steps, to smoked broccoli dogs at Manhattan’s Dirt Candy restaurant, to the ever-popular cauliflower steak.
When large food service providers subscribe to something new, the culture change can be very swift, and this is starting to happen.
The Compass Group USA serves restaurants, corporate cafes, schools, arenas, and museums across the country. In 2014 its revenues were $13.6 billion, and in 2015, it adopted four principles from the Menus of Change working concept.
These include commitments to reduce red meat portion sizes, to move meat to the supporting role, and to emphasize seasonal and local flavors, and global cuisines, according to a company press release. Imagine how many people Compass will expose to this new way of eating.
And if you want to know for yourself if plant-forward eating is catching on with consumers, try standing in one of those uber-long lunchtime lines at fast casual chains like Sweetgreen (which operates in eight states), or the New York-based seasonal, farm-to-counter eatery Dig Inn.
At both spots you get a generous helping of grains, vegetables, and greens, with an optional meat add-on, or tofu for those who prefer plant protein.
It is almost unbelievable how transparency in food sourcing, and fresh, unprocessed food offerings can inspire the kind of loyalty that customers in Manhattan’s concrete jungle will happily wait in line for.
Offerings like this are clearly wanted, and they continue to spring up in urban centers, but they are still hard to find.
Worldwide livestock production is associated with:
30% of all land
18% of greenhouse gas emissions
37% of methane gas emissions
SOURCE: “The Protein Flip,” by Harvard School of Health and CIA
Food Myths to Avoid
Adapted from “Protein Plays,” a white paper jointly produced by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard College T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Myth #1: “High-quality” protein is better for you than “low-quality” protein.
Fact: High quality protein refers to animal proteins that provide all essential amino acids our bodies need. Low quality proteins, such as beans and lentils, do not contain all amino acids, that is why it is a good idea to combine two or more sources, such as the classic rice and beans, to make up a complete protein. Convincing research shows non-beef animal protein sources and plant-based proteins are healthier.
Myth #2: Our Paleolithic ancestors seemed to thrive on meat, so it must be a healthful choice for us.
Fact: Our lifespan has more than doubled since then, and it would be very difficult to reconstruct a diet and disease pattern of people who lived thousands of years ago. Contemporary research shows red meat should play a secondary role in the diet.
Myth #3: Butter is back.
Fact: Butter is more than 60 percent saturated fat and a by-product of dairy and beef production. While it is better than margarine, which often contains trans fats, it should still be used sparingly, to add flavor, and not for regular cooking.
Myth #4: Nuts are high in calories, so use and consume sparingly.
Fact: Nuts are high in protein, beneficial fats, and phytochemicals. When consumed regularly (a few times a week), in moderate portions, nuts are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes. They are also associated with improved weight loss, possibly because of their ability to satiate.
Myth #5: We are not getting enough dairy in our diets
Fact: Individuals should aim for one to two servings of dairy per day, which is sufficient for calcium intake and bone health. With reduced consumption, it is less important to consume full-fat dairy, and more important to avoid dairy with added sugars. Cheese is often processed with large amounts of salt and saturated fat, so consume less.
SOURCE: “Protein Plays,” by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health