An estimated 1.6 million Americans have purchased vegan products in the last few years, but this massive plant-based push isn't limited to just grocery stores. Restaurants are adopting plant-based menu items and creating designated menu sections to cater to the thousands of Americans looking to eat healthier and more sustainably. The term "plant-based" has appeared on restaurant menus about 2,800 percent more than in 2018, according to data compiled by research firm Dataessential.

This September, Dataessential launched its new program called MenuTrends to detect how popular plant-based items have become at restaurants. The company noted that it is typically difficult to estimate the growth of plant-based foods in the food service sector, motivating the firm to develop an algorithm that tracks the prevalence of plant-based on menus.

The algorithm tracks and records plant-based items such as "tofu scramble" or "cauliflower steak" to properly understand how many restaurants are introducing new menu items. On the other hand, the new program ignores menu items such as "side of broccoli."

“Building an automated and intelligent approach was critical to decoding the complex universe of plant-based trends,” Alex Langowski, Datassential Chief Data Scientist, said in a statement about the new algorithm. "With the rapid evolution of plant-based items, our customers need insight into current trends as well as the ability to look back into historical data to fully understand the trend."

Consumers Want More Plant-Based Foods

Dataessential's algorithm shows that popular plant-based food items have become more accessible at restaurants than ever. Impossible Burgers alone can be found on 6.4 percent of burger menus nationwide –– and this figure is predicted to double by 2026. The program also found that oat milk has spiked 1020 percent since 2018.

Other popular menu items include cauliflower wings and cauliflower tacos, which have increased on menus by 432 percent and 171 percent, respectively.

"This is a game-changer for our customers," Alison Watson, Associate Director of MenuTrends, said "While companies can still create a bespoke definition for plant-based, they can now easily analyze the full breadth of the category from alternative milks to plant-based sausages. As flexitarian and climatarian diets grow, we will see plant-based items playing a more varied role on menus."

Dataessential recorded that 22 percent of Americans refer to themselves as flexitarians, but among Gen-Z consumers, the percentage is as high as 36 percent. About 57 percent of consumers aim to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption, rising far above any other food category. The data also revealed that 32 percent of consumers aim to increase their consumption of plant-based meat substitutes and 24 percent hope to introduce more dairy-free products.

Consumers are searching for sustainable, healthy options with approximately 55 percent of shoppers actively thinking about the environment in the grocery store. Another study revealed that 61 percent of consumers actively mark plant-based foods as a preferred source of protein.

About 40 percent of consumers clearly understand that plant-based or plant-forward diets improve digestive health, according to Dataessential. The company also revealed that 32 percent believe that plant-based foods will help protect from chronic disease.

Most Popular Labels for Plant-Based Foods

Dataessential's new MenuTrends algorithm is designed to observe how food trends have directly impacted the food service sector. This is especially important because terms including "plant-based" only become popularly used within the last decade. Now, more labels have deviated from vegan or vegetarian to include plant-based, sustainable, and even James Cameron's "futurevore."

About 88 percent of consumers actively care about their food's "authenticity," so when it comes to menus and food labels, terminology matters. According to a recent ProVeg International study, consumers prefer the term "100 percent plant-based" over terms such as "vegan" or "vegetarian," which contributes to the massive spike in "plant-based" in the last four years.

For more plant-based happenings, visit The Beet's News articles. 

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