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Comment: Flexitarianism on the menu

A large and growing group of Canadians are becoming ‘part-time vegetarians’

Restaurants are struggling to get a good handle on how consumers are rapidly shifting away from animal protein.

According to a recent study by Dalhousie University, nearly one in five Canadians have decided to either reduce the amount of meat they consume or have outright eliminated it from their diets. Add the fact that 63 per cent of the 6.4 million Canadians who purposely restrict the amount of animal protein they consume are aged 38 or under, it’s clear that the economic influence of the anti-meat movement can only increase. Scary thought for the steak houses out there.

But the food-service industry is showing it can adapt and be successful in an environment where demand for animal protein is becoming more fragmented. In fast food, A&W’s “Beyond Burger” is a good example. The item sold out a month after its release and was reportedly selling better, at many outlets, than the chain’s iconic Teen Burger. Its success is due to the principle of normalizing the offer. The “Beyond Burger” was just part of the regular menu, and tasted almost the same as other top sellers at the restaurant.

Even McDonald’s is adjusting. Anyone can go to an electronic kiosk inside of a McDonald’s restaurant and order a meatless Big Mac. They even have a picture of the product: it’s a bun, lettuce, tomato, sauce, and that’s it. No patty. Shocking when you think of how McDonald’s had positioned itself for decades as the première ambassador of the Canadian beef industry.

In fine dining, more restaurants are adding vegetarian and vegan options to their menus. Some cities like Toronto now have an entire district devoted to veganism. Fairs, festivals — hardly a week goes by without hearing about some event where a meatless world is showcased. Little more than 20 years ago, veganism was almost frowned upon. Today, it is often celebrated.

But given that one in five Canadians are restricting meat from their diet, odds are that at least one person in every social group or family is a vegan or vegetarian. Menus are much more inclusive now, since most dietary preferences tend to coexist. The other phenomenon worth noting is the whole concept of flexitarianism, or consumers who have consciously decided to reduce their meat consumption, but only on a part-time basis. More than 3.5 million Canadians consider themselves flexitarians, or what some may call conscious carnivores. That group, most of them boomers, are really the bridge between the mass food market and the devoted meatless crowd. Flexitarians are the ones being targeted by the food-service industry.

People become flexitarian for a variety of reasons. Usually it is out of concern for the environmental footprint of the livestock industry and/or animal welfare, or one’s own health. Or perhaps flexitarians want to save a few dollars by opting for a cheaper protein alternative than meat. It’s not surprising to see many boomers become flexitarians as they have shown for many years that their generation is very much about choice and keeping options open. Some may even say that boomers, with flexitarianism, are hedging against their own guilt complex. Who knows? But generational pressures are also real. Many flexitarians likely have children who are vegans or vegetarians, or may have friends who are not eating meat. Regardless, a greater number of consumers are accepting the reality that food diversity is the new normal, especially when it comes to protein sources.

The same Dalhousie University survey suggests that most consumers with no particular dietary preferences are satisfied with options offered by restaurants. Vegetarians also seem pleased, as do flexitarians, given the flexible nature of their diet. For restaurants, serving flexitarians is less onerous as the diet gives both the industry and consumers more flexibility. That’s the market the “Beyond Burger” is aiming for, so we should not be surprised to see an increasing number of meat-free options in the future. This is only the beginning.

Vegans are a different story. The vegan diet is more restrictive, which makes it more difficult for retailers to manage expectations. Vegans appear to visit mostly vegan restaurants and may not venture beyond food-service establishments that are not utterly committed to the strict lifestyle that is veganism. For vegans, a visit anywhere else frequently ends in disappointment. But the number of vegan restaurants is also increasing, in order to serve a growing number of consumers looking for a true vegan fix. That group includes vegans, of course, but also vegetarians and you guessed it, flexitarians.

In food service, the business case to sell more vegetable proteins is very strong. Lentils, chickpeas, and pulses in general are much less expensive than beef, pork or chicken, at least for now. It will be interesting to see how things unfold for the meat industry.

For beef, pork and chicken producers, despite all of this, the future remains bright. Different, but bright. The meat industry will just need to learn that their products, as a protein source, cohabit with a much larger range of alternative sources of protein. Besides, almost 83 per cent of Canadians are still unconditionally committed to meat consumption. But the “Canadians should eat more beef” mantra just won’t “cut it” anymore, no pun intended. It needs a different spin, and the food-service industry appears to be catching on.

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