Plant-Based Cheese Is Here. Is the World Ready for it?

As more and more consumers consciously choose the food they put in their bodies, restaurants should be aware of the growing interest in plant-based diets — specifically, alternatives to staple ingredients, such as plant-based cheese. While several plant-based food brands have created and now market their alternatives, the growing question for restaurants is, when should plant-based options be introduced onto the menu and will there be popular demand?

What are plant-based diets?

A plant-based diet refers to any diet that is primarily focused on the consumption of plants, such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Though some plant-based diets exclude animal products altogether, others allow for moderate amounts of meat, dairy, and eggs.

There are several types of plant-based diets, including:

  • Vegan: A vegan diet excludes any and all animal products and byproducts, focusing solely on plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains. Meat, dairy, and eggs (and any foods made with these products) are all prohibited on a vegan diet. Foods made with animal byproducts, including honey, gelatin, and certain food colorings are also to be avoided.
  • Vegetarian: A vegetarian diet includes all the foods allowed on a vegan diet while excluding all types of meat and seafood. However, many types of vegetarian diets can include dairy, eggs, and other non-meat animal products.
  • Pescatarian: A pescatarian diet is similar to a vegetarian diet, in that it focuses on plant-based foods and allows for certain non-meat animal products. However, pescatarians can also eat fish, shellfish, and seafood; they do not eat meats such as chicken, beef, or pork.
  • Flexitarian: A flexitarian diet, sometimes referred to as a semi-vegetarian diet, does not prohibit any animal products. While meat, fish, eggs, and dairy are all allowed in moderate amounts, a flexitarian diet prioritizes plant-based eating and often limits the consumption of the formerly mentioned foods.
  • Lactose-free: A lactose-free diet is one that excludes any dairy products. It may or may not include other animal products, depending on the individual’s dietary needs and preferences. Often, people who are lactose intolerant may adopt a lactose-free diet, as their bodies cannot fully digest the sugar (lactose) in milk and other dairy products.

Consumer trends in plant-based diets

If your restaurant has recently had an uptick in customers asking for vegetarian and vegan options, you’re far from alone. The data shows that there is a growing market for plant-based food products, including substitutes for meat and dairy products.

Currently, one-third of Americans are actively limiting their meat and dairy intake. While vegans and vegetarians respectively make up only 2% and 4% of Americans, a whopping 29% identified as flexitarian — a person who eats a wide variety of foods but is actively trying to eat less meat and dairy. Younger generations are also more likely to incorporate plant-based products into their everyday diets. 79% of millennials and 79% of Gen Z-ers are already eating plant-based foods; 30% of millennials and 60% of Gen Z-ers are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods.

The rise in flexitarianism, especially among the millennial and Gen Z sector, has brought plant-based food into the mainstream: 98% of consumers who buy plant-based meats also purchase animal meat, while 40% of households consume both plant-based and cow’s milk. It seems like these percentages are only slated to rise in coming years: according to the Plant Based Foods Association, “The success of plant-based milk has laid the groundwork for major increases in sales of other plant-based dairy products, which are collectively approaching $2 billion ... plant-based cheese grew 42%, almost twice the rate of conventional cheese.”

Popular food chains using plant-based cheese

As of 2016, 20,000 restaurants nationwide have adopted the use of plant-based cheese, including many popular food chains:

  • Just Salad: The chain has curated a series of plant-based salads, which incorporate ingredients such as breaded chicken substitute as well as creamy vegan feta.
  • Mellow Mushroom: Customers can build their own pizzas with vegan cheese, as well as plant-based meat substitutes like tofu and tempeh.
  • Blaze Pizza: In addition to their vegan-friendly dough and vegan chorizo, Blaze offers vegan cheese as a pizza topping as well as part of their signature cheesy bread.
  • Fatburger: Fatburger’s Impossible Burger is topped with dairy-free cheese and can easily be made vegan by removing the mayo. The restaurant also makes vegan milkshakes to sip alongside their plant-based burgers.
  • Freshbrothers: The California-based pizza chain offers several vegan-friendly toppings, including plant-based cheese, vegan meat, and even vegan ranch for dipping.

Based on these trends, now is the perfect time to take advantage of consumer demand for plant-based nutrition. If you’re looking to add more dairy-free options to your menu, check out Oddlygood’s plant-based cheddar and mozzarella.