Flexitarianism muscles its way on to the food-service menu

Almost one-fifth of Canadians go meatless at various levels and restaurants are slowly adapting to this new reality

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Sylvain CharleboisRestaurants are learning to serve consumers who 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.

And 63 per cent of the 6.4 million Canadians who purposely restrict the amount of animal protein they consume are aged 38 or under, so it’s clear that the economic influence of the anti-meat movement can only increase. That’s a scary thought for steakhouses.

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. It 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. You can now order a meatless Big Mac. A picture at the self-serve kiosk shows what you get: bun, lettuce, tomato, sauce and that’s it. No patty. It’s shocking, particularly when you think of how McDonald’s positioned itself for decades as the premiere ambassador of the Canadian beef industry.

In fine dining, more restaurants are adding vegetarian and vegan options. Some cities like Toronto now have entire districts 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’s often celebrated.

And given that one-fifth of Canadians are restricting their meat intake, 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 flexitarianism: consumers who eat a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat. More than 3.5 million Canadians consider themselves flexitarians, or conscious carnivores. Mostly baby boomers, they’re the bridge between the mass food market and the devoted meatless crowd. So flexitarians are also being targeted by the food service industry.

People become flexitarian for a variety of reasons. Usually it’s 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, since they’ve always shown that their generation is very much about choice. Some may even say that boomers, with flexitarianism, are hedging against their own guilt complex. In addition, many boomer flexitarians have children who are vegans or vegetarians, or friends who don’t eat meat.

So a greater number of consumers accept 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 since the diet gives both the industry and consumers more flexibility. That’s the market the Beyond Burger aims for, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more meat-free options in the future. This is just the beginning.

Vegans are a different story. The vegan diet is more restrictive, making 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 their strict lifestyle. 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, vegetarians and flexitarians.

In food service, the business case to sell more vegetable proteins is very strong. Lentils, chickpeas and pulses are much less expensive than beef, pork or chicken, at least for now.

But despite all of this, the future for beef, pork and chicken producers remains bright, albeit different. The meat industry just needs to learn that their products, as a protein source, cohabit with a much larger range of alternatives. Besides, almost 83 per cent of Canadians are still unconditionally committed to meat.

But a mantra like “Canadians should eat more beef” just won’t cut it. A different spin is needed and the food service industry appears to be catching on.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Dalhousie's past Dean of the Faculty of Management and is a professor and Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

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