As larger and larger food companies spray even more chemicals on a food supply that’s both making us sick and too often getting thrown away uneaten, it’s easy to forget that there’s really more food news to be excited about than concerned.
This week’s reason to be optimistic about America’s food system comes to us via NPR’s “The Salt,” whose Bonny Wolf reports that in some of the country’s hottest new restaurants, vegetables are the new meat. In other words, delicious greens, root veggies, and legumes are moving from the side of the plate to the center—the main course. Wolf goes as far as to call 2016 “the year of the vegetable.”
For proof of veggie ascendance, she points to restaurants like Al’s Place in San Francisco, which was honored by Bon Appétit as its new restaurant of the year and which lists meat dishes as “sides” on its menu. That’s right: at one of America’s best fine dining establishments, the quintessential filet mignon has been replaced with sunchokes, Brussels sprouts, and beans as the main events.
It’s not just happening at the white tablecloth-type places, either. Up and down food retail, fast-food and fast-casual joints are reformatting their menus and adding healthier, more sustainable options. Salad and smoothie offerings at the Wendy’s and McDonald’s of the world are certainly more robust than they used to be, though it isn’t clear how many diners choose these items when they’re listed next to a monster burger or fried chicken sandwich. And fast-casual spots like Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Panera have built their businesses around hearty, nutritious meals made from real food.
Make no mistake, these trends are following consumer demand for more plant-based, sustainable, nutritious foods. We’re eating significantly less red meat, on the whole, than we did decades ago, for example. Health officials and nutritionists (not to mention Michael Pollan) have been warning us for a decade or more that our dependence on animal protein may be harming us, but the World Health Organization’s declaration that red meat consumption is probably cancer-causing created an international stir and may send the plant-based movement into hyper-drive in 2016.
Even food producers are getting the memo, finally recognizing that the market for vegan and vegetarian products is perhaps much large than originally thought. While past research has found that vegans comprise just 6 percent of the American population, more recent industry data suggests that a full 36 percent prefer milk alternatives and use meat alternatives on a regular basis. Now that’s a statistically significant sample.
Amid so much doom-and-gloom in the food world and elsewhere, America’s veggie revolution may be the best news we’ve heard in a while—and certainly worth celebrating with a fresh-pressed kale juice.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont