Food Trend Spotlight: Whole Food Plant-Based Proteins

With rising food costs still a top concern as you look toward menu planning for the second half of 2023, think of lentils as a versatile ingredient that can help boost flavor, create interesting textures, and deliver affordable, whole food plant-based protein dishes with great customer appeal. As the general population and especially Gen-Z continues to seek out plant-based options, most say that they are drawn to whole food plant-based products over meat/plant blends or even plant-based meat analogs. [1]

Leading non-commercial vendors are joining the ranks of restaurant operators who are pledging to increase their plant-based offerings as a means to reduce their carbon footprint and reach corporate sustainability goals, and protein-rich whole food ingredients like lentils can help meet these goals. An April 2023 report in Foodservice Director provides several examples of vendors in the college/university and healthcare spaces, including Sodexo, who are offering more plant-centric menu items to lower production costs and meet consumer demand. [1]

As Corporate Chef James Bickmore-Hutt explains, the preference for plant-based options is here to stay. “Trend data has shown us that the consumer wants to pick and choose their protein source from meal to meal. We have to be prepared with more mindful culinary expression, being as conscious and considerate around the cooking techniques and flavor development of plant-based dishes that we used to put solely into premium ingredients like animal-based protein.”

Lentils can add nutrition, flexibility, and texture to plant-based protein dishes in two ways:

  1. When combined with other ingredients, lentils work well in a plant-based crumble that can be a substitute for ground meat. Lentil-based crumbles are versatile, amplify the flavor of any global cuisine and hold well on a hot or cold line. You can use a lentil, walnut and mushroom crumble to add protein, fiber, and flavor to nacho platters, Bolognese sauce, tacos, power bowls, flatbread pizza or even to create meatless sausage gravy to accompany biscuits.
  1. Lentils can also make a great burger with other whole food plant-based ingredients. “It’s allowing an approachable combination of ingredients to deliver the same sensory experience as ground animal protein, but with a cleaner ingredient label than an analog option,” says Chef Bickmore-Hutt. has a standard blend recipe that consists of 30% whole red lentils, 30% ground or chopped nuts or seeds, and 30% mushrooms. “The last 10% is where the operator gets to play with global flavors and aromatics. This keeps the operating procedure standard for the back of house, but allows new menu items to come and go frequently,” says Bickmore-Hutt.

Plant-based whole foods continue to move to the center of the plate, with adaptable ingredients like lentils, mushrooms, and jackfruit providing vitamins and minerals as well as great taste and menu appeal. What lentils offer in addition is a powerful nutrition profile, with 12 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per ½ cup serving, making them the ideal ingredient to deliver satiety and amplify flavor in plant-based whole food dishes.

While there’s always a place for a plant-based product that mimics meat, we also know that increasingly, consumers and operators are turning to whole foods to showcase their plant and vegetable makeup in ways that subvert traditional applications and highlight the diverse textures, flavors, and appearance of whole food proteins.

A 2022 report on plant-based eating cites that 29% of the population limits consumption of meat in some way, and 28% of consumers prefer plant-based proteins over animal-based proteins. [2]

As Chef Bickmore-Hutt says, “There’s nowhere in the definition of taco that says it has to have animal-based protein in it. It goes the same for flauta or enchilada fillings, lasagna fillings, meatloaf, pasta sauces, and meatballs. Whatever cooking technique you use, lentils are a vehicle for delivering big flavor every single time.”

To learn how lentils can help power up your plant-based offerings, contact our culinary team today.


Whole Food Plant-Based Crumble Bases:

Applications using Crumbles:

[1] Datassential Consumer Omnibus Insights for, April 2022
[2] Foodservice Director, “The push for plant-based continues as operators escalate goals
[3] Datassential, Plant-Forward Opportunity 2022