The CIA’s “plant forward” approach to meat replacement

It’s not exactly revolutionary. But the CIA bets its “blended burger” will have us eating less meat

As developing countries increase their meat consumption, some Americans are taking baby steps in the opposite direction. (Indeed, much has been made in recent years of the Millennial appetite for food served with a side of consciousness.) But American consumers on the whole, it seems, still have a ravenous appetite for dead animals. So it will likely be a long while before we get to where those developing countries found themselves not many years ago: thinking of meat more as a condiment than as a main dish.

To help get us there, the Culinary Institute of America has issued two sets of guidelines for chefs who are interested in making tasty dishes that use less meat. These “evidence-based documents”–Protein Flip and Protein Plays–are part of the CIA’s (not the spooks, the cooks) “Menus of Change” initiative, which the school runs in partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (“Menus of Change” is also the name of the initiative’s annual summit–this year’s is coming up next month in New York.)

Meat production 1995-2020 (projected)Meat Atlas

Meat on the rise

Essentially, the documents emphasize using plant-based proteins to replace some–not all–of the meat chefs generally use in their dishes. This isn’t an effort to get people to go vegetarian (at least, not necessarily), but to move away from meat as the central focus of nearly all our meals. Of the protein Americans consume, only 15% is plant-based. The rest comes from meat and milk.

One of the CIA’s tips: the “blended burger,” which combines meat and mushrooms or other vegetables to create a sandwich that (theoretically anyway) is as tasty to meat–lovers as a traditional burger.

This is all fine as far as it goes. But how big of an impact can it have in a country that appears to be changing its approach to food, while it simultaneously consumes three times as much meat as the global average?

A pretty big one, insists Greg Drescher, the CIA’s vice president of strategic initiatives and industry leadership. “Our work in this area is causing a lot of movement in our industry,” he says.

For instance, Compass USA, a unit of the giant British conglomerate Compass Group that serves schools and other institutions, has cut red meat purchases by 10 percent in a very short time since formally adopting the Menus of Change principles. And in February, the French-owned Sodexo USA announced it would stop serving all-beef hamburgers in 250 elementary and high schools nationwide, offering the “blended burger” instead. Combine Compass’ $14 billion North American business with the 7 million student meals Sodexo serves monthly, and that’s a whole lot of meat left on the table.

One of the most successful Protein Flip recommendations is the blended burger, which replaces some of the beef with mushrooms

“The key to driving change in the $740 billion foodservice sector is to work with a variety of subsectors that are in the best position to incubate change,” Drescher says. Colleges and universities are at the top of that list.

Sure, selling college students on eating less meat and more veggies might be slightly easier than persuading the public as a whole, but it’s still a challenge, says Cheryl Garner, executive director of dining services at the University of California, Riverside. So far, the campus’s cafeterias are offering a couple of different iterations of the blended burger. But Garner, who sits on the Menus of Change executive committee, says more change is forthcoming. Students are regularly offered samples of a blended beef/mushroom burger and a turkey burger made with mushrooms and spinach. “Once they try it, they love it,” she says. “Even people who don’t like mushrooms–they don’t even know there are mushrooms in it.”

Too often in this country, discussions about less meat quickly transition into discussions about vegetarian and vegan options.

The ultimate goal at UC Riverside, Garner says, is to “make sure there’s an option in every [dining] location on campus.”

Blended burgers might not sound like the most innovative culinary concoction, and they aren’t–celebrity chefs the likes of Jacques Pepin have been whipping up such dishes for a long time. (Protein or no protein: The mushrooms assure the burger will stay juicy.) Still, the CIA is aiming this program largely at institutional foodservice operations, where many diners haven’t been offered such choices in the past.

For restaurants, success depends largely on where they’re starting from. Watch just about any of the seemingly endless parade of cooking shows on TV, and you’ll see that many famous chefs still love working with meat. How to convince them–and the many chefs working in independent restaurants across the country–to get on board? Well, that’s a little tougher. But Drescher calls the “plant forward” approach a “huge trend” that hopefully will become more permanent. “A key insight of the Protein Flip is to move more of the industry to a protein ‘portfolio’ approach that includes a wider range of choices, the net result of which will be less meat on menus,” he says. “Too often in this country, discussions about less meat quickly transition into discussions about vegetarian and vegan options. That’s all fine, but more of the mainstream will be brought along with the kinds of strategies embedded in the Protein Flip.”

And yet, we have decades of proof that small programs like Menus of Change are rarely enough to permanently change paradigms. “This effort by CIA is an important step in encouraging more chefs to shift to more plant-based menus,” says Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, a trade group and lobbyist representing companies that produce substitutes for animal-based proteins.” But, she goes on to say, “To support this effort, we also need our government policies to promote plant-based foods and remove the many economic advantages that meat and other animal products enjoy.”

Dan Mitchell has written for The New York Times, Fortune, Wired, Slate, the Chicago Tribune, Civil Eats, Modern Farmer, and many other publications. He is based in Oakland, Calif.