It’s no secret that Americans are incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet. When you’re grocery shopping, you may notice new plant-based alternatives filling the shelves next to many of the foods or beverages you have commonly purchased over the years. A Nielsen Homescan survey last year found that 39% of Americans are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods while the number of vegans in the U.S. is also growing. Additionally, Mintel found that U.S. consumers are actually choosing plant-based proteins primarily because of taste.

For those who feel they cannot entirely adopt a vegetarian diet, becoming a “flexitarian” is an option that about 22.8 million Americans are following, according to the Washington Post. Being “flexitarian” means that you mainly follow a vegetarian diet but do occasionally eat fish and meat. This diet is becoming increasingly more popular and was ranked number 3 on the list of “Best Diets Overall” by the U.S. News Report. As plant-based diets take hold, what does this mean for restaurants?

Ordering a meal to fit a special diet at restaurants has become easier over the years simply because there are more options. Restaurants have begun to include dishes specifically catered to vegans or vegetarians more frequently on their menus. But what constitutes a vegan or vegetarian dish? The answer can be more complicated than you would expect.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not define the term “vegan” or “vegetarian” at this time. However, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics discusses multiple types of vegetarians whose diets vary in specifics but all of which exclude meat, fish and poultry. Certain types, such as lacto-ovo vegetarians, will include milk and dairy foods as part of their diet. Vegans, as defined in the article, avoid all animal-based products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, lard, gelatin and foods with ingredients with animal sources.

The Vegetarian Society defines a vegetarian as, “someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, fungi, algae, yeast and/or some other non-animal based foods with or without dairy products, honey and/or eggs. The Vegan Society takes it a step further beyond diet alone and defines veganism as, “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Because the FDA does not regulate vegan or vegetarian claims on menus, it’s up to each restaurant to determine their own standards for their menu items to meet these dietary restrictions. While there is no analytical test to determine if a menu item or ingredient is vegan or vegetarian, some of your suppliers may wish to certify their product or ingredient as vegetarian or vegan-friendly. The American Vegetarian Association is one company that can provide a vegetarian or vegan certification to suppliers. If a restaurant or food service establishment sees this certification on one of their ingredients or products, then they can be assured the product meets the established standards for being vegetarian or vegan.

However, restaurateurs should be aware that not all products classified as vegetarian or vegan have undergone this process, similar to non-GMO certifications. Because a certification is not required, the supplier only needs to ensure that the manufacturing process as well as the ingredients meet their own definition of vegetarian and/or vegan. As you craft your final menu items for these special diets, it’s important to ensure that your supplier’s ingredients match your standards for a vegetarian or vegan dish.

At Mérieux NutriSciences, our best practice is to refer to the details in the supplier’s specification sheet to determine if the product and/or ingredient will meet your restaurant’s requirements to be considered vegetarian or vegan-friendly. If you need help defining what a vegetarian item is for your restaurant and would like to call-out special diets on your menu and/or menu boards, reach out to us today to learn how our team of Registered Dietitians and Nutrition Database Specialists can assist you.


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Meet the Author

Sophie Lauer, RD
Associate Nutrition Program Manager, Mérieux NutriSciences

Sophie Lauer is the Associate Nutrition Program Manager at Mérieux NutriSciences. She received her Bachelor of Sciences in Applied Health Science, Dietetics from Indiana University. Sophie received her MBA from Dominican University. In her free time, she enjoys cooking for friends and family as well as playing with her goldendoodle.

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