Consumer Trends

Cheese enhances plant-centric cuisine

As more diners turn to veggies, cheese helps boost protein while adding rich flavor
Photograph: Shutterstock

Consumers are seeking the health benefits of plant-centric dishes while remaining conscious of their protein intake and the quality and flavor of the foods they eat.

According to Technomic’s 2019 Center of the Plate: Seafood & Vegetarian Consumer Trend Report, just 18% of consumers follow some type of specialty diet, ranging from semi-vegetarian or “flexitarian” to vegan. However, 28% of all consumers said they are eating more vegetarian or vegan options than they were two years ago, and roughly half of those eating more vegetarian or vegan options said they are doing so to eat healthier and are getting protein from other sources.

Restaurant operators are responding with an increasing variety of menu offerings that appeal to flexitarians and others interested in reducing their meat consumption. Meat no longer performs the center-of-plate function it once did. Instead, it’s appearing in smaller portions in dishes such as bowls, wraps and stir-fries, where vegetables and toppings such as dressings and cheeses play the leading role.

“As brands formulate strategies around plant-based menus, it will be vital to utilize ingredients that appeal to both vegetarians and non-vegetarians,” Technomic noted in its fourth-quarter 2019 Global Consumer Trends report.

Cheese is one such ingredient, offering operators a versatile and protein-rich solution to enhance the appeal of their plant-forward creations. In addition to replacing the protein that might previously have been provided by meat, cheeses like those from Saputo Cheese USA Inc. are also very versatile ingredients. Thanks to the number of varieties, it’s an excellent meat protein replacement option. What’s more, it can enhance the taste of vegetarian dishes.

Meat’s out, but cheese is still in

With the rise of plant-centric dining, more restaurants are trying out meat alternatives and plant-based proteins. But cheese, curiously, isn’t going anywhere.

When the A&W burger chain tested a meat alternative at the start of the faux-meat boom, it was surprised by customers’ reactions. Patrons wanted the meatless burger, but they wanted all the garnishes that go with the meat version—including bacon. The feedback indicated that buyers were glad to skip the beef, knowing a meatless version was better for them, but weren’t ready to settle for bare and bland.

Other chains riding the plant-forward movement have similarly dropped the meat without scrapping the indulgent touches that bring the flavor. Instead, the priority is amping up the taste with higher-quality add-ons and garnishes. Panera Bread, for instance, reformulated its meatless Four Cheese Grilled Cheese sandwich with a blend of fontina, sharp cheddar, Monteau and smoked Gouda, which is then grilled on the bakery-cafe chain’s Country Rustic bread. Meanwhile, Burger King is following up its uber-successful meatless Impossible Whopper with an Impossible Cheeseburger, proving that even though consumers are clamoring for plant-based options, they still love their cheese.

The blending of faux meat (or no meat) with high-quality ingredients has been particularly noticeable in the pizza market. Consider the newly introduced Rustic Veggie Pizza from Papa Murphy’s, a chain whose value proposition is based on quality. The pie includes spinach, mushrooms, green peppers, mixed onions, feta, mozzarella, olive oil, and garlic with a red sauce swirl, herbs and crushed red pepper flakes. 

Additionally, a new pie being tested by Pizza Hut features faux sausage as a topping. But the cheese is the real deal.

What this means for operators

For operators looking to appeal to diners who want to eat more plant-based fare without sacrificing the delicious indulgences they crave, adding cheese can be a great option. Try incorporating ethnic cheeses into global dishes to boost the wow factor; offer cheese as a premium add-on for dishes like burgers and other sandwiches; and menu a variety of vegetarian or plant-based options—pastas, pizzas, salads and the like—that include cheese as an add-on. Diners who want to eat more plant-based foods without giving up all animal-based products may seek out dishes that include cheeses to bridge the gap. Making sure these options are on the menu ensures they’ll be able to find something they’ll love.

Finding a great supplier for all of the cheeses diners will be looking for on menus is crucial. Saputo Cheese USA Inc. has all the cheeses restaurants need to enhance the appeal and the protein content of their plant-forward dishes. The company offers a variety of blue-veined cheeses, goat’s milk cheeses, hard Italian cheeses, mozzarella cheeses, pressed cheeses, provolone cheeses, ricotta cheeses and soft-ripened cheeses. To learn more about the cheeses Saputo offers that can enhance plant-based menu items, visit today.

This post is sponsored by Saputo Foodservice


Exclusive Content


Winners and losers from a tough first quarter

The Bottom Line: Wingstop (again) and Texas Roadhouse (also again) were among the big winners last quarter, while the fast-food value proposition is among the losers.


Red Lobster needs a buyer. How does Darden sound?

Reality Check: The casual dining giant sold Red Lobster in a cloud of controversy a decade ago. Here's why a return to the fold may not be as crazy as it sounds.


KFC goes portable and poppable to grab the snacking generation

Behind the Menu: Bite-size Apple Pie Poppers, created to target customers' sweet spot, lend themselves to line extensions to expand the chain’s snack selections.