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We’re nearly halfway through Veganuary 2024, and one trend is coming out strong on UK restaurant menus: a focus on whole-food plant-based dishes. It comes as consumers are hit hard with price hikes and express concern about the processed nature of meat alternatives.
As restaurants and foodservice operators innovate to cater to the elevated demand for vegan food every January, there are always a ton of new menu items to satiate people’s cravings. This year is no different, with food chains and eateries coming up with novel options, or bringing back vegan-friendly classics.
While there is, of course, a focus on plant-based meat, the biggest spotlight is on whole foods, with many restaurants opting to launch dishes with vegetables and legumes as the centrepiece. It speaks to an increased focus on nutrition among consumers, with more people looking for healthful food options than ever before.
Veganuary’s whole-food plant-based trend
It’s not just fine-dining restaurants – QSRs and fast-food giants are all leaning into the whole-food plant-based trend this Veganuary. Not least Burger King, which has shaken up the sector with the surprise reintroduction of its black bean burger, marking a shift away from the alt-meat options seen on burger chain menus (including its own). Packed with black beans, mushrooms, sweet red pepper, green chillies and tortilla chips, it’s a Vegan Society-certified product if you nix the cheese.
Wagamama’s Bulgogi Mushroom Steak
Wagamama – which, like Burger King, has committed to making half its menu plant-based – is spotlighting lion’s mane mushrooms this year, transforming them into a bulgogi steak atop udon noodles, aubergines and caramelised onions in an amai miso sauce.
Pret’s Roasted Shroom Banh Mi
For more mushrooms, head to Pret A Manger – the chain is highlighting the fungi in two brilliant ways. The UK favourite is rolling out a VLT (of Veggie Pret fame), with vegan bacon rashers made from roasted shiitake and chestnut mushroom. Meanwhile, there’s a new bánh mì in town, with sticky BBQ roasted mushrooms starring as the meat replacer.
LEON’s Banging Broad Bean Bhaji Wrap
At LEON, the new focus on “gut-healing goodness” means there’s a new Rainbow Squash Salad, featuring a medley of vegetables, as well as a Bangin’ Bhaji Wrap, with courgettes, peas and broad beans. And Marugame Udon – another cult-favourite, budget-friendly fast-casual chain – has unveiled a limited-edition menu for Veganuary 2024, comprising kitsune udon with sweet tofu skin, pumpkin katsu curry (with rice or udon), a sweet kitsune tofu side, plus pumpkin, courgette and sweet potato tempura.
Even the pizzerias are buying into the whole-food trend this Veganuary. Pizza Express has introduced a melanzane, swapping the mozzarella in the classic aubergine dish with a plant-based alternative. There’s also a new vegan calzone with roasted sweet peppers, aubergines, spinach, hot chillies, tomatoes and garlic – no alt-meat in sight.
Zizi’s Pulled Shiitake Pizza
Similarly, Zizzi has a new garlic bread with roasted red peppers, cherry tomatoes, and artichokes, and a new Rustic pizza featuring Fable’s pulled shiitake mushrooms, candied green jalapenos, Roquito pepper pearls, pink pickled onions, MozzaRisella and a crispy garlic crust.
Price and health concerns drive whole-food trend
It’s been well-documented that the UK is eating less meat and dairy than has ever been recorded, while fruit and vegetable consumption is down too. Plant-based meats haven’t fared much better. The major reason for this is the rising cost-of-living, and the associated price increases for food.
A government survey in March revealed that 97% of respondents felt the food shopping price hikes were a factor in the increased cost of living. Updated figures released Friday show that 38% of respondents say they have had to pay more for the food they usually buy in the last two weeks, while 36% have been buying less to mitigate the effects of inflation.
A 1,000-person survey in October found that 62% of Brits feel plant-based meats cost much more than their conventional counterparts, with a fifth citing costs as the biggest reason for reducing their intake of these alternatives. Meanwhile, 49% feel these products are too processed or unnatural.
These concerns about health and affordability seem to be at the forefront of the decision-making by restaurants and food chains when it comes to Veganuary, who are responding by forgoing plant-based meat for the always-cheaper vegetables and beans. In any of these cases, these whole-food options are the only new launches for this year’s campaign.
Taste also remains key – for many consumers, plant-based meat just doesn’t cut it. Are restaurants circumventing that hurdle by ridding themselves of these proteins altogether and honing in on the potential of whole plants? It seems like it – and it’s not just the UK where we’re seeing this trend. In the US, for example, Dave’s Hot Chicken has released its first meat-free options with cauliflower sliders and bites, and Hard Rock Cafe in Broadway has introduced a Veganuary menu with cauliflower wings and a mushroom primavera pasta.
Veganuary is all about developing a habit long enough to sustain it – can the whole-food plant-based trend continue that way too?
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