CHICAGO — Nearly two in five Americans are trying to add more plant-based foods to their diet, and more than half agree restaurants should offer more plant-based protein options, according to Mintel.

Foodservice operators looking to add more plant-based menu items should focus on striking a balance between healthy plant-forward dishes and processed meat alternatives, the market research firm said.

“One of the biggest questions being asked right now is ‘Why are consumers eating plant-based foods?’” said Amanda Topper, associate director of foodservice research at Mintel. “There are three main reasons: Health, ethical and environmental.”

Health reasons are the main driver for consumers, while concerns about animal ethics or the environmental impact of animal products are secondary drivers.

“Leading with health messaging will resonate most with consumers,” Topper said.

Health may be the main driver for buying plant-based proteins, but taste is also important. More than half of consumers select a mix of healthy and indulgent options when eating out, according to Mintel’s research on healthy dining trends.

“The challenge moving forward will be for brands to find ways to please consumers with vastly different dietary and taste preferences,” said Karen Formanski, health and wellness analyst at Mintel. “The majority of consumers report no specific dietary restrictions and are most focused on taste over specific ingredients if selecting a plant-based protein option.”

The novelty of a plant-based menu item may initially drive trial, Topper added, but craveability ultimately determines staying power.

“If it’s not craveable, it will not lead to a repeat purchase,” she said. “Plant-based comfort foods, like fried buffalo cauliflower or Impossible cheeseburgers, have a place alongside health-focused dishes like loaded veggie grain bowls.”

Balancing the taste of meat with the health of plants should be top of mind for foodservice operators. Consumers are starting to recognize that alternative meat products made from plants are not automatically healthier.

“Americans' attitudes toward healthy dining are continuing to evolve as diners seek a balanced approach focused on wholesome, real ingredients rather than low-calorie options,” said Hannah Spencer, foodservice analyst at Mintel.

As many as three in five consumers agree whole plant foods are healthier than processed meat substitutes. One in seven consumers agree meat alternatives like Beyond Meat have too many ingredients.

Still, most diners, especially flexitarians, crave the taste of meat.

“More than half of US consumers agree meat alternatives should closely mimic the taste of meat,” Topper said. “Different occasions will call for different plant-based experiences, meaning restaurants should offer processed meat substitutes as well as plant-forward dishes.”

With more operators adding plant-based options to menus, creating a signature spin will become increasingly important.

“Offering proprietary plant-based menu items is one way to attract diners and help restaurants stand out from the competition,” Topper said. “This may take the form of a vegetable-forward dish with familiar, yet flavorful preparations such as roasting or smoking, or even by adding a house-made spice blend or sauce to manufactured plant-based proteins.”