Consumption of vegetable-based foods, often referred to as 'vegetarian', has been increasing in recent years, boosted by meat scares and interest in health.
But while restaurants offer more vegetarian options than in the past, data shows that consumers are much less likely to choose these products outside of the home than for preparation in their own kitchens.
In the Netherlands the out-of-home market for vegetarian products is approximately only 10 per cent of the total market volume. However around 40 per cent of all meals today are consumed out of the home.
A new project, started at the end of last year, will investigate ways in which the food service sector can boost consumption of these foods by changing their positioning.
"Vegetarian is commonly applied and this positioning is restricting further consumer demand," explained Niko Heukels, R&D manager at one of the partner companies, Sodexho in the Netherlands.
"The perception of many consumers, who wish to reduce their meat intake, is that these products are for 'real' vegetarians and that they are not very tasty."
Expanding positionings away from the niche vegetarian category could lead to numerous advantages, including consumer health and environmental benefits.
"Vegetable protein-based foods offer many advantages for people, planet and profit," said project leader Gerard Klein Essink from PROSOY Research & Strategy .
"In many cases these foods are lower in fat, contain less cholesterol and can have additional health benefits as well," said Klein Essink.
The project has received about half of its €500,000 funding from Stichting AKK, a government body that promotes sustainable food and agri chains that reduce energy and waste emissions.
The other half is provided by three partner companies, including Sodexho, Schouten Europe, a Dutch manufacturer of vegetable protein-based foods and Deli XL, the Dutch food service company of Royal Ahold.
"We are going to test different positionings on consumers. For example, we may say that it is a healthy product, rather than vegetarian. Or we may just introduce a new product without even mentioning that it contains no meat," explained Klein Essink.
He added that companies feel they have to warn the consumer when there is no meat present in a food. But when protein is offered as a combination of different types like soy or wheat along with meat, most consumers are unaware of the source.
The UK market for vegetarian foods grew by around 15 per cent year in value terms from 1999 to 2002, but 2003 saw a fall in growth from 16.6 per cent to 7.9 per cent as consumer confidence in meat products improved.
However the vegetarian food market still remains buoyant, with sales increases in excess of many other food sectors. A new meat alternative launched last month by Campina will drive new sales.
But Karin Zimmermann, senior project leader with the Agricultural Economics Research Institute of Wageningen university, noted that "food service is a complicated food chain with very many different decision makers, which makes it quite difficult to bring new concepts to the market place. This project is expected to generate also new knowledge on how to successfully introduce innovations."