Brian Kateman, the face of the reducetarian movement, on swaps and sauces
30 November 2021
Brian Kateman is the President and Co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation. In this interview with ProVeg, he shares tips for foodservice professionals, discusses the future of the reducetarian movement, and suggests that we need to ditch idealism.
What aspect of the reducetarian movement do you find most inspiring?
I grew up in Staten Island, New York. In terms of New York City, this borough has a rather bad reputation, but one thing I loved about growing up there was nature, the green spaces, and trails. As a kid, I came to care about nature and animals. In college, I was the typical environmentalist, telling people that they should recycle, walk instead of driving, etc. But only later in college did I make the connection between the environment and our diet.
How did that happen?
I was on a plane, eating nothing other than a hamburger, and reading Peter Singer’s The ethics of what we eat: Why our food choices matter. Only then did it click how industrial animal agriculture is connected to the destruction of our environment. Only then did I see the big picture. So I decided: I have to live a life according to my values now, and so I became a vegetarian, and then I went plant-based. However, in certain social situations I was unable to strictly follow a vegan diet, e.g. at Thanksgiving or at a restaurant, when I chose to eat leftovers in order to avoid wasting food. I was called a “cheating vegetarian” and this term got me frustrated. This doesn’t sound motivating or appreciative at all! Thus, the concept of reducetarian was born – very pragmatic and encouraging to people.
Can you tell me about any experiences you have working with companies and decision makers?
At the Reducetarian Foundation, we have two large goals. The first is to reach the consumers. To this end, we produce documentaries, books, and other educational media. But we also do a lot of movement-related work with companies and other nonprofits, be it regarding donations or capital allocation. We are trying to build the movement and the next generation of people who will keep up the good work. For example, next year 15 undergraduate students will be provided with residencies and other opportunities via our Foundation.
“Anything lower on the food chain will be an environmental win.“
President and Co-founder of the Reducetarian Foundation
What are your tips for chefs who want to implement a reducetarian approach but don’t know where to start?
A lot of folks will gravitate towards fancy things, like cauliflower steaks. But this is not necessary. What I suggest is to keep things simple. Embrace swaps – if you have some kind of thai curry on your menu, offer tofu instead of lamb. If you sell burritos, use avocado instead of chicken. Instead of spaghetti with meatballs, make spaghetti primavera. Eat what you love – just find a way to swap it.
In the context of food-service companies: anything lower on the food chain will be an environmental win. If you take the marine ecosystem, seaweed will always be more sustainable than any fish or marine animals. The same goes for land ecosystems. Pulses, beans, and grains will always be more sustainable than animal meat. And last but not least: in terms of health, the average person doesn’t get enough fruit and veggies, so any shift towards more plants on the plate is a step in the right direction.
Many foodservice professionals hesitate to reduce their meat-heavy offerings out of fear of losing customers and, thus, revenue. Can you give some examples of successful messaging about eating less meat to meat-loving diners?
That’s a really good question. Caterers don’t have to stop serving meat altogether. Simply adding plant-based items to the menu will result in lowering meat consumption. Plant-based ingredients also tend to be cheaper, even in comparison to industrially farmed animal products. So if one is thoughtful about the ingredients, these additions may even lower the costs. Also, there are plenty of opportunities for chefs to be more inventive and offer new, fun, and delicious experiences where they could charge a little more for the vegan item.
Some vegan restaurants charge a lot for fancy cuisine – if you think again of those cauliflower steaks. There is a five-star restaurant in NY where the chef recently made the menu entirely vegan. As for communication: the average consumer is motivated by price, taste, and convenience. So plant-based options have to taste good, be relatively inexpensive, even if only 50 cents cheaper, and, of course, easy to prepare, and enjoyable.
What type of motivations should one appeal to?
One factor some people care about is health. Of course, some customers will care about the environment and animals, but health is definitely a motivator. So my advice to caterers regarding this would be: have things like avocado and olive oil during heart-disease month, and communicate about healthy fats and heart health – we know that plant-based foods protect against heart disease. The messaging is easy here, you don’t need to lie or manipulate, just show the benefits from a health perspective. Or, when you take the message that people don’t eat enough fruit and veg – it is not a controversial idea. You have to really incentivise folks. It helps if the companies change their offerings, but if they can also provide strong messaging, that’s even better.
What is the secret of cooking appealing plant-based meals for those eating a mixed diet?
The answer is sauces! A lot of the flavour is in the sauce. Let’s say that you are going out for Chinese food – there will be a soya-based or a sweet-and-sour sauce. An Indian restaurant will have some kind of a curry, an Italian restaurant will use balsamic or marinara sauce. A lot of sauces are naturally vegan. The same goes for salad dressings. A couple of dressings, and you can have a great salad or bowl. If you want to go to the next level, vegan cheese is very cool. A lot of people miss cheese when they switch to a plant-based diet, while others may not want the calories or the salt. We have a recipe for whole plant-based cheese on our website!
Another good tip is using a lot of quinoa, grains, and beans. They contain a lot of fibre, are nutrient-dense, and will be very filling. People who are used to eating a lot of animal-based products are also used to this heavy feeling after a meal. It is important to create that when serving plant-based options. And also, meat alternatives – of course. If someone is craving meat, they can opt for these. Of course, it won’t be as healthy as kale, but it is a good alternative and something to be celebrated. In order to make an impact, we need to let go of utopia, let go of ideals – and ask ourselves “who is our audience, what do they like, how can we support them?” If lots of people make small changes, they will add up to something in the end.
Finally, in Germany, the term ‘flexitarian’ has gained more momentum than ‘reducetarian’, although the two terms are perceived to be roughly equivalent. In your opinion, is there a difference between the two?
There is a difference! I would almost say there is factually a difference. A flexitarian eats primarily plant-based, but occasionally includes animal products. A reducetarian is simply trying to cut back on animal-based products as their starting point. For example, an average US American eats 225 pounds of meat a year. Let’s say they cut back on a pound a week. That person is not a flexitarian BUT they are a reducetarian, and it is still 52 pounds less meat! Vegans and vegetarians are reducetarians – reducetarian is an umbrella term. The point to emphasize here is that our goal is to get people who eat way, way, way too many animal-based products to simply eat less animal products. Some people may be able to lean into the vegetarian and plant-based lifestyle. We want to be inclusive and welcoming for everyone who is moving in that direction.
Thank you so much for chatting to us, Brian