Being aware of the statistics relating to vegetarianism in the UK - such as the fact that vegetarians number about 5% of the population, or three million people - is only part of the battle involved in winning the loyalty of vegetarian consumers.
One of the biggest concerns for vegetarians is maintaining a healthy balance of nutrients in their diet, and those catering for vegetarians need to take this on board.
A varied vegetarian diet supplies all the essential nutrients needed to be fit and healthy. The requirements are the same as those of a carnivorous diet - low in saturated fat, high in fibre and complex carbohydrates, and featuring fresh fruit and vegetables.
"Providing quality, nutritious vegetarian food couldn't be simpler," says Kerry Bennett of the Vegetarian Society. "There is an amazing array of tasty and healthy meat alternatives, including pulses and vegetables, Quorn in its many guises, as well as soya- or vegetable-based products such as mince, burgers, sausages and nuggets."
Getting any vegetarian offering right is made even more commercially prudent by the fact that 7% of the population are actively cutting down on the amount of meat they eat. But such statistics also reflect the changing demands in terms of what consumers expect from a vegetarian menu.
David Wickett, landlord of the Fat Cat pub in Sheffield, is passionate about offering more than the standard vegetarian option on his menu. His commitment, and that of his chef, Allison Cundy, led to the Fat Cat being voted Vegetarian Pub of the Year in 2001.
Offering vegetarian and vegan dishes that are nutritionally sound is made easier by the range of quality fresh vegetables available from the nearby produce market, and also by the meat alternative, Quorn. Wickett describes Quorn as "versatile and easy to use", low in fat and a good source of fibre. "Quorn pasta, stew, curry, bake and crumble are all popular items that appear regularly on the Fat Cat menu. In addition, Quorn fillets and sausages are favourites among patrons," he says.
Much of Wickett's passion for vegetarian food comes from his own meat-free lifestyle. He turned vegetarian in 1978 and was dismayed by the lack of choice available. "At that time, the nearest thing to a vegetarian dish most pubs offered was a cheese sandwich. On rare occasions, you might find a vegetarian lasagne, cooked from frozen. I recognised a major gap in the market."
The menu at the Fat Cat, which changes weekly, always includes at least one vegetarian dish, a vegan choice and a gluten-free recipe, all freshly cooked on the premises to ensure that they contain the best possible balance of nutritional ingredients.
Achieving this balance is particularly important when your major food service clients are schools and hospitals, as Trevor Sutton, channel development manager at Nestl‚ Foodservice, is fully aware.
"All the recipe work we do for schools adheres to the national nutritional guidelines," says Sutton. "We work in conjunction with the education authority provider to ensure that recipes meet the guidelines in terms of protein, carbohydrates, sugars and fats. Many of the recipes developed are suitable for vegetarians, and we have developed a number incorporating Quorn or other protein substitutes in the recipe."
As Britain's child population becomes increasing diverse in terms of ethnic origin and religious beliefs, the need to provide vegetarian alternatives has become even more pertinent.
"Vegetarian recipes are particularly important in the more culturally diverse authorities," says Sutton, "so Maggi has introduced a dark gravy that is vegetarian and meets the growing need for this sort of product in some of the schools where traditional British food is adapted to meet the dietary requirements of the whole school community."
An increasing number of children opt for vegetarian food, making the need for easy-to-prepare, nutritionally sound meals even more compelling. Harry Cox, head chef and general manager at the Birk Hill Inn in Dundee, Angus, has addressed the demands of younger customers. "We cater for a lot more vegetarians these days," he says, "and it's surprising just how many vegetarian children that includes."
One of the most popular dishes is the McCain's Vegetarian Feast burger. Suzanne Watson, McCain's senior product manager, says: "Vegetarian food is fast becoming more popular with children, particularly since nutrition and healthy eating have become part and parcel of everyday learning at school."
Catering for the healthcare sector also offers suppliers challenges in terms of offering vegetarian products that meet very specific nutritional demands. Nestl‚ has developed recipes in conjunction with dietitians to ensure that they meet the needs of the patients they have been designed for.
"These dietitians have helped us provide recipes for specialist needs, such as diets requiring modified textures," says Sutton. "During our development of instant soup for ward catering, we included a high proportion of soups suitable for vegetarians - 70%-plus of the range - as well as varieties especially low in salt to assist with renal diets and other areas where low sodium intake is required."
Whether it's to cater for a specialist diet or to offer a healthy alternative for a meat eater, vegetarian cooking needs to keep pace with the increasingly high expectations of today's consumers. And with so many products available to make this task easier, there's no excuse for failure.
National Vegetarian Week The aim of National Vegetarian Week, which this year runs from Monday 19 to Sunday 25 May, is to educate the general public, caterers and retailers about how easy and tasty a vegetarian diet can be. The Vegetarian Society is keen for everyone to get involved, from individuals through to supermarkets, health food stores, bookshops, schools, food producers, restaurants, fitness centres and other caterers.
The theme of this year's event is "seven days of satisfaction", designed to promote the versatility of a vegetarian diet. The Vegetarian Society has seven simple recipes that it describes as "cheap and easy to prepare", and is calling on caterers to adapt them to suit specific styles and budgets.
For a free copy of the Vegetarian Society's SatisfAction recipes, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0161-925 2000.
\* The Redwood Company has launched a range of vegetarian fish alternatives including breaded fish-style steaks, breaded scampi-style pieces, vegetarian-style tuna, and smoked salmon-style pâté.
* The new Vegetable Super Burger from Plusfood's Fribo range is made from a blend of rice and vegetables, seasoned with herbs and spices, and is available in 113g portion sizes. The burger is free from artificial colourings and preservatives, and can be cooked from frozen in minutes by shallow-frying, deep-frying, griddling or grilling. The burgers are available in cases of 30 x 113g.
\* Also from Plusfood, Cosmic Crunchies are an assortment of breadcrumbed 50g vegetable shapes - stars, half-moons, flying saucers and rockets - designed to appeal to under-12s . They can be cooked from frozen by grilling (12-15 minutes), deep-frying (3-4 minutes) or oven baking (10-15 minutes) and are available in cases of 40 x 50g.
Fit for everyone
Millifoods, the vegetarian food service specialist owned by Shelagh Milligan and Stephen Drew, was presented with a major challenge last year when the company was called on to meet the needs of vegetarians among the athletes attending the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.
Low-fat, high-carbohydrate and high-protein dishes were requested from the frozen food supplier, and three were selected from its range following approval from dietitians: Carpenters Pie (minced field mushrooms and tomatoes in a rich gravy, topped with Millifoods Mash then covered with a cheese and leek crust); Camargue Rice (a nutty rice with chickpeas, kidney beans, mushrooms and onion); and Thai Spicy Vegetables (with sweet corn, beans, carrots and other vegetables).
McCain Foods 01723 584141
Quorn 0870 670 0182
Plusfood 01892 667155
Millifoods 01233 720888
Redwood 01536 400557
Nestlé 0800 742842