Chipotle is rolling out tofu, Subway is test-marketing hummus and IKEA is developing meat-free meatballs. Life is getting a lot easier for vegetarians on the go.

According to market researchers, we have young people to thank for this new wave of vegetarian food at national chains.

“Consumers overall are starting to buy dishes that are more healthy for them,” said Mary Chapman, product innovation director at Technomic, a Chicago-based consulting firm for the restaurant industry. “That’s a long-term trend, and it’s driven a lot by younger consumers. Millennials, in particular, are exploring vegetarian and vegan items.”

It’s no surprise today’s teens and 20-somethings often opt for vegetarian food. They have grown up tending school vegetable gardens while learning that meat recalls, ocean dead zones, greenhouse gases, worker abuse, heart attacks and animal cruelty can all be traced back to factory farms.

They like vegetables, and they know why they should eat them. But it turns out they’re also nudging the rest of us toward a more plant-based style of eating.

There’s been no documented uptick in people calling themselves vegetarian, meaning they never eat meat, Chapman said, so what is likely going on is that more and more people eat what marketers call a flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet. They may eat meat and cheese, but in limited quantities or at set times. Mark Bittman’s VB6 (vegan before 6 p.m.) diet is a well-known example of a semi-vegetarian approach to food.

Chapman said other factors are at play, such as diners’ wider awareness of world cuisines and a variety of social influences.

“If there’s only one person in a party that is looking for something vegan,” Chapman added, “it could be a deal breaker for the whole party if the restaurant doesn’t offer something delicious and meatless of the same caliber as the rest of the menu.”

This is where the new tofu Sofritas from Chipotle excel. The shredded and braised tofu has a warm smoky pepper flavor and a welcome chewy texture.

Chipotle first began testing the tofu at seven restaurants in the San Francisco area in early 2013. This past March, the upscale fast food chain started selling the tofu in Maine, as part of its wider rollout along the East Coast. Chipotle spokesperson Danielle Winslow said all the restaurants should have the Sofritas by the end of the year.

The tofu stands out in the fast casual restaurant category because “it was conceived with vegans and vegetarians in mind, but it is so delicious it has broader appeal, as well, to all customers,” Winslow said.

On the recent evening when I queued up at the Chipotle in Westbrook to try the Sofritas, I couldn’t help but notice at least three people ahead of me in line ordered them. One guy combined it with chicken.

In contrast, the veggie patty Burger King introduced in 2007 doesn’t seem to have much crossover appeal. Last summer the public radio humorists at “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” skewered the burger, with Ian Chillag saying: “This is a great gateway to vegetarianism. This gate is locked, so everybody turns back.”

While Chipotle is on track to phase out all genetically modified ingredients by the end of this year and uses organic, GMO-free tofu from Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, California, to make its Sofritas, Burger King’s veggie patty is made by Morningstar Farms, a division of food giant Kellogg.

Subway has long offered what it calls a Veggie Delite – a roll filled with lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers and onions. It’s essentially a hummus sandwich, without the hummus. So it makes sense that in April the company announced it was test marketing the chickpea and tahini spread at about 1,000 stores.

Calls to a dozen Subways in the Greater Portland area failed to turn up any offering hummus.

Also in April, furniture giant IKEA, which has a cafeteria in all its stores, announced plans to introduce a vegetarian version of its popular Swedish meatballs. The company said, by offering the forthcoming meatballs, it was helping with a “move toward a more sustainable society.”

We don’t have an IKEA in Maine. Locals travel to Stoughton, Massachusetts, outside of Boston to purchase the company’s low-cost furniture. Like Chipotle and Subway, IKEA is popular with college students and young people just starting out.

Noting that we’re likely to see more national chain restaurants add vegan and vegetarian items, Chapman at Technomic predicts the restaurants “that already understand a younger demographic will probably do it better.”

Because knowing the tastes of food-savvy Millennials could determine whether these vegetarian dishes win over customers or provide fodder for comedians.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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