Flexitarians in China are revitalising the mock meat tradition

27 Jul 2020

Many Asian countries, China in particular, have traditions of mock meat but the region is developing a new, innovation-fuelled plant-based sector to meet the demands of urban flexitarians, say experts.

The tradition of mock meat in Asian countries is often cited as a reason for the sector’s guaranteed success in the region because, in theory, repeated exposure to meat analogues creates acceptance and an affinity with consumers.

Flexitarians in China are revitalising the mock meat tradition

However, these products have not been popular enough to stem rising levels of meat consumption and some suggest their ubiquitousness may in fact negate the novelty factor that is currently fuelling plant-based products in the West.

“Asia has a long history of consumption of plant-based products due to typical culture and religion,” said Viola Chen, chief of staff at the Good Food Institute APAC, a non-profit organisation that promotes alternative proteins.

“However, the demand for animal proteins is continuously increasing driven by a growing population, especially the middle class who perceive animal products can better feed their family than those traditional forms of plant-based proteins like tofu and tempeh. We believe among well-educated, and high-income population, the consumer acceptance is much higher.”

“This tradition could present either obstacles or opportunities for growth in this sector depending how plant-based companies gauge consumer demand and develop products that can meet that demand,” Chen told The Ingredients Network. “Therefore, it takes a longer time for Asian companies to understand the market and develop products that are tailored to the variety of palate and culture in this region.”

Shirley Lu, executive director of non-profit organisation ProVeg East Asia, however, does not see this culinary heritage as a barrier because plant-based products of today offer something different.

“Soy products and tofu are deeply ingrained in society. Given the country’s embrace of innovation, we now expect China to develop a new plant-based culture, version 2.0, full of new, unique, and innovative plant-based and cultured meat products,” she told the Ingredients Network.

While most plant-based products in China today are still marketed at Buddhists, there are increasing numbers of flexitarians and reducetarians, primarily in urban areas, who are buying plant-based products for health reasons, Lu added.

According to a recent report by Green Queen, The Asia Alternative Protein Industry Report 2020, the perceived benefits and burdens of the mock meat tradition can co-exist and may have varying effects on different consumer groups, which should be taken this into account when marketing these products in Asia.

Local brands catering to local tastes

High-profile Western players, such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and JUST, are all aggressively pursuing the Chinese market but Green Queen predicts that local companies will ultimately be more price competitive and better positioned to cater to local taste preferences.

“It is [our] view that homegrown Asian alternative protein companies will overtake US and European brands thanks to a variety of factors, and simply due to basic demand: the region is home to over four billion people, with over two billion in China and India alone,” wrote the Green Queen authors.

“Rising middle-class consumers are looking to make healthier, planet friendly choices and are ready to jump on new and more sustainable proteins.”

Local success stories

Several local brands have already found success. Indian plant-based company GoodDot has achieved price parity with meat while Green Monday-owned Omnipork, a ground pork alternative made from soy, rice, mushroom and peas that was developed specifically for Asian dishes, has seen sales skyrocket.

Green Monday recently shared that, since launching Omnipork in Taiwanese fast food chain Bafang Yunji in January 2020, they are selling one million Omnipork dumplings a week – equivalent to 52 million a year in Taiwan alone.

“This effectively dwarfs the much-advertised success of US players such as Impossible Foods - 13 million burger patties between 2016- 2018 total - and Beyond Meat - 25 million burger patties as of January 2019,” wrote Green Queen.

Lu from ProVeg agreed that demand for local brands remains high. “The traditional Chinese players continue to dominate the market, and we are seeing exciting Chinese start-ups making progress in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen and Hangzhou, focusing on plant-based meat,” she said, although the introduction of Beyond Meat in China this year was well received, she added.

According to Lu, China is the most exciting country for new product development and also has the largest and fastest-growing demand for plant-based products.

Chen from The Good Food Institute, meanwhile, said that Singapore is currently leading the alternative protein sector in Asia, thanks to strong government support and a growing alternative protein ecosystem made up of food companies, investors, start-ups and universities, while China is catching up, and is set to have a “phenomenal year” in 2020 with innovative products set to be launched soon.

Nonetheless, the region’s plant-based sector is still nascent. Green Queen counted just 22 Asian alternative protein start-ups that fit its criteria in terms of product quality, food technology and innovation.

New product development

In Western cuisine, meat is commonly eaten as whole cuts of meat or ground meat – hence the race to find an ingredient that provides the perfect texture to mimic a juicy steak or a burger.
In Asian cuisine, however, meat is often used in much smaller pieces, blended with other ingredients or added to products such as dumplings.

Green Queen said food scientists should focus on developing plant-based meat products with traits suitable to these applications.

According to Lu, projects such as the Plant-Based Food Innovation Contest, which launched in Shanghai last month and is co-organised by ProVeg International and the Shanghai Society of Food Science, are accelerating new product development.

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