Is plant-based meat a real new opportunity or is it only marketing hype?

With COVID-19 pandemic hit the world relentlessly, people’s lives around the world have been changed fundamentally, including eating habits. This pandemic, once again, reminded people about the relationship between nature and their eating habits. We have seen many startups emerging that produce plant-based or lab meat alternatives around the world, especially in Asia Pacific. Is this plant-based meat alternative a real market trend or is it only a marketing hype used by brands to attract more customers?

Well at least consumers in Asia are shifting towards plant-based diets, driven by health and environmental concerns. As it originated in western market, a lot of the current plant-based meat in China is delivered through western format, such as burgers, pizza and pasta. However, in order to introduce these new products to broader Chinese consumers, plant-based meat products are improving their taste, texture and format in order to meet the palate of Chinese consumers.

According to Mintel research <Upgrade c-store meals with plant-based meat>, 75 per cent of respondents in China think that plant-based meat is a trend, 36 per cent of Thai consumers eat protein substitutes because of health concerns, compared to 10% who do so for religious and cultural reasons. 49 per cent of South Koreans agree that plant-based foods are better for the environment than meat and dairy products.

In Australia, consumer’s attitude towards meat has changed too after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Mintel’s newly launched consumer data tracker tool Mintel Global Consumers shows that 38 per cent of Australia people agree that Covid-19 pandemic proves that humans need to eat fewer animals, 17 per cent of Australia people thinking of eat fewer animal products (eg, dairy or meat) after Covid-19 pandemic and 34% of Australia people limit their meat intake most or all the time.

Daisy Li, Associate Food and Drink Director, Mintel, says that, “ Plant-based meat as an ingredient-led innovation could have revolutionary impact on people and the food industry. Although international and domestic players are racing their launch in Chinese market. However, Chinese consumers still need some time to be convinced of its safety and benefits before they could fully embrace it into their diet.”

Chinese consumers show an increasing interest in plants in recent years, which is quite consistent with the growing global plant-based trend. However, the distinctive eating culture and consumer perceptions in China has made it very different from western market. Although plant ingredients, such as vegetables, fruit, grain and nuts are well received in the Chinese market in recent years, the veganism trend has not taken off in the China market. Consumers still perceive animal protein as a critical part of their daily diet, providing essential nutrition. Therefore Chinese consumers are willing to increase their plant intake, while they also seek high quality animal protein at the same time. The plant-based meat players have to be mindful of the situation and come up with a strategy that fit with the China market.

As in the market of traditional soy-based meat analogue existed for thousands of years, Chinese consumers may easily associate current plant-based meat offerings with the traditional one, which heavily rely on a complicated cooking process as well as flavor additive to mimic the taste of meat.However, influenced by their existing perceptions of soy-based meat, Chinese consumers are not convinced with the fact that the novel plant-based meat is superior than traditional one in terms of taste and nutrition.Plant-based meat players could highlight its difference in terms of nutrition, taste and manufacture process and establish a new or superior category image.

Meanwhile, in APAC region, we also find that plant-based meat producers and convenience stores are the new partners-in-arms. Hong Kong-based plant-based meat producer Right Treat, the maker of plant-based pork analogue Omnipork, and South Korea’s Zikooin (Unlimeat) have started partnering with convenience chains to promote the application of plant-based meat in convenience store ready meals.

FamilyMart Taiwan made the headlines by announcing the launch of Omnipork instant meal cups under FamilyMart’s own brand in early 2020. FamilyMart has previously launched plant-based tomato spaghetti and plant-based cheeseburgers. In South Korea, 7-Eleven debuted plant-based burgers, dumplings and Korean sushi rolls in 2020. The dumplings contain Zikooin’s Unlimeat.

The collaboration between plant-based meat producers and convenience stores is set to open up new opportunities for plant-based meat to reach more consumers.

Plant-based meat can inject a sense of excitement into convenience store ready meals. Convenience store ready meals made from plant-based meat that mimic the texture of real meat are a novelty to consumers in APAC since plant-based meat products are still not widely available. Adding plant-based meals can help to drive footfall. In China, 58% of consumers choose a particular convenience store due to the variety of products available.

Catering to flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians alike, plant-based meat can also appeal to Asian consumers who are constantly looking for new foods/flavours to try; 41% of Vietnamese and 47% of Malaysian consumers* say they look for new foods/flavours to try all or most of the time.

Convenience stores can add a new twist to their existing ready meals by substituting them with plant-based meat. This could potentially create a buzz among consumers, mirroring the hype foodservice enjoyed when plant-based meat menus were launched.