Apart from big plant-based product launches by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat in developed countries such as Hong Kong and Singapore, South East Asia as a whole also saw very significant growth in the industry.
New vegetarian and vegan product launches in the region growing by 140% and 440% respectively between 2012 and 2016, according to research by the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return (FAIRR) Initiative.
However, truly thorough expansion of the plant-based industry into Asia as a whole is unlikely to happen any time soon due to socioeconomic and cultural challenges, according to ProVeg International’s International Head of Food Industry & Retail Verena Wiederkehr.
ProVeg International is a food awareness organisation that advocates plant-based food consumption via collaborations with governments, public institutions, and food industries across the globe.
“[In] much of Asia, a rising middle class is emerging, which, for the first time in memory, is able to access food products that were hard to find and near impossible to afford a generation ago, [such as meat],” she said.
“This stimulates demand for the animal products [that Asians tend to] associate with wealth, novelty or achievement and [creates] a challenge for manufacturers of plant-based products in Asia.”
On the cultural front, she added that Asia has a long history of plant-based products being consumed by Buddhists, which has led to ‘those who are not Buddhist relating less well to these products and therefore not consuming them’.
Australian alternative proteins advocate and think tank Food Frontier CEO Thomas King added that Asia’s strong plant-based foods tradition could be either a hindrance or help to growing the industry, depending on how well companies gauge consumer demand.
“Each market has a distinct set of macro-level dietary trends influenced by a range of historical, cultural and economic factors,” he said.
“Many markets within Asia have long enjoyed traditional forms of plant-based protein such as tofu and seitan, [so] understanding consumer motivations and aspirations in each market will be key to growing the market for new plant-based meat options.”
All is not lost
That said, Widerkehr said that deep expansion into Asia is not a lost cause, especially given the rising levels of interest currently exhibited by trend-setting markets such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
“[Despite the challenges mentioned], plant-based products in Asia are likely to take off sooner in more developed markets such as Hong Kong or Singapore, where Impossible Foods’ and Beyond Meat’s burgers are already available and experiencing success,” she said.
“A combination of effective positioning, localisation, [dialling] up health and nutrition benefits and [marketing to] reduce existing religious associations with plant-based foods is needed [to] accelerate the [category’s] expansion.”
Asia has significant competitive advantage in terms of resources and ingredients, such as ready local availability of crops like peas, rice and hemp.
“[Combining these three ingredients] can actually produce a perfect amino acid profile. With protein intake so front of mind among today’s consumers, innovations centred around combining plant sources such as these are likely to perform well in market,” added Wiederkehr.
King concurred with this, citing better R&D infrastructure and government support as important drivers for the market in Asia.
In addition, the Asian plant-based market also shows enormous potential due to its proximity to Australia and New Zealand, which ranked first and third in terms of veganism popularity globally last year and also houses multiple fast-growing plant-based food companies such as Sunfed Meats.
“The combination of positive consumer sentiment [in Asia] towards Australian and New Zealand products, lack of existing alternative protein exports, and growing demand for healthier, sustainable and safer food options [all speak to opportunities in the region],” added King.
Localisation is key
Wiederkehr advised plant-based manufacturers aiming to break into the Asian market to align their product development with local cuisine and preferences.
She cited Omnipork as an example of ‘a strong localisation strategy being of paramount importance’.
“[Omnipork’s parent company Right Treat] identified a gap in the plant-based market for offerings which align closely with the way Asian populations use and consume pork, the inclusion of which is almost a given in recipes in China, and used this to guide product development.”
Another example of a plant-based brand in Asia which has used localisation to its advantage was Indian firm Good Dot, which plant-based mutton has achieved price parity with traditional animal-based mutton in India, and is thus accessible to a large consumer base.