According to research from insights firm FMCG Gurus, just 20% of Japanese consumers have opted to eat meat alternatives even when they actively attempt to reduce their meat intake, whereas the rest mostly opt to avoid this.
“In many instances, consumers would rather opt to avoid meat products completely as opposed to turn to meat substitutes,” FMCG Gurus Head of Research and Insight Mike Hughes told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“It is important to remember that the move to vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets is not being driven by the growth of meat substitutes - some consumers have concerns about such products, especially when it comes to taste and health (as well as affordability).”
Of all the consumers surveyed, a whopping 40% said that alternative meats did not make them ‘feel full’ after consumption, whereas 33% ‘preferred eating vegetables to meat substitutes’ and 27% felt that such alternatives ‘lacked taste’.
Health and economical concerns with regard to these alternatives have increasingly come into the spotlight, and Hughes added that if these are to be widely accepted in Japan, they must first be seen to be ‘compromise-free’.
“This means ensuring that products are seen to be tasty and healthy by consumers – [health] is especially important, as consumers can sometimes feel that the perceived healthiness of plant-based foods is misleading because of the sugar content,” he said.
The salt content of plant-based meats has also been scrutinised and criticised by researchers - A 2019 study conducted by the George Institute of Global Health found that meat-free bacon products in Australia contained an average salt content of 2g per 100g, 40% of the World Health Organisation (WHO) population targets of 5g per day.
“The issue of affordability is also a major issue at [this] time - cost is already a key reason why consumers are also cutting down on meat,” added Hughes.
“[So, if plant alternatives want to be accepted], they need to be seen as a more affordable option.”
Fish consumption on the decline
Currently, not many local companies are producing meat alternatives, but those in the market mostly focus on items like hams, sausages and burger patties. These players include traditional meat and processed food companies such as NH Foods, Marudai Food and Otsuka Foods.
Plant-based fish is much rarer, but fish consumption rates have also been on the decline in the country for the past decade. A separate 2019 FMCG Gurus survey found that sustainability was the main reason for this, with 69% of consumers concerned about marine life going extinct, whilst 30% had changed their diets in the last two years to lead a more sustainable lifestyle.
“This means that the reality is that consumption per capita rates of fish will continue to fall – albeit slowly rather than rapidly – as consumers question the ethics surrounding fishing and look to change their diets,” said Hughes.
Japanese food wholesaler Nishimoto launched the world’s first plant-based tuna in 2018, developed by Ocean Hugger Foods, made from tomatoes and suitable for ‘raw’ consumption.
This indicates that despite its rarity, plant-based fish development is not completely off the radar in Japan, a country where raw fish, especially in the forms of sushi and sashimi, have been staple food items for many years.