Let’s Plant Meat is a spin-off company from local food technology firm Nithi Foods, which specialises in food and flavour research under its Flavours Research Institute (FRI).
Nithi Foods Managing Director and Let’s Plant Meat CEO Smith Taweelerdniti said that this enabled the team to very quickly enter the prototype phase after he thought of the concept, which then also very quickly moved to commercialisation.
“I first brought the idea of creating a plant-based burger patty to the Nithi Foods R&D team in March 2019, and although we had no background on this, because we normally specialise in deconstructing and reconstructing food flavours, by July 2019 we already had our first prototype based on the Beyond burger patty, and it was very similar already,” he told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“We then entered local food tech accelerator SPACE-F and did another four to five months of work there, and by March 2020 we had moved into commercialisation and were retailing in Tesco Lotus in Thailand, so from conception to commercialisation, it was just within a year.”
The firm centred its tech on protein concentrate and delved deep into how it could control the processing of this to get the desired chemical reactions (such as Maillard reaction) which would produce aromas and flavours similar to that of animal-based meat.
“We work with soy protein as a base, which comes with its own challenges such as a soybean aroma which needs to be masked and making sure the texture must bind properly and loosely but does not collapse – this is where we looked for natural food ingredients that could recombine to create the texture, flavour and taste of meat such as yeast or other plant extracts, as we did not want to rely on MSG,” said Taweelerdniti.
“We’ve sort of reached the peak of this area now and hit a plateau for this, so from now we will be looking more closely at manipulating the deeper functions of proteins, such as connective tissue to give different mouthfeels for, say, plant-based meat and fish.
“The other area we’re looking at is how to make this an ambient product, as currently it is still frozen. We want to expand further in Asia, where cold chain is a luxury in many countries, so if we want to reach our target audience, we need to make this shelf-stable.”
Let’s Plant Meat’s burger patties are currently in various supermarkets across Thailand such as Tesco Lotus, MaxValu and Gourmet Market.
Affordability is king in Asia
The burger patties currently retail at THB75 (US$2.40) per patty – which is less than half the price of the Beyond burger patty in Thailand, which goes for THB340 (US$10.87) for two patties, or THB170 (US$5.44) per patty.
The much-cheaper pricing was a conscious and purposeful decision, said Taweelerdniti.
“Because we’re based here in Asia, the cost is not so high and we did not want it to be high either as we want it to be affordable to the masses,” he said.
“The local cuisine is very meat-dominated, where nine out of 10 main dishes are made from meat. Plant-based options are extremely limited, and attempts to ask for such dishes in restaurants would usually end up with situations like ‘curry with the meat removed, but at the same price’ – which means basically paying more for something that is ‘inferior’, per se.
“No restaurant will want to purchase or stock a product that is perishable and at such a high price, and it is unlikely that local consumers would accept the product so quickly if it were expensive too.”
The firm also has its eye on exports, with South East Asia as a major target owing to similar palates and tastes.
“Thailand has a good reputation here as a high-quality food producer with reasonable prices, and we want to ride on this,” he said.
“Our main target markets will be Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia then also Japan, India and China – Singapore in particular will be our first target, as it’s very much a ready market in terms of acceptability, plus I’ve heard feedback that other novel plant-based meat alternatives there are priced very high.”
He added that Let’s Plant Meat also opted to stick with soy as its main ingredient because of its Asian focus.
“Many consumers in Western countries do not want soy in their food as it is seen as an allergen – but here in Asia we consume soy all the time, plus it has a cost advantage over other alternatives like pea, so we started with it,” he said.
“The focus is very much on the Asian consumer first.”
Moving forward, Let’s Plant Meat will also be launching its minced meat, along with a recipe book that Taweelerdniti said would help consumers convert this into products such as sausages and dumplings.
“We’re also looking at more B2B collaborations with local eateries – my personal wish is to team up with Japanese tonkatsu chain KATSUYA to make plant-based tonkatsu,” he said.
Let’s Plant Meat is the winner of the Future Food Asia 2020 Plant Protein Award, sponsored by Buhler Group and Givaudan.