‘What consumers want’: Thai Union to launch plant-based product range in response to consumer demand – Exclusive Interview Part I

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Asian seafood Thai Union has revealed plans to launch a range of plant-based products comprising both seafood and non-seafood items this year in response to high consumer demand. ©Thai Union
Asian seafood Thai Union has revealed plans to launch a range of plant-based products comprising both seafood and non-seafood items this year in response to high consumer demand. ©Thai Union

Related tags Thai Union plant-based

Asian seafood giant Thai Union has revealed plans to launch a range of plant-based products comprising both seafood and non-seafood items this year in response to high consumer demand - and believes its longstanding seafood expertise will give it an edge in product development.

Thai Union has already launched some plant-based items in European supermarkets via private label/OEM, but has revealed plans to launch these into the Asia Pacific region under different channels as well.

“We’re launching plant-based products in foodservice in Thailand soon, and are also exploring launching these to more countries under a new brand name which we are in currently the process of creating,”​ Thai Union Group Director for Global Innovation Dr Tunyawat Kasemsuwan told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

“We anticipate production for B2C to be some time in Q1 this year, and right now we do already have a range of ambient and frozen products in the portfolio. Thai Union is an expert is seafood, and so we started with seafood analogues like fish, shrimp, crabs and various shellfish – the initial launch, meant to extend and not replace regular canned tuna, will include plant-based canned tuna.

“That said, we’ve had many consumers telling us these are good but they also want products outside of seafood – so we’re also doing products based on other animal proteins such as chicken and pork. So apart from ambient products like canned tuna, there is also a large division on frozen foods such as frozen fish burgers, crab cakes, dim sum, chicken nuggets and so on.”

When asked why the firm has taken such a deep interest in plant-based products when its specialty has been seafood for so many years, Dr Kasemsuwan responded that it’s ‘what consumers want’​.

“It is all about what consumers want and need. We can be the best in seafood and keep producing and selling it with high expertise – but in the end if no one wants or buys it, there is no point, so the consumer is most essential to any business, particularly a food business,”​ he said.

“The flexitarian trend is growing and spreading rapidly from the west, and this group of consumers is not going away, so there is no denying flexitarians will be a large group of the population moving forward.

“It’s not to say fish isn’t healthy – it’s the healthiest animal protein out there – but we cannot refuse consumers who don’t want to eat this, we must respect what they want and we need to address their needs.”

He also emphasised that ‘plant-based’ products here are not the same as ‘vegetarian’ products.

“Vegetarian foods are not new in Asia and are commonly available, but these are not like the plant-based products we are talking about – they are made from vegetables and plants, but many are high in carbohydrates and fats so there is not so much about promoting health,”​ he said.

“These [new-age] plant-based products being developed are mostly driven by a healthier protein content, and there is more emphasis on the health aspect – indeed, most consumers in search of plant-based products do so because they believe these are healthier than animal-based protein.”

Skills transfer

Dr Kasemsuwan also told us that one of the main reasons Thai Union believes it will be able to make its plant-based business stand out is due to its existing expertise in seafood, which can be applied especially when making plant-based seafood products.

“As one of the leading seafood firms, we understand the properties of seafood very well, from functional properties to organoleptic properties and more, so we can use this expertise and expand it into plant-based products,”​ he said.

“Consumers want more than just seafood, they want variety and good quality, [and we want to make] the plant-based products as close to the original meat products as possible, as this is the way to appeal to a larger group of consumers and gain more acceptance, particularly amongst flexitarian consumers.”

Thai Union is also part of the international Smart Protein Project due to its expertise, a project initiated in Ireland comprising over 30 global corporate, academic and NGO partners which seeks to develop the ‘next generation of smart protein foods’.

“Thai Union is very involved in the Smart Protein Project in the seafood research arm, where we were invited to participate and lead research in this area,”​ said Dr Kasemsuwan.

“This is a three year project and we are now in Year Two. The aim is to look for the best legumes and plants to be the next generation of ingredients to improve today’s products, as well as identify the best technology, to get alternative protein products closer to what consumers are looking for.

“So we look at this from multiple dimensions – for example, beyond just looking at a product as being high-protein, we go deeper and consider things like the amino acid content too.”

The project also involves big food manufacturing names like AB InBev, Danone and Barilla, as well as food ingredient giants such as Chr Hansen, Dohler and Glanbia, with R&D and consumer testing being conducted across many countries from Europe to China.

Plant-based trend in Asia

The plant-based trend in Asia is noticeable gaining traction, and according to Dr Kasemsuwan, the growth and evolution being seen is much more rapid than they initially expected.

“The trend is evolving very rapidly, much faster than expected, and digitalisation is definitely playing a part here,”​ he said.

“A lot of food and sustainability trends evolve from western countries – for example, 30 years ago the organic trend was huge in the US but not a thing in Thailand at all due to the high price, but today there’s almost more organic than non-organic here. For plant-based, digital is helping it to move even faster, so I doubt it will take as long as the organic trend to reach us here.

“Asia has a huge population of vegetarians. In places like Europe, the trend started from a health focus then moved to environment factors, and I believe the same will happen here over concerns with water consumption, carbon footprints and so on.

“COVID-19 has also played a part in promoting plant-based products over health concerns – in the last year alone, the growth of the industry was very significant as people do want to eat healthier now.”

Read Part II of this interview here​.

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