Hey Maet, founded in 2020, has 10 SKUs made from pea, soy and rice proteins, including burger patties, meatballs, chicken nuggets, chicken chops, sausages, crispy pork, dumplings and wonton.
These products are currently made using the normal extrusion technology which involves texturised vegetable protein (TVP) to form a filamentous structure for the plant-based meat.
According to Hey Maet’s R&D director Kaiyue Ma, high moisture extrusion is the next generation of technology and creates products called high moisture meat analogues (HMMA).
Ma explained: “It can form a filamentous structure much better than TVP, since TVP is quite dry and need to be rehydrolysed before using.
“We believe that HMMA can be processed into plant-based meat products without adding other ingredients to form a meat-like structure.”
The company is working with its R&D lab in Northeast Agricultural University to research and apply this technology into its production process this year.
According to Ma, the high moisture extrusion technology is commonly used among plant-based companies in Europe and North America, but not China.
The company intends to launch at least four new SKUs this year, focusing on the application of high moisture extrusion technology as well as developing ambient products.
Ma told us: “We have found relevant equipment and cooperative factories for mass production using high moisture extrusion.”
Companies such as Beyond Meat are using both HMMA and TVP in its products.
Most of the firm’s SKUs are currently sold frozen, although items such as sausages can be stored at room temperature according to Ma.
The products are currently sold in high-end and chain restaurants, in larger cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.
Hey Maet hopes to work with more distributors across the country to expand its reach, and also hopes to enter the US in the future.
The company is also preparing to launch its own branded products for retail sales.
Ma told us Hey Maet was positioning itself as a technology company rather than a FMCG firm.
“Compared to the other (plant-based) companies in China, we position ourselves as a technology company that values technology and product itself more than marketing, we’re not a FMCG company,” she added.
“We value brand building as well, but at the same time, bringing the tasteful and nutritious product to consumers is our first priority. Science and technology is the main way to achieve this goal.
“Considering the plant-based companies around the world, we dare not boast that our products are superior to others, but we are confident that we will become the company that knows the China market and Chinese consumers best.”
China plant-based market
According to Shirley Lu, managing director, ProVeg International (Asia), last year was a milestone year for plant-based food development in China, with many major food service outlets such as KFC, Dicos, and Starbucks launching plant-based menus.
“Plant-based foods are becoming a regular alternative to general consumers and are no longer a niche item marketed to vegetarians only.
“Furthermore, retailers and manufacturers have developed local applications such as dumplings and pork chop rice using plant-based meat.
“Localisation, sales and marketing targeting general consumers or reducetarians will help accelerate the conversion of plant-based meat and reduce animal consumption.”
Despite these, China’s current plant-based industry is still in its early stage, and it needs all participants and regulators to educate and guide the market and consumers, according to Ma.
Because of this, one of the challenges faced by the firm was the supply of upstream raw materials.
“Many raw materials with excellent performance are difficult to obtain in China, and domestic substitutes are often difficult to replace expensive imported raw materials.
“In addition, because of the long-term low profit of soybean products industry, it is not easy to find OEM factories with good production conditions. We are also considering building our own factories in the next few years.”
As a country with a long history of eating soy products, China's preference for bean products is not only an advantage but also a disadvantage of the promotion of plant-based diet, Ma added.
“The advantage lies in the public's easy acceptance of beany flavor, and the disadvantage lies in the consumers' low-cost psychological positioning of plant-based food.
“There is no doubt that the potential of the Chinese market is huge, but every participant should try his best to come up with the best products to impress consumers, not to be anxious to achieve quick success and get instant benefits to destroy consumers' first impression of plant-based food.”
Hey Maet has raised several million dollars in seed and pre-series funds. It declined to disclose actual figures.
China recently issued a new standard for plant-based meats which will take effect in June 2021. The standard established the naming of plant-based "meat” and specifically prohibits any use of animal-based oil or ingredients to ensure the integrity of the products.
Lu explained: “The standard helps ensure the quality of plant-based products, promote development of the industry in China and as the first standard in the world, it serves as a reference for the international market.”