These were the conclusions reached by the expert panellists at the recent Plant-Based Innovation session of our Growth Asia Interactive Broadcast Series 2021, organised by FoodNavigator-Asia and NutraIngredients-Asia. (Watch on demand here)
The expert panel comprised of Thai Union Global Innovation Centre Director Dr Tunyawat Kasemsuwan, Roquette Head of Technical Developers Damien-Pierre Lesot, Biospringer APAC Innovation & Business Development Director Hugo Leclercq, Kerry AMEA Vice President and General Manager for Food and Meat Ronan Moloney, Impossible Foods Country manager (Singapore) Laurent Stevenart, and Hero Protein VP, Strategy and Operations Coco Tse.
The session was chaired by by FoodNavigator-Asia and NutraIngredients-Asia Editor-in-Chief Gary Scattergood, and also included a keynote discussion with Dr Kasemsuwan and presentations from Lesot and Leclerq.
Because the new generation of plant-based products largely started in the west, most products available today are also western-oriented from burgers to sausages to nuggets – but in order to make inroads in Asia, it is imperative for firms to localize according to local cuisines, said the panel.
“The plant-based trend may have started in the west but the fact is that people like to feel at home when they eat – so although products such as burgers will always have a place, we believe that plant-based Asian food applications are what will play a pivotal role for the industry moving forward,” Dr Kasemsuwan told the floor.
“Thai Union’s recently-launched plant-based range OMG Meat has a mix of these – we have fish burgers, crab cakes and chicken nuggets [but also] crab siu mai and pork buns. There are many new companies coming up that are also introducing plant-based products with a focus on localizing for local cultures.”
One of these companies is China-based Hero Protein, which is developing plant-based meat products catering specifically to the China market. According to Tse, consumer research has already proven that Chinese consumers are very much in search of local cuisines when it comes to plant-based, and development needs to cater to this demand.
“There are a few ways to address this, and for Hero Protein we’ve approached this by developing new products such as pork strips and pork chunks as well as ready-made items such as dumplings and buns as these are often consumed in the Chinese diet,” she said.
“The other way is to via applications, such as working with food service to show consumers how versatile the product can be when it comes to incorporating it into local cuisines. [At present] consumers are looking at these and not sure how to cook them or just not convinced it will work, so the only way is to just show them how it works.”
From an ingredients point of view, Lesot added that localisation is indeed a challenge, especially in Asia, but one that must be met to capture the market.
“Asian cuisine is very diverse and there are many textures and tastes to match – beef in a beef noodle soup is different from beef in a plant-based sausage or a burger, such as chicken cannot be the same as that in a chicken nugget,” he said.
“But the fact is that these cuisines must be accessed by the plant-based industry for that is what consumers want, and without mastering localization the market will not grow.”
At present, health and nutrition is still acknowledged as the top driver for consumers to try plant-based products in Asia.
“In China, the top factor driving consumers s still health, way above environment or sustainability concerns,” said Tse.
“So here, nutritional and health benefits still need to be the key communication proposition when selling plant-based products to consumers. There has been concern in China regarding animal protein after both ASF and the COVID-19 pandemic, so plant-based meat being able to match nutritional profiles without the risks [is definitely a plus].”
Leclerq concurred and added that clean label is becoming an increasing part of this story, emphasising that consumer education is also key to getting these messages through.
“With the growth of the industry has come the introduction of many new ingredients on food labels, many of which are not easily understood by consumers,” he said.
“Ingredient education to consumers is really key here such that they not only understand what is in the food [but also] understand the value of the product and are willing to become repeat consumers.”
Stevenart spoke on the controversy surrounding plant-based meat ‘ultraprocessing’ and the impacts of this on health, emphasising that it is important to look at the inputs and outputs of said process before conclusing its health impacts.
“Most regular menu items are also processed, and it’s important to understand what goes into and comes out of that process - At Impossible Foods, we have always been transparent about what goes into and comes out of the processing of our products, so have no trouble with this issue at all,” he stressed.
Although taste is an important factor for any food industry in any part of the world, it is particularly important in Asia as consumers here are more discerning and taste could make or break a product despite all its other attributes.
“The taste of the products is the most important factor – only with good taste will consumers stick to a product and become return consumers and not switch back or switch out to other products,” said Dr Kasemsuwan.
“Without the taste, no matter what innovation there is, good nutrition or sustainability [credentials], people will not buy it so taste is crucial.”
This was seconded by Moloney, who emphasised on the importance of taste to attract consumers in such a young category.
“Plant-based is still and evolving space and many consumers are experimenting – if a product does not meet their expectations, they will be quick to feedback and likely just not purchase it,” he said.
“One main feedback we have heard is that sometimes products are overseasoned – so there’s a real balance to maintain between bringing the depth and taste of meat to plant-based products whilst not taking it too far.”
Affordability and availability
According to Stevenart, another important driver for the industry is to maintain availability, which is to be available to the consumer at any point they wish to eat or buy meat.
“Consumers want to be able to find plant-based products everywhere that animal meats are available,” he said.
“It’s also about [being there for the occasions], available to them both at home [so via retail] as well as in restaurants.”
As for affordability, Dr Kasemsuwan added that the economic stresses the pandemic has caused has also led consumers to look for cost-effective food options, so this must be kept in mind.
“For example, the Thai economy as impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic so people are now more concerned about their food – they want healthy products, but also cannot afford overly high prices,” he said.
“This is why the product cost and prices are so important, and crucial to accessing consumers now.”
Sustainability on the rise
Whilst sustainability has been a key market driver for the industry in the west, this has yet to truly emerge as a crucial factor in Asia, although the panel believes that this is on the rise.
“In general people are more aware of sustainability, and indeed this means different things to different countries here at the moment, e.g. in India sustainability means locally-sourced and nutritionally good [as compared to environmentally friendly] in the west,” said Moloney.
“In the long run, sustainability will become one of the barriers for repurchase and food choice [so] either way it is important overall for products to continue to deliver on sustainable messaging, as nothing is worse than not meeting these expectations when consumers are buying in.”
He also highlighted that the future of the plant-based industry will likely be the combination of meat and dairy replacement products as well as the establishment of a ‘plant-for-plant’s-sake’ sector, where products will not try to mimic meat or dairy but instead create a separate place in the market alongside traditional meat products.
Stevenart on the other hand expressed hopes that plant-based products will in future replace meat as a whole.
“At Impossible Foods, we find animal meat technology destructive, and we are working to seeing plant-based meat not emerge as a complementary sector to meat, but instead replace the meat sector as a whole,” he said.
Watch the Plant-based Innovation session and all other sessions from the Growth Asia on-demand here.