Resistance and reticence: Japanese reluctant to ride plant-based protein wave – CEO

By Nurul Ain Razali contact

- Last updated on GMT

UMAMI United produces plant-based eggs using the umami flavour component from the wood ear mushroom sourced from west Japan. ©UMAMI United
UMAMI United produces plant-based eggs using the umami flavour component from the wood ear mushroom sourced from west Japan. ©UMAMI United

Related tags: plant-based, Japan, UMAMI United, Egg

Global and regional plant-based protein brands should be prepared to face a reticent crowd should they plan to enter Japan at this juncture, according to the CEO and co-founder of alternative egg firm UMAMI United, Hiroto Yamazaki.

Based on his and his team’s experience, the Japanese market is “far behind” in adopting plant-based proteins and it is difficult to advocate to them.

“Compared to ‘meat-heavy’ countries, it is difficult to advocate to the Japanese consumer. We face problems when promoting our products. That’s why we want to use of this opportunity to approach them,”​ said Hiroto.

Two major consumer categories could be tapped in Japan – one group acknowledges the presence of plant-based meat but is reluctant to make the purchase, whereas another group comprise consumers with egg allergy.

The latter is the priority target for UMAMI because egg allergy is common in the country. According to Hiroto, 40% of allergen sufferers cannot consume eggs, and 10% of children have egg allergies.

“We want to collaborate with baby food makers and catering services that have been looking for egg substitutes. We tested our product on kindergarten children, and they liked it. I want to provide the solutions for these issues,”​ he said.

Cracking the recipe

UMAMI United produces plant-based eggs using the umami flavour component from the wood ear mushroom sourced from west Japan. This type of mushroom was used as it became increasingly popular to be cultivated and suitable for solar sharing. The fungus has a characteristic texture and does not have a strong taste.

Enzymes are added to extract the umami, which is later mixed with konjac powder. Other ingredients include gelling agents for texture stabilisation, nigari (bittern) for ‘elasticity’, and natural-safe colouring derived from carrots, oranges and pumpkin.

There are currently two commercial products, the ‘egg’ and pudding mix, and only available in Japan. The pudding mix is the ‘egg’ product mixed with cane sugar. It could be used to make custard cream and dessert. Hiroto said both could be used in various applications, be it savoury or sweet, and for different techniques like steaming or baking. The firm could churn out both products amounting to an output of 1,600 kilogrammes daily in an OEM facility.

The firm is a New York-based VC firm and start-up accelerator Big Idea Ventures (BIV)’s first Japanese portfolio. UMAMI received a capital boost worth US$200,000, and the chances to attend business workshops, undergo mentoring and build partnerships with potential distributors.

Egging on

Depending on the development of the business, Hiroto hopes to increase the output and discover other vegetables to be used, especially from food waste. Besides ‘egg’ and pudding mix, the firm intends to develop a ‘whole egg’ and ‘egg white’ for savoury applications and bakery. The team is also researching to identify the nutrients and nutritional value, and analyse the products’ functionality and versatility.

In terms of expansion, Hiroto targets Singapore after Japan and then springboard to the global landscape and enter countries like Malaysia, Thailand and North America. North America was chosen due to its sheer market size, and they expect to enter by 2024.

After listing his major competitors comprising globally famous American plant-based giants, Hiroto did not budge. He agreed those competitors existed, but the number of consumers available and white spaces to fill were more enticing.

“We want to make plant-based the solution, not a special vegan food, and non-vegans can also eat it. This way, there might be a bigger impact on society. We can unite people at one table. We also want to reduce egg consumption by replacing animal eggs with UMAMI eggs,”​ he said.

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