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Meat substitutes show potential for expansion in China
Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Julia Lee
• While meat-eating traditions are deep-rooted in China, some consumers have embraced vegetarianism

• Meat substitutes have entered the daily lives of normal Chinese consumers, not just Buddhists, with some variants now common at Chinese dining tables

• Some companies have attempted to build up their business by targeting the growing opportunities provided by vegetarian diets

“Vegetarian diets have become more popular in China due to growing health concerns, yet many are unwilling to forego the taste and texture of meat, creating opportunities for meat substitutes”

Chinese consumers show growing interest in vegetarian diets

Despite the deep-rooted tradition of meat eating in China, vegetarianism is rising in popularity, motivated by health, animal welfare and environmental concerns, as well as the revival of Buddhism. There are no official statistics for China’s vegetarian population. However, Public Radio International, an independent non-profit organisation, reported in July 2014 that China’s vegetarian population has reached more than 50 million, equivalent to around 4% to 5% of the population.

This compares to the US where about 7% of the population, or about 22 million people, claim to be vegetarians, according to Mintel’s Meat Alternatives-US-June 2013. Growing interest in vegetarian foods and diets in China has provided opportunities for the development of vegetarian foods such as meat analogues catering to this growing consumer group.

A significant majority of Chinese consumers report trying to eat more vegetables for health reasons, according to Mintel’s Consumer Eating Habits-China-July 2013 report. In fact, 77% of respondents claim that they are eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, while nearly half (47%) claim they are eating more of a vegetarian/vegan diet. Only 11% of Chinese consumers claim to be eating more meat. (See Figure 1)

However, per capita consumption data from 2000 to 2011, based on NBS urban and rural household consumption surveys, reveals that consumption of meat products has grown considerably in China with rising wealth, including poultry, pork, beef and mutton. Consumption of fresh fruit, meanwhile, has only recorded slight increases, the consumption of fresh vegetable even declines. This apparent contradiction reflects health concerns among Chinese consumers and suggests a widening gap between how consumers actually eat, and what they think that they should be eating to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Many consumers clearly are interested in eating vegetarian meals, at least occasionally, but may have difficulty foregoing the taste and texture of meat products. This suggests that meat substitutes have potential to provide Chinese consumers with the taste of meat and the benefits of plant-based foods.

Meat substitutes offer appeal for health and religious reasons

As today’s Chinese consumers become more health-conscious, they are following vegetarian diets for religious as well as health reasons, though most opt for vegetarian meals only occasionally. According to Mintel’s Trends in Health and Wellness – China - May 2014 report, just 14% of respondents considered “having a menu for vegetarians” as contributing to a healthy menu in restaurants, while another 42% regard “offering more fruits/vegetable-based dishes” as an indicator of a healthy menu. (See Figure 2)

Meats substitutes remain a niche category globally, accounting for around 5% of meat products launched during the past 36 months (up to November 2014). This percentage is even lower in China at just 4%, despite meat alternatives having a long history in China. Long ago, Buddhist monks discovered a way to make meat alternatives by using soy powder or wheat flour dough. The emulated “meats” not only provide the protein, vitamins and nutrition required by vegans and vegetarians, but they also have a similar chewy, hearty texture and taste to real meat. (See Figure 3)

The practice of Buddhism, which has had a presence in China since ancient times, requires monks and nuns to abstain from meat, while lay Buddhists are required to follow a vegetarian diet when visiting temples or on special dates, such as the Buddhist’s feast day. Pew Forum estimates that in 2010 about 18.2% of China’s population, or 244 million people, were Buddhist, accounting for about half of the Buddhists in the world, and presenting a significant cohort of part-time vegetarians or ‘flexitarians’ in China.

New meat alternative products have recently been launched that cater to Buddhists and non-Buddhists in China, with some variants mimicking and replacing common dishes at Chinese dining tables. This includes vegetarian lamb, which is actually a soy protein product; vegetarian abalone, which is made of starch and seaweed extract; vegetarian sausage which mimics chicken sausage; and vegetarian roasted pork, which is actually a soy bean-based product.

Meat substitute products in China

Zhai Jiu Fu Cumin Flavoured Vegetarian Lamb

This soy protein product is said to have a unique taste.

Fu Mao Vegetarian North Sea Abalone

This product is made of quality starch and seaweed extract according to the latest technology. It is said to be nutritious.

Le Su Smoke Chicken Flavoured Vegetarian Protein Mini Sausage

The product is free from GMOs, cholesterol, animal fat, trans fat and preservatives.

Chen En Vegetarian Honey Roasted Pork

This soy bean-based product is said to have a Taiwanese style.

A few vegetarian food brands have emerged in China

Some companies in China have sought to build their business by focussing on the growing opportunities offered by the interest in vegetarian diets. A few have even become recognisable in this segment, such as Whole Perfect Food from Shenzhen, Guangdong province, and Godly from Shanghai.

Godly was a vegetarian restaurant established in 1922 with more than 90 years of experience. Godly now operates vegetarian restaurants, as well as vegetarian food stores, providing a full range of vegetarian food, including meat analogues.

Whole Perfect Food was established in 1993 and has become the largest vegetarian food producer, opening specialty stores nationwide, selling products in the domestic market and also in south-east Asia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand. The company aims to expand vegetarian culture and educate the general public about healthier diets. Whole Perfect Food supplies the market with nearly 300 varieties of vegetarian foods, including a full range of meat alternatives made from konjac, soy protein, wheat protein and mushrooms.

With the recent emergence of e-commerce, Whole Perfect Food has opened online stores to promote vegetarian culture. This has helped widen its coverage and improved the penetration of its products, while also driving the expansion of vegetarian culture.

The analyst's view

• Suppliers of meat substitutes can introduce more products to meet increasing interest in vegetarian diets among Chinese consumers.

• Meat substitutes need to balance consumer demand for nutrition and taste, since many consumers clearly are interested in eating vegetarian meals, at least occasionally, but may have difficulty foregoing the taste and texture of meat products.

• There is room for more brands to stand out in the meat substitutes market through deeper penetration and wider coverage since the market is still nascent.

(The author is food and drink analyst, China, Mintel)
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