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Plant-Based Foods in China: Market Trends and Projections

  •   29 Sep 2019
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Earlier in 2016, the Chinese government released dietary guidelines, aimed at improving public health and mitigating environmental impact. This guideline recommends an upper limit on meat and poultry consumption of 75 grams per day[1], and proposed to reduce the minimum recommended daily intake value from 50g to 40g. However, the reality is that the average meat consumption in China is far higher than guidelines predict.

Plant-based foods: The impetus for growth

  1. Sustainability and mitigating environmental impact and climate change

In the case of climate change [2], 51% of greenhouse gases come from livestock and its derivatives (nitrous oxide produced by bacteria breaking down their waste). Raising these animals also requires considerable resources such as freshwater, feed and land resources.

Data resource: Tencent
  1. Humanity & Egalitarianism

In recent years, grassroots animal rights activism and ethical considerations have entered the mainstream. In tandem with this veganism and vegetarian diets have become increasingly popular. 

  1. Health issues

According to several landmark studies and the now regular global burden of disease study, dietary factors are the most significant contributor to all-cause mortality in the developed world. Our biggest killers, chronic disease like cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and the major risk factors for developing these diseases like diabetes, high LDL cholesterol and high serum triglycerides and hypertension have all well substantiated causal links with poor dietary habits.

Plant-based foods contain no cholesterol, tend to be low in saturated fat, high in iron and do not contain residual antibiotics or hormones. Additionally, according to an analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, adopting a plant-based diet can lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 23% [3], conversely, eating red and processed meat has been linked to higher risk.

Data resource: Tencent
  1. Multiple choices

An online investigation by Specialist PR agency Ingredient Communications [4] found that nearly half (46%) of vegans and 23% of vegetarians said they were unsatisfied with the available food and beverage options. The emergence of plant-based food enriches the vegetarians' choices and tastes.

What obstacles need to be removed?

  1. Ignorance and stereotypes

According to a survey produced by iiMedia Research, 36% of Chinese consumers said they didn't know what plant-based meat is, and nearly 40% of the respondents said they did not know much about plant-based meat substitutes.

What's worse, in China, plant-based is synonymous with artificial and synthetic. Plant-based meat substitutes are commonly called 'artificial meat' (人造肉), plant-based egg is equivalent to 'artificial egg' (人造蛋), etc. which implies obvious negative connotations.

  1. Taste

According to Mintel[5], taste is the top priority for 52% of American adults when considering purchasing plant-based protein. Reverse engineering of meat has revealed many of the organoleptic properties unique to meat which make it so appealing to people. By incorporating insights derived from these studies into plant-based new product development, industry leaders are getting increasingly close to a plant-based sensory experience identical to that of meat.

This reverse engineering approach allowed researchers from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to identify hemoglobin as a crucial aspect of the meat sensory experience. In addition to heme, beet juice can also add moisture and colour to burger meat. Plant-based meat with these two ingredients, mirror many of the sensory experiences crucial to consumer acceptance namely taste, smell, appearance and even the sound and smell when frying. These ingredients and techniques make plant-based meats look and smell similar to real meat, but there are some people[6] say the plant-based protein fibres are too thick and will never be able to compete with meat.

  1. R&D investment results in high cost

To reduce the differences between real and plant-based food, it involves a large amount of technological/bioengineering input, thus R&D investment is needed in the early stage. Scaling up production [7] to offset these costs will take time and for the moment, the retail price of top-end products has remained stubbornly high. Therefore, in Europe and the United States, plant-based food is mainly targeted at the high-end consumer group [8].

Price data refers to Tmall and FBIF.

Opportunities in China

  1. Chronic diseases and rising obesity rates in China

According to the Report on Nutrition & Chronic Diseases of Chinese Residents (2015)[9], the prevalence of overweight adults aged 18 and above was 30.1%, and the obesity rate was 11.9%, up 7.3 and 4.8 percentage on 2002. The prevalence of overweight children aged 6-17 was 9.6%, and the obesity rate was 6.4%, up 5.1 and 4.3 percentage points in 2002. The prevalence of hypertension and diabetes among adults aged 18 and above are 25.2% and 9.7% respectively.

In 2019, Dingxiang Doctor (a famous medical portal in China) along with Health News (under the charge of NHC) released a report called 'Health Insights in China 2019[10], which indicated: 93% of Chinese people are of the opinion that health is the most important thing before wealth and job. According to Kantar TNS [11], 61% of Chinese consider diet as the most important determinant of health.

  1. The Pork market (China's most important meat) is reeling.

Because of the spread of African swine fever to China, many farms have had to cull and destroy huge number of pigs this year in order to control the disease, resulting in a shortage of pork [12]. However, raising pigs takes a certain period (usually about 4months), and the breeders/farmers are still suffering from the impact of the epidemic. It will be impossible to restore supply in the short term.

Furthermore, in January, China's Central Bank reduced its deposit-reserve ratio (hereinafter RRR) twice in a single month. This easy monetary policy[13] has freed up a lot of capital and has sent pork prices soaring. Experts [14] predict that the price won't ease until after the lunar Spring Festival at the earliest.

Some people may argue that there are alternatives (e.g. chicken, beef, etc.) to pork, but they may ignore the fact that the price of other meats will rise accordingly. After all, the increase in the consumer price index (CPI) under the policy of monetary easing will affect all commodities. Chinese eat an estimated 700 million pigs annually, the pork market is hard to completely replace by other meat, which provides more fertile growth for plant-based products.

  1. Due to the trade war, the American soybean price has fluctuated greatly.

Price concerns are still a major issue for plant-based products. The high level of processing necessary to achieve a product which closely mimics the sensory experience of meat is costly and reflected in the high price attached to these products.

For example, currently, soybean protein and pea protein are the main ingredients in most plant-based meat. However, due to the influence of the China-US trade war and other factors, the price of soybean has generally declined [15]. For American plant-based food manufacturers, it is probable that raw materials cost will decrease.

By contrast, the price of peas is relatively stable in China, and pea planting is less restricted by climate, terrain and other factors, so pea planting can be carried out in most areas of China. Chinese consumers are also familiar with peas and likely to accept products produced using peas. China’s pea market doesn’t rely on imports, the price is not really affected by external stressors which allows a high degree of controllability. Therefore, for stakeholders considering market entry, leveraging the local advantages of pea protein is likely the best strategy. Interestingly “珍肉[16]”, China's first plant-based meat brand (in the mainland), uses pea protein and is able to offer products priced lower than normal muscle meats.

Chinese consumer preference:

Taste and texture may be the key for consumers to decide whether to re-purchase, but for Chinese consumers, the first problem is how to change their perception of plant-based.

  1. Conventional thinking/fears of 'artificial':

Perhaps due to the influence of some food safety cases in the past, when it comes to food Chinese consumer preference is dominated by demand for "natural" "organic" "clean-labels" and fear of "artificial" or "highly processed" foods. When it comes to "artificial meat", Chinese people think that it is not pure, it is chemical, synthetic and fake. An investigation by iiMedia shows that approximately half of Chinese consumers cannot accept meat alternatives/plant-based meat substitutes due to the perception that  [17], the products are "fake" or "counterfeit".

  1. Cultural issues:

Plant-based foods first gained traction amongst consumers in Europe, America, and other countries. In the US, a combination of grassroots movements and large capital investment [18] precipitated rapid growth in the sector. These grassroots movements have had little impact in China.

Furthermore, at the perceptional level, there are obvious differences between Chinese and Americans. Americans have great passion and can be easily motivated by acts of heroism, such as saving the planet. As you can see the advertisement of Impossible Foods captures this mentality.

To see the advertisement of Impossible Foods [19], please click here.

While China's post-90s generation has a strong sense of patriotism[20], and marketing concepts which highlight the sustainable development of the country may be more attractive than saving the whole earth.

  1. Lack of availability

At present, there is a glaring lack of plant-based meat substitutes on sale in Chinese supermarkets, and it is reported that no products will be commercially available until September at the earliest. Lack of exposure and familiarity with plant-based meat substitutes means that consumers have an extremely poor understanding of the concept and of the range of products on offer. 

Editor's insight

I firmly believe that plant-based food will have a good future. I tasted Dupont's plant-based meat and JUST's plant-based eggs [21], and although I still think there are obvious differences in terms of sensory experience, both were acceptable and enjoyable. So what can we do to change Chinese consumers perspective on plant-based meat substitutes and other products:

  • Personally speaking, I think the first step is to change the name of the product. Plant-based mean substitutes are synonymous with "artificial" and "fake" in China. The "alligator pear" was not popular with Americans at the beginning, but when it was called "avocado", it became popular around the world. In many cases, a very superficial factor such as a simple change of name can impact a consumer's desire to buy the product.

  • Secondly, accurate positioning in the market is important. With the prevalence of obesity increasing amongst Chinese teenagers' plant-based companies can look towards fast food and snack foods as a key battleground. Leveraging social media and KOLs will also be an important strategy. Improving visibility in offline supermarkets is crucial.

Reference Link

[1] The Washington Post
[2] Will artificial meat save the world?
[3] Plant-based diets could prevent type 2 diabetes
[4] Specialist PR agency Ingredient Communications
[5] Taste is the first issue American consumers will consider when choosing plant-based proteins
[6] Billionaire is going to save the world by artificial meat, will you buy it?
[7] What is the future of artificial meat industry? It may be rebuffed in China
[8] FBIF article---About plant-based milk
[9] Report on Nutrition & Chronic Diseases of Chinese Residents (2015)
[10] Health Insights in China 2019
[11] What are the three most important factors for Chinese diners when choosing a diet?
[12] Forecast of pork price trend in the second half of 2019
[13] Easy monetary policy
[14] Zhicheng News
[15] China and the United States trade war, soybean prices hit a record low
[16] Zhourou 珍肉
[17] iiMedia Research
[18] Leonardo DiCaprio Invests In Beyond Meat For Latest Planet Saving Venture
[19] Impossible Foods Video
[20] China's 90s Generation
[21] JUST Egg video

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Jocelyn Sun

Having expertise in imported food market, tracking the latest news and information, and analysing the data, impacts and possibilities of regulations and policies.