Even thought the plant-based sector in Asia has been seeing rapid growth over the past few years and is expected by many to emerge as ‘the future of food’, there is still a long way for the industry to go before becoming mainstream – and this journey, though mainly initiated with environmental and ethical concerns in mind, will need to focus on product development to achieve significant growth.
This was agreed upon by the expert panel which convened at the recent Plant-Based Innovation edition of our Growth Asia 2020 series, which comprised of Alex Ward (Givaudan Head of Regional Innovation APAC), Michelle Lee (DuPont Asia Pacific Regional Marketing Leader), Eugene Wang (Founder of Sophie’s Kitchen), Tao Zhang (Co-founder of Dao Foods International) and Varun Deshpande (Managing Director of Good Food Institute India).
Keynote speakers for the session also included PepsiCo R&D Global External Innovation Lead Dr Tan Siow Ying and Eat JUST CEO and Co-Founder Josh Tetrick. The session was hosted by FoodNavigator-Asia and NutraIngredients-Asia Editor-in-Chief Gary Scattergood.
In her opening session, Dr Tan told the floor that the plant-based trend is likely to continue on in the long-term given how consumers today are increasingly concerned about their health and nutrition, and given the ‘adventurousness’ of Asian consumers when it comes to food.
“What’s important to note here though is that taste remains paramount – consumers will buy items they perceive to be healthier when there is a choice, but are not inclined to go far out of the way to do so, and are even less likely to do so if the product does not taste good,” she said.
Deshpande concurred, adding that although in the early stages of development the plant-based sector was very environmental and ethically-driven, going beyond this stage will need stronger focus on the actual products.
“In India for example, and likely elsewhere too, the early adapter cohorts were thinking about the animals and the planet, but now we’re past that early stage and the focus needs to be on taste, price and nutrition,” he said.
“We need to appeal to the mainstream, wider consumers and the only way to do this is if the products cost the same or less and taste the same or better – otherwise, no one is going to care whether the ingredients used are plant-based or not.”
Zhang made a similar observation for China, saying that at the end of the day, it is all about the products.
“Consumers in China are exceptionally discerning when it comes to their food, and especially to meat and dairy – taste is very important to them,” he said.
“At the end of the day, it is all about product, product, product: The product taste, price and acceptability must be high, and I would say that in China, in fact they will ask for plant-based products to not just taste the same as conventional meat or dairy – they will want it to taste better.”
Challenges for the industry
The plant-based industry in the West is markedly more advanced than in Asia, and along with this development some teething challenges have already emerged which were always going to pop up here – such as nomenclature debates.
Heated debates have taken place in countries such as France and the United States about the use of meat and dairy terms (e.g. sausages, milk, cheeses, etc.) for plant-based products, and earlier this year the debate hit Asian shores starting with India, which issued draft regulations banning the use of ‘milk’ and other dairy terms – or even phonetically similar terms – for plant-based products.
“These draft regulations are still being debated, and we can understand – the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is just a few hundred-strong, but is burdened with the health and wellbeing on 1.3 billion citizens along with some of the highest burdens of food disease in the world, so any new tech and innovation in food, like plant-based, has them worried,” said Deshpande.
“That said, I am confident that we will get to the right place in the mid-to-long term with this issue – the main thing is that the space is growing and the number of companies too, and we need more companies in the industry to have that conversation with the government, like 300 instead of 30.”
In terms of the approval for alternative proteins such as plant-based ingredients, Wang commented that governments in Asia tend to be much slower in terms of processing and approving these.
“Sophie’s Kitchen has been lucky to get a relatively quick approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) for our microalgae, but I’ve heard of many other entrepreneurs having a hard time getting approvals for other protein sources such as insect or mycoproteins from other regional governments,” he said.
“So there’s still a lot of work for regulators to do here – even in Singapore, I was told ‘don’t go there’ when I tried to get approval for hemp a couple of years back. Asian governments are undoubtedly still very conservative when it comes to this space, so there are still huge gaps between innovation and bureaucracy in the region.”
Over in China, Zhang said that plant-based discussions have not yet made it to a government strategic discussion level, although it has been mentioned by several agencies as an area of interest.
“I do feel that if the plant-based sector is not given attention from a strategic level, it will take quite some time before it can get the policy support it deserves,” he said.
“The good news is that several different government agencies have had discussions about it, but of course these are bureaucratic and not innovative by nature, so there is much to do yet.
“It makes a lot of sense for China to take this as a priority though – the country will need to be focusing a lot more on protein security sooner rather than later, especially given current international relationships [and ASF having affected its local pork supplies].
“Once this all does go to the strategic level though, the government will be able to do turnovers quickly, and in the meantime what needs to be done is ensure entrepreneurs in this space get the support they need to do things right.”
Watch the Growth Asia 2020 session on Plant-Based Innovation again here.