New plant-based meat takes on traditional mock meat in Malaysia, Asia

10, Mar. 2021

Plant-based meat has gained traction in Asia especially among younger people. OmniMeat burger patties are made of a proprietary blend of plant proteins from pea, non-GMO soy, shitake mushroom and rice. (Photo courtesy of OmniFoods)
Plant-based meat has gained traction in Asia especially among younger people. OmniMeat burger patties are made of a proprietary blend of plant proteins from pea, non-GMO soy, shitake mushroom and rice. (Photo courtesy of OmniFoods)

By Charlotte Chong

KUALA LUMPUR, NNA - New plant-based meat, which has become trendy especially among millennials in the West, is popping up on dining tables in Asia.

In Malaysia, for instance, health eateries like La Juiceria Superfoods and Nourish by Kenny Hills Bakers have incorporated plant-based products from brands like Beyond Meat and OmniMeat in their menus since last year.

Recently, fast-food chain KFC Malaysia also jumped onto the bandwagon, introducing Zero Chicken Burger.

Famously known for its plant-based product ‘OmniMeat’ in Asia, Hong-Kong-based food tech company OmniFoods saw sales surge during the pandemic. CEO David Yeung of Green Monday affirmed that the plant-based industry enjoyed a significant jump in revenues in 2020 though he declined to give financial details.

OmniFoods, which was set up by Green Monday, is expanding its business to cover 20 markets by the middle of 2021. Apart from Asia Pacific including Australia, its products will be available in the U.S., Canada and U.K.

In Malaysia, its products are already sold at supermarkets and other stores.

Generally, such processed products, which use rice, soy, potato, pea and other plant derivatives, are made to look and taste like real meat.

Another producer, Thailand-based start-up Let’s Plant Meat, also saw healthy growth since its launch in March last year.

Its CEO, Smith Taweelerdniti, told NNA, “I see a continuing growth trend as we add more exciting products to the retail market.

The company recently began exporting its products to Singapore. It hopes to enter markets in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan too.

According to Euromonitor, the substitute meat market in the Asia-Pacific grew 4.75 percent to $15.3 billion in 2019. Its estimated 2020 growth to be 11.6 percent and reaching a market size worth $17.1 billion due to COVID-19-induced factors.

The UK-based market researcher said the pandemic has made consumers more health and diet-conscious following reports on the possible links between wild animal meat and the deadly coronavirus. This has helped the industry to pivot towards plant-based protein and provided an opportunity for foodservice players to highlight the sustainability of their new options.

The biggest hurdle for consumers, however, is the premium pricing of the new meat alternatives, said Euromonitor. Apart from infrastructure challenges, the scaling of meat alternative ingredients in the supply chain is inadequate in ASEAN, it noted.

Also, the fake meat markets in Southeast Asia and East Asia have long been dominated by well-established Chinese-style vegetarian mock meats which are cheap and widely available.

Created to imitate the taste and texture of pork, poultry and fish, they are made with tofu or soy, wheat gluten, mushroom, jackfruit and other plants. Their versatility has also presented countless recipes in many cuisines long before the arrival of the new plant-based meats.

Said Euromonitor, “With incumbent tofu dishes that are more affordable, new-generation meat substitutes do not get chosen by the region’s price-sensitive consumers."

Clearly, it means new-comers would either have an uphill battle against the predominance of tofu or soy products and other traditional mock-meat products, or carve a niche market for themselves.

Malaysian vegetarian food e-commerce platform Gogovege, which sells different types of traditional mock meat ranging from vegan chicken to fish, recorded its highest order in April last year.

Sales soared by 146 percent month-on-month as people were preparing more at home during the pandemic lockdown, reported its founder Derred Beh. He said about 75 percent of buyers were middle-aged Chinese women.

Among the bestsellers were vegetarian lean meat, mushroom meat, soy chips, beancurd sticks, vegan fish fillets and vegan burger patties, Beh told NNA. He said his platform also started selling more convenient and creatively assembled items such as ready-to-cook vegetarian set meals in the middle of 2020.

While new plant-based meat producers have showcased food using mince and patties for burgers only, it won’t be too long before they come up with more exciting creations. Also, they are gunning for the real meat eaters in the hope that they would eat less meat and play a part in climate-change mitigation efforts.

Yeung of Green Monday told NNA, "The traditional mock meat is targeted more for the vegans and vegetarians and most likely can’t satisfy hard-core meat eaters. Whereas the new-generation plant-meat companies have elevated the technology and product quality to the level that can win over meat eaters.”

He has a point. The new meat alternative not only tastes like meat, it even bleeds like meat, according to tasters.

Let’s Plant Meat is planning to launch its plant-based Japanese-style meat katsu for frying at home or restaurants in the first quarter of 2021.

Malaysian plant-based meat start-up Phuture Foods is also exploring more recipes such as gyoza and dim sum items using its 'Phuture Mince', which is made with chickpea, pea, mushroom and vegetable oils.

Yeung said their products will gradually become more affordable as producers continue to scale up their capacities. “The price of our OmniMeat product has already been reduced by 25 per cent since its launch in 2018,” he said, adding that he is hopeful that prices will continue to drop in the next nine to 12 months.

A kilo of OmniMeat minced meat is priced at 50 ringgit ($12) while its 240 grams packet of OmniMeat Luncheon meat costs 25.90 ringgit. Comparatively, traditional vegetarian burger patties cost between 13 ringgit to 15 ringgit for 500 grams.

Let’s Plant Meat’s Taweelerdniti feels that producers can justify higher prices by offering convenient products that are already marinated, breaded and pre-cooked. Otherwise, some products that do not need so many ingredients can be priced lower.

Meanwhile, OmniMeat's recent collaboration with McDonald’s Hong Kong has been well-received, Yeung said.

He noted that more international brands like Starbucks and Yum China are also incorporating plant-based food in their menus. “These are signs that Asia is catching up with the progressive global adoption of plant-based living,” he said.

KFC Malaysia told NNA Kyodo the response to their Zero Chicken burger promotion has been beyond their expectation. “Most customers commented that it tastes exactly like chicken,” it said, adding that it had collaborated with meat substitute brand Quorn for the limited edition.

The global trend has sparked fierce debate between both camps, with meat producers highlighting inadequate research and scrutiny of the new products. However, food tech companies have countered that their work is guided by science and nutritional guidelines.

CEO Jack Yap of Phuture Foods, who wants his products to be as palatable as cooked ‘real meat’, said, “What we are doing today is just the beginning. Eventually, it will come to a point whereby the nutritional value of plant-based meat could be similar or even higher than real meat.”

He firmly believes that what is seen as a novel idea of incorporating plant-based meat in our diet would eventually take off. “It’s a form of practising a new habit," he told NNA.

“Plant-based meat offers a choice for those who want to make a change,” said Taweelerdniti, adding that people are still unknowingly consuming meat from animals that have been given antibiotics and growth hormones.

Giving an indication that new plant-based meats might worm its way into the mainstream, food giant Nestle Malaysia will launch a factory in Malaysia in April to produce such foods.

Malaysia will be one of the two bases in Asia for the manufacturing of the plant-based meats, with the other in Tianjin, China.

While Beh of Gogovege platform acknowledges the potential of the new alternatives for vegetarians, he does not have plans to sell them at the moment.

His mock meat products continue to see steady growth with the opening of more vegetarian restaurants in Malaysia.

He also points out one irony: Some conservative vegetarians would still be reluctant to try the new products due to their religious belief as their taste and texture have been said to be similar to the real thing.