Chinese plant protein drinks grow as manufacturers look beyond soy

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
Manufacturers in China should be looking at moving past traditional soy-based drinks by incorporating multiple types of plant protein in functional beverages, says Mintel.

The Chinese market for plant protein drinks (PPD) has grown rapidly in the past five years, with Mintel suggesting annual growth in both value and volume of 24% and 21%, respectively, since 2010.

According to Mintel’s 2016 report on PPD in China, this healthy growth and higher acceptance of plant-protein drinks in the country has encouraged more suppliers to tap into the business – and has led to many exploring multiple sources of plant protein. 

“Chinese consumers are showing significant interest in the category, with penetration of PPD high and with further room for growth,”​ said Mintel – noting that while PPDs have formed part of the Chinese diet for centuries, “in recent years consumers have begun to look beyond traditional soy-based options.”

Food Therapy

According to Chinese tradition, each food ingredient contains functional benefits, but also side effects. Ingredients are therefore often paired together, according to certain principles, to reduce their negative effects and enhance function. 

“For example, walnuts are believed to improve the function of the brain, nerves and heart, but are said to cause internal heat, and are not suitable for people with digestive discomfort,”​ noted the Mintel report. “Green beans, meanwhile, are said to release internal heat during the summer months, but are not suitable for people who lack vital energy (yang).”

In addition to bringing new players and ingredients to the traditional Chinese PPD market, Ching Yang, research analyst at Mintel noted that some manufacturers are beginning to tap in to new groups of health-conscious consumers by marketing PPDS as a traditional ‘food therapy’. 

“This is also part of the Chinese traditional belief and the concept behind traditional Chinese medicine that sickness can be cured or the body maintained in good condition through a long-term proper diet,”​ explained Yang. 

Many products currently highlight a more general ‘good-for-you’ image, but few have connected the category with the ancient wisdom of China, suggesting white space to move into,”​ the report suggested – noting that tapping into the idea of ‘food therapy’ could allow PPD brands to stand out from their competitors. 

Multiple proteins in demand

Yang told NutraIngredients-Asia​ that the recent growth of plant protein drinks is primarily driven by the walnut and coconut-based sub-categories.

“The former one wins through the traditional Chinese' belief that walnut is good for the brain,”​ she said. “With this product feature, they have gained lots of attention and interest from the white-collar, students, and those consumers looking to boost their brain-power.”

“The latter one wins through as a result of the recent boom in coconut water and coconut today being seen as trendy as well as healthy.”​ 

However, consumers are not only drinking more walnut and coconut drinks – but are also showing interest in products made from multiple plant-protein ingredients, said Mintel.

According to its recent report, 41% of respondents said they would like to see more products made from multiple plant protein ingredients.

Indeed, other PPDs have been launched that combine nuts with grains, or mix nuts and grains with vegetables and fruit, said the report – adding that these drinks typically claim to offer balanced nutrition and functional benefits.

“These products have widespread appeal as the process of mixing ingredients is believed to enhance functional benefits and balance the nutritional needs of the body.”

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