Healthy Ageing APAC Summit 2018

Alternative protein firms 'need to rethink' Asian preferences and nutrition priorities

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

Eugene Wang, founder of plant-based seafood firm Sophie’s Kitchen, said it is imperative for alternative protein firms to understand the differences between Asian and Western consumer thinking.
Eugene Wang, founder of plant-based seafood firm Sophie’s Kitchen, said it is imperative for alternative protein firms to understand the differences between Asian and Western consumer thinking.
Interest in alternative protein is rapidly growing across Asia, but food firms need to rethink their approach in terms of local preferences and health and nutrition priorities.

That was one of the key takeaways from Eugene Wang, founder of plant-based seafood firm Sophie’s Kitchen, who was speaking at our inaugural Healthy Ageing APAC Summit.

The company claims to be the first in the world to make plant-based seafood alternatives, using its patent-pending technologies.

He told the event, organised by FoodNavigator-Asia and NutraIngredients-Asia, that various alternative protein or plant-based protein firms have been making inroads into Asia Pacific.

Impossible Foods, which debuted in Hong Kong in April​ has said half its expansion plans are targeted at Asia​.

Also in April, new Hong Kong vegan brand Right Treat by Green Common founder David Yeung introduced its plant-based pork alternative — Omnipork​.

Previously, Green Common had helped to introduce other plant-based innovations such as Beyond Burger and Just Scramble to the island.

Further afield in New Zealand, Auckland-based Sunfed Meats has also repeatedly sold out its plant-based Chicken Free Chicken product​.

Asian vs Western thinking

However, apart from Australia and New Zealand, Wang said a lot of plant-based or alternative protein retail fads from the West don’t seem to register well in Asia.

In light of this, he said it is key to understand the differences between Asian and Western consumer thinking.

For example, when a Western-thinking person wants a meal replacement, he would likely turn to energy bars or a liquid fuel like soylent. When an Asian-thinking person opts to skip a meal, he would possibly look for instant noodles or a Japanese hot stew.

He said the Western-thinking person may tell you an energy bar gives him X amount of protein or Y amount of fibre or calories, and “it helped me stave off hunger for about four hours”​, but an Asian-thinking person might tell you that the instant noodles was limited edition from a particular brand, and inside it had a small retort beef pack, which contained high-end US Angus beef, and cost 20 RMB.

In style and presentation, Western meals tend to be ordered and served individually, while Asian meals tend to be ordered or shared with the group, such as a hot pot.

Western-thinkers tend to look at the protein, fibre and calories in a product, while Asian-thinkers tend to look for freshness, variety, rarity and price, he argued.

Wang said an Asian person might say: “I like US beef because it is grain fed, so it has nice marbling. And I like it refrigerated because it usually means it was harvested and air-freighted in the last seven to ten days, so it was fresh.”

Meanwhile, a Western person cares about the whole holistic process, from the time it was created “till the end when our bodies get rid of it”,​ he said. He would be concerned about the environmental impact of the process, the labour involved in production, as well as the health benefit of the product.

“Asia is already home to over one-third of the world’s population. Unless there is a huge reduction or tremendous advancement in technology, a lot of Asian countries would have to embrace alternative protein,”​ he said.

“The question is how we can promote alternative protein in Asia.”

If it bleeds it leads?

One major issue, said Wang, is that plant-based protein has very “beany”​ or strong plant flavour, meaning manufacturers have to use a lot of flavourings.

Furthermore, in reference to the plant-based Impossible Burger, he posed the question: Do we really have to make our meat alternative bleed or taste like real animal meat?

“Why not just celebrate the protein and try not to disguise it? The point is this harmony of flavour and texture, not about simulating another animal,” ​he said.

He added that the way foreign firms such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods try to sell their meat alternative burgers or sausages in Asia, it’s as if “all Asians eat burgers and sausages all day”​.

He raised the question, if Asian food firms should come up with truly Asia-specific presentation and flavours to help promote alternative protein in the market.

On top of these, Wang said another key issue is the term “plant-based”, as it has no equivalent in Asian languages. He suggested that some marketing agency may be needed to address this problem.

Perhaps most importantly, he said he has seen many consumer “veggie” fests and street fairs in many cities in the US, Canada and Europe, but they are not taking place in Asia.

He said organisations, whether profit or non-profit, need to come on board to help promote the knowledge of alternative protein and its benefits.

Future priorities

In order to promote alternative protein, Wang also said it was important for manufacturers to be able to make some claims about the product on the packaging, so that the public can be aware of the health benefits associated with it. This, in turn, will promote the product itself.

“Labelling regulations in a lot of Asian countries are not friendly to this. This needs to be changed,”​ he said.

Related to this, Wang said, critically, a lot of product research was done outside of Asia.

“We need a lot more Asia-centric or Asia-specific research, so that we can convince governments and the people here that alternative protein is for everybody,” ​he said.

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