From soy dumplings to vegan mooncakes, the Chinese consumer is increasingly aware and interested in alternative meats. A growing number of health-conscious consumers, coupled with a series of events that have triggered a meat shortage in China, have led to a surge in the development and demand for plant-based meats. China is no stranger to plant-based foods, though, as “fanghun cai,” or imitation meat dishes, were prepared as far back as the Song Dynasty in the 10th century due to Buddhist influence. Tofu originated from China’s Anhui province, and many cuisines already use other soy or mushroom-based meats. Given China’s early adoption of meat alternatives, it comes as no surprise that prominent Western alternative meat brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are interested in breaking into the market.
“It’s absolutely true that China is a huge focus right now, and we’d like to launch in that market as soon as possible,” says Nick Halla, senior vice president for international at Impossible Foods. “Reaching China is critical to achieving the mission of Impossible Foods—which is to eliminate the need for animals in the food production system.” Already, brands such as Beyond Meat, Cargill and Oatly have begun partnering with stores like Starbucks and KFC in China to launch their alternative products beyond just the supermarket scene.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, global meat production today is almost five times higher than back in the 1960s, going from 70 million tons to more than 330 million tons in 2017. China alone consumes more than a quarter of the world’s meat, and while the average Chinese person in the 1960s consumed under 5 kilograms of meat a year, this figure has since ballooned to more than 60 kilograms by 2017. Despite growing recognition that animal agriculture is destructive to the environment, global demand for animal-derived food has risen to the point where it has outpaced human population growth.
Meat has been in the human diet since hominins began eating marrow from large animals 2.6 million years ago. But the practice of eating meat mainly became more problematic post-industrialization, as surging population growth, rising incomes and urbanization created more demand for animal protein. Today, research suggests that the increase in average individual meat consumption has led to higher carbon emissions, health problems and environmental degradation. Because eating meat has been deeply ingrained in Western culture as a main source of protein, with everything from weekend barbecues to ballpark hot dogs, it can be challenging to persuade some consumers to change their diets.
“We get that we’re not going to solve this problem by pleading with consumers to eat beans and tofu instead of meat and fish,” says Pat Brown, founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, in a statement. “The surest strategy for replacing the most destructive technology on Earth is to deliberately create foods that deliver greater pleasure and value to consumers of meat, fish and dairy foods, then offer them a choice—and let market demand take care of the rest.”
“The surest strategy for replacing the most destructive technology on Earth is to deliberately create foods that deliver greater pleasure and value to consumers of meat, fish and dairy foods, then offer them a choice—and let market demand take care of the rest.”
Made from plants while mimicking the aroma, flavor, texture and nutritional content of meat, Impossible Food’s accuracy at replicating meat has surprised many consumers. With a growing demand for this new and improved alternative meat, many lucrative fast food businesses have started including them in their menu. Burger King, for example, worked with Impossible Foods to create the Impossible Whopper, which is a plant-based patty modeled after its signature burger. They then created The Impossible Taste Test and asked consumers to differentiate between the plant-based and meat-based Whoppers. The Impossible Taste Test was aired as a commercial and quickly went viral.
“Impossible Foods has developed a food tech platform by amassing a world-class archive of knowledge on how meat works at a molecular level,” says Halla. “Our scientists can pull various levers such as those controlling texture, fat content and heme (the molecule that makes blood red) to make different products. It just becomes a question of timing and resources, because as always, we won’t release a product that doesn’t truly rival its animal-based analog for taste, nutrition and versatility.”
While brands such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have planted themselves as the largest alternative-meat companies in the Western Hemisphere, they have yet to penetrate the Chinese market.
China is hungry for meat, and the numbers show the ripple effect of this phenomenon on global beef, pork and poultry prices. Lamb prices in Australia have soared 14 percent, shoppers in Europe are dishing out 5 percent more in pork prices, and retail prices for chicken have jumped by about 16 percent as a result of larger Chinese consumer demands. In 2016, China’s Ministry of Health changed its official guidelines for the recommended daily intake of meat by cutting the number in half, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower the rates of obesity and diabetes.
“China is a market very accustomed to plant-based proteins. However, the current products do not satisfy the cravings of meat eaters,” says Halla. “There’s an unmet need for plant-based meat that actually displaces the need for meat from animals, and plant-based meat is utterly essential for feeding China’s growing hunger for meat.”
“There’s an unmet need for plant-based meat that actually displaces the need for meat from animals, and plant-based meat is utterly essential for feeding China’s growing hunger for meat.”
With recent outbreaks of swine flu and avian influenza in China, there has been a shortage of meat, which has created a void that alternative meats can fill. “The beauty of our platform is that we can cater to any cuisine, and we’re seeing extremely fast adoption and growth in our Asian markets,” says Halla. “Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore, for example, are very creative with how they incorporate our products. We intend to move quickly in China to curb and replace the growing demand of meat lovers.”
China’s meat of choice is pork. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Chinese ate more than 57,000 tons of pork, followed by poultry at 18,000 tons. With this in mind, Impossible Foods recently unveiled its plant-based pork alternative at the 2020 CES convention.
“In general, beef is very flavor-forward and bold; you know you’re eating beef in nearly any application, from fully built burgers, to steak tartare,” says Halla. “By contrast, pork is characterized primarily by its subtlety, its fattiness and mouthfeel, and its delicate flavor profile; it’s essentially a savory, umami-heavy vehicle to carry additional flavors, from ginger, to garlic, to parsley, to citrus notes.”
Replicating the features of beef may be more straightforward than with pork. “A lot of the characteristic flavor in pork has to do with its fat,” says Halla. He uses bacon and char siu as examples of what attracts people to pork products. “Pork is generally softer than beef, with less tough connective tissue. So, upon grinding, more pork muscle fibers break, and more of the internal proteins from muscle fibers leak out. When cooking pork, these internal proteins gel, making more of a uniform, unbroken gel,” explains Halla.
“Pork is characterized primarily by its subtlety, its fattiness and mouthfeel, and its delicate flavor profile; it’s essentially a savory, umami-heavy vehicle to carry additional flavors, from ginger to garlic to parsley to citrus notes.”
By contrast, Halla explains that cows have muscle fibers that remain more intact and create a more crumbly, tougher, but less cohesive and springy texture. The level of detail in the breakdown and composition of these meats are fine-tuned to the molecular level.
“Another factor is gelatinization,” he continues. “Collagen in connective tissue softens up with cooking. Pigs don’t move much, so their collagen in muscles is relatively soft and gelatinizes easier, and upon cooling, this gelatinized collagen makes a bouncy gel.”
Finally, beef is categorized as “red meat” for its high concentration of heme. While pork is also considered a red meat, the scientists at Impossible Foods have made it a point to make sure that their pork has less heme and a lighter color than beef.
“Whenever launching in a new international market, we rely closely on our on-the-ground team to develop a full understanding of the local market tastes and develop a marketing and culinary strategy that meets the unique needs of the market,” says Halla.
China’s alternative meat industry was worth almost $910 million in 2018, with a 14 percent annual growth rate. Given China’s existing history with alternative meats, there are other homegrown rival companies such as Zhenmeat, Starfield and Whole Perfect Food that have been receiving new funding and investment to develop new products.
Domestic Chinese brands have an upper hand, as they already have the cultural understanding and resources within the country to create products at scale. Instead of burgers, these companies have already begun making local dishes such as dumplings, mooncakes and meatballs with their plant-based meats. Zhenmeat has partnered with other brands such as noodle manufacturer Yantai Shuangta Foods to distribute their alternative meats in the form of meatballs to combine with the noodles. Zhenmeat, which is less than a year old, is already looking to raise $2 million in funding to expand across China. Whole Perfect Food, which is a Chinese meat alternative brand that has been around for 20 years, has also expressed interest in working and partnering with foreign companies.
Foreign brands are trying to quickly catch up and break into the market, and they’re not far behind. Beyond Meat’s partnership with Starbucks is a big breakthrough for the company, especially since the retail chain has more than 4,300 stores across China. Beyond Meat is already planning to begin localized manufacturing in China by the end of 2020. Yum China’s KFC chain will now also be selling plant-based fried chicken, supplied by U.S. company Cargill, in a few select locations for a limited time.
When asked about the fierce competition in China’s market, Halla replied, “the animal agriculture industry is our only competition because displacing the scale of animal meat is the only way we achieve our mission.” He also noted that despite the existence of plant-based meats in China, “none of these products have taken a share of the market for meat, as they’ve fallen far short in delivering the powerful array of sensory pleasures that meat lovers crave—and the global demand for meat keeps going up. This is what Impossible provides. Impossible products are just as craveable and delicious as meat from animals, and we believe there will be a strong demand throughout China.”