Chinese companies are betting on a bright future for plant-based meat products as consumers take their health more seriously in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vegetarian alternatives to meat are becoming more popular after health scares like the novel coronavirus and African swine fever, analysts and industry insiders said.
The American company Beyond Meat said last week it had signed a deal to open a production facility near Shanghai and earlier this year launched a partnership with Starbucks for its plant-based meat products to be sold in China.
Beijing-based startup Zhenmeat, whose products include plant-based meatballs, beef patty, steak, pork loin, crayfish and dumplings, is one of many Chinese companies entering the market.
Its “meatballs” are now available on a trial basis at a Beijing store of Chinese hot-pot chain Hope Tree.
“Now after COVID-19, consumers are more concerned about health and restaurant brands are responding to this,” Zhenmeat founder and CEO Vince Lu told Reuters in an interview, adding that sales were “up considerably” since June.
“It’s very difficult to clearly separate animal protein and animal fat. So when you’re consuming (animal) meat, as you take in that protein you’re also consuming a lot of fat,” Dr. Zang Bo from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences said.
“It’s these fats that cause you to get fat or even obese, causing cardiovascular diseases. It’s caused by this. But for our plant-based protein, we can more clearly separate the protein and fat. That means I can produce plant-based protein-made meat with a level of fat lower than 1%,” he added.
Many curious customers at the Beijing Hope Tree restaurant said the meatballs – made from a base of pea and soy protein – tasted like tofu.
“Actually you can tell that it isn’t meat but the feel of it in your mouth is very similar to beef. And I guess that plant-based meat is a little healthier than beef,” said Audrey Jiang, 30.
China Market Research Group Director Ben Cavender said the key to the future of the plant-based meat market was the taste.
“It’ll be interesting to see. I think the overall consumer direction is towards foods that are deemed to be more healthful and so I think this helps non-meat meat products. However, I think there is another factor here which is consumers have to really like the taste of the product,” Cavender said.
Zhenmeat’s Lu said there was a lot of competition in the market but the real competitor was the meat industry itself.
“The most important thing is that our true competitors are not those global giants who have already achieved great success such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods,” he said.
“Our true competitor is the whole livestock sector. It’s the animal protein industry.”