China has around 50m vegetarians - 3.5% of population

China has around 50m vegetarians - 3.5% of population

China may be the largest consumer of pork but there is growing interest in vegetarianism - and in meat-alternative products. Peter Peverelli takes a look.

The recent launch in China of a traditional Chinese pastry product stuffed with artificial meat indicates there is growing interest in the country in vegetarian alternatives to meat.

But the market, as yet, remains in its early stages and one in which domestic players prevail. There could, however, with the right product development and marketing strategies be opportunities for overseas players.

Vegetables have always played a bigger role in Chinese cooking than in meat-based European cuisines, as shown by traditional Chinese medicine. "As a farming people, the Chinese have adopted a plant-based diet since ancient times. We are less tolerant to meat than nomadic people," a doctor at the Hunan Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine told the China Daily newspaper in June, arguing a vegetarian diet is more suited to the Chinese.

However, vegetarians have been a rare breed in China, at least until recently. There are a number of reasons. One is that Chinese believe in a well-balanced meal – and they believe vegetable-based dishes need to be complemented with some meat or seafood. Leaving out animal protein altogether does not, they believe, result in a balanced meal. Still, because vegetables are regarded as the primary ingredient, most Chinese still perceive their cuisine to be 'highly vegetarian'.

Moreover, meat, in particular pork, is often used to add flavour to a vegetable-based dish in Chinese home cooking. Any dish of stir-fried vegetables becomes much tastier by adding some finely-chopped, fatty meat or a handful of dried shrimps.

In practice, many Chinese eat the vegetables of such dishes but throw away the meat with the gravy. Western vegetarians are not likely to touch such a dish, not regarding them as properly vegetarian.

Recently, though, the number of true vegetarians has been on the rise in China. The Chinese Vegetarian Association, established in 2007, estimates there are now around 50 million vegetarians in the country – about 3.5% of the population.

With rising disposable incomes, Chinese consumers have grown more interested in food they perceive to be healthier. The number food safety incidents involving contaminated dairy and meat products has been another stimulus to reduce the intake of animal protein.

The number of vegetarian restaurants in the larger Chinese cities is rising, although the rate of growth is not enormous, as they tend to be relatively expensive. They are catering to the top end of the market.

On a macro level, Beijing wants the country to lower the amount of meat it eats. In 2016, the Chinese government outlined a plan to reduce its citizens' meat consumption by 50 per cent.

These trends are now also starting to have an impact on the shelves of Chinese supermarkets. A growing number of domestic manufacturers are developing and marketing alternatives to meat.

Wuxianzhai Food, based in the city of Linyi in China's eastern Shandong province, specialises in imitation meat products made from soy protein.

The company's products include a range of more than 20 different vegetarian meat variations. Most of these products are presented in the form of chunks, but there is also vegetarian pulled pork and vegetarian beef tripe. The presentation of all Wuxianzhai products is very meat-like. In the company's product development, it appears to have gone to great lengths to make the products look, taste and feel like meat.

Morocoo is a brand of vegetarian meat products by Yizhi Konjac Bioengineering Co., located further north in Yichang in Hubei province. As the company's name suggests, these products are made from konjac, a tuber that growths abundantly in central and southern China. The tuber has a high content of vegetable gum that is frequently used as thickener in foods. Konjac is also the main ingredient for fruit jellies that are so popular in Asia.

Another useful property of konjac is it has almost no calories but is very high in fibre. Yizhi produces different ranges of vegetarian meat products, including vegetarian beef tripes in various flavours. The company also produces vegetarian beef jerky and vegetarian pulled beef. Morocoo advertises its products as containing lots of fibre, so 'you can eat as much as you like'.

Meanwhile, Qishan Food, located in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, bordering Hong Kong, offers a range of vegetarian meat and seafood products, made from soy protein and konjac. The products are divided in four categories: frozen, room temperature, sauces (cooking ingredients) and snacks. Qishan also markets itself as being an environmentally-friendly operation.

Despite the growing presence of meat-alternative products in bricks-and-mortar and online stores, a category western marketeers would identify has yet to develop. A tour of supermarkets in a Beijing suggest retailers have yet to create separate meat-alternative sections.

And the market has yet to see overseas suppliers of meat-alternative products make any serious inroads.

Nevertheless, western manufacturers of vegetarian meat alternatives interested in breaking into the market could gain a foothold by, for example, developing products with Chinese flavours or by emulating the texture of Chinese meat products.

However, they also need to craft a suitable marketing campaign for the Chinese market. The market is big enough, but it would still require a certain budget and probably advice from a marketing consultancy familiar with local consumer trends and brand positioning.

Last month, US meat-alternatives supplier Impossible Foods, which already sells into restaurants in Hong Kong and Macau, described China as its top priority when it came to geographic expansion.

Chief executive Pat O'Brown told Reuters Impossible Foods is looking to accelerate moves to enter China. "China is our highest priority for future expansion, full stop," O'Brown said in comments to the news agency confirmed independently by just-food. "It is the biggest consumer of meat in the world. Something like half the growth in meat consumption globally in the past ten years or so has been in China. Effectively, the place where we can have the greatest impact on our mission is in China."

Meanwhile, Impossible Foods' US peer Beyond Meat already has a level of recognition in China – even if the company is not yet present in the market.

Of Europe's major players, the UK-based Quorn Foods (itself owned by Philippines-based food and beverage group Monde Nissin) could in theory catch on in China, but with some adaptions for flavours and textures. The Chinese have a tradition of using fungi as a food ingredient, so Quorn, made from mycoprotein (a protein derived from fungi) could be easily accepted.

Texture, taste, and a tale for the consumer – these will be the three areas of focus for overseas players eyeing China's fledgling – but growing – market for meat alternatives.