A personal touch: Catering to local tastebuds in the alternative protein market

Dirk Oyen is the vice-president and general manager Southeast Asia for Human Nutrition at ADM

With the plant-based market taking shape particularly in Asia, food producers must do more to differentiate their products from competing brands. Dirk Oyen, vice-president and general manager South East Asia for Human Nutrition at ADM, shares how food producers can maximise the potential of their products through paying attention to trends and demands of their consumers.

By Agatha Wong

ADM, a global leader in human and animal nutrition, and NTUitive, the innovation and enterprise company of Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), recently co-organised a challenge – the Plant-based Perfection Challenge 2021 – inviting young chefs and students to create plant-based dishes specially for the Asian palate. In addition to a cash prize worth S$6,000 (US$4,440), winners were provided internship and trial production opportunities with ADM, and access to funding and grants, and mentorship with NTUitive.

The challenge highlighted the growing prominence of plant-based foods in Asia, where many start-ups are seizing the trend and developing innovative alternative proteins.

“Based on in-depth research from our proprietary Outside VoiceSM consumer insights platform, consumers [in Asia] are taking a more holistic approach to health by involving high-quality and functional foods to manage their physical and mental health,” shared Dirk Oyen, vice-president and general manager South East Asia for Human Nutrition at ADM. This is due to the pandemic, which has encouraged consumers support more immune function-supporting solutions like probiotics and vitamins C and D. Moreover, Oyen added, consumers are turning to products containing natural, beneficial ingredients that are as healthy as they are ecological. More than that, the plant-based phenomenon has taken root in Asia, pushing alternative proteins into the spotlight as a convergence of health, sustainability and convenience.

That Asia is also home to more than half the world’s population also necessitates food and beverage developers to adapt quickly to their change in taste and preferences. Oyen noted that their ADM’s Outside VoiceSM research showed an increase of 186% of alternative meat and dairy product launches between 2015 and 2019, demonstrating a rise in plant-based innovation and start-ups.

“For ADM, our technical innovation centre in Singapore and recent opening of our Plant Based Innovation Lab enables us to be on the ground and at the forefront to capture emerging trends as they develop and help our partners pair it with taste and nutrition,” explained Oyen.

Staying in touch with consumers

For food manufacturers, understanding consumers’ demand is vital. For example, as consumers are increasingly seeking products containing natural, beneficial ingredients and concerned with their provenance, it is important for producers to be transparent through labels.

In terms of product formulation for alternative protein, mimicking the taste to the real thing is also important, including being able to incorporate them into dishes that they enjoy. Similarly, with the alternative protein movement taking proper root in Asia, it is also key for producers to pay attention to cultural authenticity; especially so given the ongoing pandemic as consumers seek comfort in familiar flavours.

Oyen, said: “To capture and retain consumers’ interests in plant-based products, adequate research into the local culture and flavour preferences must be conducted. Companies who want to distinguish themselves must develop a plant-based meat alternative product that caters to a certain taste palate or demographic – such as creating something that will go great in local dishes or to suit the ageing population.”

A new generation leads on

At the crux of many alternative protein start-ups are younger people paving the way for a new dietary movement. Oyen opines young consumers largely value fresh, healthy, on-trend foods and are often open to trying new products, and this broad-minded thinking spurs fresh innovation and creativity, opening new possibilities to invent exciting plant-based concepts that tailor to the Asian palate. He also suggests that they are largely responsible for changing the tides in consumers preferences through examining and exploring unfulfilled gaps in the market, driving creative innovations in introducing new flavours and ingredients that synergise well and tackle today’s nutritional challenges.

With the plant-based innovation breaking the paradigm of how people are looking at protein in their diets, Oyen imparted this advice: “Focus on the positive side of why people want to eat plant-based proteins. The trend may have been made popular in the US and in Europe but ask yourself, “What do people in Asia want?”. How does it connect to their needs, values and belief? How can you make it relevant to them and make it personal? Win the hearts of people in Asia and you are covering more than 50% of the world’s population.”

This article was first published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Food & Beverage Asia.