Five ways to make plant-based foods the consumer choice, not the alternative

With 61% of consumers in Asia intending to eat more plant-based food, the potential for growth in Asia’s plant-based market is promising.

By Ronan Moloney, vice-president and general manager of Food and Meat, Kerry Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa

Like much of the rest of the world, consumers in Asia are focusing on diet and lifestyle, and the idea of longevity now plays a role in how we approach the future. Consumers appreciate that eating less meat can lead to a longer, healthier life, with over half of consumers prioritising health and taste when choosing meat alternatives. Asia is now the second largest region globally for meat alternatives, accounting for 22% of global sales by value and two-thirds the global consumption of alternative proteins by 2035.

Flexitarians, a growing mainstream group compared to vegans and vegetarians, are the driving force behind the rise of meat alternatives, and for whom many restaurants are adding plant-based dishes to their menus. Flexitarians are challenging the notion that meat is a requirement for nourishment. While they know that meat is a good source of protein, they are also seeking alternative protein sources like legumes and protein-rich vegetables.

With less strict dietary boundaries, a flexitarian diet may actually encourage more people to eat less meat.

Meat holds a particular significance in culture. In Asia, meat symbolises indulgence and status. Being able to afford and consume quality meat represents, firstly, a break from traditional customs and ideologies and, secondly, acceptance of a more Western lifestyle associated with greater affluence. As Asians become wealthier, increasingly secular and culturally fluid, consuming more meat represents cultural cosmopolitanism. This explains the emotion attachment to eating meat and, by extension, even with meat alternatives, there is a desire to indulge in a food that tastes as close to the real thing.

For brands to succeed in the plant-based space and to offer consumers tasty, plant-based foods, some important factors must be considered.

Meat alternatives must measure up to meat’s taste and texture

Taste and texture are top reasons why consumers would choose a meat alternative product. According to Kerry’s meat alternative study, 37% of consumers in Asia Pacific and Middle East expect meat alternatives to taste like actual meat, while 20% expect similar texture.

Unfortunately, 47% say that current meat alternative products fall short on that meaty flavour, and 45% find they don’t have the same texture. However, they will consider buying if taste and texture issues are resolved. For example, though 77% of consumers surveyed in Thailand question the taste and texture of current meat alternatives, they are open to purchase if new solutions are available.

To win consumers, brands must find the right balance between providing nutrition and great taste. Including chefs, flavourists and sensory scientists at the heart of innovation processes can help brands create products that deliver strong consumer appeal.

Offer healthier, nutritional value and wider vegetable protein choices

While most APMEA consumers are turning to meat alternatives they perceive to offer more wholesome nutrition, the reasons why they choose meat alternatives vary. In some countries, it’s to address existing health issues. In the Philippines, chronic health ailments like diabetes and high blood pressure are making more people consider a plant-based diet.

Kerry research found that soy (and its variants) is the most popular choice for plant-based meat alternatives. Except North America, soy is the top plant protein globally – 65% of new launches in Asia had soy as the main ingredient as well as 40% of those in the Middle East and North Africa.

When it comes to health and nutrition, protein remains in consistent demand among consumers. An Innova report on plant-based trends showed that a high percentage of new meat substitute products in the Middle East and Africa had protein claims, going from 0% in 2019 to over 60% in 2020. To create wider appeal of plant-based proteins, brands should consider providing a sustainable balance of different vegetable protein sources such as pea, seitan and lupin.

Plant-based foods must be affordable and accessible

In APMEA, 70% of consumers believe that the current price of meat alternatives is too high but would buy them if they were more affordable or the same cost or cheaper than animal proteins. Indonesia and Thailand are key markets where 81% of respondents felt that price points were too high. Therefore, meat alternatives become one-off purchases as ingredients to use at home.

On top of that, 66% of consumers in APMEA believe that meat alternatives are not readily available nor easily found in the supermarket is an issue. Often, consumers expect them to be found in the chilled section as these are considered to be fresher than frozen food products.

Make it easier for plant-based meals to be cooked at home

With consumers primarily enjoying their plant-based meals at home, they want products that are convenient and easy to prepare. However, 50% of those surveyed say preparing plant-based dishes is a hassle, and 47% say they don’t have the time to do so. As consumers attempt to re-create healthier, non-meat options at home, the downside is that it takes time and effort. In addition, many say their home-cooked plant-based dish doesn’t match the quality, taste and appeal of plant-based meals served in restaurants or available in retail.

To address these concerns, plant-based players can innovate to make application easier for everyone. For example, creating local plant-based cuisine in different formats – including pre-planned, pre-prepped meals that save time and confusion.

Raise the emotional and sensory appeal of meat alternatives

While most consumers regard plant-based foods as simply better for health, there is little emotional connection to it. This can be turned into an opportunity for plant-based innovations to tap on positive emotions and traditional language used for meat products by adding elements of fun and indulgence.

Rather than associating plant-based alternatives with a ‘negative’ emotion (such as highlighting the absence of meat), position them as ‘delicious’, ‘juicy’, ‘succulent’, ‘sizzling’ rather than ‘alternative’ and ‘no-meat’. By drawing attention to the natural appeal of plant-based products, there’s a higher chance of attracting new consumers. Try also to introduce new types of plant-based foods to expand the options beyond just burgers and sausages that currently dominate the retail landscape. As consumers become more adventurous and willing to try new foods, fresh and exciting plant-based options will get their attention and be an easy, positive introduction to plant-based foods.

To know more about creating irresistible plant-based foods consumers prefer, download the Kerry Plant-based guide to learn more:

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