TechNode Global gathered three industry experts at its ORIGIN 2020 conference for a discussion on “Harvest the future: Big opportunities for plant-based food.” Panel moderator John Friedman, director of agri- and foodtech venture capital fund Ag Funder Asia & GROW Accelerator began the talk by asking, “How has the pandemic affected the food industry?”

The pandemic is yet another tailwind for increasing consumer interest in plant-based foods, said Nick Cooney, founder and managing partner of alternative protein venture capital fund Lever VC. At a time when the pandemic has battered the food and beverage service industry, plant-based businesses, already growing pre-pandemic, are thriving. 

However, quick-service restaurants are adapting to the rapidly changing environment. They are putting more thought into their offerings to stay relevant to customers. “Restaurants with well-established digital and delivery channels are doing particularly well,” said Kelvin Ng, ASEAN business development director of plant-based food producer Green Monday. Consumers staying at home are prepared for a more elevated dining experience, he added, noting that consumers want “food with a story.”

Changing consumer preferences and awareness of these products has increased as consumers grow more health conscious. Such factors contribute to a shift toward plant-based food options, said Friedman. Likewise, Ng said that consumer education has accelerated the plant-based food adoption. “There’s a consumer learning curve. We spent a lot of time during the pandemic conducting virtual cooking classes and getting people to experiment plant-based options as a substitute for meat,” he added. For Ng, he has seen a mixed bag of results but the pandemic has generally motivated more people to adopt a flexitarian diet.

Tickling Chinese taste buds

Aside from China’s sheer size, there are plenty of other reasons to believe China’s plant-based food market is ripe for entry.

Speaking from a few data points he gathered, Cooney said Chinese consumers have stronger familiarity with these products and they view them more favorably relative to consumers in the West. “Perhaps in China, there is less of a stigma against the meat-to-meat substitute product.” China has a long history of producing tofu-based and mock meat products, usually for religious, cultural, and ethnic reasons. “I do imagine that the history of these products in the region sure has contributed to the receptivity as well,” Cooney added.

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Vegetarian food products conventionally bring to mind images of gluten-laden products or those with little nutritional value. “Having to witness the transition of regular vegetarian consumers to a plant-based diet is phenomenal,“ Ng said, noting that the shift has come fast in certain Asian markets such as Taiwan and Malaysia. 

Food tech company OmniFoods launched by Green Monday has developed OmniPork, a ground pork alternative which targets the Asian palette. Green Monday’s Ng gave the example of luncheon meat being addictively nostalgic amongst the Chinese, as opposed to a burger. “It’s important for the consumers to resonate with our products,” Ng said. To capitalize on the Asian plant-based trend, he also emphasized the importance of developing an affordable product that suits the consumer palette served in smaller portions for smaller family units. 

In China’s context, consumers have started to pay more attention to their diet and health, according to the experts. 

Healthy food branding itself is becoming more sophisticated. A brand’s position informs all brand experience touchpoints from the product, to marketing communications, consumer demographic, and beyond. Ng said that their customers are people who don yoga attire and sporty people who go for runs. This reinforces the healthy food perception.  

Soon, Cooney predicted, more companies with interesting new offerings or new technologies to curate better plant-based food will be next. With these products increasingly available, he said, he expects more distribution channels such as retail outlets, restaurants, and food service companies to add them into their portfolio. 

Green Common is planning a plant-based grocery store and cafe for its flagship store opening in Shanghai at the end of the year. With its Singapore store due in early next year, 2021 seems the earliest this region will see plant-based products go mainstream.