Daisy Li
Daisy is an Associate Director with the Mintel Food & Drink team, speciliasing in the China market. She monitors and reports on the latest innovation and trends impacting the Chinese food and drink market.

Chinese plant-based meat innovation is taking off. To win over consumers, the distinctive culture and perception of these products in the market must be considered.

Adaptation is needed for Chinese eating culture

Major brands driving plant-based meats have originated in Western markets. They are taking on China with global formats used in burgers, pizza and pasta. In order to succeed amongst mainstream Chinese consumers, plant-based meat products require some localisation to meet the taste, texture and format expectations and local palate.

The culture and perception in China requires a different ‘plant-based’ strategy

Chinese consumers showed an increasing interest in plants in recent years, which is quite consistent with the growth of the global plant-based trend. However, the distinctive eating culture and consumer perceptions in China makes it different from Western markets. Although plant ingredients such as vegetable, fruit, grain and nuts are well received, the veganism trend has not gained traction. Consumers still perceive animal protein as a critical part of their daily diet, providing essential nutrition. Therefore, Chinese consumers are willing to increase their plant intake, but also seek high-quality animal protein. The plant-based meat players have to be mindful of this and adapt their strategy accordingly.

Novel plant-based meat brands need to be differentiated from meat analogues or ‘mock meats’

Traditional soy-based meat analogues, or mock meats, have existed for thousands of years. As such, Chinese consumers may easily associate current plant-based meat offerings with the traditional ones, which heavily rely on a complicated cooking process and flavour additives to mimic the taste of meat.

They are likely to be influenced by their existing perceptions of these soy-based ‘meats’ and be resistant to the idea that the novel plant-based meat is superior to traditional ones in terms of taste and nutrition.

Plant-based meat brands would do well to highlight the difference between the traditional and the new plant-based products in terms of nutrition, taste and manufacturing process and establish a superior image for the category.

Chinese consumers need more time to fully accept novel plant-based meats

As a type of novel food, plant-based meat is facing more scrutiny from Chinese consumers in terms of its ingredients, production process, additives, etc.

As noted in the Mintel Trend, ‘Bannedwagon’, consumers desire more knowledge of ingredients and production methods when they purchase food and drink. It is especially true when consumers meet novel food. More information is required before consumers are open to switching from their usual choices to alternative proteins.

Plant-based meat brands in China will need to provide consumers with more transparency for them to accept superiority over traditional mock meats.

Plant-based meat could alleviate pork crisis in China

Pork is one of the most important animal proteins for Chinese consumers, while continuous incidents have hit the pork supply causing a skyrocketing pork price that almost affects every household in China.

  • In Nov 2019, African Swine Fever severely hit pig farming in China and caused the death of almost one third livestock.
  • In Jan & Feb 2020, the transportation restrictions due to the COVID-19 lockdown has seen a shortage of pork supply in some cities.
  • In Jul 2020, National Statistic Bureau reported a pork price increase of 85.7%, which is caused by the flood in the southern part of China.

The continuous pork crisis presents an opportunity for alternative proteins. Plant-based pork could mitigate the reliance on livestock and serve as a buffer during supply disruptions.

Developing plant-based meat for Chinese dishes

Plant-based meat needs to integrate into popular Chinese cuisine to fully reach its market potential. Players from Western and domestic markets are racing to identify a format that could unlock the market of 1.4 billion consumers.

Gu Rou, a Chinese plant-based meat company, is developing meat chunks of various types for Chinese cuisines, such as pork, beef and fish. It plans to provide these products directly to restaurants, such as fish meat for pickled fish pot (酸菜鱼), sliced beef for Chao Shan hotpot (潮汕火锅) and chicken meat for braised chicken and rice (黄焖鸡米饭).

What we think

Plant-based meat as an ingredient-led innovation could have extraordinary impact on consumers and the food industry. As such, international and domestic players are racing to launch in the Chinese market. However, Chinese consumers will need to be convinced of the superiority of new plant-based meats to traditional mock meats. Chinese consumers are unlikely to give up animal protein completely, however, plant-based meats can serve as a useful alternative during meat shortages, as well as a healthy and planet-friendly option.