Plant-based Meat: The Trends, Players and Consumers in China’s Huge Meat Market

China is the largest market for meat due to its huge population. It has more chickens than any other nation and it’s the second largest consumer of beef behind the United States according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Why does China have such a significant meat market?

The country consumes more pork than anywhere else in the world and is the world’s largest market for it, with pork being a key component in lots of popular Chinese dishes. Despite being hit with tremendous losses of around 100 million pigs as a result of African swine fever, China is still aiming to become self-sufficient in pork production.

China already makes abundant use of soy as a meat substitute and has a long history of “vegetarian meat” products eaten by many Buddhists who don’t want to consume animal products, but the emergence of other plant-based meats is bringing more product choices and experiences to consumers. It goes beyond burgers to substitutes for chicken, shrimp, shellfish, cheese and more. 

Now that consumers, especially those in higher tier cities, are more willing to try alternative proteins, it’s not just about good health and experimenting with novel products, it’s also a matter of practical necessity, self-sufficiency and environmental protection.

The plant-based meat market has huge potential

The big names in alternative protein outside of China have been reaping the rewards of the surge in demand for some time. A trend that began in the 1980s and ‘90s with small health food brands and veggie burgers with the taste, texture and look of their vegetable components, has now become big business featuring startups, unicorns and large, established food manufacturers. With plant-based burgers tasting more than ever like animal meat, new consumers are coming on board rapidly.

China is one place where the surge in demand for plant-based protein is growing faster than anywhere else. A study by DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences indicates that demand there is set to double in the next five years. American-based agribusiness company ADM, one of the big four agricultural companies, has extensive operations in China and forecasts that its plant-based protein market will grow to US$14.5 billion by 2025.

Western alternative protein brands like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Quorn, Tofurky, Lightlife and others are now well-known. Huge corporations like Nestle, IKEA, companies that produce traditional meat, and fast food brands, are also involved. Large meat producers in the US are buying smaller vegetarian brands or developing their own alternative protein products. In the fast food arena, McDonald’s has sold veggie burgers since the 1990s. Burger King introduced their own version in the early 2000s and Chipotle introduced soy substitutes in 2012. 

In China, B2B partnerships are the main way that foreign alternative protein manufacturers are entering the market with big café and restaurant chains engaging with different producers and suppliers. Starbucks has partnered with Beyond Meat, Hong Kong-based company Omnipork and Swedish company Oatly to offer a plant-based menu in China. Dutch brand, The Vegetarian Butcher, founded in 2007 and acquired in 2018 by British multinational Unilever, is working with Burger King in China to supply its meatless burgers. KFC has partnered with Cargill for its plant-based fried chicken.

As for domestic players, Whole Perfect Food has been making products for China’s vegetarian Buddhists for two decades and has now started making sausages from soy and peat-based protein. Spicy Sichuan flavor is among the 40 varieties of sausages they make.

Hong Kong’s OmniFoods, with a food scientist team in Canada, began its product line in 2020 with ground pork and pork luncheon meat substitutes called Omnipork. It has now progressed to alternative protein seafood including fillets, a fish burger and OmniTuna with OmniSalmon on the way. McDonald’s has worked with the company for its breakfast offerings and is now developing its own brand called McPlant for its burgers.

Newcomers are Zhenmeat, Starfield, which has been very successful in terms of finding investors, and Hero Protein.

Creative alternative protein products are emerging

The advantage that China’s established and startup brands have is that they know the domestic market and the flavours that are preferred around the country. They are also more experienced with the types of foods Chinese people are looking for, like meatballs for hot pot meals, dumplings and mooncakes. 

Starfield has launched plant meat products that match Chinese tastes by cooperating with famous local restaurants such as Gui Man Long, Miss Fu and Super Wen He You. The new products include plant meat skewers. In addition, Starfield united with Hey Tea to launch a future meat cheeseburger.

Plant-based meat burger from Chinese alternative protein brand Starfield.
Image Ⓒ Starfield

Plant-based meat brand Zhenmeat used traditional Chinese cuisine in launching its first plant-based meat mooncake.

Dumplings with plant-based meat from Chinese brand Zhenmeat.
Image Ⓒ Zhenmeat

Traditional vegetarian food manufacturer Whole Perfect Food launched low-fat mini sausages for the fitness crowd.

Plant-based meat sausages from Chinese alternative protein brand Whole Perfect Food.
Image Ⓒ Whole Perfect Food

Insights into plant protein consumer groups

People with high education and income levels are the largest consumer group for alternative proteins followed by Gen Z. Consumers in first tier cities are leading the way but growing consumption power among consumers in lower tier cities also means that this group is one to watch for the future.

So who are plant protein’s main consumers?

Young foodies

This group loves trends and quickly accepts new things. They’re looking for new flavors and gravitate to innovative packaging design. They’re also willing to spend more money on these kinds of products. For example, the Tmall Innovation Center helped Diners Legend (膳客传奇) quickly create new alternative protein snacks based on Chinese market research and hard data.

Plant-based meat snacks from Chinese alternative protein brand 膳客传奇 (Diners Legend)
Image Ⓒ 膳客传奇

New flavors and new plant protein products are more popular among young people. The combination of alternative protein and Chinese cuisine, such as plant meat in dumplings, is very popular with this group and new flavors like mustard curry and lemon pepper have become hugely popular.

Health-conscious people

Women in higher tier cities make up nearly 70% of this group. These consumers are into health, sports and fitness and they prioritize low fat, high protein food in their daily diet. The most popular of these products is vegetable meat with the flavor and texture of beef. The consumption of low-fat, high-protein products is increasing year by year and is significantly higher than that of plant meat products overall.

Affluent families

Consumption of plant meat is much higher among the affluent and they’re willing to pay for high quality food. They prefer fresh, ready to cook products and seafood. They also consume more imported foods. Eating meat used to be a sign of affluence but this is changing in top tier cities and eating meat replacements is seen as a sign of sophistication.

Environmentally-conscious online communities

There are now plenty of social media groups and websites in China dedicated to meat-free lifestyles. Many have maps that show the top vegetarian and vegan eating spots and brands in the city to help people find them. This also helps people feel like part of a group and a positive movement.

Outlook of the plant-based protein market

Although the future of alternative proteins in China is promising, consumer awareness and knowledge of plant-based meat needs to be improved. For example, some consumers feel that plant meat is too expensive or that it’s nutritionally lacking. 

Plenty of consumers also don’t fully understand the differences between newer styles of plant-based meat and traditional vegetarian meat, so they expect the price and composition to be similar to traditional soy products. 

The country’s growing meat consumption comes with some major domestic and global concerns attached. Globally, there are environmental issues such as the increased demand from South American meat suppliers leading to greater destruction of the rainforest. Greenhouse gases resulting from cattle farming and the intense resource usage needed to produce meat products are other problems. 

In 2016, China’s government declared its plans to reduce meat consumption by 50% to bring down its carbon emission and at 2020’s two sessions, there were calls for investment, promotion and regulation of artificial meat.

Reducing reliance on traditional meat means that, in addition to less dependence on imports and foreign suppliers, there will be less contact in China between humans, animals and meat products at places like wet markets and slaughterhouses, making viral outbreaks like SARS, Covid and avian flu far less likely in the future.

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