Burgers going meatless amid green push in China

In this undated file photo, a mother and her daughter check out plant-based burgers and chicken rolls at a Dicos restaurant in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. - China Daily/ANN

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN): Many foodies believe the key to effectively popularising plant-based meats among Chinese consumers depends on just two things-price and taste.

Starfield Food Science and Technology, a fast-rising plant-based meat producer and catering operator based in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, has recently launched a new attempt to tackle the two tasks by working with domestic fast food chain Dicos.

The two rolled out their first plant-based chicken burgers and nuggets at Dicos' 2,600 stores across the country to tap greener and healthier food demand in smaller cities.

Affordable prices for the burgers and nuggets are the chief selling point of the meatless products.

Dicos' "green" burger is priced at 20 yuan (US$2.98), and just 15 yuan for members, almost half the price of its equivalent meatless products available at other top restaurant chains, according to Starfield.

While consumers in mature markets have gained more understanding of pricey plant-based foods, it is not the same case in China, said Li Chen, deputy director for food and beverages at research firm Mintel.

Having been empowered by leading food science and manufacturing technology, Starfield said their goal is to provide tasty, healthy and affordable plant-based meat products.

As one of the few domestic plant-based producers with its own research and development capacities and manufacturing base, Starfield has been able to reduce costs for end products.

Tastes, textures and aromas of such products are equally vital in China for winning consumer loyalty. Starfield said that based on molecular sensory science technology, authentic meaty tastes can be replicated in plants to simulate original savoriness.

And more realistic textures can be achieved via soy protein techniques.

Despite the fact that younger Chinese diners increasingly pay heed to healthy diets and environmental consciousness, Li said the majority of Chinese consumers have often been confused or question why plant-based meats are pricier than real meat products. This has prevented many from opting for meatless products.

Lowering prices could be key to accessing more Chinese consumers, she said.

Dicos is among a rising number of Chinese large fast-food chains, larger restaurants, cafes and tea shops jumping aboard the global consumption bandwagon by using imitation meat to advocate sustainability and appeal to healthier food demand.

The global plant-based meat market was estimated at US$12.1 billion in 2019 and is set to reach US$27.9 billion by 2025, with an annual growth rate of 15 per cent, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.

Mintel said the Covid-19 pandemic has led to changes in Chinese perceptions of meat consumption.

Wang Shouwei, director of the China Meat Research Center, said the national standard for plant-based meats is evolving.

A Chinese Academy of Engineering research program is looking into cultivating meat from plants. The plant-based protein meat market reached an estimated US$910 million in sales in China in 2018, Mintel said.

Investments have continued to pour into plant-based meat producers.

Beyond Meat, a United States-based meatless products player, last month said it is on track to build two new factories in Zhejiang province to make plant-based "beef","pork "and "chicken" in an effort to optimize prices, scale up production and cater to local flavours for Chinese consumers.

Beyond Meat teamed up with coffee chain Starbucks in China earlier this year to develop a menu. It also worked with Yum China Holdings Inc to introduce Beyond Burger at select KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell locations starting June 3. It had 112,000 retail and food services outlets in 85 countries and regions as of June.

In May, food and beverage conglomerate Nestle began to build its first production facility in Asia in Tianjin for plant-based products. The firm hopes that plant-based protein products will be launched by the end of this year.

Green Monday Holdings, a Hong Kong plant-based brand, last month raised US$70 million in financing led by TPG and Swire Pacific Ltd.

Green Monday Holdings, part of the Green Monday Group, operates OmniFoods and Green Common. OmniFoods is a food tech company that produces innovative alternative protein products including OmniPork and OmniEat.

Green Common provides a total plant-based food retail, distribution and dining suite of products and services.

The company said it aims to create a one-stop future food hub, from research and development to retail and distribution, in order to promote plant-based eating and environmental protection.

Starfield announced it has received a new round of investment valued at more than US$10 million from Lightspeed China Partners, Joy Capital and Sky9 Capital. This is the third round of financing this year for Starfield, which led the emerging industry in terms of partnering brands, revenue and finance capital.

Chen Suiwen, chief operating officer of Starfield, said they have invested heavily in R&D, manufacturing capacity and consumer education.

In 2019, Starfield began cooperating with Beijing Technology and Business University to research new recipes and menu options.

This year, the company developed its own team of researchers-talent focused on artificial flavorings, proteins and raw materials-to be more flexible and agile in developing processes from ideas to products.

Their recent emphasis is on proteins and plant fats. For example, their R&D team investigates how proteins change color with temperature changes.

What astonished Chen was how underdeveloped the food manufacturing sector in China is compared with other industries such as IT and automation.

Chen said: "The progress of innovative food products relies on the advancement of the whole industry supply chain."

Chen suggested one focus should be on determining how cross-sector integration can allow cutting-edge technologies and facilities in other leading industrial manufacturing processes to be used for food making.

For example, Starfield has experimented with adjusting processing methodology at the molecular level to unleash the full flavor of the materials in the palate.

Partnering with professional chefs domestically plays a crucial role in expanding Starfield's catering network and in cultivating consumer awareness of plant-based meats. Catering partners include Element Fresh, Papa Johns, Tim Hortons and Shenzhen-based Hey Tea.

"In the past, we tried to replace existing Chinese dishes," said Chen.

But now the brand has asked professional chefs to create fusion cuisines that merge Western cooking practices with Chinese ingredients to bring innovative plant-based dishes to diners and restaurants.

Li of Mintel said it is a smart move to create new trendsetting Chinese dishes rather than simply following established cuisines.

"Very few Chinese consumers are looking for replacements for meat-based Chinese dishes," Li said. She said simply presenting ready-to-eat plant-based meat for hamburgers at supermarkets such as Hema Fresh will not win much attention from young Chinese shoppers.

"Plant-based meat products have to be well-integrated with Chinese cuisine."

For plant-based meat producers, allowing consumers to understand that new products are healthier and more nutritious is the key, said Li. - China Daily/Asia News Network

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