Asia Pacific and the veggie invasion

As plant-based products sweep the US and Europe, Emily Lewis looks at whether the Eastern hemisphere is as keen on its greens

“I am very pleased to say that, finally, the plant-based movement is here,” says Clara Ming Pi FCSI. Herself a subscriber to a vegan diet, Pi has not been shy in predicting big things for plant-based goodies this 2018.

The prediction is by no means unjustified – perceptions of vegan and vegetarian diets have undergone massive overhauls in recent months. No longer are vegans associated with niche groups of hemp-wearing hippies: plant-based food has successfully worked its way into the mainstream.

It’s no secret that Europe and the US have already jumped on the bandwagon. Nationwide UK supermarket Tesco has just released its own line of plant-based ready meals, ‘Wicked Kitchen’, and the US has seen sales of plant-based foods spike by 8.1% over the past year.

Now, attention is turning to the Asia Pacific region, where the demand for meat alternatives continues to grow. Due to the sheer size and varied demographics of this side of the globe, foodservice operators have recognised a significant growth opportunity in plant-based goods.

Cool as a cucumber

2017 saw the idea of a balanced lifestyle become trendy. Sugar took over from fat as the new food ‘evil’, and toast ceased to exist without avocado. Vegetarian and vegan demands feed into this health shift, and appear to especially resonate with the younger demographic.

“In Australia and New Zealand there is a definite increase in alternative diets. The primary demographic appears to be Generation Z and, to a lesser extent, the Millennials,” says Toni Clarke FCSI, of New Zealand-based RT Hospitality Solutions.

Robert Mang FCSI, of Dishes Company Ltd in Hong Kong, agrees that the main opportunities here lie with those born in the past few decades, “Some big cities like Shanghai, Hangzhou, Shenzhen and Beijing could be opportunities for foodservice operators to develop their business to target the younger generations.”

As 20 and 30-year-olds begin to move into the workforce, operators have identified a chance to capitalise on office workers who want quick and healthy lunch choices.

No time for waste

Veggies may be in vogue, but it is not just their trendiness that is capturing the minds of consumers.

Mang points out that plant-based popularity is unlikely to be solely down to the demands of steadfast vegans. Instead, the popularity of dairy-free, meat-free food choices is probably the result of an increasingly health-conscious population.

“Adhering to a vegan diet can be extreme. For most people I know, plant-based food choices were due to health concerns. So, there are a lot of people who support and patronise these foodservice operators, but it’s not because they are vegan,” explains Mang.

Michael Lau FCSI, of Singapore-based Pro-kit Design and Project Management, believes that health is essential to the success of vegan and vegetarian diets. “It is important to associate plant-based diets with health. Personally, I think labelling it as ‘plant-based’ rather than ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ has more health connotations, and so could allow the movement more room to develop.”

A healthy lifestyle is not the only decision-making factor for consumers: “Our food supplies contribute to 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions, and the foods that create the most greenhouse gases are the same foods that are contributing to many of our chronic diseases,” explains Pi. Indeed, a single cow is estimated to release between 70 and 120kg of methane per year, and high consumption of red meat has been correlated with increased risk of cancer.

Clarke has also highlighted the role of the environment in decisions to eat green. “Hand-in-hand with the ‘plant-based’ trend is the ‘minimising waste’ trend,” she explains, “more and more are using the nose to tail approach; returning to farmers markets for local and seasonal produce, and buying just what you need.”

With the environmental and health benefits apparent, the next step is operators deciding how to respond. “It is a positive move for the foodservice industry to embrace plant-based diets, and to take on the responsibility to offer both eco- and health-friendly food to our client,” says Pi.

The challenges

Embracing the trend won’t be without it obstacles. “The challenge is to fund the resources required to produce high volume food items as a reasonable price. There is a vast difference in a group of artisan suppliers providing product to 20 or 30 restaurants, and supplying to a chain supermarket,” says Clarke.

However, a new trend means new chances for operators, who now have a shot at filling gaps in the market.

“Foodservice operators are faced with opportunities and challenges to educate themselves with the various plant-based alternatives and substitutions for traditional ingredients,” says Pi.

Lau notes that, for a shot at longevity, chefs aspiring to offer plant-based menus may need to pull out all the stops. “When constructing a menu, the chef must have good knowledge of vegan ingredients, and know which ingredients are not animal by-products – this could limit the creativity in dishes.”

Many within the industry have already been quick on the mark to innovate and create plant-based options in all corners of the globe.

Impossible Foods, a Californian food tech start-up, have already promised their debut in Asia later this year. Famous for their meat-free ‘Impossible Burger’, or ‘the burger that bleeds’, COO David Lee has called the move into Asia a “milestone”.

Despite the inevitable ups and downs of alternative diets, it looks like plant-based has truly taken root. Pi agrees, “This is a mass movement, and this lifestyle is highly contagious and here to stay.”

Emily Lewis

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