Plant-based alternative protein brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods might have taken the Western world by storm in recent years, but Asia has been more reticent in embracing new
meat substitutes – even though mock meats have been consumed in East Asia for centuries – partly
since most of the imported brands position themselves for Western culinary applications such as burger patties or sausages. Still, according to market researcher Euromonitor International, the Asia-Pacific alternative protein market is expected to hit US$16 billion (S$22.2 billion) this year.
For Growthwell Group, a Singapore-based manufacturer of plant-based meat and seafood alternatives, this presents plenty of opportunities, thanks to a recent $11.4 million Temasek Holdings-led funding round. Founded in 1989 by Chou Shih Hsin, a Buddhist vegetarian, it started with the Su Xian Zi brand, a line of soya- and konjac-based meat and seafood alternatives aimed at those with religious dietary restrictions. The company then expanded to include OKK, a line of products for general consumers. Today, Chou’s sons, Justin and Colin, run the company as executive director and head of commercial respectively. Aged 31 and 29, they grew up vegetarian because of their Buddhist faith and continued to embrace a plant-based diet in adulthood as a lifestyle choice.
It is this experience that has allowed them to experience this shift in attitudes first-hand. “Growing up in such an environment, you always get the feeling that you’re a bit of an outsider. It’s interesting to see how vegetarianism is on its way to becoming mainstream. There’s still a lot of market potential in this area,” says Colin. Adds Justin: “In the past, the strongest message out there was how a good, compassionate Buddhist wouldn’t eat meat and that being vegetarian made you holier. But I don’t think that’s message one should craft for the modern consumer.”
Instead, Growthwell is banking on the rising tide of flexitarians – people who follow a largely plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat. To do this, the brothers want Growthwell’s products to be merited mainly on the way they taste. Justin explains: “The idea is to create a product consumers ultimately just enjoy. Honestly, for the past 30 to 40 years, the vegetarian foods industry has tried to sell products that purport to mimic something, which can turn consumers off.” Justin, who established the vegetarian fast-casual chain Greendot, knows all too well the importance of branding after having grown Greendot from a stall in Temasek Polytechnic into Singapore’s largest vegetarian eatery chain.
“In the past, the strongest
message out there was
how a good, compassionate
eat meat. that’s changed.”
Justin Chou, on shifting consumer
mindsets towards vegetarianism
Justin tells us: “With Greendot, we brought Growthwell’s products into the mainstream in the malls
and people were surprised at how tasty vegetarian products could be because, before that, they were only used to mock char siew and mock goose meat at vegetarian bee hoon stalls. If you do something with fresh branding, use better ingredients and make it convenient and affordable, consumers will be appreciative.” Justin shares an experiment he did in schools where he served ‘vegetarian chicken rice’. “Even though it tasted great, the kids complained about how the actual chicken rice at the next stall was the same price. We served the exact dish in a different school and called it sesame rice this time. The reviews were great.” While they have the flavours down pat, Growthwell is also looking into different mediums that allow for new possibilities.
With its latest funds, the company has invested a significant stake in ChickP, an Israeli foodtech start-up that is isolating protein from chickpeas to be used in meat, seafood, and dairy alternatives. Another part of the investment will go towards expanding the distribution network and the building of a technology centre focusing on the research and development of novel plant proteins and manufacturing in Singapore by 2021.
While taste and texture are important factors in getting a product noticed, Colin concedes that pricing can be a sensitive issue for regional markets – especially when some of the
plant-based substitutes currently in the market can cost as much and sometimes even more than the food it is trying to mimic. “We are constantly doing R&D to keep our prices competitive,” he adds. “As demand increases, the cost of doing plant proteins will come down with the economies of scale. Anyone that gets the taste right, manufactures it with efficiency and has a wide enough reach will win the race for the Asian market.”