The Growing Appetite for Meat Alternatives in China

Editor’s Note: Bits x Bites is China’s first accelerator VC to invest in early-stage food tech startups. Built by a former BCG management consultant and founder of a Shanghai-based online farmers market, the program focuses on fostering transformative businesses to tackle China’s food safety and other systematic food challenges.

Here the Bits x Bites team breaks down key trends and milestone announcements that have been happening in China—the world’s biggest market for meat. 

“Less Meat. Less Heat. More Life.”

This was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s message in a 2016 WildAid PSA campaign inviting the world to eat more consciously to mitigate climate change. The campaign came on the heels of China’s new guidelines to reduce domestic meat consumption by 50% by 2030. The announcement earned high praise from green advocacy groups worldwide. If China meets its target, says WildAid, the cutback will translate into a one-billion-ton reduction in livestock-related carbon emissions.

China’s declaration is not only significant in the global fight against climate change, it also speaks to the government’s commitment to curtail a looming health crisis. In recent years, the country’s diet has shifted to favor animal proteins. China now leads the world in obese children, and the World Health Organization has reported that one in three diabetes diagnoses is in China.

So what is the state of play in China’s diet transition? Could innovations in plant-based alternatives, cultured meat, and edible insects play a part in China’s food future? Could China become a haven to advance meat alternative technology development?

World’s Largest Meat Consumer

In absolute terms, the stats are alarming. Over three decades, rapidly rising living standards have turned meat from a treat for special occasions into an everyday staple. With 1.4 billion people, China is now the world’s largest meat consumer and importer. JD.com, one of China’s largest e-commerce companies, signed an agreement to purchase more than $2 billion of US beef and pork from the Montana Stock Growers Association (MSGA) and from Smithfield Foods.

The silver lining is that the growth rate of animal protein has begun to taper off as China’s economy slows, according to Rabobank. Demand growth in beef has dropped from 10% in 2000 to under 2% in 2017.  The demand for pork has peaked, well ahead of most official forecasts. Food companies now notice an undercurrent of shifting appetites toward healthier products.

Renewed interest in plant-based ingredients

The recent meat craving might have steered interest away from vegetables; China has long traditions of a plant-based diet. Many legumes and other plant ingredients in today’s meat alternative products are found in traditional Chinese cuisines, such as tofu and seaweeds.

In recent years, the prevailing weight loss culture and health concerns are drawing Chinese urbanites back to vegetables and fruits as part of their modern diet. Celebrity-powered campaigns such as WildAid’s ShuShi and vegetarian media platforms such as Veg Planet are generating social media buzz of plant-based living as a status symbol.

Not everyone will make a drastic shift to vegetarianism, but consumers are responding to products that combine healthy eating, taste, and convenience. Fruggie, a Shenzhen-based startup, has built an enthusiastic following with a drinkable salad product that makes western-style raw salads appealing to the Chinese palate. Dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry has found that increasing vegetable content and cutting down on meat is a fast route to win sales.

The startup opportunity in China’s plant-based revolution is still wide open. The majority of meat replacement products on the market have evolved from Buddhist diet traditions with little innovation. Most mimic meat dishes such as vegetarian abalone made of starch and seaweed extracts, or vegetarian roasted pork based on vegetable protein. This leaves a gap for new…

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