The popularity of plant-based meat products — now, that’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one — has really grown in recent years, but the concept is nowhere nearly as foreign as it once seemed. Many of us may remember vividly how researchers described on science programmes what was once ground-breaking research to create plant-based products that smelled, looked and tasted like meat. We oohed and aahed, and today, we can find them in our supermarkets.
A report by New York-based market intelligence and consultancy firm Polaris Market Research predicts that the global plant-based meat industry will register an annual growth rate of 15.8% to reach US$35.8 billion by 2027 from US$11.1 billion in 2019. Health concerns are the main factor that will drive this trend, owing to the surge in food-borne illnesses caused by animal meat (one imagines the Covid-19 connection to wildlife has a part to play here) and awareness of food safety and nutrition.
Researchers also cite greater awareness of environmental issues associated with animal agriculture as a major factor driving the uptick in plant-based meat demand, especially in Asia-Pacific, where consumers are beginning to factor in the sustainability of their purchases.
But modern plant-based meat products are a far cry from the mock meat that has been a staple of local vegetarian fare since our childhood. From the high-gluten, chewy pieces of mock prawn to the slabs of soy lined with seaweed to resemble fish and the fibrous mutton chunks that we were told were made from mushrooms — all this resembled the original, but didn’t taste like it. And while they were meat-free, they were hardly what anyone would call healthy.
Modern plant-based meats are, however, and that is their main stock-in-trade. For example, OmniMeat products, which are now available in Malaysia, are developed by food scientists in Canada. Based on comprehensive research, this nutritionally superior alternative comprises a proprietary blend of plant-based protein made of peas, non-GMO soy, shiitake mushrooms and rice. These products have no cholesterol, artificial hormones or antibiotics; are cruelty-free; 86% lower in saturated fat and 66% lower in calories than real meat; and boast more fibre, calcium and iron. They are also halal-certified and wholly vegan.
Powering a movement
OmniMeat is part of an empire founded by Hong Kong-based entrepreneur David Yeung, who in 2012 embarked on a social venture that would take on the world’s most pressing crises of climate change, food insecurity and public health, shifting individuals, communities and corporations towards sustainable, healthy and mindful living. Green Monday existed as an advocacy platform for three years before Yeung put some serious money where his mouth was and opened Green Common, a plant-based concept store that boasts nine branches in Hong Kong today. In 2018, food innovation venture OmniFood was established, and is now known as OmniMeat.
Yeung became a vegetarian in 2001, a choice later reaffirmed as studies strongly indicated a connection between meat consumption and global sustainability. Although some amount of understanding of vegetarianism existed in the West at the time, it was pretty much zero in Asia (with the exception of the Indian subcontinent). Yeung recalls the stigma associated with his choice, alongside limitations when it came to eating out. He made it his life’s calling to change that.
“Green Monday is a holistic organisation that covers advocacy. It suggests adopting a plant-based lifestyle to save the planet. That’s more education and advocacy,” says Yeung. “The problems are aplenty — climate change and food security, for example — and Green Common and OmniMeat provide a solution to them. All three aspects of the business are inseparable and intertwined. What inspires me is that we built this dynamic engine that can catalyse change in a big way. It’s about the sum of the parts.”
Although conventional wisdom may never pair the meat-centric cuisine of Hong Kong with the plant-based ideology, Yeung’s investment in what he believes in has paid off. The financial support that Green Monday Ventures — the impact investment arm of Green Monday Group — gets is sector-leading, while perceptions have also changed. “Before Green Monday, I would say about 5% of Hong Kongers were vegetarian. Today, that number hovers closer to 34%,” he says proudly. “It’s not just us doing it. We are part of a global movement that is heading in this direction.”
Yeung’s work has earned him the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award from the World Economic Forum and Schwab Foundation. He is also one of World Wide Fund for Nature’s Sustainable Food Influencers while Green Monday Ventures was acknowledged as Company of the Year by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Asia in 2019.
The well-spoken, intelligent Yeung has global expansion in mind. He has just opened a Green Common concept store in Singapore and hopes Malaysia will be next. But for that to happen, the demand for plant-based meats has to grow first, which is where OmniMeat comes in.
Available at selected supermarkets and retailers across Malaysia, including Ben’s Independent Grocer, Jaya Grocer, Village Grocer, Oliver’s Gourmet and selected AEON supermarkets, they are also incorporated into dishes served at popular eateries such as Nourish by Kenny Hills Bakers and Botanica+Co. Getting into restaurants has been the winning formula for OmniMeat, which can also be found in Taco Bell branches in Mainland China, Taiwan’s largest fast food chain Bafang Yunji, Privé outlets in Singapore and Hong Kong’s top hotels such as the Four Seasons and JW Marriott Hotel as well as King of Sheng Jian restaurant.
As a life-long vegetarian, I’ve often been told that I don’t know what I’m missing by well-meaning friends who cannot stop singing praises of animal products. With OmniMeat, I got a chance to see how the other side lives, and I opted to start with its luncheon meat. A mainstay of chap fan (economy rice) vendors and cheap and scrumptious, if not a very nutritious dish, its taste — from additives and sodium, one presumes — is what retains its steady legion of fans.
“For the vast majority of Asians, luncheon meat is a big deal as we have a strong emotional craving for it that is hard to explain,” Yeung laughs, which is the only indication I get about a product that he particularly favours. “At home, we cook with OmniMeat all the time. It is very versatile and allows a wide variety of cooking applications.”
I have no point of reference for authenticity, but the others who joined me on this experiment did and were thoroughly impressed with OmniMeat’s luncheon patties. Verdict: Pan-fried and dipped in chilli sauce, the plant-based patty’s resemblance to the real thing was simply uncanny. Not only was its shape and colour (courtesy of beetroot) the same, but its texture and smell when cooking were too. It even leached a bit of oil as it cooked — coconut, and not the lard that usually keeps normal spam together.
I later used OmniMeat’s strips in a quick lunch-time stir-fry while the patties made their way into burgers. I also crumbled OmniMeat to replace the mincemeat in a rich bolognese sauce for spaghetti. I was told that the products behaved exactly like their meat counterparts on the stove, grill and palate. OmniMeat’s website gives a number of recipes to enjoy — even my meat-eater friends were impressed at the ways luncheon meat can be had. The favourites were the luncheon spring rolls and puff pastry twists, which were pleasant alternatives to the more usual Asian-inspired preparations.
“I would eat this again” was the general consensus from my team of meat-loving taste testers. Although the vegan market continues to be an area of interest for brands such as OmniMeat, the main target is in fact non-vegetarians eager to make a change but reluctant to give up the dishes they love. This is evident based on the brand’s other ready-to-eat products, which include dim sum, pearl dumplings and Thai noodles.
“Flexitarians — that’s who we are reaching out to,” says Yeung, referring to people adopting a semi-vegetarian diet centred on plant foods with the occasional inclusion of meat. “These people are looking for ingredients that are tasty and nutritious, and OmniMeat is right up their alley.”
The next steps
As the plant-based movement grows in Asia, Yeung has his work cut out for him. “In the next five years, we have to maximise our efforts in driving change,” he says in earnest. “We have multiple crises happening at the same time and if we don’t change now, the planet will force us to in a very painful way, which is sort of what’s happening at the moment. We need to race against the clock, expand the company regionally, continue to develop more products and create new brands that will resonate with and be trusted by the next generation of consumers.”
Two issues that stand in the way of global adoption of plant-based meat products are taste and cost. The former is a given, but the latter remains an issue. Although OmniMeat products are more affordable than other plant-based meats, they are still more expensive than the real thing, not to mention less accessible. Demand will drive supply which, in turn, will bring costs down. In Hong Kong, the prices of plant-based meat products are very close to those of their animal-based counterparts, says Yeung.
Although industrial animal agriculture has been carried out on a global scale for decades, it is still more efficient to make meat directly from plants rather than feeding crops to animals and then eating them. It’s all but inevitable that the plant-based meat industry will eventually be cost-competitive as growing demand results in economies of scale. In fact, this tipping point may come relatively soon, given the recent flurry of activity reflecting new production capacity among the existing plant-based meat companies and the involvement of new entrants with massive resources.
For example, after Swiss multinational Nestlé found success with its plant-based meat products in Europe and the US, it launched in China last year with burgers, sausages, nuggets and mince as well as meatless alternatives to iconic dishes such as kung pao chicken, braised meatballs and pork belly. Last week, China’s first Green Common store opened in Shanghai.
For it to truly save the planet, the plant-based movement should cover more than food — it is about big moves such as electric mobility to reduce emissions right down to small gestures like swapping out leather brogues for pleather shoes and eliminating single-use plastics at home. Food, however, is a good way to start. If you can eat well with the planet in mind, everything else will fall into place.
This article first appeared on Jan 25, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.