The Shanghai lab making fake pork dumplings and helping China go beyond meat

The Shanghai lab making fake pork dumplings and helping China go beyond meat

July 25, 2021
  • U.S. plant-based protein leader Beyond Meat is increasing its focus on the Chinese market, but there are many local players targeting the fake meat opportunity in Asia.
  • Alternative protein versions of Western staples including burgers and chicken nuggets are in Asia, but finding plant-based alternatives for a staple of Asian cuisine like a pork dumpling can require months of intensive research by cross-disciplinary scientific teams.
  • Asia's plant-based food industry is small today, but it is expected to experience significant growth, with the region representing 60% of the global population and the biggest market for packaged foods.

If a Chinese-based business owner has wanted to create and sell a meat-free pork dumpling over the past decade, they might well have visited a three-story restaurant-laboratory in a commercial district of Shanghai to seek the help of Dr. Dong-Fang Chen. 

He earned his PhD from Cambridge by focusing on plant molecular genetics, then worked at AstraZeneca, and now as vice-president for R&D in Asia-Pacific, he manages a group of several dozen scientists in Shanghai. They're part of a global research workforce of roughly 1,000 at a Swiss firm called Firmenich, the world's largest private business focused on developing flavors and aromas. 

Chen's team is tasked primarily with helping global and Chinese food businesses improve the taste and texture of their products, and these days, particularly those made using meat and dairy alternatives. Firmenich, doesn't reveal its client list, but it includes some of the world's largest food, fabric, beauty and household care businesses.

Beyond Meat increasing China focus

The plant-based protein market in China is attracting more attention. Just this month, Beyond Meat announced it was launching an online store for the Chinese market, in partnership with the e-commerce platform JD.com, and plans to expand beyond its current retail partners in China, including Starbucks and Yum China Holdings, to around 300 Chinese cities at a time when local consumers are more frequently buying fresh food online. 

Both Beyond Meat and its main U.S. rival Impossible Foods see big opportunity in China and are aware success requires more than importing successful ideas from Western cuisine. "I will work very hard to make sure that we're not exporting American taste," Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown told CNBC last September.

Late last year, Nestle launched a brand called Harvest Gourmet, offering non-meat burgers and nuggets, but also pork belly and kung pao chicken, among others, through Alibaba Group's internet Tmall site and its Hema grocery store chain. 

Both Nestle and Beyond Meat have built faux-meat manufacturing facilities in Tianjin and Jiaxing respectively, in competition with local giants Zhenmeat and Starfield. 

This explosion of interest in plant-based consumables is reflected across Asia. West Coast start-up Eat Just received approval from Singapore regulators to sell its chicken replacement, developed from animal cells in a laboratory, around the same time as NR Instant Produce of Thailand went public after the success of its jackfruit-derived faux-pork product. Then in June, Philippine food giant Monde Nissin went public on the Philippine Stock Exchange, the largest public offering in the country's history, as it sought to expand its own successful line of plant-based meat products. 

Recreating a local favorite like the pork dumpling

While many of the plant-based products are based on Western cuisine, Beyond Meat has said it is adding new lines on JD.com to appeal to the Chinese market, including Beyond Pork and other locally-targeted cooking ingredients, such as lion's head meatballs and pork dumplings. The latter are a hugely popular dish in China, but as a research subject Firmenich's Chen says dumplings are challenging to reverse engineer, since the "pork flavor is very, very subtle, very sophisticated."

His team has delivered a large variety of client briefs focused on meaty favorites — some local, like pork dumplings, some more universal, like chicken nuggets. They do this by figuring out why the original product tastes and feels and smells the way it does, then they replace the meat-derived building blocks — proteins, carbohydrates, fats — with their plant-derived counterparts, before combining them microscopically to mirror the flavors and smells of the original. 

Sometimes the process can take just days, if they already have an off-the-shelf solution prepared, but occasionally it requires months of intensive research by a team of twelve with varying forms of expertise — formulators, chemists, flavorists among them. "This sounds easy to do, but actually it takes lots of science," Chen says, referring excitedly to advanced techniques like gas chromatography or mass spectrometry. "This is not trivial." 

The markets these scientific breakthroughs are servicing are large. Chen's group of Shanghai-based research scientists and chefs has tripled in size over the past decade, a process partially driven by the fact that successful start-up businesses in the United States, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have "triggered a revolution of using modern science," Chen says. 

Future food for the Chinese population

For Firmenich, the growing demand for meat alternatives in China and the broader Asian market led them to launch a Singapore innovation hub focused on developing new plant-based protein products. Jun Saplad, based in Singapore as the head of the company's savory division in Asia, had his own epiphany about the sector at a Beijing conference in 2019. 

"The government was the key driver for that forum," he said, describing panel after panel in which Chinese officials, academics and business leaders promoted plant-based proteins, for a country that currently consume more than one-quarter of all global meat supplies, according to the USDA. "They're effectively promoting future food for the Chinese population," Saplad said.  

Thanks to accelerating urbanization and a growing middle class with rising income and consumption levels, Asia is also the fastest-growing region in the world for packaged food, not to mention its sheer scale. "Asia has 4.7 billion mouths to feed," Saplad said. "That's 60% of the global population, and in China and India alone it's almost 3 billion." 

The Asian portion of the meat-alternative market is currently worth only around $1 billion, Saplad estimates, but courtesy of its younger demographic, with rising awareness about the climate impacts of their culinary choices, he projects that could expand five-fold within the next decade.

And Saplad reckons Chinese firms have the potential to become major suppliers of plant-based meat alternatives too, for the rest of the world, including the U.S. and Europe. "You're actually seeing companies, big global companies investing into China for China domestic consumption — as well as for exports," he said.

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