Plant-based diets lead Asian health and wellness trends

Vegetarian food has long been a part of many Asian cuisines, and the trend for specific vegetarian foods, including meat and dairy alternatives, has finally taken off among companies launching products in the region, according to market research organisation Mintel.

Despite long-standing vegetarian traditions, packaged food manufacturers operating in Asia have only recently started to respond. According to Mintel figures, vegetarian claims on new food and drink products increased by 140% from 2012 to 2016 in Southeast Asia, and vegan claims increased by 440% during the same period.

The rise in product claims is not only to do with food companies responding to existing demand for vegetarian and vegan foods; Asian consumers are increasingly interested in non-meat and non-dairy protein sources – even if they aren’t vegetarian. Four in ten Chinese consumers said in 2014 that they were eating more non-animal sources of protein compared to the previous year, such as grains and plant-derived proteins. However, nearly two-thirds preferred foods and drinks that were naturally high in protein, like nuts and grains, and only 8% said they preferred added-protein foods like energy bars and breakfast cereals.

Plant-based milk alternatives

With that in mind, plant-based milks are on the rise, including those from soy, oats, quinoa and almonds.

“Veggie burgers and non-dairy milks have moved from being a substitute for those with dietary concerns to now having broader appeal,” Mintel’s Jane Barnett, head of insights for South APAC, said in a recent presentation.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand leads the way in dairy alternatives, and recent launches include a sweetcorn milk from Farmmy and a matcha green tea-flavoured coconut milk from Milky Coco.

But the vegetarian trend goes beyond meat and milk alternatives. Among packaged foods carrying a vegetarian or vegan claim, the biggest segment is snacks, followed by bakery, sauces and seasonings, and dairy products.

Veggies take priority in healthy eating

In addition, vegetarian products tie in with a broader desire for healthier, plant-based foods.

In a 2015 Mintel survey, about half of Indonesian (48%) and nearly two-thirds of Indian (64%) consumers said they intended to eat a healthier diet in the year ahead. For Chinese consumers, eating more fruits and vegetables was a top health priority, with 52% reporting they had increased their fruit and vegetable consumption over the past 12 months. Nearly half (47%) said they were consuming more of a vegetarian or vegan diet.

China’s “white gold rush”

However, while interest in plant-based diets has grown, dairy consumption is also on the rise in some parts of Asia. The category has been particularly sensitive since the 2008 Chinese melamine scandal, when contaminated infant formula killed six babies and left thousands critically ill.

Many consumers have since turned to international companies for milk products, particularly for infants, but China’s domestic dairy industry has also thrived, doubling in size from 2009 to 2014 to reach an estimated $40.6bn, according to China Mengniu Dairy, one of the country’s largest milk producers. Chinese per capita milk consumption has increased ten-fold since 2000, to about 10 kg a year.

Dairy companies, both domestic and international, are looking to tap into growing dairy demand, with an emphasis on product safety, quality, and value-added ingredients, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Authenticity and health

Globally, food marketers increasingly aim to highlight the story of their products, and nowhere is this more the case than in Southeast Asia, where manufacturers are using the word ‘craft’ to highlight authenticity and naturalness. From 2012 to 2015, 47.1% of all the world’s new foods and beverages that carried the word ‘craft’ were launched in Southeast Asia, according to Mintel figures.  Among new Asia-Pacific dairy launches, the percentage making a craft claim rose from 1% in 2010 to 17% in 2015.

From coconut water to plant-based diets, anything perceived to be healthy is seeing increased demand in the region. In China alone, spending on health and wellness products is expected to reach $67bn by 2020, according to research from the Boston Consulting Group. It says Chinese consumers are the world’s most health conscious, and 73% are willing to pay more for healthier foods.

For food companies, the opportunity is clear, particularly with rising incomes and growing awareness of healthy eating among a burgeoning middle and upper class.