TOKYO -- Plant-based meat is finally starting to catch on in Japan, with rising numbers of health-conscious consumers spurring food manufacturers to offer more and tastier selections.
The trend -- largely imported from the West -- initially attracted non-meat food processors. Since then, established meat companies such as NH Foods -- Japan's biggest meat company and known as Nippon Ham -- and Itoham Foods have entered the market, driven by the fear of being left behind.
In March, an Itoham group company opened a pop-up shop selling lunchboxes built around 20 soy-meat dishes. The experiment netted valuable customer feedback about its plant-based meat lineup, much of it positive. "It's more like meat than I imagined," said one customer, while another commented on not noticing the absence of meat.
Also in March, Nippon Ham launched its NatuMeat brand of soybean-based meat products. The brand includes sausage made from soybeans combined with "konnyaku," a virtually calorie-free food made from potato.
According to the Japan Ham and Sausage Processors Cooperative Association, domestic production of processed meat has plateaued over the past several years, edging down 0.6% in 2019 from a year earlier. The costs of moving meat products have risen while retail has been forced to adapt to more cost-conscious consumers.
This has traditional meat companies looking over their shoulders, not least because appetites for plant-based meat products continue to grow.
There is also concern over availability. Koki Haruna, head of business strategy at Itoham Foods, says, "The industry is worried about shortages [of regular meat] and price hikes due to growing global demand for it."
Still, Nippon Ham President Yoshihide Hata remains upbeat. "Plant-based meat will not replace real meat completely, as demand for the real thing is rising faster than populations around the world," he said.
Instead of a crisis-driven response to changing tastes, the company senses opportunity, with Japan's traditional food culture holding the key. Hiroyuki Yokoi, chairman of the Japan Food Analyst Association, said: "Japan is good with soybeans, stemming from a culture heavily influenced by Buddhist vegetarian diets. Different types of plant-based meat can be expected, as markets will continue to grow."
Hata added that Japan's love for soybean protein, including that from tofu, is useful. "Plant-based meat will become a new protein menu.
Nippon Ham wants to transition into comprehensive food manufacturer that serves up protein in different forms, including meat, but with plant-based types comprising a significant portion. To this end, the country partnered in 2019 with Tokyo-based IntegriCulture to develop cultured meat. Nippon Ham provides its meat-manufacturing expertise while IntegriCulture pitches in with technologies for making stable cultured meats.
But countries in the West are way ahead in the near-meat sector, fed by rising numbers of vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians, who eat meat less often for health reasons.
U.S.-based Beyond Meat and compatriot Impossible Foods are already partnering with fast-food chains for plant-based hamburgers. Beyond Meat's sales surged over threefold in 2019 from a year earlier. Other capital-rich companies have entered the market, including Switzerland's Nestle and America's Kellog and Cargill.
Meanwhile, Japanese companies are still finding their feet. "There is room for improvement for soy meat in terms of taste and texture," Yokoi said. "There is only so much you can do taste-wsie with soy. We need new ideas. For example, enhancing flavor by mixing in konnyaku or meat extracts."
Japan has a long history of importing foods, curry rice and ramen noodles chief among them. And the success the country has had in tailoring the imports to local tastes has been notable. Now, the country casts its culinary eye to making vegetable-based dishes.
Otsuka Foods, which launched its Zero Meat brand of meat substitutes in fall 2018, is relishing the task. "You can't make products taste like real meat if you only focus on texture, taste and smell," said Hiroyuki Shima, general manager of the company's new business planning department.
To solve this, Otsuka researchers analyzed the texture and taste of genuine Salisbury steak. They were able to come up with a lifelike substitute by copying the shapes and sizes of grains in the steaks, as well as its fatty acid content.
One challenge meat makers face is eliminating the flavor of soy. One obvious way is to overpower it with something else but this tends to increase saltiness. Instead, Otsuka researchers chose a balanced approach, gradually replacing the soy smell with other aromas and flavors.
Itoham Foods' Marude Oniku brand meat substitute, launched in March, showcases how far the company has come in this regard. The brand is regularly beefed up with additions like deep-fried dishes, including minced-meat croquette made from soy meat.
Nippon Ham claims the aroma of its Salisbury steaks is better than the real thing. Instead of using a rich demi-glace sauce, it opted for a spicy, curry-like flavor accented with oregano and other spices.
Trading company Mitsui & Co. regards food-tech companies as promising investments, including U.S startup Hampton Creek, which produces cultured meat, mayonnaise and cookie dough without using egg.
Mitsui senior executive managing officer Miki Yoshikawa said the startup "can provide meat substitutes in a Japanese-like sense. We're working on product development."
Food and restaurant industry insiders say 2020 will be the year when plant-derived meat products really take off in Japan. In the culinary world, whipping up a great dish relies on the chef's skills no matter how good the ingredients are. Likewise, success in food tech relies on the ability to wield the latest technological advancements for one's own advantage.