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Food & Beverage

Chinese startup's plant-based 'meat' sizzles like real thing

Zhenmeat to accelerate R&D to chase Beyond Meat and other rivals

Zhenmeat hopes to carve out a large chunk of the Southeast Asian meat substitute market, as the Asia-Pacific market for the product is forecast to reach $15.8 billion in 2020. (Photo by Yusuke Hinata)

GUANGZHOU -- A young Beijing-based food-tech company is seeking to get ahead of the pack in China's new market of plant-based meat alternatives, offering a product that sizzles like real meat to appeal to all the senses of home chefs.

Zhenmeat started offering ground-pork-style faux meat made of plant-based protein on Friday, targeting China's growing ranks of health-conscious consumers. The new product is the latest in the company's expanding lineup of snacks and other products containing meat alternatives that debuted in 2019, the year the startup was formed.

China was hit hard by the outbreak of African swine flu in 2019, founder and CEO Vince Lu said, adding that demand for meat is expected to grow in the medium- to long-term in China, one of the world's biggest meat markets. Meeting that demand with meat from animals would have a heavy impact on the environment, he said.

The Asia-Pacific market for meat substitutes will reach $15.8 billion in 2020, Euromonitor International predicts.

With American players Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods expected to soon branch into China and existing food companies coming up with their own meat alternatives, Zhenmeat is stepping up R&D to bring its products as close to real meat as possible. The company has been pouring funds into academic research projects and is set to open its own research and development center later this year.

Players in the increasingly crowded business of mock meat are trying different ways to distinguish themselves, using protein from milk, eggs and even insects. This is why honing technology and expanding to different markets are important for Zhenmeat, which hopes to bring its products to Southeast Asia in 2021.

The environmental impact Lu cited refers to global warming from methane produced by belches and waste from cattle and other livestock. Appetite for mock meat is growing among green-conscious millennials in China, just like elsewhere. The swine flu outbreak that sent pork prices soaring has fueled interest among middle-aged and older consumers as well.

The healthy eating trend is also a boon. Obesity is emerging as a big, fat social issue as consumers are increasingly relying on convenient food-delivery and ride-hailing services, and spend less time walking or going outside altogether.

Plant-based meat alternatives are lower in calories and relatively lower in cholesterol as well. Zhenmeat's new product costs 99 yuan ($14) per kilogram -- about twice as much as real pork. But the company is betting that the product will sell briskly among the growing ranks of consumers seeking to eat healthy foods.

Even with the tighter supplies of animal meat and the growing interest in a sustainable and healthy diet, the key to building a strong fan base is the taste.

To reproduce the structure of meat from animals, Zhenmeat heats and applies pressure to protein and fiber from string beans. Substances such as the Asian plant Konjac are added to replicate the jelly texture of fat.

Zhenmeat even wants to copy the colors and sounds a home chef might encounter in the kitchen, particularly the sizzle on a grill or a frying pan. Palm and olive oils are added as well as iron so that its products cook the way animal meat does. The joy of cooking is an important element, Lu said.

But in terms of taste, Zhenmeat's products are only "70% to 80%" of animal meat, Lu acknowledged, noting that some may taste and feel the flavor and texture of beans. The company has yet to replicate ribs, which are made of fatty and non-fatty meat.

Some consumers are not won over yet. "It tastes like the seasoning," said a customer at a sampling event organized by another mock meat maker at a Shenzhen shopping center last month.

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