Mooncakes, the widely popular Mid-Autumn Festival delicacy, will be getting a makeover in China this year, as a start-up's plant-based ground meat is used as filling for the traditional cholesterol-packed treat.
Chinese entrepreneur Lu Zhongming has formed meat alternative producer Zhenrou, in partnership with a research team from the Beijing Technology and Business University, that will introduce Suzhou-style mooncakes filled with plant-based meat ahead of the festival next month.
While the most common types of mooncake are filled with sweet lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk, the regional variation from eastern China's Suzhou province is stuffed with ground pork.
Lu said Zhenrou's plant-based mooncakes will taste real enough for consumers, especially those from Shanghai and surrounding areas, according to a report by the Changjiang Daily. "We recently asked many old Shanghainese residents to take part in a taste test," he said. "A lot of people couldn't tell (mooncakes with traditional filling and those with plant-based meat) apart."
Zhenrou joins a growing number of domestic and foreign companies that are now tapping into a potentially large market for plant-based meat in the world's second largest economy.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods - the world's two most prominent plant-based meat producers - are already fighting for market share beyond the US. Beyond Meat, which is backed by Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat processor, plans to start distributing in China in the second half of this year.
Chicago-based Sustainable Bioproducts also plans to bring to China its artificial protein products, potentially replacing pork in buns served in dim sum restaurants.
The global meat substitute market is projected to reach US$7.5 billion by 2025, up from an estimated US$4.2 billion in 2017, according to a report by Allied Market Research. The meat substitute market by product type includes those prepared from tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein, seitan, Quorn and other plant-based sources.
"Plant-based protein meat, which is healthier, more nutritious and environmentally friendly, is becoming a new food trend among many young consumers," Lu said in a separate report by the Securities Daily. "China needs more innovative companies in this field."
Another advantage in China is that meat substitutes are not a new concept. Centuries-old Chinese vegetarian cooking uses tofu, also known as bean curd, as a substitute for pork and poultry in certain dishes.
The challenge for Chinese firms involved in supplying plant-based meat substitutes has to do with the taste and texture of their products.
Li Jian, who leads Zhenrou's research team from the Beijing Technology and Business University, said Chinese plant-based meat trails those from larger American producers in taste, colour and texture, according to the Changjiang Daily report. Li indicated that existing Chinese products require seasoning and additional processing by chefs before these can be served.
He said ground meat was easier to replicate, compared with regular meat cuts. Creating substitutes for pork ribs and pork belly would be the next big hurdle, he added.
Founded in 2017, Zhenrou is focused on the research and development of artificial pea protein meat, which differentiates the company from other producers creating bean products as meat substitute.
The start-up, which is headquartered in Hangzhou, capital of eastern China's Zhejiang province, is the latest enterprise formed by Lu since gaining fame from his appearance in a business reality television show Chinese Partners, a local version of US series Shark Tank, in 2016.
That appearance helped Lu and two schoolmates get funding from investors on the show for their start-up, Fuchouzhe, which sold protein bars across the country.
Born in 1991, Lu discussed in the show how he succumbed to a disorder known as "freshman 15", in which a university freshman can put on up to 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) of weight from overeating and lack of exercise.
"I added 20 kilograms in just one semester and had very low self-esteem," Lu admitted in the show. He said things turned around for him when he took up weight training, which later inspired him to start Fuchouzhe. Lu sold his shares in the company last year.
With his new start-up, Lu remains keen to spread the benefits of having healthy choices at a time when more people across China are seeking a better diet.
While pork remains the favourite meat for Chinese, its consumption peaked in 2014, and it was down nearly 5 per cent last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor. A recent report by food delivery app operator Meituan Dianping indicated that "light meals" - prepared food that is low in calories and fat, but high in fibre - have become increasingly popular among its users.
"The natural advantage of plant-based protein is that it has no cholesterol," Lu told the Changjiang Daily, adding that such meat substitute is especially suitable for many people with cholesterol-related health issues.
China may not have much of a choice when it comes to consuming less pork in future. Some analysts have estimated that the recent outbreak of African swine flu could wipe out nearly half of the nation's pig population. The country is also looking to stop its greenhouse gas emissions from rising after 2030, a goal that could hinge partly on controlling meat consumption and production.
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