MEAT : Rediscovered or Reinvented?
By Nadine Freischlad
Something about our collective food consumption needs to change if we want to avoid a climate disaster and feed the world’s growing population. These problems are well recognized – the United Nations made it one of its sustainable development goals to overhaul the current food system.
But when it comes to food, it’s hard to shift behavior. People have strong emotional bonds with food and the eating experience. Accessibility, habits, time, and money also determine our food choices. Food innovators will need clever marketing to achieve change.
Right now, the world’s growing demand for animal protein is a major concern. Especially the emerging economies of Asia are the culprits here, their fast-growing populations contributing to this situation. Dietary expectations are rising along with incomes.
You see signs of this everywhere. In my middle class neighborhood in Jakarta, Indonesia something started happening a few years ago. In between the local food stalls that lined the main street, serving fried rice and noodles, a sushi restaurant popped up. Soon, steak houses sprouted, with names like “Meat Me” and “Holy Cow”. Of course foreign cuisines were available in the city before, but they tended to be upscale and less accessible to middle class people. Now, there’s a growing appetite for what’s considered an international, urban, way of life. Households in general consume more meat, because they can afford it.
But culinary expectations are rising in cities like Berlin and New York, too. Exotic fruits and vegetables all year round are taken for granted. A few years ago, people started getting obsessed with coffee. They were developing a taste for beans whose origin could be traced to individual plantations in places like Aceh, North Sumatra, or Limu, Ethiopia. The same happened with chocolate and tea. Health food stores started serving fruit shakes topped up with so-called superfoods: a dash of spirulina, a shot of moringa. These are supplements that have been consumed in Asia and other parts of the world for their health benefits for centuries.
Globalization made it possible to access to an immense variety of food options and exotic ingredients, allowing us to refine our taste buds and expanded our culinary horizon. It came at a cost.
Food waste, malnutrition, and obesity are major problems in our current food system, but much of the debate tends to center on people’s attitudes towards meat consumption.
Understandably so. 14-15 percent of climate change is attributable to the inefficiencies in animal agriculture, says Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, in a conversation with Kyle Russel, partner at venture capital firm a16z. Even raising a chicken, the most efficient of animal proteins, requires an input of 9 calories for every 1 calorie it provides when one eats its meat, Friedrich explains.
Convincing people to reduce their meat intake and replace it with plant-based alternatives like soybean curd, wheat protein, or even insect-based proteins is a possible direction, and firms like US-company Field Roast and Beyond Meat have developed these products to a point where they have a place in the supermarket shelf, like other packaged goods.
Lab-grown meat, derived from animal cells, is another avenue. People like Memphis Meats founder Uma Valeti believe no one should be deprived of their desire to consume meat, and that we can find ways to create it without actually raising and slaughtering animals. The process is still too complex and expensive though to make product available for everyone.
Western markets are perhaps one step ahead with a more established debate on meat alternatives and more visibility given to new products, but it doesn’t mean Asian innovators are sleeping on trend. Some of the early movers are companies like Singapore’s Life3Biotech, which produces plant-based proteins, and plant-based seafood firm Sophie’s Kitchen. It’s based in Taiwan but sells mostly in the US. Japan’s Shojinmeat is one of only a handful of companies in the world experimenting with lab grown meat.
SAMPLING AND REMIXING
What both camps of innovators – lab-grown meat versus plant-based alternatives – have in common is the problem of making their product appeal to a larger crowd.
Many manufacturers of meat alternatives in the West have gone the route of recreating familiar products, such as chips, sausages, burgers, or meatballs, to latch on to existing habits.
David Lee, CEO of Field Roast, points out in an interview with Food Navigator that he thinks it’s important to tell consumers that these products aren’t invented from scratch.
Instead of highlighting technical details, Field Roast prefers to focus on the message that these meat alternatives have roots in the traditional cuisines of Asia. Its grain-based products are derived from the meat alternative eaten by Buddhist monks in China centuries ago. In Japan it’s known as Saitan. Field Roast markets its products with the slogan “A blend of European and Asian heritage.”
A similar approach at a smaller scale is taken by “Warung Tempeh”, a food stall operated by a Brit in Central London that attempts to popularize Indonesia’s traditional bean curd as a vegan meat alternative.
There’s a subtle irony in the fact that more developed economies are rediscovering Asian traditions to avoid meat, while Asia is busy contributing to the global rise in meat consumption.
Meat alternatives still are a tough sell in Asia. People are even more attached to existing habits because food culture is “valued with huge pride,” says Sophie’s Kitchen founder Eugene Wang. He also believes marketing products for their health benefit, rather than talking about the environmental impact or animal welfare will do more to convince Asian consumers.
Positioning meat alternatives as part of Asia’s culinary heritage could also be the key to popularizing them at home, Wang says, but it has to be presented in a specific way.
“Meat alternative technologies have been in Asia for centuries, if not thousands of years. Therefore, you cannot talk about or present meat alternative technologies the way we do it in Western markets. You have to present them in the ancient format most Asians are familiar and comfortable with,” he says.
Perhaps the quick pace at which we sample and remix each other’s culinary traditions and trends can work in favor of food innovators, both in developed and emerging economies.
After all, when interested in coffee spiked overseas, this also kindled a coffee renaissance in the countries that grow it. Global interest in traditional herbal remedies gave people the opportunity to continue developing traditions that had almost been forgotten.
In the same way, appreciation for traditional Asian meat alternatives in developed markets can spill over to raise their profile at home.
As a first step to market new, innovative food products effectively, you must find a “universal narrative,” says Patrick Searle, who worked at several major advertising agencies in Asia before starting his own firm, GetCraft.
There’s a hero – your innovation – and a villain, in this case unsustainable industrial food products. The universal narrative is what binds people together when they face the villain, Searle says.
Rediscovering traditional solutions as a means to face the new global food challenge could serve as that universal narrative, and find different forms of expression depending on the local market.
Ricky Lin of Life3Biotech points out that in addition to taste, texture and health benefits, Asian consumers would also be concerned with the price and affordability of these products.
A simple strategy to introduce food innovations that works anywhere, Searle says, is to build a community of loyal fans around your product, and organize events to promote your cause. The “alternative meat protein dinner” hosted by A*STAR Singapore recently is one example of how this can be done effectively.
The next step would be to research what’s required to achieve certain benchmarks, like getting your product picked up by a big supermarket.
The good news for innovators is that major players in the food industry are increasingly under pressure to find new products and can’t afford to miss trends. Because everything is available online anyway, stores are more likely to expand their assortment to fulfill your need. The path from “crazy idea” to “available in supermarket shelves” is shorter than ever before. And that’s why even eating chips made out of crickets may soon be cool rather than taboo.