The Shanghai Laboratory’s fake pork dumplings are helping China go beyond meat

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A visitor will try a vegetable protein substitute from Beyond Meat on November 11, 2020 at the Restaurant & Bar and Gourmet Asia Expo at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in Hong Kong.

Peter Parks | AFP | Getty Images

If a China-based business owner wanted to make and sell a meatless pork dumpling for the past decade, he might have visited a three-story restaurant laboratory in a business district of Shanghai to seek the help of Dr. Dong. to look for – Fang Chen.

He received his PhD from Cambridge with a focus on molecular plant genetics, then worked at AstraZeneca and now heads a group of several dozen scientists in Shanghai as Vice President of Research and Development in the Asia-Pacific region. You are part of a global research staff of around 1000 employees at a Swiss company called Firmenich, the world’s largest private company that focuses on the development of flavors and aromas.

Chen’s team is primarily charged with helping global and Chinese food companies improve the taste and texture of their products, and now especially those made with meat and dairy alternatives. Firmenich does not disclose its list of customers, but it does include some of the world’s largest food, fabric, beauty and home care companies.

Beyond Meat is increasing its focus on China

The vegetable protein market in China is gaining increasing attention. Just this month, Beyond Meat announced that it is partnering with e-commerce platform JD.com to launch an online store for the Chinese market and plans to expand beyond its current retail partners in China, including Starbucks and Yum China Holdings Around 300 Chinese cities are expanding at a time when local consumers are more likely to buy fresh food online.

Both Beyond Meat and its main competitor Impossible Foods in the US see great opportunities in China and understand that success requires more than importing successful ideas from Western cuisine. “I’ll work very hard to make sure we don’t export American flavors,” Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown told CNBC last September.

At the end of last year, Nestle launched a brand called Harvest Gourmet, which offers meat-free burgers and nuggets, as well as pork belly and kung pao chicken, via the Alibaba Group’s website Tmall and its grocery chain Hema.

Both Nestle and Beyond Meat have built production facilities for artificial meat in Tianjin and Jiaxing, respectively, which compete with the local giants Zhenmeat and Starfield.

Plant-based meat dishes are on sale in a Starbucks store in Shanghai, China on April 22, 2020.

VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

This explosive interest in vegetable consumables is reflected across Asia. West Coast start-up Eat Just received regulatory approval in Singapore to sell its laboratory-made chicken substitute, developed from animal cells, around the same time that NR Instant Produce of Thailand went public following the success of its jackfruit-derived artificial pork went . Then, in June, Filipino food giant Monde Nissin went public, the largest IPO in the country’s history, to expand its own successful line of plant-based meat products.

Recreate a local favorite like the pork dumpling

While many of the plant-based products are based on Western cuisine, Beyond Meat has announced that it is adding new lines on JD.com to target the Chinese market, including Beyond Pork and other locally-focused cooking ingredients like lion head meatballs and pork dumplings. The latter is a very popular dish in China, but Chen at Firmenich says dumplings are a challenge to reverse engineer because the “pork flavor is very, very subtle, and very refined”.

His team has delivered a variety of customer letters that focus on meaty favorites – some local like pork dumplings, others more universal like chicken nuggets. They do this by figuring out why the original product tastes, feels, and smells this way, then replacing the building blocks derived from meat – proteins, carbohydrates, fats – with their plant-based counterparts before microscopically combining them to create the flavors and fragrances of the original.

(Vl) Chef Nicolas Maire and the flavorists Liliana Favaron and Mark Rubin taste vegetarian steaks at the headquarters of the Swiss company Firmenich, one of the world’s leading flavor manufacturers, near Geneva. Firmenich advises and supplies a large number of start-ups and food giants with technical know-how for replicating meat taste and texture.

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

Sometimes the process can only take days if a standard solution has already been prepared, but sometimes it requires months of intensive research by a team of twelve with different specialist knowledge – including formulators, chemists, flavorists. “That sounds simple, but it actually takes a lot of science,” says Chen, excitedly pointing out advanced techniques like gas chromatography or mass spectrometry. “That is not trivial.”

The markets that serve these scientific breakthroughs are large. Chen’s group of Shanghai-based researchers and chefs has tripled in the past decade, a process that is partly due to the fact that successful start-ups in the United States such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are “revolutionizing the modern world.” Science, “says Chen.

Future food for the Chinese people

For Firmenich, the growing demand for meat alternatives in China and the broader Asian market led to the establishment of an innovation center in Singapore focused on the development of new plant-based protein products. Jun Saplad, who is based in Singapore as head of the Savory Asia division, had his own revelation on the sector at a conference in Beijing in 2019.

“The government has been the main driver behind this forum,” he said, describing one panel after another where Chinese officials, academics and business leaders are promoting plant-based protein to a country that currently has more than a quarter of all meat supplies worldwide consumed, according to USDA. “They are effectively promoting the future nutrition of the Chinese people,” said Saplad.

Thanks to accelerating urbanization and a growing middle class with rising incomes and consumption, Asia is also the fastest growing region in the world for packaged food, not to mention its size. “Asia has 4.7 billion mouths to feed,” said Saplad. “That is 60% of the world population, in China and India alone it is almost 3 billion.”

The Asian portion of the meat alternatives market is only worth around $ 1 billion right now, Saplad estimates, but with the younger demographic and increasing awareness of the climate impact of their culinary choices, he predicts this could increase fivefold in the next decade.

And Saplad believes that Chinese companies have the potential to become major suppliers of plant-based meat alternatives to the rest of the world, including the US and Europe. “You are actually seeing companies, big global corporations, investing in China for China’s domestic consumption – as well as for export,” he said.