Taking a closer look at the fast diminishing gap between plant-based meat and dairy alternatives and their original counterparts, one food at a time.
It’s no secret that eating less red meat, and more fruit and vegetables is good for both people and planet, thus making plant-based foods and a flexitarian diet are some of the most used trending buzz phrases today.
What is a myth though, is the fact that a plant-based diet is synonymous with being vegan or vegetarian. In reality, a flexitarian approach allows for natural inclusion of diverse protein sources, in which regular meat and dairy are still permissible occasionally in smaller quantities, putting a greater emphasis on plant-based alternatives. The key to making this supposedly healthier and more planet-friendly lifestyle change sustainable and more enjoyable in the long run, is to simply include more plant-based foods to an already healthy diet rather than making drastic diet changes, most of which will be unsustainable on a long-term basis.
Nigel Moore, Accor’s Senior Vice President F&B, SE Asia, Japan & South Korea said at the Accor collaboration with Green Monday last December, “A recent study of 27,000 people across 27 countries confirmed that three out of four people want to reduce their impact on the environment by a large amount, and a significant number of meat eaters would be willing to switch to plant-based alternatives if they taste equally good, and have the same price and nutritional value.”
While nuts, lentils, beans and chickpeas are table staples when it comes to plant-based building blocks, easy-to-cook alternatives such as Impossible, Beyond Meat and Quorn’s meat-free burgers, mince and sausages, are becoming increasingly popular with the younger generation, even while technically they are still considered to be ‘highly processed foods’. On the dairy side, plant-based milk, egg and ice cream alternatives are already very popular, but cheese and yogurt alternatives still have some way to go before becoming widely accepted.
Asia might only just be catching up to this fanatic plant-based trend, but it’s already proving to be a region to be reckoned with. “Asia is currently still behind markets like the USA and Europe with regards to the rise of flexitarianism, so we see it as just the beginning of a new paradigm,” says Andre Menezes, Co-Founder & COO, Next Gen Foods.
We take a look at the different players offering alternative meat and dairy options doing their part to protect the planet and to leave a lower environmental footprint as the world struggles to feed its population sustainably and nutritiously.
Green Monday Group launched Green Common in 2015 as the world’s first plant-based concept store, and has most recently opened Green Common, a brand new 3,000 sq ft plant-based concept store and café in Singapore last month, marking its first store in Southeast Asia and the 11th outlet worldwide. The one-stop plant-based retail outlet and café features several iconic brands and access to over 50 plant-based products including OmniMeat, Beyond Burger, Beyond Sausage, Heura, and Chick’n Nuggets by Alpha Foods.
Last December, Green Monday Group partnered with Accor Group to bring OmniMeat creations to several of their hotels, including Raffles Singapore and Fairmont Hotel Singapore. Nigel Moore, Accor’s Senior Vice President F&B, SE Asia, Japan & South Korea says “Accor serves 200 million meals a year worldwide, which means that we have a dual responsibility in turning consumer thoughts and values into action, by making sustainable options more accessible. Our goal is to offer our guests healthy, sustainable food while eliminating food waste, and making healthy and sustainable food more affordable and desirable, and we are increasingly moving towards more plant-based offerings and experiences at our hotels.” He added that a decade ago, a vegan or casual vegetarian lifestyle would be deemed as strange. But now, it is normal and even a social standing positioning.
THE WORLD OF FAUX MEATS
Two of the most popular names in this space are the ubiquitous Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat, as well as the recently launched The Vegetarian Butcher.
Beyond Meat (part of the Hong Kong-based Green Monday umbrella) is made up of a variety of plant proteins, including pea and brown rice, free of onion and garlic derivatives, with a product offering including Beyond Beef (mince), Beyond Meatballs, and Beyond Burger (patties). All Beyond Meat products are said to be antibiotic-, cholesterol- and hormone-free, boasting more protein and iron than animal meat, with 25-35% less saturated fat.
Hailing from California’s Silicon Valley under the parent company Impossible Foods, Impossible™ Beef is made of sustainable, wholesome ingredients including soy proteins, sunflower oil, coconut oil and heme, which gives Impossible products that unique meaty flavour. According to Laurent Stevenart, Country Manager Impossible Foods, Singapore, what differentiates Impossible Foods from other companies is its technology platform and world-class archive of knowledge of how meat works at the molecular level, thanks to nearly a decade of basic science and hard-core R&D. “Our scientists figured out the exact mechanisms by which the meat flavour is generated, and then used plants and other simple nutrients to recreate the same real meat flavour,” he says. “Other competitors share a similar mission with us, but a different approach with different products. Their approach is to create better veggie alternatives for target vegans and vegetarians, but our only target customer is the avid meat lover.”
Hence the heme which apparently has impressed even hardcore carnivores. “Heme is an iron-containing molecule found in both animals and plants, but is super abundant in animal tissue. We get heme from leghaemoglobin, the protein naturally found in soy roots, through a yeast fermentation process which is similar to rennet production in cheese making. And since everything is made from plants, our beef alternatives are free of cholesterol, animal hormones, antibiotics, artificial ingredients, and slaughterhouse contaminants,” says Stevenart.
The newest kid on the plant-based beef block in Singapore is The Vegetarian Butcher, thanks to a partnership with Unilever Food Solutions, and it is already sold in over 30 countries around the world since its launch in 2010. Interestingly the company was created after the 1998 outbreak of swine fever.
Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer and founder of The Vegetarian Butcher, uses only soy (non-genetically modified soybeans), lupine, and vegetables grown on Dutch soil for his products. His range of plant-based beef alternatives available at The Social Kitchen, offer NoMeatballs and NoBeef Burgers, of which the latter is said to be seven times more sustainable than traditional beef.
Reputed to be the most popular and highest consumed meat in Asia, there are no shortage of faux pork options. The three most prominent players offering plant-based pork alternatives are Beyond Meat, Karana and OmniMeat.
Beyond Meat is perhaps even more popular with its faux pork range than with its beef options. Available are a variety of different flavours in the Beyond Sausage range, as well as the Beyond Breakfast Sausage, all of which use the same propriety building blocks as the beef counterparts, totally plant-based and vegan. With a firmer texture than its competitors, Beyond Meat is often considered to be the only choice for hot dogs and other sausagebased dishes.
Hong Kong’s plant-based lifestyle platform Green Monday Group, best known as the creator of OmniFoods and OmniMeat Mince in 2018, most recently launched its OmniMeat luncheon meat and pork-like OmniMeat Strip late last year to give consumers a healthier option in lieu of traditional canned pork luncheon meat. The more Asian-inspired OmniMeat focuses on pork alternatives with guilt-free products like OmniMeat Luncheon, made after a two-year comprehensive research study in Canada, and based on a proprietary blend of pea protein, non-GM soy, shiitake mushroom and rice, completely free of cholesterol, antibiotics and hormones. “OmniMeat Luncheon is also 86% lower in saturated fat and 66% lower in calories than traditional pork, while being much higher in fibre, 260% higher in calcium and 127% higher in iron,” says David Yeung, OmniFoods Founder & Founder and CEO of Green Monday.
“OmniFoods is our own food innovation arm, with OmniMeat being a leading meat alternative product. We named our brand OMNI as our products can satisfy meat-eaters and vegans alike,” says Yeung.
“I was shocked when I read the United Nations’ report on the negative impact from the meat industry in 2016, coupled with Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” documentary. As a vegetarian, I thought people must know this information, as this is related to the collective survival of humanity on the planet. Yet back in those days, the awareness of the correlation between sustainability and food, particular meat consumption, was nonexistent. So, in 2012, I couldn’t wait any longer and launched Green Monday - both the mission-driven venture and the plantbased movement,” says Yeung.
Meanwhile closer to home and also inspired by Asian street food culture, home-grown Karana is the first company of its kind in Asia to create pork ‘meat’ from whole-plants to cater for Asian comfort food such as dumplings and char siu baos. Organic, Sri Lankan whole-plant young jackfruit is used to make the plant-based faux pork with minimal processing and minimal ingredients, setting it apart from other plant-based meat competitors who largely rely on commodity crops in highly processed forms. Unlike other plantbased products that rely heavily on heavily processed commodity crops like pea, Karana products retain the whole-plant nature of their biodiverse ingredients.
According to Blair Crichton and Daniel Riegler, Co-CEOs Karana, currently only about 150 out of 30,000 edible plant species and 12 crops are consumed, making up 75% of what we eat, and thus translating to a huge opportunity to explore and innovate around this biodiversity, much of it in Asia. “Our focus is on Asian applications, so we’re starting with pork-like products because pork is the top meat consumed in Asia. We want to prove that eating in a healthier and more sustainable way doesn’t mean sacrificing or compromising on what we know and love. We transform young jackfruits to mimic shredded lean pork loin, creating the comfort foods that consumers know and love here.”
“Young jackfruit is nutritious with a low glycaemic index and high in fibre, magnesium and potassium; an extremely efficient crop, with high yields and almost zero water usage, while being friendly to smallholder farmers as it is grown in a polyculture system. Can a humble char siu bao change the world? We believe it can,” say the CEO duo confidently.
The irony: Plant-based burgers are increasingly similar to traditional beef burgers in terms of looks, flavour and especially when it comes down to counting calories, saturated fat and protein. Although some plant-based burgers do boast an additional 2-3g of fibre than regular meat patties due to their botanical base, they can also contain up to five times the amount of sodium compared to a regular meat patty, due to the large amounts of processing that goes into making a plant-based burger. Are we better off just eating regular meat in moderation?
“Meat-free innovations should not only taste good, but should also be healthy, nutritious and sustainable. What makes Quorn unique is its use of the highly-nutritious Mycoprotein, backed by expansive research and decades of development,” says Rufino Tiam-Lee, CEO, Monde Nissin Singapore Pte Ltd. Texture plays a huge role in contributing to the overall multi-sensorial experience and consumer acceptance, and Mycoprotein’s natural ability to perfectly mimic the texture of chicken breast is a result of Quorn’s processes like steaming, chilling and freezing to bring out the naturally meatlike texture.
Made from a natural fungus that grows in the soil, fusarium venenatum, through the age-old process of fermentation, Mycoprotein is the more sustainable and alternative dietary protein source believed to be nutritionally high in fibre and low in saturated fat. It also boasts a significantly lower environmental burden, requiring 90% less land and water to produce when compared to animal proteins. “Our 2019 study shows that Mycoprotein also stimulates resting and post-exercise muscle growth more than milk protein, making it ideal for sports and exercise too,” says Tiam-Lee.
Additionally, with the meat-free movement gaining momentum globally, many new plant-based brands are increasingly placed under the spotlight by regulators, due to concerns over the use of GMO or carcinogenic ingredients in products. “As pioneers in the meat-free market, Quorn remains GMO-free and is the only meatfree brand with over 30 years of scientifically-backed health and environmental research, and remains free from harmful additives, artificial colours and flavours” adds Tiam-Lee.
Another newer player in the plant-based chicken space is Next Gen. Comprising only 11 components, Next Gen Food’s plant-based chicken uses simple non-GMO and non-novel ingredients, such as water, soy, sunflower oil and coconut fat. “From March 2021, Singapore will be the first city in the world to experience the next generation of chicken, made from plants,” says Andre Menezes, Co- Founder & COO, Next Gen Foods.
According to Menezes, Asia has had one of the widest adoption of meat-free options in the world, but until recently this was mostly driven by religion or affordability, with products that were not necessarily appealing to meat eaters. “The new generation of meat-free options that emulate meat in taste and nutritional values, is now becoming more popular in Asia, making it easier to reduce meat consumption without major compromises in terms of taste and texture,” he says.
Finally, The Vegetarian Butcher also offers NoChicken Nuggets, NoChicken Burger patties and NoChicken Chunks, with the latter being the star of its product range.
DID YOU KNOW?
Singapore-based Karana bagged top prize in the sustainability track at the Singapore 2019 Specialty & Fine Food Asia Fair for its use of abundantly available and sustainable ingredients found in Asia. Karana is also one of five start-ups globally to be selected to present at the Good Food Conference in San Francisco, and are currently part of the first cohort of start-ups in the Asian food tech accelerator run by Temasek backed Big Idea Ventures.
THE WORLD OF DAIRY
Float Foods, Singapore’s first food tech start-up developing plantbased whole egg substitute OnlyEg, is set to roll out its plant-based egg patty and shredded egg products in the year’s Q1, claiming to be the first of its kind to achieve this level of likeness to a real chicken egg, where the egg can be prepared and assembled in minutes into multiple styles. Vinita Choolani, CEO & Founder, Float Foods says “OnlyEg is a fully functional plant-based egg substitute, comprising legumes-based substitutes for both egg yolk and egg white as two distinct components.
Josh Tetric, CEO, Eat Just Inc, also says that the plant-based egg category didn’t truly exist before JUST Egg and describes his product as simply being a better egg. “It’s better for human health since it’s cholesterol-free, antibiotic-free and always non-GMO, but with the protein content comparable to a conventional egg.” Eat Just Inc, a start-up producing sustainable plant-based Just Egg and other egg products from mung beans is launching a US$120m plant-based protein facility in Singapore in the first quarter of 2021, in partnership with Proterra Investment Partners Asia Ltd, an investment management firm focused on food and agribusiness sectors. “It took us five years to find it, but we discovered that the protein-rich legume mung bean magically scrambles like an egg. It has been in the food system for thousands of years but has never been used quite like this.”
Adds Tetric, “Our process began with identifying the different plants that we might want to use and bringing them in to build a diverse plant library. Sure, you could scramble tofu or mix a powder with water for eggless baking applications, but nothing else makes scrambles, omelettes, quiches, and much more. We’ve sourced plants from over 60 countries around the world, and looked at a vast range of molecular and functional properties of plant proteins and asked a lot of questions. What is the protein yield of the plant species? What is its thermal stability? Does it bind, or brown, or gel quickly in a pan? Does it melt like butter? And, most importantly, does it make family recipes taste even better?”
“The time for a real plant-based egg substitute is here and people can soon choose whether to have a chicken or a plant egg as a matter of normal routine. With OnlyEg for instance, they can enjoy the runniness of egg yolk oozing into their rice as usual, but now knowing that they are reducing their environmental footprint in a small but important way. This is a game-changer for both consumers and restaurateurs everywhere,” says Choolani.
The closest alternatives in the market are currently liquid blends of egg substitutes used for scrambled eggs and omelettes. OnlyEg’s claim to being unique compared to other egg alternatives is the fact that Float Foods focuses on delivering a fully functional whole egg solution with separate egg white and yolk components. “Current commercial egg alternatives typically come in a yellow solution that don’t allow consumers to recreate a whole table egg. Ours is a fully functional, versatile egg that can be cooked in all typical Asian styles. Unlike other egg alternatives, we believe in the concept of ‘Food as Medicine’, where OnlyEg egg is nutritionally equivalent if not higher than a chicken egg, in terms of the protein content and micronutrients,” says Mathilde Bancillon, Commercial & Partnerships Manager,” Float Foods.
Singapore offers a slew of non-dairy and nut milk options, the most popular of which is probably Oatly. Launched in Singapore in late October last year, Oatly’s “The New Milk” campaign is based around the most common reasons cited for plant-based milks, including environmental sustainability, lactose intolerance and better nutrition.
Amanda Chan, Marketing and Communications Lead, Oatly Asia says, “Oatly’s history dates back to the early 1990s, when people couldn’t imagine the idea of milk produced directly from oats. Today, our range includes Barista, Chocolate, Enriched to Organic, all with maximum nutritional value and minimal environmental impact. Back in the ’90s, when we made the first oat milk product, we have been using our patented enzyme technology in our production process. This technology is still incomparable today, as it reserves most of the natural nutrients of the oats, especially the beta glucan.”
The ingredients for Oatly’s oat-based milk drinks comprise only oats, water and some sea salt, with no added sugar as the sweetness comes from the natural sugars in the oats. The oat milk is also fortified with vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium and vitamins A, D, B12 and riboflavin.
SUSTAINABILITY AND GLOBAL WARMING
There’s clearly no better time to make a difference.
“There is absolutely no doubt that humanity needs to find a solution to address one of the biggest challenges of the century: How do we feed 10 billion people properly using the only planet that we have access to? Many environmental issues – including deforestation, water and land consumption – are by-products of traditional farming methods. These inefficiencies contribute to 26% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. We believe that the answer to this question invariably involves developing technologies that are more sustainable than animal farming to produce tasty, delicious and nutritious food,” Andre Menezes, Co-Founder & COO, Next Gen Foods.
“Sustainability has never been more important, from reducing climate change to promoting biodiversity, especially when it comes to food, and our first base ingredient was carefully chosen with this in mind. Jackfruit is an extremely efficient crop with high yields and low water usage making it friendly to smallholder farmers. It is also typically grown intercropped, promoting biodiversity. 60% of jackfruit is currently being wasted, a contributor to global warming, so at Karana we’ll be reducing that wastage, while working with farmers to support the local economy,” Daniel Riegler, Co-CEO Karana.
“People are beginning to realise that we can do so much for the environment and for our health by incorporating plant-based foods into diets. The fact that plant-based food start-ups have managed to successfully replicate the taste profiles and textures of animal-based products, creates an added impetus for consumers to substitute animal products and encourage adoption in their lifestyle and eating habits.” Keshav Raj, Product & Business Development Manager, Float Foods.
“JUST Egg is better for planetary health too, as it requires less land, water and carbon emissions to make, and is one of the most sustainable protein sources on the planet,” Josh Tetric, CEO, Eat Just Inc.
Chris Rivard, Global Senior R&D Manager, Ben & Jerry’s says, “Now in our fourth year without milk and cream, we use plant-based ingredients such as almond milk or sunflower cream and butter for that smooth and creamy product, as the almond and sunflower butter bases allow for better flavour building, without any aftertaste. Adds Li-En Chua, Country Business Lead, Ben & Jerry’s Singapore, “The current almond-milk-based options in Singapore feature regular classic dairy flavours such as Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Chocolate Fudge Brownie and Chocolate Caramel Cluster, but without the dairy”. “Our non-dairy, vegan range is made with non-GMO ingredients, Fairtrade Certified ingredients and are 100% certified vegan.”
Likewise, Magnum’s dairy-free range features a rich, pea protein based non-dairy product, ideal for flexitarians, vegans and lactose intolerant individuals also. A spokesperson from Magnum Singapore says, “The chocolate couverture in our ice cream is also made from sustainably sourced cocoa beans from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms, and Magnum Dairy-Free ice creams are vegan certified by the European Vegetarian Union, one of the bestknown vegan certifying bodies in the EU.”
And unsurprisingly, Oatly has also moved into the vegan ice cream industry. “Since the launch of our oat milk range in Singapore, we have also launched Oatly’s vegan ice-cream in Singapore, our first in Southeast Asia. Available in six flavours - Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla, Chocolate Fudge, Hazelnut Swirl, and Salted Caramel, free of dairy, lactose and soy ingredients,” says Amanda Chan, Marketing and Communications Lead, Oatly Asia.
KEY PLANT-BASED INGREDIENTS
While there are more ingredients at play here, we highlight the most common non-genetically modified building blocks of plant-based meats and what they really are.
Soy protein – Also known as soy leghemoglobin, this protein is found in the roots of soybean plants, and is rich in non-heme iron (a type of iron found in many plants that is different to regular heme iron in meat). Soy protein usually forms the base of many plant-based burgers because of its ability to make fake meat “bleed” when cooked to mimic real red meat as far as possible. However, it is important to note that while soy protein is rich in iron, plant-based non-heme iron is absorbed at a much lower rate by our bodies than regular heme iron found in animal products. Hence the need to add vitamin B12, iodine, zinc, vitamin D and calcium to plant-based products, to better cater for vegan requirements.
Pea protein – this is the most common type of vegetable protein used as an animal protein substitute. While pea protein has been associated with positive effects such as lowering cholesterol, it is a derivative of legumes, so can be an issue for those with a peanut allergy.
Coconut oil – though once considered a superfood, it is important to remember that more than 80% of calories in coconut oil come from saturated fat, which is linked to high levels of the ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the blood, causing issues such as clogged arteries and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 13g of saturated fat per day; and considering that a plant-based burger can have up to 20g of saturated fat (usually from a combination of canola and coconut oil), moderation is key here.
Beet juice – red meat has real blood and plant-based burgers have beet juice to mimic the red colour of rare meat. Made from steamed, boiled or roasted beets, the healthy beet juice is brimming with good things such as folate, vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants, all of which can help protect against heart disease and some types of cancer. However, remember that the amount of beets used in plant-based meats is minimal, so a vegan burger isn’t your solution to being a major source of these important nutrients.
Seitan – essentially a soy-free option, this processed wheat gluten is high in protein, low in fat, and rich in selenium, iron, calcium, phosphorus and copper. Even though seitan is made from wheat, its processing method keeps carbs to a minimum (think 4g/serving), but should still be avoided by those with a gluten intolerance or a celiac disease.
Yeast extract – this brings the umami factor to plant-based meats with a unique savoury flavor typically associated with meat and seafood. And it also adds to the nutritional value, being an important source of vitamin B12, predominantly found in animal products such as meat, fish, milk and eggs, and critical for maintaining red blood cell production, converting food to energy and maintaining a healthy nervous system.