Going vegetarian or vegan is a worldwide trend that is gaining more and more popularity all around the world and China is no different. China’s vegan food market is growing and so is the appetite of Chinese consumers for plant-based products. And what is more, the Chinese government is also supporting the rapid development of this trend, as the country is fighting with a huge obesity problem, especially among young Chinese people.
China is the biggest meat consumer in the world with 142.5 million tonnes eaten in 2022. Although Chinese cuisine is composed of many vegetables, they are most of the time mixed with pork or chicken. However, the vegetarian market is surely gaining ground on the market in China and is expected to be worth US$12 billion by 2023. In this blog post, we will explore the vegetarian market in China with the newest trends on the horizon and check the possibilities for foreign food companies to enter this largest consumer market in the world.
China’s meat consumption is decreasing
Nowadays China is the world’s leader when it comes to meat consumption, with an average of 44.4kg per person in 2020, which is a decrease from 45.7kg in the previous year. Although it might seem like Chinese cuisine is very meat-centered, it wasn’t always the case.
Before the economic reforms in the 80s, meat was treated as a delicacy for special events and occasions. But later on, with the rise of income and accessibility of meat, it has turned into a staple at every meal, from breakfast baozi to beef noodles dinner. Meat is no longer special but is deeply ingrained into Chinese food habits. However, we are starting to see some changes with the entry into the Chinese market of big plant-based meat alternatives.
Overview of the vegetarian market
In China’s first-tier cities, more and more vegetarian or healthy restaurants with plant-based alternatives have opened. Actually, franchises such as Starbuck have started selling vegetarian dishes as well as serving soy milk (Oalty) which is a sign that reducing meat consumption is mainstream (and “trendy”) again.
China already has over 50 million vegetarians, who offer an immediate consumer base that doesn’t need to be convinced to experiment with meat alternatives. What is important to understand is that there is not that much distinction between vegetarianism and veganism in China, as those diets don’t differ as much there, as they do in other countries. Chinese people are naturally lactose intolerant and they are not used to cheese and dairy products, as it’s not typical for their cuisine.
It is worth noting that if people are reducing their meat consumption, they are turning to plant-based meat substitutes, which creates an opportunity for foreign and domestic companies to leverage this fast-growing plant-based market.
China’s Vegan Food Market is on the Rise
Across the world, the vegan movement is led by younger consumers, especially teens and Millennials who seem to be more invested in defending and spreading awareness about this cause, and it appears China is no exception to this.
The Chinese vegan market is predicted to experience a growth of 17% in the upcoming years. This is already considered to be the fastest international growth in this time period and it suggests that a huge shift in consumer habits in Asia will occur. Although only 5% of Chinese netizens are vegetarian or vegan, this trend will only grow.
In the future, Asia is predicted to be a major player in the global veganism movement and as such, international plant-based companies have recently started introducing their plant-based products to several locations around Asia. What is more, the Chinese government is planning to halve the country’s meat consumption by 2030.
What are the reasons for China’s turn into meat alternatives?
China’s meat market is changing as Chinese society is becoming more and more interested in a plant-based diet. Although some of the reasons for this shift in behavior are similar to other countries in the world (like the fact, that vegan diets are very trendy now), Chinese consumers might also have some other, that all companies interested in entering the Chinese market should know about before working on the marketing strategy for their brands.
Self-Sufficiency and Sustainability
China is home to a consequent part of the world’s population, however, it only has 7% of the world’s plowable land. Plant-based proteins require far less land than meat and dairy and would be a much more efficient way for the Chinese population to get the food that they need.
Additionally, one of the reasons for the Chinese authorities’ attempts to reduce meat consumption by 50% is the fact that the meat industry and animal agriculture have a very bad environmental impact. As China is trying to reduce carbon emissions, the government needs to find ways to produce less meat and dairy.
Chinese people want to live healthier lives, just like Buddist monks do
Just like most of the people in the world that are turning to plant-based foods, Chinese consumers are also more aware of the health problems associated with excessive meat intake. Studies show that people that eat plant-based food don’t suffer from high blood pressure and obesity as much as meat eaters do, which is very important, as China is facing big problems with obesity, especially among young people.
What is more unique for China is that a lot of people are Buddhists or implement some parts of its doctrine in daily life. Buddhist diet is based on plant-based products and Buddhist monks are believed to be very healthy. Eating vegan products goes along with treating the body as a temple and feeling empathy and compassion for all living things.
Thanks to a relatively big population of Buddhists in China, the Chinese population of vegetarians and vegans is growing, as people take followers of the doctrine as examples of healthy people and want to follow their steps. It’s not a surprise that even ‘budda bowls‘ – typical vegetarian or vegan dishes from Buddhist culture are associated with a healthy dish.
Chinese people are concerned about food safety and animal rights
China has a lot of returning problems with food safety and food scandals are something that is often talked about in the news and Internet. One of the examples that got out of control is the outbreak of Covid, which happened in one of the wet markets, that are believed to be a center of a lot of bacteria and diseases. A lot of these scandals happen in the meat market and Chinese consumers are getting more and more tired of this, turning to the plant-based meat market instead.
There is also a big group of people turning to plant-based alternatives for ethical reasons. There is still not much place for animals in Chinese law and the production of meat is concerning those, that can’t stand the cruelty of the meat market.
Who can benefit from the Vegetarian market Growth in China?
There is no doubt that the vegetarian market and especially the Chinese plant-based meat market are growing. Although China is considered one of these ‘meat-focused’ countries, in fact, it currently represents 53% of the plant-based meat industry in the world. There is a huge potential for domestic and foreign companies to enter this lucrative industry. So who can best benefit from the vegetarian market growth in this largest consumer market?
Foreign and local organic fruit and vegetable producers
China is still at the beginning of its journey toward a healthier diet. People are not yet much aware of the dangers of the use of too many toxic products and pesticides in agriculture. The production of organic fruits and vegetables is just starting and people are not accustomed to ‘organic’ labels like people in Europe or US. Awareness of pesticides and toxic soils is not the sole reason for the rise in organic product demand.
But, because of the many food security scandals horrifying the netizens, consumers are becoming more cautious of what they put on their plates. In 2021, the sales of organic food in China increased to about 521.86 billion yuan. The market is rising, creating opportunities for organic fruit and vegetable producers.
Another explanation for the rise of organic food is the development of groceries delivery services by Alibaba, Tencent, or Pinduoduo. These companies rely a lot on consumers’ trust to grow, therefore, hiring quality producers locally and overseas.
Healthy restaurants with vegetarian/vegan options
As mentioned earlier, the vegan market is estimated to be worth $12 billion by 2023, creating an opportunity for restaurants and franchises in China and Hong Kong. For the last decades, meat consumption was paired with wealth while the vegetarian diet was associated with either poverties or monastic life (the best vegan restaurants in China are run by monks).
With the government pushing for less meat consumption, more interest in health and the environment, being vegetarian or vegan is becoming a statement, a lifestyle choice rather than an obligation, giving vegetable dishes some kind of status and growing their popularity in 1st and 2nd tier cities.
The best sign that the market is healthily growing is the adoption of Fast Food franchises. Plant-based meats are widely used by restaurants in big Chinese cities, and meat products from companies like Beyond Meat, Qishan Food, Plant Professor, or Impossible Foods are used by restaurants all over China. Eating plant-based products is considered healthy and trendy, so opening a vegetarian or vegan restaurant is definitely one of the best choices to make.
Instant plant-based meat dishes and vegetarian ingredients
Nowadays, with the fast pace of life, more and more people turn to instant dishes and frozen ingredients that they can prepare fast at home or at work. People with a plant-based diet are no exception to this trend. Therefore, one of the greatest opportunities in China’s plant-based meat and the vegan market is to invest in instant or frozen dishes ‘to-go’.
Take the example of Carrefour, a French multinational retailer, that has developed its own range of products “Carrefour Veggie“. The products are very varied: soy dumplings, breaded vegetable patties, falafels, wheat nuggets imitating real meat, and so on.
More and more companies collaborate with restaurants and markets to introduce their plant-based products to a bigger audience. One of the examples is a collaboration of Oatly (a plant-based milk company) with Dal Cuore ice-cream brand to introduce vegan ice cream.
Brands such as Beyond meat or Impossible Foods collaborate with international franchises (like KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Starbucks) but also local giants (Alibaba Fresh Hippo). This trend, seen on international markets, is definitely storming China’s first-tier cities and plant-based meat is not something that surprises people there anymore.
How to conquer China’s Vegetarian market?
Plant-based market in China offers great opportunities for domestic and foreign companies wanting to have a piece of market share for themselves. But there are some key considerations to take into account before entering the Chinese plant-based market.
China has multiple markets
Although the interest in vegetarianism is growing, its progress is not that quick and does not affect the whole country. The big cities definitely represent an interesting market for this type of product. The inhabitants in big cities have more wealth and are less worried about day-to-day life; allowing them to care more for their health or the environment. Plus, with the news status it acquires and the marketing around it, many vegan products are more expensive than “normal” ones.
But what is important to remember, 34.4% of the whole country is rural areas, and introducing a plant-based diet will be very hard there. Therefore, it’s better to focus your marketing strategy on China’s plant-based market in the biggest cities, like Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and so on.
Find distributors for your plant-based products
This will not be an easy task but it is not impossible either granted you don’t shy away from proper marketing strategy. Chinese distributors just like consumers do not grant their trust easily and research brands quite a bit in order to evaluate their potential before signing any deals. The positive point is that you have quite a bit of a choice. You can build a traditional distribution network for supermarkets, work with franchises and brands (just like Oatly and Beyond Meat) or sell directly online through cross-border eCommerce marketplaces.
Our agency can help you find the right distributors for your brand. Here are some of our services regarding distribution in China;
Offer home delivery
In China, home delivery is highly developed. Everywhere in the streets, you can see the scooters of the deliverymen of “Eleme”, “Meituan” and many others. Takeout is an important part of life, people order everything from coffee, and groceries to dinners. It is not that restaurants are dying out, but they exist to offer a different experience.
It has become increasingly important to offer flexibility to your customers on how they can consume your products. We mentioned earlier that e-commerce opens the door for organic product growth in China, and it can also be said for vegetarian products/dishes. But you won’t succeed if you don’t give Chinese customers an option of delivery, especially when it comes to ready dishes or instant ingredients.
Work on your E-Reputation
Reputation is important in China, it is actually the number 1 criterion for online purchases. Chinese customers will trust brands that have a good image online. They read good comments or recommendations from their friends or family before buying something. This is why having a Chinese website and being present on Chinese social media and forums is a must these days.
Take care of good promotion on Chinese social media platforms
Being present on Chinese social media is very important, as it helps to build brand awareness and trust. Especially when it comes to plant-based products that most interest younger generations, your way of contacting this audience is through social media. Young people look for reviews and recommendations on Wechat, Weibo, Red, Douyin, and many more and they follow the trends seen on their favorite platforms.
Being present on social media will help you market your brand and promote your products in many different ways, catering to the needs of different customer groups. You can write educational content about plant-based diets, post funny videos and user-generated content, promote your products with paid advertising or collaborate with Chinese influencers. If you want to be trendy and gain trust in China, social media are the way to do it.
Find inspiration in local vegetarian and vegan initiatives
With the rise of the plant-based market, a big interest among young consumers in China, and help from the government, the vegetarian and vegan markets in China are attracting more and more attention, resulting in a lot of interesting local initiatives. Their purpose is to attract more people to this lifestyle choice and make them eat meat only on rare occasions or newer.
Hong Kong seems to be leading the way in terms of veganism in Asia, one of the reasons why is in part due to David Yeung who introduced the Green Monday initiative, Asia’s answer to Meat-free Mondays, and created Green Common, a plant-based supermarket. It has been producing the Future Burger also known in the Western world as the Beyond Burger.
Want to enter China’s Vegetarian Market?
If you’d like to sell your vegetarian products in China or are hoping to open a restaurant in one of the big cities there, don’t hesitate to contact us. We are China digital agency with more than 10 years of experience with foreign brands from different sectors. With a team of more than 70 Chinese and foreign professionals, we can help you gain recognition in the thriving vegetarian market in China.
We will help you develop the best marketing solutions for your business, find the right distributors for your products and many more. Leave us a comment or contact us to discuss your project!