Recently, I suddenly realized that few people in the English-speaking world seems to have ever said that Chinese consumers hate plant-based meat.
Many plant-based Meat brands, such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat or STARFIELD, have claimed in interviews that China is their most important market. And they do seem to have some cases.
For example, they have introduced plant-based dumplings and baozi, and launched partnerships with KFC, Starbucks, and McDonald’s in China.
But as a consumer and business analyst who lives in China, I have to tell you that this is a pure illusion. Let`s be honest: After January 2020, most Chinese consumers hate plant-based meat.
A discriminatory food from white people
Impossible Foods and the New York Times are largely responsible for Chinese consumers’ aversion to plant-based meat.
Here is the thing: on January 8, 2020, the New York Times published an article: Impossible Dumplings and Beyond Buns: Will China Buy Fake Meat?
The article interviewed Impossible Foods, which was in the China International Import Expo. The company is a very well-known plant meat production company.
In this post, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown expressed his commitment to China, but then he drops the taboo:
Every time someone in Chinaeats a piece of meat, a little puff of smoke goes up in the Amazon,” Mr. Brown said. “It is an absolutely essential and extremely important market for us.
The report quickly spread to Chinese social networking site Weibo, where the translated version was reposted hundreds of thousands of times. Then a conspiracy theory about plant-based meat gained widespread acceptance.
This conspiracy theory is based on two facts:
1. Per capita meat consumption in China is much, much lower than in the United States and European countries.
2. Therefore, blaming Chinese consumers in the meat market is a form of discrimination.
Soon after, though, the New York Times deleted the sentence from the Chinese version of the article. But things can’t be reversed.
You know, in early 2020, few Chinese consumers had heard of plant-based meat or cultured meat before. The first time they heard about the product was related to a report suspected of discriminating against them.
There is no better new product promotion than this, is there?
These two facts then extend to plant-based meat, which many believe is itself a product of this discrimination:
The Western world invented plant-based meat, which is “expensive, tasteless and has no obvious nutritional advantage”, in order to prevent the Chinese from getting natural meat or protein at the same price.
For Chinese people, this is unacceptable.
Confucius once said, “Do unto others as you would have them Do unto you.”
This saying has a profound impact on Chinese society to this day.
According to Statistica.com, annual meat consumption in the United States was 102kg per person in 2020. In 2019, China’s per capita annual meat consumption was only 26.9 kg.
If plant-based meat really is the “food of the future” with many advantages for Chinese consumers, why do the two American companies not make it popular in the United States first?
“If Americans are still eating four times as much real meat as the average Chinese every year, then Americans should not come to China to sell fake meat.”
After the article in the New York Times, this has become the attitude of most ordinary Chinese consumers towards plant-based meat.
Of course, I don’t believe Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat really means to create racist food. But in the eyes of Chinese consumers, it truly is.
This is a cultural difference, and it is a pity that a plant-based meat consumer mentioned this in the NYT article said about it: “Foreign companies don’t understand our Chinese culture.”
However, neither Pat Brown nor the reporter realized this until the article was published.
Problematic Marketing method
The NYT’s report opened Pandora’s box.
In the following year, almost any promotion of plant-based meat would spark controversy in China.
There were two iconic incidents, one of which was that a well-known Chinese Youtuber PaperClip was officially banned after being reported by too many Chinese netizens.
Netizens initially reported PaperClip due to it published a video in March 2020 with the title “Why Does Chinese people’s consumption of meat, eggs and milk affect Brazilian rainforests?”
This video tried to defend Pat Brown’s previous comments and makes an unreliable link between meat consumption and the loss of forests in China. Shortly after the video was uploaded, a large number of Chinese viewers thought PaperClip was a spy.
In another case, Guan Xiaotong, a well-known Chinese film actress, said during a live broadcast that “Plant-based meat has 90% less fat than pork of the same weight., but four times more protein. It’s suitable for people like me who want to lose weight.”
This statement was quickly refuted by many Chinese food industry experts because contains several errors. Current plant-based meat can’t actually cut much fat, nor can it increase the protein content to four times that of real meat.
Then the topic turned to “responsible stars should not promote vegetable meat, and let more Chinese people eat real meat”.
The incident continued for a day on Weibo, Trend, on May 19, 2021, and nine other Chinese movie stars, including Huang Lei, Angelababy and Huang Xuan, who had promoted plant-based meat, were also argued by netizens.
A month later, Chinese-American traveler Gu Yue stirred up controversy again by promoting an environmental campaign to replace seafood with other foods on Weibo. As a matter of fact, Gu Yue himself has repeatedly posted photos of himself fishing and eating seafood around the world on Weibo.
Some Chinese even think that “selling plant-based meat to the Chinese market” is equivalent to “giving watermelon to black people in the United States.”
China market has its own “plant-based meat”
Even those Chinese consumers who do not consider plant-based meat a “conspiracy” or “discrimination” consider it some kind of “stupid tax”.
Stupid tax actually refers to the practice of using complex concepts to sell a simple product for an expensive price.
The reason why these consumers consider plant-based meat like this is due to there are already different kinds of plant-based meat in traditional Chinese food.
In China, Buddhism used to be very popular, so vegetarian food is an important part of Chinese cuisine. Ancient Chinese monks practiced using vegetables and tofu like works of art
In fact, many plant-based meat brands have taken note. In their own propaganda, they often cite the East Asian country’s Buddhist culture as giving meat and plants a broader future in China.
On the other hand, they try to exaggerate the difference between plant meat and tofu. They usually say that plant-based meat is more nutritious and healthier than tofu.
I’m pretty sure the person who wrote this sentence has never eaten vegetarian food in China. They have no idea that the plant-based meat they have invested tens of billions of dollars to develop is nowhere near as tasty and mouthfeel as the tofu used to mimic meat in traditional Chinese food.
You know, the last ruler of the Qing Dynasty, the Empress Dowager Cixi, became Buddhist in middle age, so in the late Qing Dynasty, China’s top chefs were studying how to use ingredients other than meat to make better Chinese food.
So maybe plant-based meat is nutritionally healthier than tofu, but the only difference that any consumer can feel immediately after a first try is that plant-based meat tastes worse than tofu.
As a result, when most Chinese consumers first eat a plant-based burger or plant-based sandwich, their first reaction is: “Isn’t that dried Dougan? And a really bad one.”
Dougan is an ingredient often used in Chinese cuisine to mimic meat dishes. It is made from tofu and resembles pork in taste. From my own experience, plant meat is either inferior to or similar to it.
The best Dougan costs about 20 yuan(about $3) a kilo, while plant-based meat costs about 140 yuan (about $21) a kilo in China.
So you can understand why most Chinese consumers think of plant-based meat as a “stupid tax.”
I also agree with this view. If you don’t think so, then you should try King’s Joy and Jinglian Zhai next time you travel to Beijing.
The two are well-known vegetarian restaurants in Beijing. The former is a Michelin three-star restaurant that costs 1,500 yuan (about $230) per person, while the latter is a Chinese fast food restaurant that costs 60 yuan (about $10) per person.
But whether it’s King’s Joy or Jinglian Zhai, the dishes you can eat are better than plant-based meat.
China’s environmental philosophy is different from that of the West
As we have argued in this article, the Chinese are not indifferent to environmental issues. But they have completely different ideas about how to achieve environmental protection.
The reason Why Pat Brown said that to the NYT reporter is that he mistakenly believed that “environmental protection” itself is absolutely politically correct in China.
But in fact, this is not the case. In China, it is widely believed that the only purpose of environmental protection is to enable humans to live longer and happier life.
This means that any environmental action should not significantly harm short-term profits. For example, we’ve reported that Chinese consumers are unhappy about the ban on plastic straws. In their opinion, establishing an effective recycling mechanism for straws is a more reasonable approach than banning plastic straws, as straws are irreplaceable for cola and milk tea.
Back to the plant-based meat issue: pork, beef, chicken and fish are still irreplaceable in the view of Chinese people at this stage.
Plant-based meat itself has big problems. Simply put, it tastes bad (compared to Dougan or real meat), it’s too expensive (not affordable for the average person), and it has very limited quantities (not available in wet markets).
Aggressive marketing campaigns by several plant-based Meat brands, including Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat and STARFIELD, have in part angered Chinese consumers when plant-based meat itself remains so flawed.
“You want me to spend more money on a worse product? You might need a doctor.”
That’s why plant-based meat is “out of the question” in China, at least for now. In fact, unlike plant-based meat, plant-based milk has had no problems in China.
Instead of being turned off by Oatlly, Chinese consumers love it, even though Oatlly often uses “green” or “Environmental protection” as a marketing pitch.
In the past year, both Starbucks and local coffee chains Luckin and Manner have rolled out lattes that use Oatlly instead of milk.
And boom. Plant milk coffee is completely popular.
This is because the plant-based milk itself tastes so good. Many Chinese people think “putting real milk in your coffee is a detour in the history of mankind” after a simple drink of starbucks’ Oatmeal latte.
In the summer of 2021, Luckin’s Coconut Latte took the Chinese Internet by storm, with almost every coffee drinker lining up to get their hands on it. Luckin uses Coconut milk instead of milk.
So for plant-based meat to succeed in China, the only solution is to “stop being expensive and unpalatable.”
I am sorry to use LikeMeat images as the cover of this article, because they are the only ones who generously upload CC0-based photos on unsplash. The brand has never caused controversy in China because they have not yet entered the Chinese market.