What is meal replacement？
Literally, meal replacement is a kind of food that replaces part or all of the main meal.
Common forms of meal replacements include meal replacement powders, meal replacement bars, meal replacement shakes, and meal replacement porridge.
In 2013, a hard-working Silicon Valley programmer named Rhinehart got tired of the whole eating thing and decided to make his own kind of food. As a result, Soylent, the first meal replacement company on earth was founded.
Its product looks like a “bag of milk powder,” but it’s actually a powder made by breaking up the nutrients needed for a human lunch.
Theoretically, after eating a cup of Soylent like this, you should feel like you’ve had a healthy lunch. Soylent pretty much defines the shape of meal replacements in the consumer market.
With the continuous enrichment of meal replacement categories, the market consumption power is being released. Although there is still a gap between the size of China’s meal replacement market and other developed countries, the great potential for development is still undeniable.
The booming market in China
China’s meal replacement food market has risen rapidly in the past two years, yet these foreign brands such as Soylent are failed to introduce the concept of meal replacement food into China in the early stages.
In 2015, China’s first meal replacement company, RuoFan, was founded, and its founder, ShaoWei, is also a programmer.
His reasons for starting RuoFan were strikingly similar to Rhinehart’s – because the Internet industry in China is so busy, he wanted to find a way to eat faster.
However, at this time, meal replacement food was not widely known by Chinese people, and the market growth was relatively slow.
After that, as the production process progressed, meal replacement food continued to iterate, and startups such as WonderLab, WangBaoBao, ffit8, and Smeal cut into different segments of meal replacement to seeking competitive differentiation.
Until 2019 China’s meal replacement market began to formally take off, along with the favor of capital, each meal replacement food company quickly became popular on the network. Pepsi, Nestle, Master Kong, HEYTEA, and other well-known enterprises have entered the Chinese meal replacement industry, but also to add a fire to the industry heat.
According to a research and analysis report, from 2017 to 2020, China’s meal replacement market size has been growing continuously with a CAGR of 68.8%. As of 2020, the meal replacement market size reached RMB 47.26 billion, and according to this trend, China’s meal replacement market size is expected to reach RMB 92.43 billion in 2021 and RMB 132.18 billion in 2022.
The current Chinese meal replacement food market is mainly for mass consumers, with about 610 million potential consumers. The new first-tier and second-tier cities are the main markets, accounting for nearly 50% of the total value of consumption, with 85% of female consumers.
At present, it seems that the Chinese meal replacement market is still in a rapid growth stage, and the Chinese consumers’ demand for meal replacement food is also developing from a single category to diversified and segmented categories.
People’s dual pursuit of convenience and health has further driven the growth and development of China’s meal replacement industry in the direction of satiety and functionality.
Driven by mutiple factors
The Fast-paced life in China
With the rapid development of society, the pace of people’s lives is gradually accelerating, and the situation that Rhinehart and ShaoWei experienced at the beginning has become a problem that more and more people need to face today.
Including the time required to travel, order, wait and eat, a traditional meal often takes half an hour or more, which is undoubted quite a luxury for the fast-paced Chinese people.
The high-fiber, low-calorie, easy-to-satiate and other characteristics of meal replacements, not only to provide people with the nutrients they need, but also to compress the meal time to a few minutes short, naturally come into the range of choice for more Chinese people.
Disposable income and increased awareness of health management
Data show that China’s per capita disposable income increased significantly from 2014-2019, from RMB 20,167 to RMB 32,189. The increase in income has also led to an increase in purchasing power, and people’s pursuit of living standards has naturally risen.
Diet health is a topic of close concern for Chinese people, but the fast-paced daily work and living habits make people have a low score on their own diet health assessment.
According to the data, 67% of Chinese people consider diet to be quite important; in contrast, only 8% of them are very satisfied with the healthiness of their diet, and 36% of them feel “failing”.
Along with the emergence of the 2020 epidemic, health awareness in China has increased at an unprecedented rate, with the importance of healthy eating increasing by as much as 70%, surpassing sports and fitness and environmental protection to top the list of changes in national lifestyles.
The rising awareness of health management has made Chinese people’s food choices more nutritious and healthy, and the Chinese meal replacement industry is naturally developing rapidly under this impetus.
For weight loss
Urgent need for weight loss and slimming pathway
In recent years, along with the rapid economic development not only the standard of living of the Chinese people, but also people’s weight is unknowingly growing. The obesity rate in China has increased 8-fold for women and 29-fold for men over the past 40 years, and the overweight and obesity rate among China’s adult population has exceeded 50%.
Obesity not only brings changes in body shape, but also causes an increase in the incidence of chronic diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease, with deaths due to chronic diseases accounting for 88.5% of total deaths in China in 2019.
Compared with daily meal replacements, the proportion of functional meal replacements in the Chinese meal replacement market is increasing year by year. 38.02% of surveyed users’ demand points for meal replacements are mainly weight management, followed by a variety of other efficacy needs such as beauty, sleep, increase, and hair loss prevention.
Unlike traditional food, 46.9% of consumers buy meal replacements mainly through online channels, while other major channels include shopping, specialty stores and supermarkets.
As consumers are mostly young groups growing up in the Internet era, merchants have made more use of content platforms such as Tik Tok, Kwai, Xiaohongshu and Bilibili to promote their products.
The results of the publicity are visible to the naked eye. On April 24, 2020, ffit8 Light Body Meal Replacement Protein Bar was launched in the famous Chinese influencer Luo Yonghao’s live broadcast, achieving a volume of more than 40,000 boxes and sales of more than 3 million.
Live streaming and short video platforms are perfect for selling meal replacements, a product that fuels appearance anxiety, and with the propaganda of a physically attractive anchor and a lot of pop-ups, people are more likely to have the urge to buy.
In this context, the entry point for weight loss in China’s meal replacement food enterprises in the past two years has also emerged, becoming the sought-after object of many beauty lovers.
Only eating meal replacements can not lose weight
Many Chinese people buy meal replacements to lose weight, however, are meal replacements that good?
The caloric intake of a meal is about 500-1000 kcal, and the consumption of meal replacement can control the caloric intake to about 150-500 kcal. People reduce the energy intake of a particular meal through meal replacements as if that makes people lose weight?
It seems to solve the problem of obesity, yet most meal replacements are not nutritionally complete, can not cover all the nutrients necessary for human survival.
If we eat only meal replacements for a long period and throughout the day, especially when the total energy intake is <800 kcal throughout the day, we will have a high probability of immune malnutrition and risk of weight regain. In severe cases, it can even lead to muscle atrophy and decreased organ function.
Functional meal replacement can only play an auxiliary role in the end, want to achieve the purpose of weight loss, healthy habits and an appropriate amount of exercise are still essential.
What kind of meal replacement is more popular?
Since meal replacements have begun to subdivide and diversify, which meal replacements are more popular with Chinese consumers?
Carbohydrate-based meal replacements dominate the market
Unlike the Western diet, Easterners are more accustomed to rice and noodles as the main food, supplemented by other dishes as the main meal; bread and cereals are not often found on the table.
Data show that in September 2021, Taobao/Tmall platform meal replacement food sales exceeded 8,776,300 pieces, with a transaction value of more than RMB 325 million.
Among them, meal replacement bread, meal replacement cereal, and meal replacement powder together, as a carbohydrate meal replacement occupies 63% of the total value of meal replacement food sales. The meal replacement beef, chicken, and other meal replacements to provide protein-based meal sales accounted for only about 10%, much lower than the carbohydrate meal replacements.
It is clear that although the proportion of functional meal replacements is increasing year by year, the main demand of Chinese people to buy meal replacements is to replace regular meals and reduce mealtime.
The pursuit of low sugar, low fat, high protein
To attract target consumers, meal replacement sellers often add keywords to the product title to highlight the selling point, and this part of the data also reflects the Chinese consumers’ preference for meal replacement food.
The data shows that the monthly sales of products with the main selling keywords in the title is 5,155,600 pieces, accounting for 59% of the total sales of meal replacement foods. Meal replacements containing the keyword “low sugar” are the most popular, accounting for 45%, while the sales of products containing the keyword “low fat” account for 10%. In addition, including “low-cal” and “high fiber” related words accounted for 5% and 3% of sales respectively.
The above keywords are almost always linked to the act of losing weight, and people’s obsession with beauty is indeed enduring, both in China and abroad.
Prefer affordable meal replacements, but also willing to pay for extra nutrition
Currently, the price of meal replacement food on Taobao/Tmall platform is basically concentrated within 100 RMB, of which products in the range of 20-40 RMB account for 47% of total sales and are the most popular, followed by products priced below 20 RMB, accounting for 33% of sales. Meal replacements priced above RMB 40 account for 20% of the total sales.
Although a high proportion of sales of meal replacement bread, because of the simple ingredients, product homogeneity is high, consumers do not show obvious differences in preference.
Meal replacement cereals, which also account for the bulk of the cereal, are very different, plain cereals generally sell for less than RMB 20, but with only 28% of sales. The average sales price of cereals with added nutrients such as chia seeds, dried fruit, and nuts is more than RMB 43, which is 42.13% higher than the original cereal without additives, but the sales volume is also 162% higher.
This situation also occurs under the category of meal replacement chicken, adding ingredients such as soy protein isolate chicken meatballs, chicken sausage, and other meal replacements, although the same chicken as the main ingredient, sales are far less than the chicken breast pre-cooked from the whole pure chicken.
The latter is more expensive, but because the ingredients are visible, it has become the most popular item among chicken meal replacements, accounting for 74% of total sales.
When Chinese consumers buy meal replacements, they do not always seek low prices or high nutritional values but try to find a balance between good products and low cost, and most are willing to pay for extra nutrition within their means.
The main brands and characteristics of Chinese meal replacements
RuoFan began to layout the Chinese market in 2015, exploring online and offline channels, and after several years of low-key development, finally ushered in the spring of China’s meal replacement market.
At present, there are three series of products: solid meal replacement, liquid meal replacement, and meal replacement powder.
Solid meal replacements, as the most basic meal replacement food, are more often used in place of regular meals, and the liquid version focuses more on breakfast and mealtime scenarios. Meal replacement powder is biased toward the functional addition of dietary nutrients and other substances required by adults on a daily basis.
WonderLab is currently the head brand in China’s meal replacement industry, established in 2017. With fat loss and muscle-building staple salads and lean shakes as the entry point, it has since launched probiotics and dietary fiber powder.
Since the inception of the company, the development of all products is to fat loss, slimming, and other functional selling points, so its meal replacement food consumers are mostly young women.
ffit8 was established in 2019, and its main products are ffit8 protein bars and ffit8 probiotic protein powder.
Its products are targeted to the development of WPI isolated whey protein, WPI isolated whey protein molecules are smaller, more quickly absorbed by the body, and eliminate most of the lactose.
It is undoubtedly a savior for Asian people who want to replenish their protein but are suffering from lactose intolerance.
It was officially launched in May 2018, pioneering products such as Yogurt Fruity Multi Baked Cereal, Strawberry U Crunchy Milk Baked Cereal, and Peach Oolong Baked Oats.
WangBaoBao cereal does not add starch, rice flour, using low-temperature baking, retaining the complete fiber content of cereal. The cereal has dried fruit, yogurt cubes, prebiotics to add more dietary fiber and uses steviol glycosides as a 0-calorie sugar substitute.
For the Oriental people who do not often eat cereal, its products are more like a new variety of snack substitutes for people who have cravings but are afraid of gaining weight, rather than a meal replacement.
With the steady growth of China’s meal replacement food market and the segmentation and diversification of meal replacement food, perhaps the future of meal replacement food is not just a substitute for busy people’s regular meals but will come out of a road of its own.