11 July 2024

Plant-based food companies and brands are being urged to improve the taste and lower the prices of their products while providing more information about the benefits of plant-based foods and nutrition and removing certain ingredients to make them healthier. Such moves would almost certainly drive plant-based food adoption and enable companies to achieve market growth.

According to Statista, the Thai plant-based food market was estimated to be worth 28 billion baht in 2019. It’s projected to reach 45 billion in 2024.

The global and business intelligence platform predicts that the share of people who don’t eat meat in Thailand will increase from 8% in 2019 to 15% in 2025.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused consumers to become more conscious about leading a healthy life to prevent health problems. Many started to cut down on meat consumption and switched to plant-based foods to cut down on meat. This offered major opportunities for food companies and brands to capitalize on the trend.

CP Foods launched a “MEAT ZERO” range, with “meat” made from plants but which feels, tastes and looks like real meat while the Thai Union Group has rolled out OMG Meat, a plant-based seafood range.

Even Thai oil and gas conglomerate PTT Group has diversified into the plant-based protein business. Meat Avatar, More Meat and Let’s Plant Meat offer a range of plant-based alternatives including burger patties and mince that are made of plants.

Thai PBS World talked with consumers who are interested in the plant-based diet and meat substitutes, as well as someone who used to consume plant-based products frequently about their eating habits, why they are interested in eating plant-based foods, how they felt about them and what made them reduce their consumption.

The overall finding was that the price and taste of products are the main factors that put consumers off eating more plant-based foods. Many of those surveyed said they would buy more plant-based products if they were more affordable than conventional products.

Consumers also want the texture and mouthfeel of meat substitutes to be closer to the taste of animal products. They also demand that companies and brands improve product availability as they are almost impossible to find in local stores.

Those who are not familiar with plant-based products wanted more information on the nutrition they provide.

Plant-based alternatives may not be wallet-friendly

In the current economic climate, price is undoubtedly a big barrier that holds consumers back from eating more plant-based alternatives.

Preeyanut C., 44, a government officer, enjoys both plants and meats. She says she is eating more vegetables and fruits than pre-Covid, follows a vegetarian diet during the vegetarian festival and has used plant-based foods to cut back on meat to improve her health.

“I’ve tried to eat more plant-based food and visit a vegetarian food stall I like more often. I think a plant-based diet would be healthier for me. It can help me lower my cholesterol. I still eat meat, mostly fish and lean chicken, but not the skin, fat and offal,” she said.

Preeyanut is very interested in plant-based alternatives and enjoys many of them. One of her favourite dishes is meatless burgers. But she complains they cost more than animal-based food products and are difficult to find at convenience stores near her house and office.

“They look like real meat burgers. The taste is quite close to meat. I love them. But they seem to be more a bit expensive than other traditional products. If the prices come down, I will have them more often,” she said.

The flexitarian is also concerned about the nutritional value of plant-based products, particularly protein content, urging manufacturers to provide details on nutrition and the benefits of plant-based meat and animal meat.

“I’m not sure if plant-based meat has similar nutritional values to real meat. I’m worried that I would miss some important nutrients when replacing it with plant-based meat,” Preeyanut said.

Patipon P., 57, an office employee, concurs with Preeyanut’s statement, saying some frozen plant-based products at supermarkets are almost double the price of the vegetarian food she usually buys from stalls in a market near Chinatown. She expects the prices of plant-based alternatives to fall when demand increases in the future.

“On a busy day, it’s convenient for me to buy a frozen plant-based alternative for dinner,” she said, adding she usually cooks vegetarian meals for herself and has practised vegetarianism for more than 30 years

With respect to taste, Patipon noted some plant-based items or brands taste worse than others.

“I love the veggie steamed buns I buy from a convenience store. They have generous fillings and a great flavor. But the taste of vegan spaghetti and meatballs is not that great. I fixed it by adding some lemon juice and other condiments to make it better,” she said.

Good taste really matters

Taste and texture are also the key drivers behind consumers’ decisions on whether or not to adopt a plant-based diet.

Nida W., 46, a business owner, tried out a chocolate bar made of plant-based milk and meatless meatballs and found they didn’t meet her expectations. She would like the taste of plant-based meat to match the taste of animal meat.

“I expected companies and brands to make something that tastes like traditional products. But they were so disappointing. I don’t mind pistachio and almond milks. But when these are used in making chocolate, the taste is awful and the texture is crumbly.

The fake meat of the meatballs was grainy and not chewy,” she said.

Nida already drinks plant-based milk products, which are an entry point for many consumers to start eating a plant-based diet. She plans to go plant-based as it’s healthy and trendy.

“I’m interested in a plant-based diet as it can be a healthier choice. But I don’t like how they taste. I would eat plant-based products over meat products if they tasted better. I hope brands will be more creative,” she said.

Plant-based meat is not natural

Patsita J. 47, a freelance dietician said some plant-based products including meat substitutes are too processed and contain high levels of salt or sodium.

“I always look at the nutrition facts of plant-based alternatives on the label for the amount of protein, carbohydrate, fat and sodium. Some of the meat substitutes contain more sodium than the meat products. I often feel thirsty after eating plant-based meats.” she said.

She’s cutting down on ready-to-eat plant-based products and cooking meals more often. She focuses on whole foods, grains, nuts and beans and uses tempeh and tofu as main sources of protein as they are minimally processed.

“I jumped into plant-based products when I decided to follow a flexitarian diet as it’s convenient,” she said.

Patsita leads a healthy lifestyle. She exercises regularly and watches what she eats. She has been a flexitarian for five years.

“I cut back on meat consumption and skip all meat every Buddhist holy day and on Thursday, the day I was born. I eat more vegetables and fruits on those days,” she said.

Home-cooked meals are the best, Patsita noted, saying she’s learning to create new dishes from Instagram every day.

“Home cooking is not only cheaper but healthier too. You can control the ingredients and use the method you prefer to make food taste better and more nutritious. On top of that, you can control portion size. No matter the recipe, cooking is always better for your health,” she said.

By Thai PBS World Feature Desk