Chinese Consumers Perception Of Plant-Based Foods
China’s meat market is immense, currently valued at $65 billion, and is expected to continue growing by about 7% each year. Meanwhile, over 90% of Chinese consumers do not identify as vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian or pescatarian. GoodGrowth.io, a research and design firm, carried out a qualitative study with 30 consumers to kick-start our understanding of how plant-based products can be made to better appeal to different customer segments in China.
The study participants were from 5 major cities in China. They included heavy meat eaters, vegetarians or vegans, average meat-eaters, churned users – people who had tried being vegetarian but gave up, and some who were trying to eat less meat, in roughly equal proportions. The researchers didn’t expand their sampling to include rural areas or Western China.
The results revealed 8 key insights that should be useful for plant-based companies and initiatives in the region.
- Food safety is often cited as a major concern. Participants of all groups mentioned their concerns about additives being an unhealthy feature in plant-based products. Many were also concerned about “fake” meat. Typically, respondents expressed that plant-based products were not “natural”, too processed, or “pretended” to be meat.
- The second key category was the necessity of animal products. The participants believed that animal products are necessary for a balanced diet. This was especially true in the case of parents, who expressed firm beliefs that meat and milk were crucial for the healthy growth and development of children. Meat was the only animal product that did evoke some health concerns such as resultant high cholesterol, blood pressure, or issues related to chemical, hormonal additives ingested when consuming too much meat.
- Interestingly, many found big food brands, including fast-food providers such as KFC, to be higher end, accountable to international safety and product quality standards, and thus trustworthy. Study participants also shared that such restaurants should have better hygiene and thus were preferred them when ordering food.
- “Mouth-feel” – the overall sensation arising from chewing and sensing food, was very important for the participants. This feature of food is affected by taste, texture, and temperature. In fact, not only was “mouth-feel” the driver behind many food choices but also the most common criticism of plant-based products.
- Soy products were regarded as familiar but not exciting enough. The participants believed that soy products are not as nutritious as meat, they have too many additives and do not have a good enough “mouth-feel” to them. Furthermore, there were concerns raised about GM soy, poor digestibility, and the necessity to use a lot of oil when cooking. Finally, several participants in their 40s mentioned that such products were commonly used during food scarcities in the 1970s and associated them with poverty.
- Children and grandparents were shown to have a significant influence over a household’s food choices.
- It would seem that Chinese consumers try new foods when eating with friends and colleagues, not at home. Meanwhile, restaurant choices are heavily influenced by various online recommendation platforms.
- Concerningly, the participants thought plant-based foods are only for people who experience health issues, ones that do not like the taste of animal products, and religious people. Indeed, since people think that eating meat is necessary, additives and processed foods are generally avoided, and because not many expressed concerns for animal-borne diseases, there was no perceived need to avoid consuming meat. Not to mention the fact that none of the participants were worried about environmental or animal welfare issues.
The researchers introduced four consumer segments, so called “personas”, that represent different types of customers that, given targeted marketing and unique product positioning, might encourage the consumption of plant-based foods. They included: the concerned parent who consideres children’s health as priority number one; the nutrition optimizer, for whom losing weight or building muscle are the goals; the convenience junkie, who prizes easy access to food; and the social foodie whose food choices are heavily influenced by other people.
Furthermore, the researchers suggested that there are opportunities where several trusted channels of distribution may boost sales of plant-based products. These include:
- Workplaces – offerings at company and school canteens could drive dietary change;
- Eating out – meat could be exchanged in fast food to provide a healthier alternative;
- Grocery shopping – online grocery shopping platforms could feature a new grocery category;
- National TV and online influencers – partnerships with influential media channels could be an effective way to promote plant-based products as healthy food.
Despite the fact that there seems to be very limited motivation to eat plant-based, untapped opportunities may be present to create “pull factors” as many Chinese consumers are not yet aware of the potential benefits of plant-based diets. Furthermore, this small study was just the first stage of a two-part research process. The same group will carry out a national survey this year to validate these results and provide insights that should be more representative of the different consumer groups. This is exciting news for animal advocates, as robust data on Chinese consumer behavior and food choices are vital to understand how we can slow down the ever-increasing numbers of animals killed for food globally.