Meat alternatives continue push into mainstream 

Courtesy of Yakiniku Like
A customer eats a meal with Next Karubi, a meat alternative, at a Yakiniku Like restaurant.

An increasing number of restaurant chains are serving meat substitutes that use plant-based ingredients as the alternatives are attracting attention as low-calorie, high-protein food amid increasing health awareness among consumers.

While some people enjoy faux meat options, many others have yet to try them, for myriad reasons. Can enough improvements be made that the public will overcome its reluctance?

Taste closer than expected

In mid-June, teishoku set meal restaurant chain Yayoi added three set meals using a soybean-based meat alternative, including shoga-yaki, or ginger-flavored stir-fry, to its menus at about 370 restaurants nationwide. They are priced the same as conventional pork-based meals, and include sauces chosen by Yayoi to lessen the soybean flavor.

The meat substitute is produced by food manufacturer Asahico in Saitama City. The slices are about 10 millimeters thick, have good structure, and meals using the product contain 20% fewer calories than pork-based set meals, according to the company.

Nobuaki Otani, head of the restaurant product development section at Fukuoka City-based Plenus Co., which operates Yayoi, emphasized that the new meals meet the needs of customers who want to find satisfaction in a healthy diet.

In January, Yakiniku Like, a yakiniku grilled meat chain with about 80 restaurants nationwide, launched new products, including Next Karubi, a meat alternative. The product is said to have more protein, and the texture is closer to that of real meat, compared with conventional meat alternatives.

A 31-year-old female office employee who ate it in a branch in Osaka, said: “It was a little hard, but was closer to real meat than I expected. It can be an option when I want to cut back on calories.”

Virtuous circle

The burger business, including the Mos Burger hamburger chain, was the first to incorporate meat substitutes into their menus. Such moves were easier for those that handle ground meat in their kitchens.

The number of retail outlets dealing with meat substitutes is also increasing.

In 2020, Aeon Co. began selling about 10 kinds of meat alternative products under the Topvalu Vegetive private brand.

Among them are 156-gram ground meat patties and 152-gram packages of chicken-like nuggets, both made from soybeans and priced at ¥278. In fiscal 2021, sales of the Vegetive series increased by 60% over the previous year.

A virtuous cycle is emerging for meat alternative manufacturers as increased production leads to lower costs.

In April, Tokyo-based Next Meats Co., which supplies meat substitutes to Yakiniku Like and others, lowered their wholesale price for the substitutes for supermarkets and other by 30%. The retail price of the alternatives is said to be now about the same as that of beef. The number of stores handling the products has doubled compared to before the price cut.

Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia in February, is a major production area of grain used as livestock feed. There are fears that feed prices may soar if exports continue to stagnate, raising meat prices. It is hoped that meat alternative may help household finances in such cases.

Public reluctance

Meat substitutes began to become popular in Europe and the United States around 2010, as producing them has much less of an impact on the environment, compared to obtaining meat from cattle, pigs and other livestock, which require large amounts of water and feed.

Interest in meat alternative has been growing in recent years in Japan, too, especially among health-conscious consumers.

According to research firm Seed Planning, Inc., the domestic meat alternative market is expected to grow to ¥78 billion in 2030, a 2.3-fold increase over decade.

The United Nations estimates that the world’s population will approach 10 billion around 2050, and there is a possibility of a shortage of meat. Plant-based meats are seen as a promising new option for sources of protein.

However, there are issues that need to be addressed in order for meat alternatives to become more widely used.

According to a survey of about 10,000 people conducted in December 2020 by research firm MyVoice Communications, Inc., the percentage of respondents who said they do not want to eat meat alternatives was 33.7%, higher than 29% who said they would like to eat them. Some cited as a point of concern that they don’t know what is in the food, and others said their prices seem high.

It is likely that sellers of the products will also need to make efforts to provide consumers with accurate information on the alternatives.