According to The Nikkei Asian Review, plant-based meat is finally starting to catch on in Japan, with rising numbers of health-conscious consumers spurring food manufacturers to offer more and tastier selections.
The trend -- largely imported from the West -- initially attracted non-meat food processors. Since then, established meat companies such as NH Foods -- Japan's biggest meat company and known as Nippon Ham -- and Itoham Foods have entered the market, driven by the fear of being left behind.
In March, an Itoham group company opened a pop-up shop selling lunchboxes built around 20 soy-meat dishes. The experiment netted valuable customer feedback about its plant-based meat lineup, much of it positive. "It's more like meat than I imagined," said one customer, while another commented on not noticing the absence of meat.
Also in March, Nippon Ham launched its NatuMeat brand of soybean-based meat products. The brand includes sausage made from soybeans combined with "konnyaku," a virtually calorie-free food made from potato.
According to the Japan Ham and Sausage Processors Cooperative Association, domestic production of processed meat has plateaued over the past several years, edging down 0.6% in 2019 from a year earlier. The costs of moving meat products have risen while retail has been forced to adapt to more cost-conscious consumers.
This has traditional meat companies looking over their shoulders, not least because appetites for plant-based meat products continue to grow.
There is also concern over availability. Koki Haruna, head of business strategy at Itoham Foods, says, "The industry is worried about shortages [of regular meat] and price hikes due to growing global demand for it."
Still, Nippon Ham President Yoshihide Hata remains upbeat. "Plant-based meat will not replace real meat completely, as demand for the real thing is rising faster than populations around the world," he said.
Instead of a crisis-driven response to changing tastes, the company senses opportunity, with Japan's traditional food culture holding the key. Hiroyuki Yokoi, chairman of the Japan Food Analyst Association, said: "Japan is good with soybeans, stemming from a culture heavily influenced by Buddhist vegetarian diets. Different types of plant-based meat can be expected, as markets will continue to grow."
Hata added that Japan's love for soybean protein, including that from tofu, is useful. "Plant-based meat will become a new protein menu.
Nippon Ham wants to transition into comprehensive food manufacturer that serves up protein in different forms, including meat, but with plant-based types comprising a significant portion. To this end, the country partnered in 2019 with Tokyo-based IntegriCulture to develop cultured meat. Nippon Ham provides its meat-manufacturing expertise while IntegriCulture pitches in with technologies for making stable cultured meats.
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