Asia Pacific (APAC) is the fastest-growing region on Earth for alternative proteins and there is a broad consensus among industry leaders that plant-based foods are here to stay.
That has triggered a period of rapid experimentation and product testing among quick service restaurant (QSR) chains across the region, many of which are still figuring out how to capitalize on what experts have called a “once in a generation opportunity.”
To assess how that evolution is progressing, The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific (GFI APAC) analyzed menus at 20 of the largest food chains—both local and international—across 11 subregions: mainland China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Those menus were then graded based on a series of proven metrics for industry success developed by GFI’s international network, and contrasted with complementary industry insights exclusively shared with us by researchers at popular plant-based food review platform abillion.
Taken together, these data insights shed light on important changes emerging within the regional food landscape, and identify areas where continued growth is needed to satisfy rising consumer demand.
What the Data Shows
Tentatively Testing the Waters of a Surging Wave
Sensing a seismic shift in public perception throughout 2020 and the first half of 2021, major international and local chains across APAC have begun giving plant-based foods a try—often for the first time. Asian locations of top international QSR chains like Burger King, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell), along with local chains like Chinese fried chicken powerhouse Dicos, all rolled out new plant-based proteins in collaboration with leading consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands.
For consumers who have been eagerly awaiting a chance to taste the latest generation of alternative proteins, this represented a revolutionary change in mainstream accessibility.
Plant-based chicken is being tested out at select KFC locations in Thailand.
Left: Fully plant-based meatball sandwich at Starbucks in Indonesia; Right: JUST Egg and hash brown breakfast sandwich at Dicos in China.
However, GFI APAC analysis shows that this progress comes with caveats, as some brands have opted to cautiously initiate short-term trial runs of next-generation products, rather than committing to permanent menu additions. As a result, brands will often secure a significant amount of press attention and consumer buzz for testing out a high-profile plant-based offering, but then the products will quietly disappear.
This light touch suggests that there is still an unsteadiness among major brands about how to best capture the growing market for plant-based foods in APAC. Since our scorecard awards points based only on permanent menu additions that consumers can consistently enjoy, this has given less proactive brands a lower overall score during this experimental phase of their evolution. However, if these trial runs prove successful and plant-based options become a fixture of a chain’s menu for the long term—as has increasingly become the case in the U.S. and other markets—their scorecard ratings will rise accordingly.
Messaging Must Hit the Mark
No food—plant-based or otherwise—will sell if it’s not marketed in a compelling way, and unfortunately this factor often falls by the wayside when it comes to alternative proteins.
Research has consistently shown that attractive language like “featured menu item” and “chef’s special” can increase the likelihood that consumers who might not normally eat plant-based foods will give them a try—but such terms are conspicuously absent in APAC. Phrases that communicate the experience and enjoyment of the food (e.g. “melt in the mouth”) and indulgent language (“sweet sizzlin’ green beans”) can also positively influence menu selection.
When Plant-Based Food is Framed Properly, It Sells
Consumers say that protein is the “most popular attribute in meat alternatives,” but there are currently few chains in APAC taking advantage of this asset by emphasizing that plant-based entrées are both a healthy and sustainable source of protein. This is a missed opportunity to broaden their appeal, at a moment when demand for plant protein is on the rise, especially among younger and more health-conscious consumers.
Food industry research also indicates that APAC restaurants could boost the attractiveness of plant-based foods among mainstream audiences by using easy-to-spot and subtle symbols, like a green leaf or a letter “V,” instead of saying “vegan,” “vegetarian,” or “meatless.” Similarly, most consumers won’t pay for products that are perceived as a sacrifice, so restaurants need to be conscious to make sure that their promotions of the health benefits of plant-based meat don’t override the cravable flavor they also offer.
Finally, many of the APAC restaurants we assessed physically advertise their plant-based menu options in stores, but have yet to update their online menus to reflect these additions. This may be a signal that chains are trying to gauge direct consumer interest on-site, but what it means is that diners who are scanning the online menu for plant-based options will miss them, costing the company potential customers.
Menu scores by chain, averaged across geographies and meal type; grading criteria available in References section below. Note: All listed companies were asked to review their scores for accuracy prior to publication.
Broader APAC Market Insights, Provided by abillion
In-depth analysis of abillion’s 86,000 consumer reviews in Asia, spanning more than 29,000 registered members, reveals enormous untapped potential for plant-based food among Asia’s conscious consumer market.
No Longer a Niche
Reviews of plant-based dishes and products in Asia surged by 330 percent throughout 2020 and early 2021, and the number of users on abillion’s platform increased by 400 percent during the same period—an indication of expanding curiosity among Asian consumers about where they can find healthier and more sustainable foods.
Notably, the biggest increase—a 550 percent increase since the beginning of 2020—is among people who self-identify as “flexitarian,” meaning that they do not exclusively eat plant-based foods but are open-minded about alternative proteins. An increase in the size of this market segment suggests that plant-based foods are breaking out from the territory of strict vegetarians and being embraced by an increasingly mainstream audience.
Reading Between the Lines
Using data analysis techniques to derive a “sentiment score” from abillion’s reviews—representing how positively or negatively consumers feel about a given dish—reveals that consumer sentiment on the platform increased across all retail dining segments during 2020 and early 2021, with the largest increase occurring in fine dining establishments. By contrast, the QSR segment has the lowest average sentiment score, but this has started to climb as plant-based options have become more widespread.
In contrast to the U.S. market, reviews among Asian consumers are decidedly less enthusiastic across all restaurant types. This corroborates general patterns observed among consumer ratings, but a deeper look at the numbers also reveals some useful insights.
For instance, QSRs show the largest gap in sentiment between the two markets. However, this is not the case for objective ratings, where the observed differences appear relatively uniform. abillion members rate plant-based dishes based on taste, presentation, nutrition, value, and originality.
Sentiment is distinct from an objective rating, in that it captures the consumer’s delight or enthusiasm for the item, irrespective of the objective quality. This suggests that a high sentiment score goes beyond just representing an objectively delicious product and also includes more subtle factors, such as how easily plant-based options can be found (e.g. without having to request a separate plant-based menu), or the language and messaging used to advertise them. As GFI APAC’s scorecard analysis also reaffirms, marketing strategies can make or break a plant-based option’s sales and impact consumers’ perceptions of a restaurant chain more broadly.
Quality and Quantity
In both Asia Pacific and the U.S., QSRs comprise more than half of restaurants reviewed on abillion. However, unlike in the U.S., the majority of plant-based interest in Asia is instead focused on casual dining restaurants, where the number of reviews exceeds that of QSRs by more than 25 percent.
Moreover, analysis shows that casual dining restaurants offer a comparatively wider range of plant-based dishes compared with QSRs. abillion has observed a strongly positive correlation (Pearson coefficient of 0.85 with 95 percent confidence) between the breadth of plant-based offerings and consumer engagement with restaurants on their platform, where restaurants with more plant-based options receive more reviews. But currently casual and fine dining restaurants are dramatically outperforming QSRs, half of which only had a single reviewed plant-based item, even if their menus could accommodate more.
This contrast demonstrates how offering an expansive range of well-promoted plant-based menu options can translate to increased enthusiasm and engagement from the plant-hungry consumer audience represented by abillion’s platform. Conversely, limited or poorly-advertised plant-based options can equate to diminished enthusiasm among conscious consumers and reduced interest in sharing positive feedback about the restaurant’s menu.
The Value of Strategic Partnerships
abillion’s data also makes clear that there are advantages for dining chains that launch synergistic partnerships with CPG companies in the alternative protein space, like Singaporean plant-based chicken brand TiNDLE, Hong Kong-based OmniFoods, Indonesia-based Green Rebel Foods, or international brands Beyond Meat, Eat Just, and Impossible Foods.
By aligning with high-profile launches of new products, restaurant chains can gain free publicity and generate increased enthusiasm from consumers eager to try something new, while also circumventing the challenges of developing suitable alternative meats from scratch.
The Big Picture
“We are seeing in every single country in the world a shift towards more plant-based diets, even in emerging markets.” – Alan Jope, CEO, Unilever
Consumer habits are changing in a fundamental way across Asia Pacific as concerns about food safety, personal health, and climate change become increasingly important. There appears to be a broad recognition among international and local QSR chains that as the quality and cost of alternative proteins continue to improve, they are an increasingly critical and lucrative part of their business strategy.
What is also clear though is that simply adding plant-based options to the menu doesn’t necessarily equate to market success. Strategic messaging around alternative proteins will have regional variations and cultural nuances, but many of the global best practices surrounding the labeling, placement, and marketing tactics of plant-based proteins should be applied more broadly in APAC to maximize exposure and entice an increasingly open-minded consumer population to give them a try.
Menus were accessed from restaurant websites over the period from April to August 2021 and graded using GFI’s 10-point scale, which evaluates multiple aspects of menu items and their promotion (see rubric below). The scoring system is designed to reward chains that offer at least one plant-based dish whilst using effective marketing strategies to appeal to mainstream diners and flexitarians, not just vegans or vegetarians. Note that GFI APAC does not certify the menu items as “vegan” and has made reasonable assumptions about the dish ingredients in the scoring process. Companies interested in expanding the range or appeal of plant-based menu options are encouraged to contact The Good Food Institute Asia Pacific for pro bono industry consulting guidance.
Good Food Scorecard Rubric
GFI APAC was created in 2019, and affiliated with The Good Food Institute (GFI), established in the United States in 2016. GFI APAC is part of a close-knit GFI global family that is creating global systematic change beyond the US in Asia, Brazil, India, Israel, and Europe, with over 90 staff and counting. While GFI APAC is a completely remote organisation, our team members are primarily based out of Hong Kong and Singapore. We also work with strategic partners in other locations including mainland China and Australia. Reprinted with permission.