“We are all about giving choices,” Juan Aranols, Nestlé’s Malaysia and Singapore chief, said in an interview. “We felt that with this growing interest for plant-based products, why not give the Milo taste everybody loves in a solution that is plant-based?”
Plant-based food is already popular in parts of Asia but its gaining new fans for a variety of reasons, from customers wanting to adopt a healthier diet, to concerns about the impact of meat on the environment.
Some consumers simply want in on a hot new trend, while many younger meat-eaters want to become “flexitarians” — people who choose to forgo meat one or two days a week. For food and beverage companies, this translates into a $25 billion plus opportunity in the region.
“Finally, the whole concept of alternative protein, alternative dairy is becoming more mainstream,” he told CNN Business.
When Yeung started his business in 2012, many Asians believed a vegetarian diet meant eating “salad, or just tofu, tofu, tofu,” he said.
“As recent as three years ago, when we used to pitch this to supermarkets, they were like, ‘This is not going to sell. What is this?’ There was no track record,” he said. “Now people say, ‘Oh, plant-based is so prevalent in Hong Kong.'”
Data points to a steady climb in regional demand over the last few years. As of 2020, the industries for meat and milk substitutes in Asia Pacific were worth a combined $25.6 billion, up from $21.5 billion five years prior, according to market research provider Euromonitor International.
The Singaporean government has also seized on the trend, giving companies further incentive. “We see the growing demand for alternative protein … as an opportunity that would enhance the world’s food security,” according to Johnny Teo, executive director for food, healthcare and biomedical at Enterprise Singapore, an official agency focused on business development in the city-state.
“There’s been a revolution in this sector,” Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside said in an interview with CNN Business. “We’re seeing that play out in Asia — across Asia — in particular.”
Competition heats up
But success in the fast-growing region may not come easy. Competition is fierce, and in some cases, companies have run into regulatory roadblocks.
Woodside admitted that the uncertainty had become a challenge, but said “we trust that the outcome will be positive.” The company is working closely with the regulators, and is recruiting a general manager for China, he added. It’s also in late-stage discussions to launch in Thailand, and has recently obtained approval to start doing business in Australia and New Zealand.
Executives say they aren’t trying to compete with those offerings; just hoping to give people more options.
“We always like to say we’re a third-generation product,” said Blair Crichton, the co-founder of Karana, a Singapore-based startup, which sells imitation pork made from jackfruit.
Crichton noted that there has already been “a lot of innovation in Asia and some amazing product.” His company aims to pay homage to that by experimenting further with regional ingredients and serving up plant-based comfort food, such as dumplings and buns, or “baos.”
“We’ve got the geographical reach, and we’ve got the distribution capability both in home and out of home,” said Chris Johnson, Nestlé’s CEO of Asia, Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa. “Those are things that Nestlé brings to the party that makes me feel confident.”
Johnson, who has been with Nestlé since the 1980s, said that the company has evolved internally as it races to go big in the plant-based space. “I’ve never seen the sort of speed of innovation, in other words, going from idea to launch … as quickly as we have [on this],” he said.
“We used to be very careful before we’d make … investments to produce things,” Johnson said. “But we actually have invested ahead of demand, in the case of China and Malaysia. So we’re placing some big bets out there.”
— CNN’s Shawn Deng contributed to this report.