Empowering Thailand to stand tall in the world of plant eaters

The world is going herbivore

According to the statistics in 2018, 25% of the global population are vegetarians, vegans, or other semi-vegetarianism categories. A market growth report from 2013-2018 shows that vegan products are the highest growth products. It grew by 31% within 6 years. The growth is 3 times higher than meat products and 5 times higher than dairy products. Vegetables are compatible with any culture; ageing people are going for healthy food and younger generation is now concerned about the animal welfare and environmental issue than ever before. These factors strongly support the trend of eating plant worldwide.

Consuming plants does not come in a single manner. It can be divided into different categories such as vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian. Vegan is a lifestyle of eating food only made from fruit and vegetable. Vegan people will avoid using or consuming any products made from animals. It means that they do not eat eggs, milk and honey as well as wearing leather jacket. Vegan people are concerned about animal welfare and environmental issue. Vegetarian means people who do not eat meat. However, they can eat products made from animals such as eggs, milk and honey. Mostly, vegetarian people cease to eat meat because they dream of better health. Flexitarian is a lifestyle of people who prefer eating vegetable to meat. They may not eat vegetarian food in every meal. But these people will eat more vegetarian products over time.

According to a research from Jirasak Kamsuree, a researcher from Department of Research and Information, National Food Institute, people turn to eat plant for different reason. Vegan people come with social concerns. They want to save lives of animals. So, they voluntarily choose not to consume any products made from animals. On the other hand, some people become vegetarians because of their religious beliefs or traditions such as Indian people, which in some states mandate people not to consume meat. And for flexitarians, they eat vegetable because of health concern. Different reasons mean different marketing strategies to communicate with plant-eating people. For example, vegan food manufacturers tend to call their products “plant-based food” rather than “vegan food” because they find “plant-based food” more appealing and inclusive to many different groups of customers. It implies that the customer does not necessarily need to be vegan to buy their products.

Talking about marketing, the largest vegetarian population of the world are living in South Asia. 40% of Indian people are vegetarians. It equals 400 million people, as well as the growing number of vegan population in North America and Europe. This shows that plant-based products are having the bright future ahead.

According to Jirapon Sirisan, a lecturer from ‎Faculty of Agro-Industry, King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang, the most manufactured plant-based products are beverages such as juice and non-dairy milk. It is because beverage is easy to consume for old people, who will be the major population of the world. Old people are likely to have dental problems, so they prefer food that requires less chewing and nutritious beverages are a perfect choice. Also, making a juice is not difficult, it does not require much advanced technology and special ingredients. It can be made by using local ingredients, which helps boost the domestic economy.

Apart from beverages, snack products are growing steadily. Snacks do not mean only chips in a bag. It also includes energy bars and cereals. Unlike usual plant-based food products, the snacks are made from peas and beans rather than soybeans. The key thing for plant-based food manufacturer to think of is how the customer receive essential protein and other necessary nutrients from the plant-based food products.  

The Export Challenges For Thailand

Because of this rising global trend, Thailand, a country known as ‘Kitchen of the World’ is predicted to benefit from it tremendously. However, Thailand is still facing some obstacles.

The first one is how to fortify the plant-based ingredients. Plants lack essential amino acids, a protein that is necessary for human body. So, the ingredients need to be added with extra protein and other nutrients. Also, plant-based products have to care about the taste and the mouthfeel. If the products so not taste good, they will have no future. Moreover, people perceive plant-based products as a bland food (like eating raw vegetable), if the products fail to impress the consumer that it has pleasant flavors, it will fail extremely commercially.

The second thing is competitiveness. Many ingredients used for plant-based food are dominated by countries that have begun the research and development beforehand. For example, products made from soybeans, a main source of plant-based food, are mostly from Japan, a country where consuming soybean products are part of the centuries-old culture. Now a company called Beyond Meat Inc makes chicken nuggets, beef paddies and sausages out of soybeans. They have added additives to make them taste and have the same mouthfeel as the real meat.

This is a real challenge for Thai food industry to create plant-based food products that used ingredients planted in Thailand, which are globally marketable.

The third challenge is the product certification. To ensure the consumer, many countries require plant-based food manufacturers to have an evidence of certification on the package. According to Ornanong Mahakkapong, Department of Research and Information, National Food Institute, In India, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India or FSSAI, an organization administrated by the Indian government, is in charge of product certification, FSSAI requests food producers to put an image of red dot and green dot on the label. Red dot means non-vegetarian food and green dot indicates that the food is vegetarian. Furthermore, in Europe, the policy of ‘Mandatory food labelling for Non- Vegetarian/ Vegetarian /Vegan’ is in the process of public hearing. The law may be in effect in 2020. 

In Thailand, there is no specific organization to conduct the certification yet. But food manufacturers can contact National Food Institute for further information.

The third challenge is flavoring. The taste of consumer varies in different countries. Soy milk sold in Thailand needs to have a distinctive fragrant of soy to give the customer the sense of drinking a natural product, while soy milk sold in western countries and Australia need to get rid of the smell of soy to attract the consumer. Also, a wide variety of food is essential. Any type of food that is sold non-vegan must have an equivalent vegan version. 

The fourth challenge is to upgrade the production line to support export market. The Office of Industrial Economics, Ministry of Industry, stated that the government is ready to help Thai business operators by running i-INDUSTRY program. It is part of Big Data of Thai industries. The government will collect the information from each business operator. The program will analyze the growth of the business and match the businesses to consulting firms and banks to expand their businesses.  

In conclusion, the world is going for plant consumption. Thailand has a great potential to be an important player in plant-based products export market. Nonetheless, there are something to be improved to strengthen the manufacturing and exporting capabilities for the country. They are composed of 1. Fortifying plant-based products with essential nutrients. 2. Using local plant-based ingredients to create globally marketable products. 3. Certifying plant-based food to compete in international markets. And lastly, 4. Teaming up with the government to upgrade the production line to support larger manufacturing.