China has the world's largest population of obese children: 15 million kids. According to the Global Burden of Disease report, there were 57 million obese adults living in China in 2015. This makes China the nation with the second largest population of obese adults in the world, with the US following behind at 79 million.
Joseph Zhou is managing partner at China’s first food tech accelerator Bits x Bites, a company that supports international food tech start-ups that will shape the future of good food in China. It aims to change the way people eat and address food security and nutrition habits.
Zhou talks to SBS about the innovative, sustainable and healthy food alternatives due to land on the Chinese dinner table soon.
By 2050, the world’s population will not be fed conventionally through the conventional farming methods we use today.
We fear there won’t be enough arable lands to feed the growing population or enough land to continue with cow, pig, cattle or poultry farming forever. There are also issues of food safety (animal diseases) and health concerns (antibiotics and hormones) related to the production of meat-based businesses.
So what we see in the future will be a growing trend for alternative protein sources. We imagine a world in 2050 where we can produce lab-grown meats and insect-based proteins for mass-market consumption.
But every country, not just China, is pressing to develop new sources of protein.
This trend also aligns with the Chinese government’s direction in food, as the government issued dietary guidelines state that it wants the population to cut meat consumption by 50 per cent by 2030.
But every country, not just China, is pressing to develop new sources of protein. This is also happening in the US, Europe and South-East Asia – it’s just that the demand and [food solutions] will be different.
We’re seeing entrepreneurs trying to move insect-based products to market.
We have invested in a company working on an insect-based protein using silkworms. The company process the pupa and make it into a very nutritious snack. The snack will be 20 percent of protein and can serve as an alternative protein source. It hasn’t been launched in the market but it is coming out in the near future.
As a food concept, silkworms are very common in China as we have an insect-eating culture. You can even find pupa in the wet market. You buy it and then pan fry or grill it to eat as a main dish.
So insect-based protein snacks are a product that the Chinese market is ready for, I am confident to say.
Cultured meat, produced by in-vitro cultivation of animal cells
Another portfolio we have is with an Israeli business producing cellular-based meats – meat, grown in the lab – called Future Meat Technologies. It is non-genetically modified (non-GMO) and is made using a fermentation silo.
If the mass market ends up consuming lab-produced meat, then we don’t have to worry about antibiotic or plague issues [at a social level] because everything from the lab will be very clean. All meat will be hormone and antibiotic-free.
It’s also a more energy and environmentally efficient way to produce meat. A lot of the water and energy consumed by livestock on a farm goes to the bones. But then the bones get thrown away. But in the lab we don’t grow the bones, only grow the muscles and fat that people consume.
We hope that we will have a cellular meat-based food product released to the market soon.
If we have lab-produced meat which the mass market consumes, then we don’t have to worry about antibiotic or plague issues [at a social level] because everything from the lab will be very clean.
A salad bowl you can drink
Fruggie, a company that is part of the Bits x Bites portfolio, is advancing a drinkable salad concept in China.
The research they did before they launched the [drinkable salad product] captured the fact that Chinese consumers wanted to eat healthy foods, including salad. But it was really hard for them to convert these thoughts into real consumption behaviour as salad does not meet traditional Chinese food standards – Chinese people usually like eating hot and cooked foods.
So the company developed a holistic salad bowl in a drinkable format. They mix 10 different, highly nutritional salad ingredients to make a drink. It includes avocado – this is a must as it is rising in popularity in China, lettuce and chickpeas, as well as other ingredients. No salad dressing is used.
[The product is only available in part of China and is yet to spread nationwide]
Soy and soy alternatives
The Chinese population has always drunk soy milk, right up until the point that we became westernised and started to drink cow’s milk, Coke, Pepsi and other western products. Now, we are moving back to plant-based drinks. Western-based trends are also moving the same way.
But some people have a soy allergy issues so there is also a trend for non-soy plant-based proteins – pea protein, mung bean protein and chickpea protein. I observe that this trend will also move west, just as goji berries, a traditional Chinese medicine, has taken off in the western world.