From vegan mooncakes to healthy ramen: exploring health trends in the Asian food sector

From vegan mooncakes to healthy ramen: exploring health trends in the Asian food sector

By
Louise Burfitt
January 18, 2021

Singapore noodles. Fried rice. Instant ramen. A generous helping of MSG. Asian cuisine is undoubtedly delicious, but traditionally, it’s not exactly been the healthiest option. Packaged Asian dishes, such as pot noodles, do especially badly in the nutrition stakes. 

But change is afoot: governments are also legislating to promote healthier foods across the continent. Consumers - with rising incomes and increased education - are also increasingly interested in plant-based diets and healthier alternatives, with several brands keen to meet the demand for modern takes on comforting Asian classics. 

The continent’s alternative protein market, in particular, has the potential for major growth. Instant packaged foods, too, are ripe for a makeover - incredibly popular across the continent, they tend to be high in salt, and low in vitamins. Which is why some emerging companies are reinventing pot noodles, while others are developing plant-based versions of old favourites, like dim sum and mooncakes. 

Trend drivers: nostalgia meets health, and plant-based preferences

For many people, the comforting classics of Asian cuisine - think warming bowls of ramen, pillowy dumplings, pork-laden stir-fries - are filled with nostalgia. But many of the people who grew up eating these foods have stopped eating them because they’re unhealthy, according to research by healthier noodle brand Immi. This creates a large demographic for better-for-you Asian food brands to target: people who love the food they grew up eating, but who are looking for more nutritious alternatives for a health-conscious era.

Growing awareness of health concerns is also driving the trend for more wholesome versions of Asian classics. In some instances, health is overtaking flavour as the key concern among consumers. According to research by Mintel in 2019, 94% of urban Chinese consumers surveyed planned to reduce their salt intake, a significant departure from traditional Chinese cooking that relies on taste derived from generous seasoning. In fact, MSG sales peaked in 2013 and have been falling steadily ever since. Similarly,  75% of Indonesian and 66% of Thai consumers surveyed said they intended to eat a healthier diet. This is a trend not unique to Asia: it ties in with the global trend towards wellness and illustrates how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of good health.

While Asia is home to many traditional vegetarian dishes and the mock meats of Buddhist cooking, plenty of popular Asian dishes rely on meat, yet food manufacturers operating in Asia have been slow to respond to the plant-based meat innovations sweeping the West. However, as younger generations in particular avoid meat for health and ethical reasons, companies in the Asia-Pacific region (and Asian cuisine brands operating in the rest of the world) are beginning to launch new products that reflect the desire for plant-based alternatives. Vegetarian claims on new food and beverage products increased by 140% between 2012 and 2016 in southeast Asia, and vegan claims increased by 440% during the same period, according to Mintel

 

Exploring the trend: nutritious classics, vegan meats and healthy pot noodles

Plant-based versions of Asian comfort food and classics are one of the main ways the ‘healthier Asian’ trend is manifesting. In 2019 China consumed $9.6 billion of meat alternatives, $2.5 billion more than in 2015. Across the Asia-Pacific region, the market for meat substitutes was worth $15.3 billion in 2019 - and it’s a market that’s only growing. 

A handful of startups are launching plant-based products based on Asian classic dishes. Beijing-based company Zhenmeat, for example, makes vegan versions of traditional Chinese meals, including dim sum and hotpot. Their plant protein recipe is made from pea, mushroom and soy and they’ve even debuted the world’s first ever vegan meat-filled mooncake. In Singapore, startup Karana are also tapping into the desire for healthier Asian comfort food, with a plant-based range that includes gyoza, dumplings and bao buns made with jackfruit. The company raised $1.7 million in first-round seed funding in 2020 to develop its healthy offering. 

Vegan meat substitutes to cater to the Asia-Pacific market are also becoming more and more prevalent. Worth The Health Foods make vegan meat in the Philippines, using local ingredients to create alternative proteins that are better for the planet and better for you. The company cites the rising obesity rate in the Philippines as one of the reasons behind the brand, as well as an understanding that for many meat is an important, customary and delicious part of their diet - so creating alternative meats that work in traditional dishes makes a lot of sense. Phuture Foods, based in Singapore, are focusing on creating vegan meat substitutes to cater to the pork-heavy dishes common to many Asian cuisines. They’re also ensuring their products, which are made with a mixture of wheat, mung beans, rice protein and mushrooms, fit southeast Asian lifestyles by making sure their range is Halal and Buddhist-friendly. 

All-round healthier versions of quick-to-prepare or grab-and-go Asian dishes are also proliferating on the market, catering to younger consumers’ desire for convenient versions of their favourite dishes with a healthier twist. In the UK, QSR Itsu has developed its own healthy Asian range - and almost all of its wider offering comes in at under 500 calories, with a third of the menu plant-based. Singapore company Yummy Bros are focusing on meals closer to home, as a meal prep brand that offers more nutritious versions of Asian dishes like nasi lemak and satay chicken. 

Healthier instant noodles are also on the rise. For decades, the market for instant ramen or pot noodles has been dominated by Asian conglomerates - all producing similar takes on a product low in nutrients, sky-high in salt and crammed with preservatives. While this makes for a product that’s addictively tasty, healthy it is not. That’s why some startups are taking on the major instant noodle brands with their versions of better-for-you ramen and packet noodles. UK-based brand Mr Lee’s Noodles makes gluten-free cup noodles free from MSG, hydrogenated fats and all the other nutritional horrors in your conventional packet of instant noodles. The ingredients are freeze-dried instead of dehydrated to lock in flavours and vitamins. In Japan, veteran pot noodle maker Nissin has launched its own healthier range of its classic product called All-in-Noodles. Each packet contains a third of the body’s daily recommended intake of 13 vitamins, 13 minerals, protein and dietary fibre. Singapore food tech NamZ is following a similar path - with added tech innovation: their manufacturing process removes the need for deep-frying before dehydration, so their pot noodles contain 82% less saturated fat than their conventional counterparts. And then there’s Immi, a brand new better-for-you instant ramen brand, that launched to much fanfare in early 2021... 

 

Case studies: Immi & Omnipork

Immi only went live this month, but the healthy instant ramen brand is already making waves in the Asian food segment. Containing 31 grams of protein per serving, Immi’s ramen noodles are completely plant-based and contain significantly less salt than your average instant ramen. The brand, founded by two friends with Taiwanese and Thai heritage, aims to pull instant ramen from the guilty pleasure category to something people reach for when they want a quick, nutritious, delicious meal. The startup is clearly hitting the right buttons - it achieved its full-month December presale target in just eight hours. Further plans this year will focus on growing its direct-to-consumer site, and expansion into brick-and-mortar grocery stores. 

Omnipork, developed by Hong Kong food tech company Right Treat, is playing into the plant-based market with its vegan alternative to mince made from pea protein, mushrooms, rise and non-GMO soy. The pork alternative aims to provide a viable alternative for Asia’s pork-heavy dishes - one that’s healthier for consumers and easier on the planet than the pork manufacturing industry. In contrast to ground pork, commonly used in Asian recipes, Omnipork contains much higher levels of iron and calcium and 86% less saturated fat. The product is available in the foodservice sector across Asia and recently launched in the UK.

 

The continent to watch: the future of healthier Asian cuisine

For food entrepreneurs and established brands, the opportunities in better-for-you Asian cuisine are clear: as populations across Asia-Pacific experience rising incomes and growing awareness of healthy eating, demand for more nourishing versions of classic comfort foods should continue to grow. Governments, too, are investing in reducing the burden of unhealthy diets on health systems: the Singapore government has been attempting to ‘nudge’ the population to eat healthier diets since at least 2016, with better labelling and increased innovation in food tech, particularly plant-based innovation. With Asian and Asian-inspired cuisine remaining wildly popular in Europe, startups should also find plenty of opportunities to expand their brands westwards.

The 30-second pitch: Better-for-you Asian food


🍜 What

  • Vegan mooncakes, plant-based dim sum, nutritious pot noodles: the choice available to those seeking healthier Asian dishes is widening, with a number of startups in Asia and beyond offering more nutritious alternatives to classic Asian meals.

🤷 Why

  • Increased health awareness, millennials’ desire for convenient vegan options and a growing interest in plant-based versions of Asian classics are all contributing to the better-for-you Asian food trend.

🐷 How

  • Convenient meals with nutritional benefits 
  • Healthier instant noodles & ramen 
  • Plant-based Asian cuisine 
  • Vegan meat substitutes

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Healthier Asian food options equals a wider array of choice for consumers and a positive health impact all round. 
  • While veganism has been established in parts of Asia for centuries, younger consumers across the continent (and further afield) are increasingly looking for plant-based versions of their favourite Asian meals - the explosion in alt meat technologies is now coming to Asia, with Singapore the APAC hub for plant-based innovation. 
  • A growing middle class across Asia, with more disposable income and greater health awareness, is a great market for emerging better-for-you brands to target. 

👎 The bad

  • Winning over older generations is likely to be much trickier than the millennial market, which as a demographic is more open to innovation and welcoming of healthier choices. 
  • Raising capital can be more difficult for brands starting up in Asia, where investors are more conservative than in the US. 

💡 The bottom line

  • As awareness around healthy eating grows, particularly in China, better-for-you food brands offering Asian classics are likely to grow in popularity and prevalence. Deep knowledge of Asian cuisine is a must for companies entering the segment – to break the rules, you must first master them, as the saying goes.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Access premium publications
  • Get listed on our directory
  • Join a Global Community

Singapore noodles. Fried rice. Instant ramen. A generous helping of MSG. Asian cuisine is undoubtedly delicious, but traditionally, it’s not exactly been the healthiest option. Packaged Asian dishes, such as pot noodles, do especially badly in the nutrition stakes. 

But change is afoot: governments are also legislating to promote healthier foods across the continent. Consumers - with rising incomes and increased education - are also increasingly interested in plant-based diets and healthier alternatives, with several brands keen to meet the demand for modern takes on comforting Asian classics. 

The continent’s alternative protein market, in particular, has the potential for major growth. Instant packaged foods, too, are ripe for a makeover - incredibly popular across the continent, they tend to be high in salt, and low in vitamins. Which is why some emerging companies are reinventing pot noodles, while others are developing plant-based versions of old favourites, like dim sum and mooncakes. 

Trend drivers: nostalgia meets health, and plant-based preferences

For many people, the comforting classics of Asian cuisine - think warming bowls of ramen, pillowy dumplings, pork-laden stir-fries - are filled with nostalgia. But many of the people who grew up eating these foods have stopped eating them because they’re unhealthy, according to research by healthier noodle brand Immi. This creates a large demographic for better-for-you Asian food brands to target: people who love the food they grew up eating, but who are looking for more nutritious alternatives for a health-conscious era.

Growing awareness of health concerns is also driving the trend for more wholesome versions of Asian classics. In some instances, health is overtaking flavour as the key concern among consumers. According to research by Mintel in 2019, 94% of urban Chinese consumers surveyed planned to reduce their salt intake, a significant departure from traditional Chinese cooking that relies on taste derived from generous seasoning. In fact, MSG sales peaked in 2013 and have been falling steadily ever since. Similarly,  75% of Indonesian and 66% of Thai consumers surveyed said they intended to eat a healthier diet. This is a trend not unique to Asia: it ties in with the global trend towards wellness and illustrates how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of good health.

While Asia is home to many traditional vegetarian dishes and the mock meats of Buddhist cooking, plenty of popular Asian dishes rely on meat, yet food manufacturers operating in Asia have been slow to respond to the plant-based meat innovations sweeping the West. However, as younger generations in particular avoid meat for health and ethical reasons, companies in the Asia-Pacific region (and Asian cuisine brands operating in the rest of the world) are beginning to launch new products that reflect the desire for plant-based alternatives. Vegetarian claims on new food and beverage products increased by 140% between 2012 and 2016 in southeast Asia, and vegan claims increased by 440% during the same period, according to Mintel

 

Exploring the trend: nutritious classics, vegan meats and healthy pot noodles

Plant-based versions of Asian comfort food and classics are one of the main ways the ‘healthier Asian’ trend is manifesting. In 2019 China consumed $9.6 billion of meat alternatives, $2.5 billion more than in 2015. Across the Asia-Pacific region, the market for meat substitutes was worth $15.3 billion in 2019 - and it’s a market that’s only growing. 

A handful of startups are launching plant-based products based on Asian classic dishes. Beijing-based company Zhenmeat, for example, makes vegan versions of traditional Chinese meals, including dim sum and hotpot. Their plant protein recipe is made from pea, mushroom and soy and they’ve even debuted the world’s first ever vegan meat-filled mooncake. In Singapore, startup Karana are also tapping into the desire for healthier Asian comfort food, with a plant-based range that includes gyoza, dumplings and bao buns made with jackfruit. The company raised $1.7 million in first-round seed funding in 2020 to develop its healthy offering. 

Vegan meat substitutes to cater to the Asia-Pacific market are also becoming more and more prevalent. Worth The Health Foods make vegan meat in the Philippines, using local ingredients to create alternative proteins that are better for the planet and better for you. The company cites the rising obesity rate in the Philippines as one of the reasons behind the brand, as well as an understanding that for many meat is an important, customary and delicious part of their diet - so creating alternative meats that work in traditional dishes makes a lot of sense. Phuture Foods, based in Singapore, are focusing on creating vegan meat substitutes to cater to the pork-heavy dishes common to many Asian cuisines. They’re also ensuring their products, which are made with a mixture of wheat, mung beans, rice protein and mushrooms, fit southeast Asian lifestyles by making sure their range is Halal and Buddhist-friendly. 

All-round healthier versions of quick-to-prepare or grab-and-go Asian dishes are also proliferating on the market, catering to younger consumers’ desire for convenient versions of their favourite dishes with a healthier twist. In the UK, QSR Itsu has developed its own healthy Asian range - and almost all of its wider offering comes in at under 500 calories, with a third of the menu plant-based. Singapore company Yummy Bros are focusing on meals closer to home, as a meal prep brand that offers more nutritious versions of Asian dishes like nasi lemak and satay chicken. 

Healthier instant noodles are also on the rise. For decades, the market for instant ramen or pot noodles has been dominated by Asian conglomerates - all producing similar takes on a product low in nutrients, sky-high in salt and crammed with preservatives. While this makes for a product that’s addictively tasty, healthy it is not. That’s why some startups are taking on the major instant noodle brands with their versions of better-for-you ramen and packet noodles. UK-based brand Mr Lee’s Noodles makes gluten-free cup noodles free from MSG, hydrogenated fats and all the other nutritional horrors in your conventional packet of instant noodles. The ingredients are freeze-dried instead of dehydrated to lock in flavours and vitamins. In Japan, veteran pot noodle maker Nissin has launched its own healthier range of its classic product called All-in-Noodles. Each packet contains a third of the body’s daily recommended intake of 13 vitamins, 13 minerals, protein and dietary fibre. Singapore food tech NamZ is following a similar path - with added tech innovation: their manufacturing process removes the need for deep-frying before dehydration, so their pot noodles contain 82% less saturated fat than their conventional counterparts. And then there’s Immi, a brand new better-for-you instant ramen brand, that launched to much fanfare in early 2021... 

 

Case studies: Immi & Omnipork

Immi only went live this month, but the healthy instant ramen brand is already making waves in the Asian food segment. Containing 31 grams of protein per serving, Immi’s ramen noodles are completely plant-based and contain significantly less salt than your average instant ramen. The brand, founded by two friends with Taiwanese and Thai heritage, aims to pull instant ramen from the guilty pleasure category to something people reach for when they want a quick, nutritious, delicious meal. The startup is clearly hitting the right buttons - it achieved its full-month December presale target in just eight hours. Further plans this year will focus on growing its direct-to-consumer site, and expansion into brick-and-mortar grocery stores. 

Omnipork, developed by Hong Kong food tech company Right Treat, is playing into the plant-based market with its vegan alternative to mince made from pea protein, mushrooms, rise and non-GMO soy. The pork alternative aims to provide a viable alternative for Asia’s pork-heavy dishes - one that’s healthier for consumers and easier on the planet than the pork manufacturing industry. In contrast to ground pork, commonly used in Asian recipes, Omnipork contains much higher levels of iron and calcium and 86% less saturated fat. The product is available in the foodservice sector across Asia and recently launched in the UK.

 

The continent to watch: the future of healthier Asian cuisine

For food entrepreneurs and established brands, the opportunities in better-for-you Asian cuisine are clear: as populations across Asia-Pacific experience rising incomes and growing awareness of healthy eating, demand for more nourishing versions of classic comfort foods should continue to grow. Governments, too, are investing in reducing the burden of unhealthy diets on health systems: the Singapore government has been attempting to ‘nudge’ the population to eat healthier diets since at least 2016, with better labelling and increased innovation in food tech, particularly plant-based innovation. With Asian and Asian-inspired cuisine remaining wildly popular in Europe, startups should also find plenty of opportunities to expand their brands westwards.

The 30-second pitch: Better-for-you Asian food


🍜 What

  • Vegan mooncakes, plant-based dim sum, nutritious pot noodles: the choice available to those seeking healthier Asian dishes is widening, with a number of startups in Asia and beyond offering more nutritious alternatives to classic Asian meals.

🤷 Why

  • Increased health awareness, millennials’ desire for convenient vegan options and a growing interest in plant-based versions of Asian classics are all contributing to the better-for-you Asian food trend.

🐷 How

  • Convenient meals with nutritional benefits 
  • Healthier instant noodles & ramen 
  • Plant-based Asian cuisine 
  • Vegan meat substitutes

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Healthier Asian food options equals a wider array of choice for consumers and a positive health impact all round. 
  • While veganism has been established in parts of Asia for centuries, younger consumers across the continent (and further afield) are increasingly looking for plant-based versions of their favourite Asian meals - the explosion in alt meat technologies is now coming to Asia, with Singapore the APAC hub for plant-based innovation. 
  • A growing middle class across Asia, with more disposable income and greater health awareness, is a great market for emerging better-for-you brands to target. 

👎 The bad

  • Winning over older generations is likely to be much trickier than the millennial market, which as a demographic is more open to innovation and welcoming of healthier choices. 
  • Raising capital can be more difficult for brands starting up in Asia, where investors are more conservative than in the US. 

💡 The bottom line

  • As awareness around healthy eating grows, particularly in China, better-for-you food brands offering Asian classics are likely to grow in popularity and prevalence. Deep knowledge of Asian cuisine is a must for companies entering the segment – to break the rules, you must first master them, as the saying goes.

Become a FoodHack+ member to get unlimited access

  • Access premium publications
  • Get listed on our directory
  • Join a Global Community

Singapore noodles. Fried rice. Instant ramen. A generous helping of MSG. Asian cuisine is undoubtedly delicious, but traditionally, it’s not exactly been the healthiest option. Packaged Asian dishes, such as pot noodles, do especially badly in the nutrition stakes. 

But change is afoot: governments are also legislating to promote healthier foods across the continent. Consumers - with rising incomes and increased education - are also increasingly interested in plant-based diets and healthier alternatives, with several brands keen to meet the demand for modern takes on comforting Asian classics. 

The continent’s alternative protein market, in particular, has the potential for major growth. Instant packaged foods, too, are ripe for a makeover - incredibly popular across the continent, they tend to be high in salt, and low in vitamins. Which is why some emerging companies are reinventing pot noodles, while others are developing plant-based versions of old favourites, like dim sum and mooncakes. 

Trend drivers: nostalgia meets health, and plant-based preferences

For many people, the comforting classics of Asian cuisine - think warming bowls of ramen, pillowy dumplings, pork-laden stir-fries - are filled with nostalgia. But many of the people who grew up eating these foods have stopped eating them because they’re unhealthy, according to research by healthier noodle brand Immi. This creates a large demographic for better-for-you Asian food brands to target: people who love the food they grew up eating, but who are looking for more nutritious alternatives for a health-conscious era.

Growing awareness of health concerns is also driving the trend for more wholesome versions of Asian classics. In some instances, health is overtaking flavour as the key concern among consumers. According to research by Mintel in 2019, 94% of urban Chinese consumers surveyed planned to reduce their salt intake, a significant departure from traditional Chinese cooking that relies on taste derived from generous seasoning. In fact, MSG sales peaked in 2013 and have been falling steadily ever since. Similarly,  75% of Indonesian and 66% of Thai consumers surveyed said they intended to eat a healthier diet. This is a trend not unique to Asia: it ties in with the global trend towards wellness and illustrates how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of good health.

While Asia is home to many traditional vegetarian dishes and the mock meats of Buddhist cooking, plenty of popular Asian dishes rely on meat, yet food manufacturers operating in Asia have been slow to respond to the plant-based meat innovations sweeping the West. However, as younger generations in particular avoid meat for health and ethical reasons, companies in the Asia-Pacific region (and Asian cuisine brands operating in the rest of the world) are beginning to launch new products that reflect the desire for plant-based alternatives. Vegetarian claims on new food and beverage products increased by 140% between 2012 and 2016 in southeast Asia, and vegan claims increased by 440% during the same period, according to Mintel

 

Exploring the trend: nutritious classics, vegan meats and healthy pot noodles

Plant-based versions of Asian comfort food and classics are one of the main ways the ‘healthier Asian’ trend is manifesting. In 2019 China consumed $9.6 billion of meat alternatives, $2.5 billion more than in 2015. Across the Asia-Pacific region, the market for meat substitutes was worth $15.3 billion in 2019 - and it’s a market that’s only growing. 

A handful of startups are launching plant-based products based on Asian classic dishes. Beijing-based company Zhenmeat, for example, makes vegan versions of traditional Chinese meals, including dim sum and hotpot. Their plant protein recipe is made from pea, mushroom and soy and they’ve even debuted the world’s first ever vegan meat-filled mooncake. In Singapore, startup Karana are also tapping into the desire for healthier Asian comfort food, with a plant-based range that includes gyoza, dumplings and bao buns made with jackfruit. The company raised $1.7 million in first-round seed funding in 2020 to develop its healthy offering. 

Vegan meat substitutes to cater to the Asia-Pacific market are also becoming more and more prevalent. Worth The Health Foods make vegan meat in the Philippines, using local ingredients to create alternative proteins that are better for the planet and better for you. The company cites the rising obesity rate in the Philippines as one of the reasons behind the brand, as well as an understanding that for many meat is an important, customary and delicious part of their diet - so creating alternative meats that work in traditional dishes makes a lot of sense. Phuture Foods, based in Singapore, are focusing on creating vegan meat substitutes to cater to the pork-heavy dishes common to many Asian cuisines. They’re also ensuring their products, which are made with a mixture of wheat, mung beans, rice protein and mushrooms, fit southeast Asian lifestyles by making sure their range is Halal and Buddhist-friendly. 

All-round healthier versions of quick-to-prepare or grab-and-go Asian dishes are also proliferating on the market, catering to younger consumers’ desire for convenient versions of their favourite dishes with a healthier twist. In the UK, QSR Itsu has developed its own healthy Asian range - and almost all of its wider offering comes in at under 500 calories, with a third of the menu plant-based. Singapore company Yummy Bros are focusing on meals closer to home, as a meal prep brand that offers more nutritious versions of Asian dishes like nasi lemak and satay chicken. 

Healthier instant noodles are also on the rise. For decades, the market for instant ramen or pot noodles has been dominated by Asian conglomerates - all producing similar takes on a product low in nutrients, sky-high in salt and crammed with preservatives. While this makes for a product that’s addictively tasty, healthy it is not. That’s why some startups are taking on the major instant noodle brands with their versions of better-for-you ramen and packet noodles. UK-based brand Mr Lee’s Noodles makes gluten-free cup noodles free from MSG, hydrogenated fats and all the other nutritional horrors in your conventional packet of instant noodles. The ingredients are freeze-dried instead of dehydrated to lock in flavours and vitamins. In Japan, veteran pot noodle maker Nissin has launched its own healthier range of its classic product called All-in-Noodles. Each packet contains a third of the body’s daily recommended intake of 13 vitamins, 13 minerals, protein and dietary fibre. Singapore food tech NamZ is following a similar path - with added tech innovation: their manufacturing process removes the need for deep-frying before dehydration, so their pot noodles contain 82% less saturated fat than their conventional counterparts. And then there’s Immi, a brand new better-for-you instant ramen brand, that launched to much fanfare in early 2021... 

 

Case studies: Immi & Omnipork

Immi only went live this month, but the healthy instant ramen brand is already making waves in the Asian food segment. Containing 31 grams of protein per serving, Immi’s ramen noodles are completely plant-based and contain significantly less salt than your average instant ramen. The brand, founded by two friends with Taiwanese and Thai heritage, aims to pull instant ramen from the guilty pleasure category to something people reach for when they want a quick, nutritious, delicious meal. The startup is clearly hitting the right buttons - it achieved its full-month December presale target in just eight hours. Further plans this year will focus on growing its direct-to-consumer site, and expansion into brick-and-mortar grocery stores. 

Omnipork, developed by Hong Kong food tech company Right Treat, is playing into the plant-based market with its vegan alternative to mince made from pea protein, mushrooms, rise and non-GMO soy. The pork alternative aims to provide a viable alternative for Asia’s pork-heavy dishes - one that’s healthier for consumers and easier on the planet than the pork manufacturing industry. In contrast to ground pork, commonly used in Asian recipes, Omnipork contains much higher levels of iron and calcium and 86% less saturated fat. The product is available in the foodservice sector across Asia and recently launched in the UK.

 

The continent to watch: the future of healthier Asian cuisine

For food entrepreneurs and established brands, the opportunities in better-for-you Asian cuisine are clear: as populations across Asia-Pacific experience rising incomes and growing awareness of healthy eating, demand for more nourishing versions of classic comfort foods should continue to grow. Governments, too, are investing in reducing the burden of unhealthy diets on health systems: the Singapore government has been attempting to ‘nudge’ the population to eat healthier diets since at least 2016, with better labelling and increased innovation in food tech, particularly plant-based innovation. With Asian and Asian-inspired cuisine remaining wildly popular in Europe, startups should also find plenty of opportunities to expand their brands westwards.

The 30-second pitch: Better-for-you Asian food


🍜 What

  • Vegan mooncakes, plant-based dim sum, nutritious pot noodles: the choice available to those seeking healthier Asian dishes is widening, with a number of startups in Asia and beyond offering more nutritious alternatives to classic Asian meals.

🤷 Why

  • Increased health awareness, millennials’ desire for convenient vegan options and a growing interest in plant-based versions of Asian classics are all contributing to the better-for-you Asian food trend.

🐷 How

  • Convenient meals with nutritional benefits 
  • Healthier instant noodles & ramen 
  • Plant-based Asian cuisine 
  • Vegan meat substitutes

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Healthier Asian food options equals a wider array of choice for consumers and a positive health impact all round. 
  • While veganism has been established in parts of Asia for centuries, younger consumers across the continent (and further afield) are increasingly looking for plant-based versions of their favourite Asian meals - the explosion in alt meat technologies is now coming to Asia, with Singapore the APAC hub for plant-based innovation. 
  • A growing middle class across Asia, with more disposable income and greater health awareness, is a great market for emerging better-for-you brands to target. 

👎 The bad

  • Winning over older generations is likely to be much trickier than the millennial market, which as a demographic is more open to innovation and welcoming of healthier choices. 
  • Raising capital can be more difficult for brands starting up in Asia, where investors are more conservative than in the US. 

💡 The bottom line

  • As awareness around healthy eating grows, particularly in China, better-for-you food brands offering Asian classics are likely to grow in popularity and prevalence. Deep knowledge of Asian cuisine is a must for companies entering the segment – to break the rules, you must first master them, as the saying goes.

Singapore noodles. Fried rice. Instant ramen. A generous helping of MSG. Asian cuisine is undoubtedly delicious, but traditionally, it’s not exactly been the healthiest option. Packaged Asian dishes, such as pot noodles, do especially badly in the nutrition stakes. 

But change is afoot: governments are also legislating to promote healthier foods across the continent. Consumers - with rising incomes and increased education - are also increasingly interested in plant-based diets and healthier alternatives, with several brands keen to meet the demand for modern takes on comforting Asian classics. 

The continent’s alternative protein market, in particular, has the potential for major growth. Instant packaged foods, too, are ripe for a makeover - incredibly popular across the continent, they tend to be high in salt, and low in vitamins. Which is why some emerging companies are reinventing pot noodles, while others are developing plant-based versions of old favourites, like dim sum and mooncakes. 

Trend drivers: nostalgia meets health, and plant-based preferences

For many people, the comforting classics of Asian cuisine - think warming bowls of ramen, pillowy dumplings, pork-laden stir-fries - are filled with nostalgia. But many of the people who grew up eating these foods have stopped eating them because they’re unhealthy, according to research by healthier noodle brand Immi. This creates a large demographic for better-for-you Asian food brands to target: people who love the food they grew up eating, but who are looking for more nutritious alternatives for a health-conscious era.

Growing awareness of health concerns is also driving the trend for more wholesome versions of Asian classics. In some instances, health is overtaking flavour as the key concern among consumers. According to research by Mintel in 2019, 94% of urban Chinese consumers surveyed planned to reduce their salt intake, a significant departure from traditional Chinese cooking that relies on taste derived from generous seasoning. In fact, MSG sales peaked in 2013 and have been falling steadily ever since. Similarly,  75% of Indonesian and 66% of Thai consumers surveyed said they intended to eat a healthier diet. This is a trend not unique to Asia: it ties in with the global trend towards wellness and illustrates how the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of good health.

While Asia is home to many traditional vegetarian dishes and the mock meats of Buddhist cooking, plenty of popular Asian dishes rely on meat, yet food manufacturers operating in Asia have been slow to respond to the plant-based meat innovations sweeping the West. However, as younger generations in particular avoid meat for health and ethical reasons, companies in the Asia-Pacific region (and Asian cuisine brands operating in the rest of the world) are beginning to launch new products that reflect the desire for plant-based alternatives. Vegetarian claims on new food and beverage products increased by 140% between 2012 and 2016 in southeast Asia, and vegan claims increased by 440% during the same period, according to Mintel

 

Exploring the trend: nutritious classics, vegan meats and healthy pot noodles

Plant-based versions of Asian comfort food and classics are one of the main ways the ‘healthier Asian’ trend is manifesting. In 2019 China consumed $9.6 billion of meat alternatives, $2.5 billion more than in 2015. Across the Asia-Pacific region, the market for meat substitutes was worth $15.3 billion in 2019 - and it’s a market that’s only growing. 

A handful of startups are launching plant-based products based on Asian classic dishes. Beijing-based company Zhenmeat, for example, makes vegan versions of traditional Chinese meals, including dim sum and hotpot. Their plant protein recipe is made from pea, mushroom and soy and they’ve even debuted the world’s first ever vegan meat-filled mooncake. In Singapore, startup Karana are also tapping into the desire for healthier Asian comfort food, with a plant-based range that includes gyoza, dumplings and bao buns made with jackfruit. The company raised $1.7 million in first-round seed funding in 2020 to develop its healthy offering. 

Vegan meat substitutes to cater to the Asia-Pacific market are also becoming more and more prevalent. Worth The Health Foods make vegan meat in the Philippines, using local ingredients to create alternative proteins that are better for the planet and better for you. The company cites the rising obesity rate in the Philippines as one of the reasons behind the brand, as well as an understanding that for many meat is an important, customary and delicious part of their diet - so creating alternative meats that work in traditional dishes makes a lot of sense. Phuture Foods, based in Singapore, are focusing on creating vegan meat substitutes to cater to the pork-heavy dishes common to many Asian cuisines. They’re also ensuring their products, which are made with a mixture of wheat, mung beans, rice protein and mushrooms, fit southeast Asian lifestyles by making sure their range is Halal and Buddhist-friendly. 

All-round healthier versions of quick-to-prepare or grab-and-go Asian dishes are also proliferating on the market, catering to younger consumers’ desire for convenient versions of their favourite dishes with a healthier twist. In the UK, QSR Itsu has developed its own healthy Asian range - and almost all of its wider offering comes in at under 500 calories, with a third of the menu plant-based. Singapore company Yummy Bros are focusing on meals closer to home, as a meal prep brand that offers more nutritious versions of Asian dishes like nasi lemak and satay chicken. 

Healthier instant noodles are also on the rise. For decades, the market for instant ramen or pot noodles has been dominated by Asian conglomerates - all producing similar takes on a product low in nutrients, sky-high in salt and crammed with preservatives. While this makes for a product that’s addictively tasty, healthy it is not. That’s why some startups are taking on the major instant noodle brands with their versions of better-for-you ramen and packet noodles. UK-based brand Mr Lee’s Noodles makes gluten-free cup noodles free from MSG, hydrogenated fats and all the other nutritional horrors in your conventional packet of instant noodles. The ingredients are freeze-dried instead of dehydrated to lock in flavours and vitamins. In Japan, veteran pot noodle maker Nissin has launched its own healthier range of its classic product called All-in-Noodles. Each packet contains a third of the body’s daily recommended intake of 13 vitamins, 13 minerals, protein and dietary fibre. Singapore food tech NamZ is following a similar path - with added tech innovation: their manufacturing process removes the need for deep-frying before dehydration, so their pot noodles contain 82% less saturated fat than their conventional counterparts. And then there’s Immi, a brand new better-for-you instant ramen brand, that launched to much fanfare in early 2021... 

 

Case studies: Immi & Omnipork

Immi only went live this month, but the healthy instant ramen brand is already making waves in the Asian food segment. Containing 31 grams of protein per serving, Immi’s ramen noodles are completely plant-based and contain significantly less salt than your average instant ramen. The brand, founded by two friends with Taiwanese and Thai heritage, aims to pull instant ramen from the guilty pleasure category to something people reach for when they want a quick, nutritious, delicious meal. The startup is clearly hitting the right buttons - it achieved its full-month December presale target in just eight hours. Further plans this year will focus on growing its direct-to-consumer site, and expansion into brick-and-mortar grocery stores. 

Omnipork, developed by Hong Kong food tech company Right Treat, is playing into the plant-based market with its vegan alternative to mince made from pea protein, mushrooms, rise and non-GMO soy. The pork alternative aims to provide a viable alternative for Asia’s pork-heavy dishes - one that’s healthier for consumers and easier on the planet than the pork manufacturing industry. In contrast to ground pork, commonly used in Asian recipes, Omnipork contains much higher levels of iron and calcium and 86% less saturated fat. The product is available in the foodservice sector across Asia and recently launched in the UK.

 

The continent to watch: the future of healthier Asian cuisine

For food entrepreneurs and established brands, the opportunities in better-for-you Asian cuisine are clear: as populations across Asia-Pacific experience rising incomes and growing awareness of healthy eating, demand for more nourishing versions of classic comfort foods should continue to grow. Governments, too, are investing in reducing the burden of unhealthy diets on health systems: the Singapore government has been attempting to ‘nudge’ the population to eat healthier diets since at least 2016, with better labelling and increased innovation in food tech, particularly plant-based innovation. With Asian and Asian-inspired cuisine remaining wildly popular in Europe, startups should also find plenty of opportunities to expand their brands westwards.

The 30-second pitch: Better-for-you Asian food


🍜 What

  • Vegan mooncakes, plant-based dim sum, nutritious pot noodles: the choice available to those seeking healthier Asian dishes is widening, with a number of startups in Asia and beyond offering more nutritious alternatives to classic Asian meals.

🤷 Why

  • Increased health awareness, millennials’ desire for convenient vegan options and a growing interest in plant-based versions of Asian classics are all contributing to the better-for-you Asian food trend.

🐷 How

  • Convenient meals with nutritional benefits 
  • Healthier instant noodles & ramen 
  • Plant-based Asian cuisine 
  • Vegan meat substitutes

👀 Who

👍 The good

  • Healthier Asian food options equals a wider array of choice for consumers and a positive health impact all round. 
  • While veganism has been established in parts of Asia for centuries, younger consumers across the continent (and further afield) are increasingly looking for plant-based versions of their favourite Asian meals - the explosion in alt meat technologies is now coming to Asia, with Singapore the APAC hub for plant-based innovation. 
  • A growing middle class across Asia, with more disposable income and greater health awareness, is a great market for emerging better-for-you brands to target. 

👎 The bad

  • Winning over older generations is likely to be much trickier than the millennial market, which as a demographic is more open to innovation and welcoming of healthier choices. 
  • Raising capital can be more difficult for brands starting up in Asia, where investors are more conservative than in the US. 

💡 The bottom line

  • As awareness around healthy eating grows, particularly in China, better-for-you food brands offering Asian classics are likely to grow in popularity and prevalence. Deep knowledge of Asian cuisine is a must for companies entering the segment – to break the rules, you must first master them, as the saying goes.