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The market for soybean-based meat substitutes is expanding in Japan, arousing expectations that they might serve as an environment-friendly solution to anticipated future food shortages.

Restaurant chains and major food makers have introduced a series of soybean-based meat substitutes. The Freshness Burger chain serves teriyaki hamburgers using soybean sprout chips supplied by Daiz Inc., a venture business based in Kumamoto. The chips are flavored with soy sauce malt.

Released last October, the new product is aimed at attracting health-conscious women, as it has some 20% fewer calories than the restaurant chain’s conventional meat-based hamburgers.

NH Foods Ltd. introduced in March last year meatball and four other meat-substitute products with the mouthfeel of mincemeat, setting a bullish annual sales target of ¥500 million.

Itoham Foods Inc., a subsidiary of Itoham Yonekyu Holdings Inc., launched ground meat cutlets and other products made from soybeans in the spring of 2020 and has since chalked up sales twice as big as expected.

The Japanese market for meat alternatives using vegetable protein is forecast to grow about 2.3 times in the coming decade to ¥78 billion in 2030, according to Tokyo-based research company Seed Planning Inc.

Production of edible meat requires large amounts of water and grain to feed cows and other animals, whose belches and flatulence include greenhouse gases. It has been estimated that the livestock industry accounts for more than 10% of heat-trapping gases linked to human activity.

While the livestock industry is increasingly viewed as unfriendly to the environment in the United States and Europe, increased use of meat substitutes is expected to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The United Nations forecasts that the world population will grow to 9.7 billion by 2050 from 7.7 billion in 2019. As a steep increase in the production of edible meat is impossible, the projected population growth is likely to cause an acute shortage of meat.

The world therefore needs “new sources of protein,” said an official at a major Japanese food manufacturer.

In the United States, vegans, who do not eat any food from animal sources including eggs and dairy products, welcome meat substitutes. For “flexitarians,” who mainly eat vegetables together with small amounts of meat, alternatives to meat and cultured meat, made from in vitro cell culture of animal cells instead of from slaughtered animals, are available.

Investment in the application of science and technology to food products such as cultured meat is also increasing in the United States. While U.S. investment in the field totaled the equivalent of ¥957.4 billion in 2019, Japanese investment amounted to a meager ¥9.7 billion.

Last October, therefore, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries set up a public-private council with more than 260 organizations, including food makers, universities and financial institutions, to promote the use of cutting-edge food and information technologies for collaborations in the production of meat alternatives and other next-generation food products.

The council will also work out certification standards for safe, high-quality and environment-friendly food products.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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