Smith Taweelerdniti is the managing director of Nithi Foods, a Chiang Mai-based family business that manufactures spices and seasoning products. In 2018, he decided to become a vegetarian. Soon after that, he realized there were few options for locally made plant-based meat products in supermarkets.
At the time, most plant-based meat replacements available in Thailand were made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, both of which are US companies. He jokes that he always ended up eating tofu at restaurants, while his wife would bite off mouthfuls of fried chicken.
By March 2019, Smith, who was frustrated by the lack of locally made alt proteins, decided that something had to change. He asked his research team at Nithi Foods to develop a plant-based meat product that caters to Asian palates. One year later, Let’s Plant Meat was established as a subsidiary of Nithi Foods. It sells plant-based versions of several Thai favorites, including burger patties, minced pork, and Japanese katsu, a fried meat cutlet.
Smith shaped the direction of Let’s Plant Meat with price points, ingredients, and flavors that match Thai consumers’ expectations. “If you look at the price and positioning of Beyond Meat, they use pea protein instead of soy, which is more expensive. In the US, they [consumers] do not like soy because the majority of soy products grown in the US are genetically modified. But in Asia, we have been eating soy products for 4,000 years,” Smith told KrASIA.
Genetically modified soy might contain fewer nutrients and more herbicide residues, so Let’s Plant Meat uses soy that is all natural to maintain the integrity of its products, according to Smith.
“Many people in Thailand do not eat beef, and the beefy flavor turns them off. We eat chicken and pork, and add flavors by using different sauces. Asians want something that goes well with different sauces,” he added.
Let’s Plant Meat has been exporting its products to destinations across Southeast Asia since March 2021. The products are sold in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
There is growing demand for plant-based products in Thailand. The market for these food items had a valuation of BHT 28 billion (USD 851 million) in 2019, and is expected to grow to BHT 45 billion (USD 1.4 billion) in 2024, according to data from Krungthai Compass, a research arm of Krungthai Bank.
The desire to shift to plant-based proteins is often rooted in wanting to maintain a healthier lifestyle. In Thailand, Buddhist traditions also support this diet. Every year, millions of Thai Buddhists abstain from meat during a nine-day vegetarian festival that often takes place in October. But beyond the religious occasion, general interest in adopting plant-based diets is climbing. In 2019, 8% of Thailand’s population was vegetarian or vegan, and that figure is expected to reach 15% by 2025, according to data on Statista.
“The health benefits and the Buddhist belief to abstain from killing animals are the main drivers for Thais to shift to meat-alternative products. Consumers’ increasing concern for their health and nutritional well-being is encouraging them to replace their consumption of animal-based products with plant-based items,” according to a report published by the United States Department of Agriculture.
An array of notable major food producers have stepped in to claim their corners of the fledgling meat alternatives market, including NR Instant Produce, a Thai food exporter that transforms jackfruit into mock pork.
In December 2021, NR Instant Produce announced that it was partnering with national oil and gas conglomerate PTT and UK-based Plant and Bean to form a joint venture and develop plant-based meat alternatives. That same month, Thailand’s largest meat producer, Charoen Pokphand Foods (CP Foods), partnered with Lypid, a US-based foodtech startup that develops vegan “fat,” which provides meat-like flavors, according to multiple reports.
Sweet corn producer V Foods, which is owned by former Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayodhin, plans to list on the Market for Alternative Investment (MAI), a stock exchange for SMEs, in 2025 to raise funds to expand its facilities and scale up its business, per Bangkok Post.
While major food producers are currently the dominant faux meat producers, Smith remains sanguine about the industry’s development, including the strides made by companies like Nithi Foods.
“The competition will be good for consumers as they have more choices now,” said Smith. “With rising meat prices, the price gap between real meat and faux meat is closing. The entry of major food players also helps educate consumers,” Smith said.