In previous blogs on dairy (traditional dairy, formulated dairy), I have pointed out that in spite of the rapid development of this industry in China, the taste of milk is still inhibiting for most Chinese. Moreover, in 2022, 22.4% of the Chinese population suffered from lactose intolerance. Especially the formulated products are meant to address this problem by creating a host of products that deliver the nutrition of milk, while disguising the creamy flavour that so many Chinese still find hard to get used to.
However, there is an alternative group of products that have a nutrition profile more or less like milk, but lack the problematic flavour, because it is plant based: protein drinks. While soy-based drinks have made considerable progress in Europe recently, as life style products, they have been popular in China for ages.
Traditional products like soybean milk have appeared in various modernised versions, and other protein drinks from almonds, peanuts, or coconuts have been added. Their popularity is evident from the large variety of products available in Chinese supermarkets. The total turnover for protein drinks in 2019 was RMB 53.690 bln, and is expected to rise with 2.7% per year until 2024.
The main technical problem to crack in these products is maintaining a proper emulsion. Protein gel is combined with an oil-in-water emulsion, which results in a non-heatstable liquid, which can only be countered with a mix of emulsifiers. Most recipes use sucrose ester, combined with monoglyceride, alginates, etc.
Let’s have a look at the most representative types, according to source.
Soybean milk is a traditional product in China. The earliest records of it date from the West Han period (2nd Cent. B.C.).
The process requires soybeans with a sufficient water content (10% – 14%). After the hulls have been removed, the beans are pressed and water is added. In the modern production process, a chelating agent like EDTA is added for stabilisation. The raw soy milk is cooked for about 10 minutes. After centrifuging, nutrients like fat, sugar, or vitamins and minerals (e.g. calcium to create the perfect alternative for milk) can be added. Flavours can be added too, either to strengthen the typical soy flavour, or adding new flavours, typically those of fruits.
China’s top producer of soybean milk is Weiwei, located in Xuzhou (Jiangsu). The company’s main product is instant soybean milk, which make it the most convenient of the protein beverages introduced in this blog. The other drinks are only available in liquid form.
Soybean milk is so popular in China, that KFC has decided to add it to their breakfast choices in their Chinese outlets.
Weiwei continued on this development by launching soybean milk in a bottle that resembles the classic Coca Cola bottle late 2017, even stronger suggesting that soybean milk can be consumed as a healthy alternative for soft drinks.
Another recent innovation by Weiwei is launching a range of canned soybean milk with various flavours, including coffee.
Almond milk is not really an alternative for dairy, as milk is used as an ingredient. The recipe I consulted for this blog lists almonds and Chinese yam (shanyao) as the main ingredients and milk and honey as auxiliary ingredients.
The almonds are roasted, crushed and cooked with the milk and yam. The honey is added after the milk starts boiling.
Almond milk has been made popular in China by Lulu, a company based in Chengde (Hebei). The typical thin cans of Lulu have been on the market for more than two decades, as an alternative for milk, as well as a drink for those who cannot drink alcohol during a banquet. Lulu has accumulated a turnover of RMB 1.772 billion during the first 9 months of 2019; up 5.88%.
It is thicker than soybean milk and quite sweet. One Dutch friend called it ‘liquid marzipan’ after his first sip. With ups and downs, Lulu is still a serious player in this market.
Lulu’s turnover started to slip in 2017 and the company is trying to recoup market share by launching special protein beverages for children, like Xiao Lulu (‘Littel Lulu’).
Coconut milk will not be a new product for most readers. It is a traditional product of Southeast Asia, and that is the region from which it gradually conquered China. Those with 1.5-2% fat content have been very popular in China for many years, and the market continues to grow. The top producer of coconut milk in China is Yedao (literally: ‘coconut island’), located in the tropical island province Hainan.
Coconut milk is pressed from the flesh of unripe coconuts. Only some water and sugar are added.
Like Lulu’s almond milk, Yedao’s canned coconut milk quickly appeared in Chinese restaurants as the drink for drivers and other people who were unable to drink alcohol, but wanted something with a more stimulating taste than water or chemical laden soft drinks.
China is the world’s largest walnut producer, with an annual output around 4.5 mln mt. Walnut milk is made from walnuts and water. Walnuts are ascribed a number of medicinal properties, which are prominent in the marketing stories of the various manufacturers. Unlike the protein drinks introduced above, there is not ‘leading player’ in this market yet. Still, a National Quality Standard (GB/T 31325-2014) has been promulgated for walnut milk in on Dec. 5, 2014.
A top producer of walnut milk is Six Walnuts. It generated a net profit of RMB 7.459 billion in 2019.
An interesting development is that one Chinese coffee maker (Hogood) has launched a new type of coffee creamer made from walnut milk, marketed as Walnut 007.
Qiaqia, a leading producer of seed and nuts based leisure food, has launched a protein beverage from walnuts, almonds, pine seeds and hazel nuts in 2022. It does not contain any sweetener, preservative or lactose.
Peanut milk, like the almond variety, is using the real thing as an ingredient. It is made from peanuts and milk, and even more than almond milk, peanut milk is more peanut-flavoured milk, like the ginger milk introduced in an earlier blog. It enriches the already nutritional milk with linoleic and arachidonic acid. And it covers the creamy taste of milk with a soft peanut flavour.
Yinlu in Xiamen (Fujian) is a major producer of peanut milk. The company is now under the control of Nestlé, which makes Nestlé the first foreign player in this market. Recently, Nestlé has announced that it is looking at updating its Yinlu peanut milk brand to satisfy consumers who prefer fewer additives and alternative ingredients.
Yinlu has launched two products with multiple raw materials in 2017: red beans + peanuts and Job’s tears + peanuts.
The growing popularity of protein beverage has attracted the attention of the recently revived beverage brand Beibingyang. The company has launched a peanut drink of its own trying to create synergy between its well known brand name (including the polar bear logo) and the current interest in protein beverages.
The latest addition to this growing range of beverage is the hickory protein drink from Tiannie Hickory Food Co., Ltd. (Guangyuan, Sichuan). The product has been launched in 2014. The raw materials are grown locally.
Nanfang Food (Nanning, Guangxi) produces black Heiheiru brand sesame milk, a protein drink made from black sesame. Its ingredients list:
Water, black sesame, sugar, milk powder, starch, peanuts, sodium caseinate, sodium tri-polyphosphate, xanthan, CMC, carrageenan, monoglyceride, sucrose ester
This list shows that Heiheiru is not really a ‘sesame drink’, but a compound protein drink flavoured with black sesame. It partly owes its popularity to the colour black that is associated with a high anti-oxidant content.
Dashu Life Sciences (Jilin), in cooperation with Jiangnan University, has developed a new type of rice protein beverage under the Shangshanyuan (Sunshary) brand.
The oat drink Oatly has been introduced in China in the course of 2018 and is gaining popularity in coffee shops, e.g. Starbucks, as a vegetarian alternative for cow milk. Oatly’s introduction to China was aided by one of its Chinese investors: China Resources. Late 2019, Oatly had built up a presence in over 3400 outlets, including 2000 coffee shops and chains such as Pacific Coffee in China in first – and second-tier cities.
Yili Dairy (Huhhot, Inner Mongolia) has launched a range of oat milk drinks under the Zhixuan (‘vegetable choice’) brand in September 2020.
Hankou Factory Nr 2 (Wuhan) has launched a new drink combing oat milk and tea in 2020. In that way, the company was cashing in on two fads: protein beverages and milk tea.
At the end of September 2020, Shanghai-based oat milk start-up Oakidoki received funding of RMB 10 mln from Vision Plus Capital, two months after it was launched. Wang Xin, founder of Oakidoki, said the new funding will be used for marketing, research and development and recruitment. The firm has also collaborated with boutique coffee chain stores, creating more competition with international top plant-milk producers.
Compound protein beverages have also appeared, like the walnut peanut milk produced by Taigeili in Chengdu (Sichuan). This company is known for innovative products like rose vinegar.
This market is getting so lucrative, that even an ingredient manufacturer like Jiangsu Howbetter (specialised in food texture and premix technology for dairy, beverage, bakery, and ice-cream) has launched a new plant-based beverage prototype made from peanut, walnut, almond, hazelnut, pine nut, cashew nut, pecan, Australian macadamia nuts, and Hawaiian macadamia nuts, which it showcased on the Food Ingredients China 2019 trade fair.
Not so natural
Although these drinks are all marketed as healthy beverages (not health beverages, that is another category in China), the ingredients listed on the label of Hengyi Yinxue walnut beverage includes an impressive number of additives:
Water, walnut kernels, crystal sugar, additives (xanthan, polyglycerin fatty acid ester, sodium tripolyphosphate, sodium pyrophosphate, sodium d-isoascorbate, sodium dihydrogen phosphate), food flavour
This way of listing additives is presecribed by Chinese law. Interestingly, flavours are not regarded as additives in this regulation and therefore not listed within the brackets.
In 2022, the market for protein beverages was still highly decentralized. A survey showed the following market share distribution.
The Reignwood Group, the Chinese distributer of Red Bull, has acquired a 25% stake in Vita Coco, a US producer of coconut juice, in July 2014. In China, through Vita Coco’s own feet on the street along with the approximately 2000 employees of Red Bull China, the brand will be available about 130,000 stores soon.
Minutemaid has launched its own range of protein beverage in China mid 2017.
The dairy empire strikes back
China’s top dairy companies have adopted an ‘if you can’t beat them’ strategy. Mengniu and Yili, the top 2, have launched their own protein beverages recently. Yili announced its plans during a public meeting at the end of 2014. Mengniu has entered into a joint venture with US-based WhiteWave Foods Company, a leading consumer packaged food and beverage company in North America and Europe early 2013. The jv is marketing WhiteWave’s Silk brand protein drinks in China. This product is common in the US and is an affiliate of Alpro, a brand in Europe, though its positioning in China is quite unique. With its convergence of flavours, Silk’s positioning as a 100% natural solution, targeting those that are lactose intolerant, could spell success for Silk in China, especially as consumers become ever more sceptical regarding the origin, nutrition, safety and environmental impact of the food and beverages they buy.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975 and regularly travels to the remotest corners of that vast nation. He is a co-author of a major book introducing the cultural drivers behind China’s economic success.