Alt-Seafood Splash #2: Consumers' Sound Bites
Japanese consumers not hooked by the idea just yet but curious to nibble.
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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Today we’re diving headfirst into what real Japanese consumers think about alternative fish.
First, let’s weigh anchor for a second and explore Japan’s appetite for regular seafood. Assuming they follow the trend of alt-meat in seeking to imitate real meat, alt-seafood products can potentially catch a portion of the seafood market.
Trends in seafood consumption in Japan
Consumption of seafood in Japan is declining. In 2001 the country consumed 8.5 million tons of fish, down to 5.69 million tons in 2018. Younger generations in particular are cutting back on fish, eating less than a third of the amount consumed by over-60s. At the same time, people have been eating more meat, which is considered the main reason for the decline in seafood consumption.
The tides turned for seafood in 2020 however, when COVID-19 lockdowns forced people to stay at home and do more of their own cooking, leading to demand rising for the first time in 14 years. Also, despite a waxing and waning appetite, Japan is still the fifth largest consumer of seafood globally.
Consumer research shows that, in general, the Japanese eat seafood because it “tastes good”, seems “healthy”, and ”doesn’t contain additives” in its unprocessed form. Growing demand for easy-to-prep meals in Japan is turning people off seafood which is considered tricky to prepare due to the bones and skin. But, because seafood is a traditional part of the Japanese diet and is considered healthy, consumers are unlikely to replace it with alt-fish. It’s more likely that they would incorporate it into a diet containing regular seafood, as an easy to prepare option.
We gain some hints for the type of products that faux-fish makers could focus on in Japan from a consumer survey conducted by MyVoice in 2021. They asked 10,000 Japanese consumers how they liked to eat their fish. 80% replied that sashimi and sushi are their favourite ways to eat seafood. Close to 60% of respondents said they enjoy both tempura and breadcrumb fried seafood products. Given the difficulty of replicating raw fish’s texture, tempura and breadcrumb-coated products present an early opportunity for alt-seafood makers in Japan.
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Awareness about sustainable seafood
Awareness of unsustainable fishing practices amongst Japanese consumers is low compared to other regions such as the US. However, this is changing recently, especially amongst younger generations.
A survey conducted by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2020 found that 30% of Japanese consumers surveyed were willing to switch to purchasing products that help protect the marine environment and conserve its resources. In Japan, those aged 18 - 24 showed more willingness than other generations to change their purchasing behaviour. One in three of this generation has already taken action towards protecting marine resources in the past year. Gen-Z especially may find alt-seafood options appealing from a sustainability standpoint.
Market data for alternative seafood is lacking
Globally, there is a lack of data about consumer attitudes to alternative seafood. Only two large consumer surveys have been conducted so far, one by the vegan product review website Abillion and one by the Good Food Institute. The former analyzed 800,000 plus alt-seafood product reviews, finding that consumers care most about taste and texture. Products that align with local tastes, such as noodle dishes in Asia, are also preferred. The latter surveyed 2,500 US consumers, finding that messaging about taste was a key driver for consumers to try alt-fish. Tastewise’s report on the US market shows consumers’ interest in alt-fish is growing year on year, driven by health interest.
We found no dedicated consumer attitude research in Japan about alternative seafood. A lack of market research signals the category is still minor.
Online, google keyword searches and SNS search volumes for alt and plant-based seafood are also very low in Japanese.
The media in Japan has featured alt-seafood products in the past. Beauty and fashion magazine Gianna and food magazine Komachi have featured Azumarche’s plant-based sashimi in 2022. Recipe website Kurashiru promoted a sashimi rice bowl made with Azumarche’s products. Consumer reviews agree that when combined with soy sauce and wasabi, the product tastes similar to regular seafood. Japan’s 日テル (Nichi Teru) TV channel has also introduced several brands of alt-seafood from Japan and also overseas. The features focus on sustainability; these products help to conserve declining numbers of real fish and contribute to SDG Goal 14 (Life Below Water).
As we introduced last week, there are a small number of plant-based seafood products available on the Japanese market. Consumer review data for two of these, Azumarche’s plant-based sashimi and NEXT MEATs NEXT Tuna, offers some insights into consumer attitudes to alternative seafood.
Several consumers who bought Azumarche’s plant-based salmon, tuna and squid sashimi like the product's “lack of fishy odour”. Other positive comments focus on “low calorie”, “easy to prepare”, and “suitable for people who can’t eat protein”. Reviewers appreciate the marude sakana, “like fish”, branding because it clearly emphasises the product is similar to, but not replicating, fish. For this reason, the lack of fish-like texture and taste can be accepted.
Reviews for NEXT Tuna find consensus that the product lacks the texture and taste of fish. At ¥390 per can, the product is viewed as “too expensive”. Reviewers said they would like to purchase it again if it was more affordable.
Without further ado let’s hear insights from real Japanese consumers about their attitudes to alt-seafood.