Cheese Revolution #2 Consumers' Sound Bites

Are Japanese consumers melting for plant-based cheese?

Hello, Market Shakers! 

Today, let’s dive into Japanese consumers’ feedback on plant-based cheese. The task wasn’t easy, as the category is very niche. Many had never heard of such products or seen them in stores. Awareness of the category is, however, strong in the vegan and vegetarian communities, as well as among consumers with food allergies. 

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Summary of this edition

  • The context: consumption of conventional cheese is on the rise in Japan

  • Social Noise around plant-based cheese

  • Consumers’ Sound Bites

The context: consumption of conventional cheese is rising in Japan

Japan has a national production of cheese, mostly processed cheese and some limited artisanal production. However, cheese is a product generally perceived as foreign and importations are on the rise. In 2019, the national consumption reached record levels, with domestic production losing ground to importation for the third year in a row. 

An online survey conducted by Neo Marketing in Autumn 2020 revealed that 50% of Japanese consumers eat cheese at least once a week and over 80% love cheese, showing that this dairy product is now well integrated into their diet. 

With the consumption of conventional cheese on the rise, the plant-based category could have opportunities for growth, too. Consumers that are lactose intolerant or allergic to cheese, who care about ethical issues are likely to seek out alternatives. 

Social Noise

While the search volume for Japanese keywords such as vegan cheese and plant-based cheese is terribly low and limited to major cities (Tokyo, Osaka mainly), blogs dedicated to veganism and allergies are making some noise. 

Food Allergy Reporter Oka Family has built a solid community around food allergies, by purchasing products and writing reports on productions, ingredients, and of course, tastiness. They dedicated one article about Marin Food Vegan Shred and Vegetive Coconut Oil Shred

The taste is a little bland but you can eat it as is. It has the full flavor of a dairy-derived cheese, but with a sweetness that you don't find in ordinary cheeses. It does not have any peculiar taste, and it is crisp without any aftertaste. It does not have much of a soy milk taste and is more like a sweet cheese with a slightly sour taste.

Ziyu-Zin is another food blog dedicated to food allergies that counts one article dedicated to Beyond Tofu

You can smell the nice aroma from the olive oil and basil. The texture is chewy and rich. For a moment, I thought it was real cheese and you can’t tell it’s tofu unless you’re told! I didn’t feel the soy flavor, which is often the case with soy. I think it’s perfect for snacking and salads.

The editorial team of Gigazine, a news website based in Osaka, also shared their impressions in an article about tasting Beyond Tofu block and cube products.

When I tried Beyond Tofu, the first thing I noticed was a texture resembling processed cheese, followed by a sour taste and slight sweetness close to tofu. Because of the texture, I felt for a moment that it was like cheese, but the flavor is certainly unique and the after-taste is close to fermented soybeans.

The texture resembles cheese very much but the taste is light and unusual. I like cheese, and it is hard to finish a slice of this. 

If you gave me a slice without telling me anything, I would think it was cheese. 

It would go well with crackers. I think this is a product good for people who are trying to cut back on animal protein and don’t like the sourness, oiliness, and fermented taste of cheese. 

House Wine, a wine-focused Japanese media, wrote a piece about vegan cheese as an alternative for wine connoisseurs who care about calories or not eating animal products. Published in 2017, the article listed a variety of brands that marry well with wines. 

Vegan cheeses that have created new tastes are creative and romantic. What a great way to expand the options for those who have never enjoyed cheese products.

Consumers’ Feedback

When we asked consumers based in various regions of Japan, many had never heard of plant-based or vegan cheese products. One person did spot a brand in their local store but had never thought of giving it a try. However, when we reached out to vegan communities, as well as consumers that follow a macrobiotic diet, we got interesting feedback. 

Akari, 40s, single 

Akari works for a delicatessen company. She cares about organic food and is well versed in ingredients and nutritional values so she carefully reads labels and does not pay attention to packages’ taglines. Akari is also vegan, but doesn’t like labels and feels it's time people change their mindset on dietary restrictions to embrace a wider food diversity without judging others.

At my sharehouse, several tenants are eating plant-based products, particularly milk such as oat milk or soy milk. While I’m vegan, I do not particularly seek out alternative products for dairy, because I originally didn’t eat much of them. I did try Beyond Tofu, but I didn’t really like the texture and flavor, it was very slimy. I wouldn’t buy this product again. Recently, I found Marusan Ai sliced cheese at my supermarket and I gave it a try with toast. It was surprisingly good and perfect for cooking.

Hinata, 40s, single

Twelve years ago, Hinata chose to become a vegetarian, following a macrobiotic diet plan focused on whole grains, legumes, and vegetables. Passionate about good and healthy food, she even participated in the development of vegetarian products for the Japanese market. While Hinata does eat dairy products and eggs, she also enjoys plant-based products from time to time. She particularly likes the Japanese brands Beyond Tofu and Marusan Ai. However, she thinks they lack nutritional value because they’re only made of soy milk. 

I heard a lot about Beyond Tofu, what the company called “miracle protein.” I care about balancing nutrients, so I wanted to try their cheese. What they did is quite surprising. The aroma and taste are perfect and the umami flavor perfectly mimics cheese. I didn't get the impression that the taste of soy was too strong to match the acidity. The problem, however, is that plant-based cheese is expensive. I would buy them more often if it was cheaper.

Sakura, 30s, married with children

Sakura’s husband is French, so cheese is a must at home. However, imported French cheese is relatively costly and Sakura also cares about eating healthy and limiting her intake of fat and salt. Her father is a nutritionist, so she has a high awareness about meat balance. She doesn’t have any particular dietary restrictions, though is curious about vegetarian and vegan meals. She also enjoys cooking and cares about ingredient origins. 

I’m not vegan, but I’m curious about new products and I tried plant-based cheese recently (Marin Food, Sheeze). So far, the products I have tried are good at reproducing the umami flavor of dairy cheese, but I feel they lack saltiness. The appearance also doesn’t look very appealing. However, I think processed plant-based cheese is a good product for cooking. One of the brands I tried, Sheeze, was very good and could be eaten as a snack with a glass of wine. 

Naomi, 30s, single

Naomi is vegan and follows a very strict macrobiotic diet. She has an egg allergy and is very cautious about the food products she buys. She doesn’t purchase a food or beverage product if she isn’t sure of the ingredients list or conditions of production. Naomi cares deeply about the environment and not eating animal products. Before she changed her diet, she wasn’t a consumer of dairy products, so she doesn’t naturally feel attracted to alternative dairy products. 

I’m not convinced that plant-based products are good for me. I feel a lot of them are highly processed, especially the soy based meat. I think society as a whole should rethink how we view food and focus more on local fresh products. In the past year, I tried oat milk, but I wasn’t convinced by the flavor and it really lacks the nutritional benefits of soy milk. I also tried plant-based cheese and I didn’t like it at all. 

Saki, 30s, single

With no allergy or a particular diet, Saki isn’t particularly cutting off animal products but does pay attention to keeping a good nutritional balance. At her work, many colleagues are into yoga and healthy eating, and she feels it sometimes becomes an obsession for people. But she thinks it's good that more people around the world get concerned about the environmental impact of the food industry. Saki is price-sensitive but sometimes pays a little bit more for organic products. 

I’m not vegan or vegetarian, so I don’t look for alternative products. If I was to look for cheese, I think it would be very hard to find something in my local supermarkets. I have tried both Marin Food and Marusan Ai out of curiosity, but frankly they don’t melt well and the appearance isn’t very appetizing. I don’t think I’ll purchase other brands, especially considering their prices. 

See you next Tuesday!

Next week, we hit the stores and see what products are on shelves in Japan. 

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