Caring Confectionery #2: Consumers' Sound Bites

Are Japanese consumers into plant-based confectionery? Maybe not.

Hello Market Shakers,

Here comes our monthly consumer intelligence report, based on interviews conducted with Japanese consumers. 

In our previous issue of Caring Confectionery we talked about the plant-based confectionery current. In Japan, the market is a niche, and our consumers’ feedback is compelling. Japan isn’t there yet.

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In Japan, plant-based confectionery is still in the margins

Innovation and product launches are accelerating in the United Kingdom, Germany, or the United States, carried by growing demand from these markets. Japan, however, feels light years away from this boom happening in the plant-based confectionery sector. Plant-based sweets are not on mainstream consumers’ radar.

In our chat with Gizem Sakamaki two weeks ago, we talked about the slow development of veganism in Japan and the low demand, at least for now, for plant-based products. Last year, the industry experienced an acceleration, notably with meat and dairy alts. The plant-based confectionery sector, however, is still premature. The minority of vegans will support plant-based sweets because they support their cause, but capturing mainstream consumers requires a more extensive spread of the overall plant-based industry. 

A conscious or vegan consumer will happily support whatever made-in-Japan product is offering plant-based products. They’ll get out of their way to purchase and demonstrate there’s a need. I think it comes down to daily necessity at the moment, confectionery isn’t of the highest priority at the moment.

We also reached out to Duco Delgorge, CEO of Joft, an import agency facilitating international food producers to build long-term success in Japan. Duco confirmed our feeling that in Japan, plant-based confectionery isn't mainstream. 

For now, retailers in Japan are not seeking plant-based confectionery. There is little demand for vegan sweets, probably because confectionery is an indulgence. So the shift to plant-based is much slower. But plant-based confectionery will come, as sure as night follows day. There is significant development in Europe and North America.

At some point, these products will make their way to Japan, and Japanese manufacturers will also want to get involved. But the development will be much smaller and slower than what we are seeing in plant-based milk and plant-based meat.

Consumers’ feedback

We interviewed consumers about plant-based and vegan confectionery, but with no luck. They did not understand the category and were unsure of its value when they did. Japanese consumers do not perceive sweets as a need—it’s an extra in their diet. 

That being said, the overall confectionery market is steadily growing in Japan. But what’s trending, at the moment, is the sugarless or sugar-free sector and products presenting added nutritional value—more fiber, protein, and health claims. 

We also evoked in our first week that traditional sweets, particularly the wagashi, are already ‘accidentally’ vegan. Older consumers tend to purchase standard products, and wagashi is going through a renaissance carried by innovation aimed at younger generations.

Several consumers we spoke with mentioned that they like okara-based products. Okara is a traditional soy fiber consisting of the leftover pulp after filtering soybeans to produce soy milk and tofu. It’s an ingredient used for vegetarian cuisine. Okara seems to have gained some popularity recently, both with the food industry and as an ingredient for cooking at home. 

Japanese consumers in their 60-70s

  • Yuriko, 70s, married

Yuriko’s favorite cookie brand is Locabo, which stands for “Low Carb.” Their products are based on nuts. She likes the sugar-free chocolate from Denroku. Among other indulgences, Yuriko buys Leafy, a chocolate-coated pie from Morinaga, and the classic Bisuko, a cream sandwich biscuit from Glico in production since 1933. 

Do you know okara? It’s a by-product of tofu and tounyu [soy milk]. I like okara-based doughnuts and fried croquettes. I try to buy cookies and sweets which contain less sugar.

Japanese consumers in their 40s-50s

  • Megumi, 50s, single

I vaguely remember eating plant-based cookies a few years ago. They did not taste good.

  • Aki, 50s, married

In his young days, Aki ate various kinds of gummy candies. Today, he prioritizes buying sugar-free products and is okay with artificial sweeteners. However, Aki has never seen or tried vegan sweets. He would be curious to give them a try.

I ate a daifuku [traditional sweet made of rice paste and red beans],, and I have kuzu-mochi [chilled jelly cake made from kuzu starch] in my fridge. I noticed the warabi-mochi [jelly-like glutinous rice] at the supermarket today and was tempted… But opted for a cupcake. When I went abroad, I tried a few vegan products out of curiosity. But in Japan, I rarely see vegan products in my daily life. I think people conscious about the environment are probably more aware than I am.

  • Michika, 40s, single

Michika is aware of the plant-based trend, while not too much into confectionery. She’s more interested in what’s new in the foodservice industry. 

Last week I went to IKEA. At the cafeteria, I saw a menu advertised as “plant-based.” But the food contained eggs. When I told the clerk, they seemed annoyed. I felt sad. They pretend to be eco-friendly. Using the word “plant-based” isn’t honest.

Japanese consumers in their 20s-30s

We struggled to find older consumers to open up about plant-based confectionery and what are their thoughts. However, younger generations seemed more open and interested in the subject. This leads us to expand the interview and gather more information for the 20s-30s age range. 

  • Yusuke, 33, single

When asked about plant-based confectionery, Yusuke thinks of Japanese traditional sweets such as warabi-mochi, kanten [agar], yokan [red bean jelly], neri-kiri [a type of wagashi]. Their recipes do not use animal ingredients. Chinese sweets also came to his mind, such as Annin tofu [almond pudding] and tapioca. 

Once, I tried vegetarian ladoo [sweet made of flour, ghee, and sugar] in an Indian restaurant. I believe it was vegan, or at least vegetarian, because the restaurant was located in Okachimachi (Tokyo), where many Jainists live. I also ate soy-based pudding. It was somewhat less sweet than the regular one, and I liked that.

Yusuke does not pick products based on plant-based or vegan promotion. For him, it’s challenging to grasp the concepts behind and voluntarily seek food based on them. 

I tried an okara-based cookie too. I bought it from a vegan food stand at a festival in Tsurumai Park (Nagoya). The cookie tasted good, exactly like a regular cookie. I wouldn’t guess it’s solely made from plants. I noted supermarkets sell okara-based cookies. But I wouldn’t naturally give them a try, because I don’t purchase confectionery so much.

I tried that one time because the festive atmosphere led me to relax and loosen my diet. I kind of liked that one, so if I see that stand again or if they’re sold somewhere, I think I’d buy them. These okara-cookies aside, I don’t think I’ve seen any plant-based choice for Western-like sweets.

  • Yuta, 31, single

At first, Yuta did not understand what plant-based food and confectionary are. After a few explanations, he was surprised and told us this was the first time hearing about such food. 

I have never thought about “plant-based food” even less about buying them. I care about eating healthy. So I eat vegetables and olive oil for the vitamins and unsaturated fatty acid. I stopped drinking milk and eating fish and eggs. I did not seek out medical advice, but every time I ate milk, fish, or egg, I felt unwell.

Does Yuta miss eat cookies and candies? Not really.   

From time to time, when I want to eat something sweet, I buy soy-based okara cookies or cakes, ama-natto [sweet beans], and sugar-coated soy.

We indicated that these products are plant-based confectionery. Like Yusuke earlier, Yuta felt that unless you knew the recipe, you wouldn’t guess okara cookies are made of soy and do not contain animal ingredients. They taste the same as regular biscuits and cookies. 

Surely, I don’t taste the butter, the heaviness of the butter. These products are also less sweet. They’re light. I think they’re healthy for your body.

The challenge for Yuta is that finding okara-based products in his area, a suburb of Tokyo is not accessible. He cannot purchase them from his regular supermarket. 

Maybe I just do not notice these products. I usually buy what I need from service areas of highways and stands in department stores’ food floor. Whenever I find a brand I like, I buy some for myself and as souvenirs for my relatives, coworkers, and clients [a practice common in Japan]. I pass by service areas on business trips—I frequently travel to nearby prefectures to supervise construction sites. I guess these products are premium. They’re too expensive to buy daily.

We showed Yuta Gateaux de Voyage’s Las Olas plant-based line-up.

I think I’ve given them a try, yes. They were sold in Ueno or someplace similar [Las Olas was available at major JR East train stations in Tokyo]. Las Olas tasted nice. I felt the flavor was well balanced. These cookies were light, a bit like egg-stuffed cakes.

Next, we introduced the vegan gummy candy Katjes and asked Yuta what he thinks of them. He first thought Katjes was an American brand and got pleasantly surprised to hear it’s German. 

The colors are very vivid! The packaging is also super colorful, I think it might make kids happy. I care for my diet, though, so I don’t think I would buy gummies, plant-based or not.

  • Haruka, 20s, single

Haruka feels the issue with plant-based products is that it’s hard for consumers to find or recognize them. The problem goes actually beyond vegan or vegetarian labeling and involves the whole food industry. 

There’s a heavy burden on consumers in Japan. The Japanese labeling system is vague. You can never be sure and need to inquire the manufacturer to know what’s really inside your food.

The problem isn’t only for vegans seeking products free from animal ingredients and 100% plant-based. The struggle is real for consumers with food allergies such as dairy, egg, fish, shrimp.

  • Aya, 20s, single

Aya tries to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. When possible, she picks a vegan option with her food and drinks. 

I baked vegan cookies and sweets, like oatmeal cookies. The recipe is quick and simple to make. I don’t purchase plant-based sweets, though, because they are not available at regular supermarkets and convenience stores.

That’s all, folks! 

Sometimes, it’s what’s not there that matters. Our interviewees’ reactions were saying a lot about how niche plant-based confectionery is in Japan. An observation shared by Sho Yoshida, brand manager of Las Olas at Gateaux de Voyage, in our upcoming issue, Caring Confection #4.

Next week, we’ll have a look at what’s on shelves in Japan, with some in-store pictures.


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