Unlocking mung bean's potential
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Unlocking mung bean's potential

Plant-based food by San Francisco-based JUST Egg, which uses mung bean as an ingredient. Despite the rise of plant-based food in Thailand, most ingredients are imported.  REUTERS
Plant-based food by San Francisco-based JUST Egg, which uses mung bean as an ingredient. Despite the rise of plant-based food in Thailand, most ingredients are imported.  REUTERS

Driven by growing concerns about the enormous ecological footprint of conventional meat, dairy and egg production, and enticed by the personal health benefits of a shift towards nutrient-dense foods, plant-based protein is on the upswing across Asia -- especially in Thailand.

When multinational research firm GlobeScan in 2020 surveyed 27,000 consumers in dozens of countries about whether they want meat to be made from plants or animals, a majority of Thai respondents -- 55%, among the highest anywhere in the world -- said they want theirs to come from plants.

That's good news for many reasons. Plant-based meat dramatically reduces the food contamination and infectious disease risks that are all too common in industrial animal agriculture. Conventional methods of producing meat are also inherently inefficient. Chickens, for example, consume nine calories of crops for every one calorie we get back in the form of meat. That's 800% waste -- the equivalent of preparing nine plates of food, only to throw eight of them in the rubbish bin. By making meat directly from plants, manufacturers can produce more food with fewer resources -- a quintessential win-win.

Yet paradoxically, local crop farmers are not yet reaping the benefits that a shift towards innovative plant-based foods should deliver, and the reason is simple: look at the ingredient list.

Despite the fact that regional demand for plant-based foods is surging, most are not yet made from locally grown crops. Last year, 77% of plant-based meat products launched in Southeast Asia used soy or wheat as their protein source -- ingredients primarily grown in the West.

Tethering Asia's "future food" production to international imports introduces unnecessary instability into the supply chain and prevents local farmers from being able to cash in on what should be a clear windfall.

It's not that plant-based food producers don't want to put local ingredients into the mix. As a new report released by the Good Food Institute APAC shows, the humble mung bean -- already widely grown in Thailand -- has potential to be a plant protein powerhouse.

When global food company Beyond Meat joined forces with PepsiCo to develop and launch their first plant-based jerky product last year, they bucked convention and opted to use mung beans as their primary protein ingredient. The world's leading plant-based egg product, called JUST Egg, is also mung bean-based.

But products featuring local crops remain a small minority amid a sea of soy. Part of the reason is that compared to western ingredients, Southeast Asian crops like mung beans -- locally known as Tua Keow -- have been woefully neglected by protein-focused research and development programmes. Soy-producing countries have spent decades optimising that crop and driving down costs through innovative breeding programmes. As a result, producers have more than doubled how much value they get from every single acre of land.

Similarly, cereal crops like wheat have nearly tripled their yield sizes over the past 50 years. Meanwhile, legumes -- which include mung beans -- have increased by a comparatively meagre 60%. It's a classic case of underinvestment leading to underutilisation.

That reality is especially tragic when you consider that mung beans offer several built-in advantages over more commonly used ingredients. They have far lower allergenicity than either soy or wheat. Mung beans are also celebrated in both traditional Chinese medicine and the Indian medicine system of Ayurveda, making them a familiar and broadly appealing ingredient in many Asian cultures. Additionally, processing innovations for mung beans -- which possess the properties to achieve the desired taste and texture profile needed for many plant-based applications using less-intensive processing methods -- could help products more easily earn the "clean label" status that many consumers say they want.

The good news is that these are still early days in the global plant-based food market's growth, and there is a brief window of time for Thailand and other Southeast Asian agricultural hubs to get in the game. The first steps towards seizing that opportunity are optimising local supply chains with the plant-based protein market in mind and investing in scientific research to ramp up local crops' protein content and yield potential, so that they can compete on cost.

If these efforts are successful, not only will local manufacturers be able to wean themselves off of international imports and increase regional food security, but Thailand can adapt to a fast-changing food landscape and retain its hard-earned reputation as the kitchen of the world.

Ryan Huling is senior communications manager at the Good Food Institute APAC--Asia's leading alternative protein think tank.

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