Kiwi entrepreneur Hunter McGregor reports from Shanghai on the market for plant ‘milks’ in China.

There is plenty of hype about plant-based milk (juice) worldwide, and China is no different. Oat milk and soya milk brands are targeting the Chinese consumer. They have some success with young and “hip” drinkers, but China is a very challenging market.

China was most likely the birthplace of soy milk, with written records dating back to the Han Dynasty in about 164BC (about 2185 years ago). The soybean is native to the Chinese area, and Liu An was credited with having discovered and developed “Doufu” (soybean curd) in China.

Nine hundred years later, it spread to Japan, where it is known as “Tofu”. What you might think of as tofu is the soft white stuff, but in China (and Japan), there are hundreds of different types of tofu. Both countries have a long history of soybean products, and there are many great-tasting tofu dishes around China. In some dried tofu Chinese dishes, most people would not know they are eating tofu as it is tasty!

During my earlier days in the north of China (around 2007), soybean milk was made fresh in most restaurants, and unfortunately, I had the experience of drinking it. I try my best to avoid it, but many Chinese people like it.

It’s traditionally called dòu jiāng , which translates into “bean broth”, and now it is known mostly now as dòu nǎi (dòu = (soy) bean & nǎi = milk). Traditional soy milk is made by soaking dry soybeans and grinding them with hot water. Many people (and restaurants) still do it this way, making it fresh. You can make soy milk with standard kitchen tools; many homes would have soy milk machines. Some are about the size of a hot water jug.

With a long history of non-dairy “milk” products in China, many think these new plant-based products will be in high demand. That is most likely what investors/funders of international plant-based milk companies are being sold on.

The reality is very different, and there will be a market for some of these different types of “milks”. But in early 2020, the National Health Commission suggested consuming at least 300 grams of milk products daily as one of its dietary recommendations for fending off Covid. They are talking about dairy, not plant-based products.

A friend of mine who manages a high-profile hotel in China told me they use a lot of freshly made soy milk in the mornings, as it’s what most of their Chinese clients like to drink. Currently, they are using a lot of Oatly’s products (yoghurt and milk) because they have a big promotion (i.e. cheaper pricing). However, once the Oatly promotion finishes, they will return to using regular dairy products because there is not much demand for Oatly’s products at their regular price points.

In the meantime, I will continue using actual milk (from New Zealand, if possible) in my coffee as I want to keep up with the recommended 300g of milk products daily. I hope you do too.