When David Yeung, 45, made the decision to go full vegetarian in 2001—for humanitarian reasons — he subsisted on a diet of mostly tofu, tempeh, mushrooms and fruits with gluten as the plant-based meat alternative. “Social events proved very challenging. Back then restaurants didn’t have much to offer. Your friends feel bad for you, and then you feel bad for yourself, and the restaurant people feel like you are just trying to annoy them,” he laughs.
You can imagine the joy he felt when plant-based meats by pioneering brands like Beyond Meat arrived into the scene in 2012. “As a vegetarian, I’m delighted to have more choices, especially food that I grew up with and have an emotional attachment to such as hot dogs, burgers, nuggets and luncheon meat. Sometimes we crave meat not just for the taste but for the emotional connection and memories. Having something plant-based that tastes like the real thing is an awesome feeling,” says Yueng, who is from Hong Kong.
In the past decade, the number of meatless meat offerings have grown exponentially, going beyond burger patties and sausage franks to “chicken strips” from Huera, yakiniku “beef” from Next Meats, fishless fingers from Quorn, “chicken” katsu from Tindle, shredded “pork” from Karana, including Yeung’s own OmniFoods, which offers a wide array of Asian-inspired meat alternatives like dumplings and vegan luncheon meat.
OmniFoods is the food-tech innovation arm under Green Monday Holdings, a global plant-based food company co-founded by Yeung in 2012. Through his vegetarian promotion and food rescue initiatives, Green Monday has become a world leading platform that enables corporations, restaurants, schools, and individuals to join efforts in reducing our carbon footprint and performing our social and environmental responsibilities. His work has earned him the award of “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” by the World Economic Forum and Schwab Foundation, among numerous other accolades.
“The message we want to put across is to live a flexitarian life and go green one day a week. That’s how Green Monday started, which is symbolic of a new beginning. And of course, people generally overeat on weekends, so Monday is also a good day to start detoxing,” he says. “Hopefully one day, a green Monday will be a global practice.”
“The livestock industry is deeply flawed and outdated. It’s extremely resource intensive and inhumane to both animals and workers, so an overhaul of the food system is a must. We have built a platform for the entire future food ecosystem. Now we want to catalyse it.”
To support and see his vision through, Green Monday has been the recipient of several rounds of funding. In 2020, it received US$70 million ($94 million) in investments led by private equity firm TPG’s The Rise Fund and Swire Pacific Limited. Room to Read founder and impact investor John Wood also joined as new investors, joining existing investors including Lee Kum Kee Health Products Group’s Happiness Capital and individual investors like James Cameron, Mary McCartney and Susan Rockefeller.
Headquartered in Hong Kong, halal-certified OmniFoods is developed in Canada by a team of expert food scientists and manufactured in Thailand. It has a current distribution network in over 20 markets, and is a partner to many of the world’s top restaurants and retail chains.
Yeung also works with a number of MNCs and schools to implement Green Monday as a part of their corporate culture. Methodist Girls School in Singapore for example, is currently on an eight-week challenge to adopt a Green Monday where the school offers more plant-based options every Monday.
With governments shifting their focus to sustainability, going green is a sign of things to come. By 2025, IKEA will be serving 50% plant-based meals while Burger King has a completely vegan outlet in London and intends to have the rest of its global outlets serving 50% plant-based by 2030. Meanwhile, Tesco is growing its plant-based offerings by 300% by 2025. “Ultimately, this looks good as it’s all about ESG (environmental, social, governance) and corporate social responsibility. There’s a lot of incentive to do this, and of course they also see a real demand for it,” says Yeung.
OmniFoods first launched the OmniMeat series in 2018 offering OmniMince and subsequently introduced Omni Luncheon and Omni Strip in the following year, as well as vegetarian dim sum series under the OmniEat category. This April, it launched a highly-anticipated Asian-first, featuring a range of certified-vegan seafood analogues such as fish fillets, tuna fish and crab cake crafted with a proprietary blend of plant-based protein from non-genetically modified organism (GMO) soy, pea and rice. A safe and mercury-free alternative, plant-based fish is a source of protein that contains no hormones, artificial colours, monosodium glutamate (MSG), added antibiotics or preservatives.
OmniSeafood also marks OmniFood’s commitment to promote a sustainable ecosystem by providing an alternative and safer source of protein while tackling environmental concerns like overfishing and the degradation of the ocean ecosystem. “Singaporeans consume about 22kg of seafood per person yearly, this is higher than the global average of 20kg. This large amount of consumption is not sustainable for our oceans. Having proven market success with our range of alternatives to meat, our primary objective is now to address overfishing and offer consumers a healthy and sustainable option that slows down the impact of seafood consumption,” he adds.
To dine on the OmniSeafood range, one can order them from a scrumptious menu at Green Common retail store and cafe located at VivoCity, the only outlet in Singapore to carry OmniFood’s complete range of plant-based products as well as other vegan-friendly brands under its distributorship. OmniFood can also be found on various e-commerce platforms like RedMart by Lazada, and selected supermarkets.
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In an interview with Options, Yeung reflects on his 10 years at the helm of Green Monday and OmniFoods and explains why adopting a plant-based way of life is the future.
Can you share why you decided to become vegetarian?
Going vegetarian 21 years ago was a personal choice. I felt there was no need to harm animals to survive. The correlation between food, sustainability and climate change goes far beyond personal choices; it is something that affects us on a global scale.
In 2006, when the United Nations documented how the livestock industry actually con- tributes more greenhouse gases than transportation combined, no one paid attention. But ignoring the problem doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist, right? Something needed to be done.
How has your body and health changed?
When you eat meat, or just a lot of food in general, it takes a lot of energy to digest which in turn makes you feel very tired. And of course, it makes you heavier, plus it makes you feel heavy on the inside. That’s because humans are not designed to process so much meat.
Going plant-based makes me feel lighter, less tired, more alert and energetic. From a nutritional standpoint, a plant-based diet is much lower in calories, cholesterol and saturated fat and high in fibre. Contrary to popular belief, there is actually sufficient protein and calcium from plants to fulfil your daily nutritional needs.
Actually, in earlier times people seldom ate meat due to the high cost. Asians treated it like celebratory food for special occasions. But now meat is at every meal and is contributing to global issues like obesity and high cholesterol which may lead to a long list of health problems.
2019 was coined the Year of the Vegan. How has consumer uptake been since then?
We have grown in double digits in the past year but we have barely touched the surface on the whole. I honestly feel that even though we’ve been doing this for 10 years, we’ve only managed to capture about 10% or 20% of the market. If this were a marathon, we’d only hit the 5km mark, but I don’t think it would take another 10 years to go another 5km. We are definitely gaining momentum.
I don’t think we’ve reached a point where meat consumption has dropped significantly but the green trend is certainly growing. In the UK, about 18% of millennials are vegetarian or vegan and 25% of Gen Zs have already gone meat free. Elsewhere in Asia, I do notice that people are looking at shorter ingredient labels that provide better health propositions. I think once they feel comfortable eating plant-based meat alternatives on a regular basis, it will become a staple in their fridge. For us, it’s how to create more versatile products that can be incorporated into a variety of cooking applications for a broader range of Asian cuisines. Currently, our top sellers are the luncheon meat strips, gyoza and dim sum. With the new OmniSeafood series, you can now cook crab meat soup, steamed fish, tuna croquettes, fish curry, and so much more.
What about the argument that plant-based food is very expensive?
Yes, obviously with any new products in the market, you’re not going to get to economies of scale on day one. Ultimately there is no reason why plant-based products can’t be as cheap as real meat. When it comes to land-water-labour-animals, we’re taking all that out of the equation. When solar panels first came out, they were crazy expensive, but now solar energy can sometimes be cheaper than fossil fuels.
We are building that volume up, but with inflation and logistics, it’s been very challenging. No doubt, we see that the pricing should be similar and ultimately cheaper to ensure sustainability. Plus, the more demand goes up, supply goes up.
Available to buy, OmniSeafood is also presented in a dining menu at the Green Common concept store and café in Vivo City
Why did you launch a seafood line and how did you perfect both taste and texture?
Beef and chicken get a lot of attention, but for us, seafood is the big focus right now. Plus, seafood impacts ocean sustainability. If we’re serious about ocean conservation and marine ecosystem, there’s no way we can continue to eat fish like we do right now. Overfishing is devastating the ocean’s eco-system. Plus, you cannot endlessly fish, right? If we continue to eat this way, marine life may be wiped out in 20 years. To put things into perspective, I strongly recommend watching Seaspiracy (a documentary which calls on people to stop eating seafood) on Netflix.
As for recreating the real-feel of seafood, that’s all based on the experience of our R&D team and food scientists who have been doing this for decades. We started ideating in early 2020, and after hundreds of iterations, we managed to get near-perfect flavours, textures and aromas by 2021. The beauty of all OmniFoods products is that they can be applied to a majority of Asian cooking applications from stir-fry to steaming. I personally love an Omni-crab soup!
You have front row seats to the evolution of plant-based cuisine. How have trends changed and where is it going?
We have front row seats and we are also one of the players, too! First of all, from no plant-based meat brands to so many today, with the addition of vegan milks and snacks too, it’s been very positive to see, and encouraging for health food manufacturers. I think in terms of food science and food innovation, companies are more adept now at recreating plant-based cuisine that makes us enjoy food.
In Hong Kong, I see a more flexitarian attitude towards food where somewhere between 30% to 40% of people are consuming plant-based food on a more regular basis. In Taiwan and Thailand, there’s big vegetarian adoption. And Singapore has a unique advantage because the government is very supportive.
The real evolution in this plant-based sector is the growth of flexitarians who are routinely replacing meat with meatless options. Replacement is evolution — it’s better for the environment and your health. One day, eating plant-based will become a basic necessity, which is why we should continue to innovate.
What is your wish for the Green Monday movement?
We launched Green Monday on Earth Day in 2012, so our birthday wish is for people to come together, think and have conversations about a whole green lifestyle. Start with a meal and reduce meat consumption. Change is not really an option anymore. Experts and the United Nations have given us a very defined timeline. If we want to have a planet that is still liveable by 2030, we all have to do our part.
MAIN IMAGE: Albert Chua/The Edge Singapore