By Alberto Alerigi
SAO PAULO, June 19 (Reuters) - Beef-crazy Brazil, with its all-you-can-eat steak houses, world-leading meatpackers and more cattle than people, is not the first place you might look for plant-based alternatives to meat.
But companies from JBS SA, the largest beef producer in the world, to BRF SA, the No.1 chicken exporter, are looking to tap a wave of interest from environmentally conscious eaters seeking vegetable substitutes.
Spurred on by competition from fast-growing pioneers such as Beyond Meat Inc and venture capital-backed Impossible Foods, the Brazilians are joining a crowded field of innovators, with several new products for sale or under development.
Such "plant-based meats" generally use a processed mix of protein from soybeans or peas, for example, blended with mushrooms or vegetables such as beets to approach a texture, appearance and taste similar to animal products.
Of course, no one expects Brazilians to give up meat overnight. The average Brazilian eats about 42 kg (93 lbs) of meat per year, second only to the 53 kg devoured by their Argentine neighbors, according to agribusiness consultancy Athenagro.
Brazil's cattle population has grown to around 215 million, while the country has about 210 million residents, according to official statistics agency IBGE.
Yet about 30 million people in the country call themselves vegetarian, according to a poll by the Brazilian Vegetarian Society (SVB).
Of those, 7 million are self-declared vegans, foregoing animal products altogether such as cheese, milk and eggs as well.
Consumers ranging from the strictest meat avoiders to the growing ranks of "flextarians," who are looking to reduce but not eliminate meat from their diets, are finding a flood of new options in the supermarket, from vegetable sausages and hotdogs to pea-based "chicken breast filets".
Seara, the poultry and pork unit of JBS, is launching a plant-based hamburger, eyeing 13% of the market in three years.
"It is not a defensive move, we are only looking at opportunities," its marketing director José Cirilo said.
Seara and other newcomers are taking on some established local vegetarian producers, including Superbom, a food processor linked to the country's Adventist Church, which itself reports a surge of new demand.
"Our client base today is much bigger outside of the church," said marketing director David Oliveira, estimating that demand for meat substitutes in Brazil is growing 30% annually.
Poultry giant BRF is also eyeing a return to the vegetarian market after discontinuing a line of non-meat products in 2010.
"It is a market that it is here to stay," said Fabio Baganara, BRF's R&D director, who said new innovations have allowed plant-based products to better approach the qualities of animal meat. (Reporting by Alberto Alerigi Jr.; Writing by Marcelo Teixeira; Editing by Brad Haynes and Sandra Maler)