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Smart Indulgence

Juicy seekh kebabs, chicken nuggets, mutton keema, eggs and yogurts, all made out of plant extracts. Are Indian consumers ready to embrace these new-age 'good-for-you' products?

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When American elite special forces trainer and the winner of the reality TV series, The Ultimate Fighter, James Wilks, takes a trip around the world in pursuit of an optimum diet that would improve the performance of sportspersons in the Netflix documentary, The Game Changers, he debunks the age-old belief that animal protein is the only way one can build muscle, sustain energy levels and recover from stubborn injuries. The documentary, which critics call propaganda against the meat industry, gives a 360-degree view of the world of vegetarianism.

Wilks is not an exception. The idea of plant-based protein is catching on big time, especially in countries where meat consumption is high. In the US, where an average American consumes anywhere between 80 and 85 kilograms (kgs) of meat annually and can’t imagine a meal without beef or chicken, plant-based mock meat, eggs and dairy products have found their way into restaurant menus as well as homes. There is a whole generation of consumers substituting their favourite beef burger patty with a plant-based beef patty sold by the likes of Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods. In fact, the current plant-based meat market globally is already $5 billion, and growing rapidly The trend has been amplified further with celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Arnold Schwarzenegger embracing veganism. The trigger is the strong belief that plant protein is more nutritious and effective and consumption of animal protein has an adverse impact on the environment. “It is led by health, ethical and planetary considerations,” says Geetu Gidwani Verma, a management consultant in the global FMCG space, and former Global Vice President, Nutrition and Natural Platforms, Unilever.


BVeg Foods Co-founders Akanksha and Prateek Ghai at the BVeg laboratory in New Delhi

Companies across the world are fast latching on to the trend. The global alternative protein market is projected to reach $295 billion by 2035. In fact, mock meat company Beyond Meat is one of the most talked about start-ups that got listed at a valuation of $1.5 billion on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019. The company is currently valued at $8.5 billion. Around $4.5 billion was invested in plant-based nutrition globally in 2020. Companies such as US-based Impossible Foods and Swedish major Oatly have raised private equity funding of $700 million and $200 million, respectively.


Global food giants such as Unilever and Nestle are also investing big in the segment. In April this year, Nestle launched a manufacturing facility for plant-based burgers and other variants of mock meat in Malaysia. The food major has also invested $100 million to build a plant-based food facility in China.


The Indian Market

So, what goes into a mock meat burger patty or chicken nugget? It is predominantly soya and pea protein. In India, soya chunks or soya wadi as they are commonly referred to, have been a popular protein source for decades, long before the founders of Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods even imagined mock meat burger patties or sausages. Soya chunks have not only made their way into Indian households on religious occasions when meat can’t be cooked, but have also served the purpose of satisfying the non-vegetarian craving of the segment of the population which isn’t affluent enough to afford meat. It is currently a Rs 50,000-crore market dominated by firms such as Ruchi Soya. Adani Wilmar and Marico have entered the segment in the recent past.

Most of the food companies present in soya chunks are of Indian origin. Global food majors such as Nestle, which are making serious investments worldwide, find the Indian plant-based market nascent. But the consciousness to eat right and eat healthy is catching on fast. Eminent sports and film personalities such as Virat Kohli, Shraddha Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut have been vocal about their transition to vegetarianism. Social media influencers are constantly talking about the benefits of turning vegan and replacing animal protein diet with plant-based ones. No wonder the last one year has seen a spate of plant-based nutrition start-ups entering the market. Be it Blue Tribe, Hello Tempayy, Evo Foods or Imagine Meats, their ambition is to change the way Indians eat.

We see a very high acceptance of our plant-based products. There are a lot of consumers who have replaced their coffee creamers with our almond milk

Rohan Mirchandani,
Co-Founder and CEO, Drums Food (Epigamia)

Greek yogurt-maker Epigamia launched its portfolio of plant-based dairy products such as coconut-based yogurt and almond milk last year. Rohan Mirchandani, Co-founder and CEO, Drums Food (Epigamia), says within a year of its launch, the plant-based portfolio has started contributing 12-15 per cent to the revenue of the Rs 250-crore company. “We see a very high acceptance of our plant-based products. There are a lot of consumers who have replaced their coffee creamers with our almond milk. When we observed that a certain segment of our regular consumers had stopped buying our products, we reached out to them to find out the reason. That’s when we realised that these were early signs of consumers becoming vegans,” says Mirchandani.


Varun Deshpande, Managing Director, The Good Food Institute India (GFI), agrees that in the past one year, especially after the Covid-19 outbreak, there has been an increasing desire among Indian consumers to eat healthy and eat ethical. “We are working with a few dozen entrepreneurs across plant-based meat, eggs and dairy. The story will be written over the next 10 years when we expect the Indian plant-based food industry to be as big as it is in mature markets such as the US.”

We are working with entrepreneurs across plant-based meat, eggs and dairy. The story will be written in the next 10 years when we expect the Indian plant-based food industry to be as big as in the US

Varun Deshpande,
MD, The Good Food Institute India


The Dichotomy

Over 70 per cent of Indians consume non-vegetarian food. However, as opposed to the average American, who consumes around 80-85 kgs of meat per annum, an average Indian consumes just 4 kgs. This is because only 25 per cent of meat consumers in the country are hardcore meat eaters. The remaining 70 per cent are casual consumers who eat meat when they go out or on a few days of the week. “A large part of meat consumption occasions in India are also governed by religious norms. People don’t eat meat on certain days due to religious reasons,” explains Verma.

There is a rise of flexitarians — non-veg eaters/lovers, experimenting with plant-based options, very niche at the moment, but are steadily increasing

Geetu Gidwani Verma,
Management consultant in the global FMCG space & former Global VP, Nutrition and Natural Platforms, Unilever

Apart from this huge cohort of casual non-vegetarians, there are also hardcore vegetarians who would never fancy eating mock meat or anything closer to the texture of meat. “The ethics issue around meat and environment isn’t resonating as much in India as elsewhere. Mock meat will not appeal to a veggie and that limits the market potential in India,” says Kannan Sitaram, Venture Partner, Fireside Ventures.

India is a highly protein-deficient country and what Indian consumers really crave for is a high-protein alternative and not as much a replacement for meat like in the US or the rest of the world. “A non-vegetarian in India is not the same as a non-vegetarian in the US or Europe where they are eating meat at least once a day. A large percentage of the population eats vegetarian meals and that’s where the gap is,” says Siddharth Ramasubramanian, Founder and CEO, Vegolution. His product, Hello Tempayy, which entered the market earlier this year, is a look-alike of paneer, prepared by culturing and fermenting soyabean and water.

A non-vegetarian in India is not the same as a non-vegetarian in the US or Europe... A large percentage of the population eats vegetarian meals and that’s where the gap is

Siddharth Ramasubramanian,
Founder, Vegolution


Ramasubramanian says Hello Tempayy is a plant-based protein alternative for a vegetarian diet. “Most vegetarians we spoke to were tired of eating paneer. They didn’t have any indulgence food. The yearning for something delicious besides paneer was clearly there. They also wanted to have something that was familiar, so we needed to introduce something which was within the context of the modern Indian kitchen. They wanted something as versatile as potato or paneer,” he adds.


Prior to launching her own plant-based company, Shraddha Bhansali, Co-Founder, EVO Foods, was running a vegan restaurant, Candy Green, where she found out that mock meat was an under-performer. “While there were vegans who did miss the taste of meat, there was also a large segment of consumers who were vegetarians due to religious reasons, and they were turned off because mock meat didn’t fit into their food culturally. The non-vegetarians, on the other hand, said they did not want fake meat.”


It was clear to Bhansali that she needed to come up with something that was not religiously offensive and at the same time easily adaptable. “In our surveys, we asked people whether they were vegetarians or non-vegetarians and they told us they were vegetarians, with eggs or without eggs. We realised that everyone has a different degree of vegetarianism with eggs; some have eggs only in cakes. Also, a lot of doctors prescribe eggs for protein. So, we came up with the idea of making a plant-based egg.” Her brand, EVO, set to be launched within the next couple of months, is a liquid egg made out of moong, chickpeas and peas. Bhansali says her plant-based egg is not just comparable to chicken eggs in terms of protein content, but is also fortified with Vitamin B12 and D3, and is without cholesterol.

Mock Meat

A vegetarian protein option such as tempe or even an egg does seem to be more likely to be accepted by the Indian consumer than mock meat. However, Deshpande of GFI believes it important for plant-based meat players to look beyond soya nuggets. “If any non-vegetarian tries soya nuggets, he/she would call it an inferior substitute. The next-generation products have to focus on replicating the sensory experience of meat in order to be accepted.”


Considering the awareness about adverse repercussions of consuming too much meat, Verma says there is a growing segment of Indians open to the idea of replacing their animal diet with plant-based protein on at least certain days of the week. “There is a rise of flexitarians — non-veg eaters/lovers, experimenting with plant-based options, very niche at the moment, but are steadily increasing. That would be the next big market opportunity.”

But like Deshpande, Verma also believes that the challenge would be to offer the taste and texture of real meat. Blue Tribe Foods, which launched plant-based chicken keema and chicken nuggets earlier this year, is already aspiring to become a Rs 1-crore brand by the end of the year. Chief Commercial Officer Sohil Wazir is targeting flexitarians. “We are not asking people to go vegan. All we are telling them is that if you are eating meat four times a week, you can substitute that once or twice a week with plant-based meat and get the same experience. That, in itself, will mean a massive impact on the amount of meat that is consumed,” he adds.


Bollywood couple Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh is also launching mock meat brand Imagine Meats. “We have tried and matched the taste as close to non-vegetarian food as possible. India has a lot of guilty nonveg eaters. They don’t eat at home. We want to tell them that they can sit and eat at home guilt-free as they are eating a plant,” says Genelia D’Souza Deshmukh, Co-founder, Imagine Meats. The company has a portfolio of 12 products, including seekh kebabs, keema, biryani, butter chicken and chicken tikka masala. “We were clear we would Indianise. We do have nuggets and burger patties, but the main focus is taking our food to Indians, so that they can eat guilt-free,” she says. They plan to roll out their brand in Mumbai in August.


Bangalore-based Evolved Foods will also launch its plant-based protein and meat. While the plant protein is meant for vegetarians, the meat is going to be positioned as an alternative to conventional chicken and mutton. “Most hardcore vegetarians don’t want to experiment with a product that is meaty. We wanted to give them something which is high in protein (16 grams) and low in fat (7 grams) and, more importantly, not meaty. Plant meat is meaty in texture, and the whole idea was to create a credible replacement to meat,” says Roma Roy Choudhury, COO, Evolved Foods.

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As an investor, Sitaram of Fireside Ventures says he would rather place his bet on a protein option targeted at vegetarian diet rather than mock meat. “Veganism will pick up momentum in India. There is opportunity for almond and oat milk. A vegetarian option of protein, which has higher protein content than paneer, and which is not positioned as meat, will work better in the country.”

Narendra Parthsarathy, Chief Farmer, Founder and CEO of omnichannel meat brand, Nandu’s, believes that calling a plant-based nutrition product as chicken or meat creates confusion among consumers. “It’s a beautiful ingredient and the product needs to stand on its own feet. The moment a vegetarian hears the word meat, he/she will say no to it. On the other hand, a conventional meat eater may not want to eat mock meat,” he adds.


The Ecosystem

Though plant-based nutrition in India is nascent and largely limited to soya chunks, the rising awareness of the concept has already resulted in the emergence of a plant-based ecosystem. Not only are entrepreneurs launching brands, they are manufacturing ingredients as well. “There is a lot of work to be done across the value chain. Making these ingredients available to entrepreneurs so that they can make next-generation meat substitutes is also a major business opportunity. We have businesses being set up just to investigate the use of chickpeas in next-generation plant-based meat, egg and dairy products,” explains GFI’s Deshpande.

Start-ups such as BVeg Foods are not just experimenting with ready-to-cook plant-based protein snacks but also investing in manufacturing facilities to make these products. “Our factory on the outskirts of Delhi will be a game-changer in the plant-based products category. A lot of people are asking us to supply bulk products and for that we need specialised equipment that will help us create scale in the mock meat category,” says Co-founder Prateek Ghai. He is in talks with quick service restaurants planning to launch mock meat as part of their menu. In fact, Domino’s Pizza was the first to launch a limited-edition mock meat pizza last year.


Global plant-based ingredient companies are also eyeing the Indian market. Imagine Meats, for instance, has partnered with America’s ADM to launch its plant-based range in India. “We are giving them a complete farm-to-fork solution. Right from protein to flavour blends, we have helped them with the entire formulation. Since taste, spice blends and fibrosity of the products are important, we gave them concept demos. If they wanted chicken tikka, we demonstrated a chicken tikka or a seekh kebab,” explains Sanjay Laud, Managing Director, Nutrition, ADM India. Apart from Imagine Meats, ADM is working with a host of other plant-based nutrition start-ups as well. “We are in talks with leading food majors as all of them have started evaluating their plant-based strategies,” says Laud.

“Texturisers and binders get manufactured in Europe and are imported. Proteins are imported from the US. We are not making proteins in India as the market is very nascent. We will first develop the market and when the base is strong integrate backwards and start manufacturing,” he adds.


Challenges Galore

Heavyweights such as Ruchi Soya, Adani Wilmar and Marico don’t intend to look beyond the traditional soya chunks market since that is the only area where they can build scale. “We see huge opportunities for growth in soya and will surely tap that market going forward,” says Baba Ramdev, Founder, Patanjali Ayurved. Patanjali acquired Ruchi Soya in 2019.


“We are a mass player, so pricing is critical. Soya chunks allow us to be relevant to the masses as pricing is affordable. But other plant-based foods have huge potential as well. We are watching the space and will ensure we are early movers in the plant-based protein category,” says Ajay Motwani, Chief Marketing Officer, Adani Wilmar.

Marico India recently launched Saffola Mealmaker Soya Chunks. “We have been witnessing a shift towards high-protein, high-nutrition foods over the last couple of years, a trend driven by changing consumer sensibilities. Today, people want healthy snacking options that fit into their lifestyles. The industry is focusing on developing affordable and healthy snacks such as ready-to-eat foods, breakfast cereals and high-protein foods and beverages,” says Sanjay Mishra, COO (India Sales) and CEO (New Business), Marico Ltd.

We have been witnessing a shift towards high-protein, high-nutrition foods over the last couple of years, a trend driven by changing consumer sensibilities

Sanjay Mishra,
Chief Operating Officer- India Sales & Bangladesh Business, Marico Limited

Given the nascent state of the industry, the obvious challenge is scale. Pricing parity with conventional meat and dairy products would be a challenge too. While Hello Tempayy is priced at Rs 130 for a 200-gram pack, which is similar to premium paneer, a 200gram pack of Blue Tribe chicken keema is priced at Rs 295 as opposed to a Rs 200gram pack of conventional chicken keema, which costs Rs 200. The pricing of EVO eggs would be on a par with organic eggs, which command a huge premium compared to regular chicken eggs. “It will be difficult for these brands to maintain price parity as they are currently importing the ingredients and paying hefty duties. Unless the government rationalises the duties, it will be difficult for them to offer their product at a reasonable price, which will make scaling up a challenge,” explains Sitaram of Fireside Ventures.

Verma says the industry will only be able to target the country’s creme de la crème for some time. However, the action in the plant-based nutrition industry is heating up as more and more upwardly mobile Indians take to veganism. But it is unlikely that vegan products will completely replace conventional dairy or meat.



Story: Ajita Shashidhar

Producer: Vivek Dubey, Rashi Bisaria

Creative Producer: Raj Verma, Anirban Ghosh

Video Editor: Vivek Sheel

UI developer: Ravi Kumar, Mohd. Naeem Khan