Demand upsurge of plant-based meat alternatives in India

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Vegan fastfood in Amsterdam. Representative photo. Credit: Unsplash

From beverages, cheeses to imitation meats, plant-based alternatives are on an ascent worldwide, constituting a billion-dollar industry. 

In April this year Beyond Meat, a Los Angeles-based popular alternate protein brand, launched in India. It tied up with Tiffany Foods, a subsidiary of Allana Group of Companies, one of the largest exporter of processed foods and agro commodities, to bring plant-based burgers and sausages to tickle the Indian palate.

The company’s trademark creation Beyond Burger and Beyond Sausages are now available in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore across select retailers like eCommerce store Urban Platter. FoodHall and Nature’s Basket. 

“This is exciting news for the alternate protein ecosystem in India. And Beyond Meat fits perfectly into our mission of bringing a diverse variety of sustainable, plant-based products to the Indian consumer. We’re excited to see how our customers enjoy these products alongside our other offerings,” says Chirag Kenia, the Founder of Urban Platter.

 There has been a flurry of activity in this segment as many start-ups are inching their way into a likely multibillion-dollar industry. In 2020, Bollywood couple Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza, who turned vegan three years ago, launched Imagine Meat, a plant-based meat foods company.  

Mumbai startup Blue Tribe Foods launched their plant-based chicken nuggets made of soya and peas and Chicken Keema made with soy extracts, while further north, the Udaipur-based food tech start-up GoodDot gained prominence for its mock meat products.

Goa-based Wakao Foods has also been making inroads into space with its jackfruit-based offerings, while in December, Jubilant FoodWorks introduced a plant-based protein product ‘The Unthinkable Pizza’ at Domino’s outlets in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

Delhi-based Ahimsa Foods have already been in the market for a few years offering vegan versions of hot dogs, chicken, mutton, duck, fish, and burgers made with soybeans, wheat, mustard, and spices.

Beverage products that are alternatives to dairy are also seeing an uptick with growing demand. Starbucks India offers oat milk, almond milk and soy milk options. This is also pushing players like Coca-Cola, Nestle and PepsiCo to have a presence in this space.

Faring well in India

Globally, meat substitutes is a $20.7-billion market, according to research firm Euromonitor, which expects it to touch $23.2 billion by 2024. 

But even as the world is experimenting with everything from jackfruit, soy, pulses and shiitake mushrooms to imitate mutton, fish, prawns, chicken and more, in India the market is still nascent and very small.

Nonetheless, Abhishek Sinha, co-founder and CEO, GoodDot, believes that the plant-based meat segment can become a billion-dollar opportunity. “In fact, India could also be an important back-end for the global plant-based meat industry, considering the availability of skilled manpower and abundant agri and agri-processing resources,” he says.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s recent report India is slated to emerge as the burgeoning market for a plant-based meat substitute.  

The report finds that given the fact that India has a large vegetarian population there is a greater demand for healthy foods. This is fuelling the rapid expansion of plant-based meat substitutes in India. 

While the concept of plant-based meats is new to the country, consumers are highly receptive towards this product category. As a result, a growing number of domestic manufacturers and foreign suppliers are penetrating this market to deliver this high-value product for which consumers are willing to pay a premium. 

Further the report states that, India’s plant-based meat industry has developed various joint ventures between Indian firms and international food processors, who are developing innovative meat substitutes derived from pulses, soybeans, wheat, potato, and other plant-based ingredients. 

This offers opportunities for U.S. exporters exist in both consumer-oriented products, and raw materials to support local manufacturers. 

Already Beyond meat has forayed into the Indian market. Recently, US based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) has also partnered with Imagine Meats, where ADM will source raw ingredients and offer technology partnership to manufacture products  under the Imagine Meats brand since the brand plans to  develop plant-based versions of traditional Indian dishes  such as biryani, kebabs, and curry developed from soy and pea proteins.

Why the appeal?

Given that vast majority of Indian’s pride themselves on being vegetarian, not ever having acquired or exposed to the taste of meat there should be little allure in consuming plant-based meat products. 

However, as south Mumbai based nutritionist and dietician, Naini Setelvad points out, “The young and the upwardly mobile urban population is tired of the traditional Indian fare, they have acquired international taste in food. Also, they are wellness and environment conscious and like to try out trendsetting new foods and beverages, much like their counterparts across the world”. 

Further, in 2020, when the pandemic disrupted business as usual with restaurants, offices, colleges and schools shuttered, eating habits and patterns across the world saw deep shifts. With no cure in sight, consumers became more inclined to eat better and boost their immunity. And the spotlight turned to the still novel plant-based and meat alternative products. 

Moreover shortages of meat in some areas and put plant-based meat patties along with snacks like tofu, hummus, and almonds a great option for the daily protein fix. 

Sinha’s company that makes Vegicken curry kit and protein-rich mock meat chunks, says that sales have seen a spike since March last year as the pandemic accelerated the willingness of people to try plant-based meat alternatives. “Earlier, we would need to reach out to consumers and institutions and educate them about the category. Now we are receiving enquiries about our products”. 

Of course, there is a rising environmental consciousness as well, which has made vegan diets gain ground globally. According to some estimates, the global meat industry uses, directly or indirectly, a third of the world’s fresh water, and the animal agri- industry accounts for 18 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, given the slow but steady rise in demand for plant-based meat alternatives in India, the producers are optimistic. They believe that the market is primed for exponential growth. Also, many of them are looking at exports to Dubai, Nepal, Canada, South Africa, Singapore and larger markets in the US and Europe.

Flipside

The idea of trying to mimic the taste and texture of meat with vegetables is hardly new as such. For long in India, jackfruit or kathal has been a prominent meat alternative used in vegetarian dishes. Also the Chinese have been making mock meats from wheat gluten and other plant derivatives for centuries that look like duck or pork meat and also cooked in the same general way. 

The new generation of vegetarian meats does take the process a couple of steps forward with the aid of science. Those ‘meats’ are made from things like pea or wheat or potato protein. Beet juice is used for colour. 

The new vegan meats have also made great advances in replicating the colour and flavour associated with meat.

However, there is a school of thought that questions the healthiness of plant-based meat alternatives. They say that while it may be healthy for the environment but it may not be healthy for the body as they are super processed. 

“Ideally, mock meat should be made with greens and nuts, but as this is a costly proposition, companies use synthetics, additives and emulsifiers to gain the desired texture. Such meats are counter-productive as they are high on chemicals,” says Setelvad.

While there may be a cause for caution,  till then tempeh-lentil-chia burgers or matcha-kelp noodles without a lick of meat is gaining ground and whetting the appetites of many Indians.

Shampa Bahadur has been a business journalist for more than two decades. She has written for Business India, PTI Media TransAsia and India Infrastructure Publication Ltd among others. She has also written coffee table books. She can be reached at shampa@indoasiancommodities.in

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