The evolving plant-based food sector and its recent developments

By Krishnadas Gopinath

According to an OECD report published in November 2021, India consumed six million tonnes of meat in 2020. This translates to a per capita consumption of 4.6 kg, and is only expected to grow in the coming years with rising urbanization, evolving cultural norms, and an increase in disposable income.

While the meat consumption in India is seen to be growing, a recent National Sample Survey suggests that India’s per capita protein consumption, both in urban and rural areas, are declining. Also, around 70-80% of Indians are protein deficient in accordance with Indian Council of Medical Research’s (ICMR) daily dietary recommendation of one gram of protein per kg of body weight. Lack of adequate awareness about proteins – their functions and sources, in general – is deemed to be the biggest factor here.

It is interesting to note that India is the largest producer of lentils, a major protein source, accounting for 25% of the world’s output. It is also one of the staples in the daily traditional Indian diet across regional cuisines. About 90% of Indians consume lentils at least once in a week as per the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS). In comparison, less than 50% of Indians consume meat at least once in a week.

It is thus a paradox that one of the largest, upwardly mobile population residing in one of the largest lentil producing, fast growing meat consuming countries is largely unaware of and highly deficient in their intake of the average daily protein requirement. A need gap is evident, for protein-rich foods, preferably from familiar and local sources like lentils, but suggestive of indulgence and indicative of economical progression.

Emergence of India’s plant-based protein industry

An average Indian’s basket has a number of protein sources – from seeds, nuts, beans and pulses to milk, meat, eggs and fish. But certain factors like culture, budget, religious beliefs, and health aspects restrict the consumers from utilizing all the options available.

This presents a sweet spot for the nascent plant-based food segment to thrive and flourish. Plant-based proteins are generally considered healthier, more acceptable and economical for households, and less taxing on the environment as compared to traditional dairy and meat. While all plant-based proteins may not be complete sources by themselves, blends of two or more of these could deliver the requisite protein content.

India’s plant-based meat market was estimated at about Rs 250 Crores in 2021, largely accounted by retail brands with a small share from food service (HoReCa). Driven by the growing awareness among consumers and increasing adoption even in tier II cities, the market is likely to register explosive growth over the coming years.

COVID-19 played a crucial role in further accelerating the awareness and adoption of the segment as people were cautious of their consumption habits and were particularly wary of many animal-origin products. The popularity of the Netflix show The Game Changers and success of brands like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger in the US kindled consumers attention towards plant-based diets. Endorsements from Hollywood and Bollywood celebrities and a number of sports personalities further added to the interest in the segment. As a result, 2021 witnessed the launch of a number of plant-based brands – Wakao, Imagine Meats, Blue Tribe, Shaka Harry etc. to name a few. Brands like GoodDot, Vezlay and One Good (formerly Goodmylk), which were already established in the space, got a deeper penetration into the market during the same time.

Importance of innovation in the plant-based sector

Indian consumers have always been familiar with soya chaap (kebabs), kathal (jackfruit) biriyani and mushroom curries which have traditionally been the closest alternatives to meat. The current spread of products – nuggets, sausages, burger patties, etc. – are more advanced in terms of ingredients used, technologies involved and closeness to real meat and dairy in taste and texture. These are developed from protein sources like pea and soy, processed to impart the desired texture and formulated with spices, flavours and other ingredients to mimic the taste and texture of real meat. Indian brands work with a number of domestic and international protein manufacturers, ingredients and flavour houses and processors to develop and manufacture their plant-based products.

Plant-based foods, meat and milk in particular, are still seen as a niche category. Innovation is the key to get beyond the innovator and early adopter cohorts, and reach the mainstream consumers. With the majority of Indians being occasional non-vegetarians, positioning the products as meat alternatives is unlikely to gain much mileage. Rather the plant-based protein movement in India is bound to address much more significant challenges like healthier choices and food security for our growing population.

For instance, every Indian household can relate to the challenge of persuading a kid to have more lentils while instant noodles or a plate of nuggets is wiped clean in minutes. Similarly, Indian consumers love their tikka masalas, tangdi kebabs, and dhaaba curries over the sausages and chicken fingers which fall into the snack category in a typical Indian household.

This is where companies with plant-based protein products could add greater value – creating vegetarian and protein rich options for popular Indian food preparations. Also, wider availability of such novel products as a snack or a meal option in restaurants or cafes could help the apprehensive consumers try the product and get assurance from the experience before making it a more regular option.

Within the next few years, as we achieve scale, affordability will drive more such products into rural markets and plug the huge deficit of protein in their diet.

Symega’s role in the Indian plant-based sector

Market for plant-based foods in India is on an upswing. Government arms (MOFPI), NGOs (like GFI India), industry bodies (Plant Based Foods Industry Association) and key participants are all bullish about the category, and are heightening their collaboration to develop the sector.

Symega Food Ingredients, with its deep knowledge and expertise in sensory sciences and food technology, has announced their foray into the plant-based protein space. A purpose-built manufacturing unit was inaugurated in Kochi, Kerala in May 2022. A completely B2B operation, Symega’s plant based range primarily targets packaged food brand owners (start-ups/incumbents) and food service chains. Unlike the alternatives that are currently available in the market, Symega aims to cater to the growing consumer demand for plant-based meat and milk alternatives with convenient, nutritious formulations that are clean label and allergen free.

Originally published on Foodtech Biz on 17 June 2022 and archived here.

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