New Delhi: There is only so much an aloo tikki burger or soya chaap can do for the average non-vegetarian Indian’s palate — even if they are desperate to stop consuming meat for ethical, environmental, or health reasons. However, culinary jugglery in laboratories has brought new hope in the form of plant-based mock meats that claim to offer the pleasures of flesh together with the moral high ground of veganism.
Over the last couple of years, especially, delights such as “vegicken curry” kits, “unmutton keema”, “plant-based sausages”, and “vegan meat tikkas” have appeared in the packaged foods sections of upmarket Indian retailers, as well as in online stores, and the selection is rapidly growing more diverse.
Mainstream packaged foods player ITC too entered the plant-based meat market this January, and popular restaurant chains are getting in on the act as well. Domino’s and Haldiram’s, for instance, both offer “plant-based meat” on their menus (a pizza topping and “keema” pao/samosa, respectively).
Even Shah Rukh Khan seems excited about the trend, or at least about Genelia D’Souza and Riteish Deshmukh’s brand, Imagine Meats.
My friends @geneliad & @Riteishd were discussing who would launch their Plant Based Meats Venture. I opened my arms wide and said ‘Main Hoon Naa’. I wish the entire team of @ImagineMeats my best as they dish out #TheHappyMeat. It’s live https://t.co/QHj2BxRZO2 go visit. pic.twitter.com/CNEM2BkLuq
— Shah Rukh Khan (@iamsrk) September 10, 2021
While well over 70 per cent of Indians consume non-vegetarian food, according to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 and per capita meat consumption in the country has been increasing, a subset of these consumers may be rethinking their choices.
In 2019, a survey by the multinational market research firm Ipsos found that 63 per cent of Indians were willing to eat plant-based meat.
The sample size was small (1,000) and largely representative of the urban, relatively affluent middle class, but the findings of the survey mirrored global trends towards plant-based meats, as evidenced most recently by the rollout of KFC’s “Beyond Fried Chicken” nuggets across US outlets, Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper”, and McDonald’s “McPlant Burger”. Global good giant Nestle also launched mock shrimp, known as “Vrimp”, last year.
— KFC (@kfc) January 24, 2022
These plant-based meats — typically made by isolating the proteins in legumes, peas, mung, beans, millets, or soy and combining them with other ingredients like edible oils and starch — promise to offer the taste, flavour, texture, and mouthfeel of animal flesh. They also claim to be high in protein. This conceivably appeals not just to meat-eaters seeking a dietary change, but also to vegetarians and vegans wanting to explore new protein sources.
The Indian market also seems to be especially ripe for mock meats since many of those who are technically non-vegetarians tend to limit their intake already.
A 2020 Pew survey of nearly 30,000 respondents, for example, found that 81 per cent of non-vegetarian Indians restrict their meat consumption in some way and thus do not qualify as “hard-core” non-veg eaters. These types of consumers may conceivably adapt more easily to plant-based meats.
While manufacturers of mock meats have made optimistic projections about their market prospects and say they are continuously trying to make their mock meats meatier, are these products winning over consumers, and are they really a lot better for health?
Market scenario and prospects
The global “alternative protein” market is projected to reach $290 billion by 2035, according to a report released last year by the international management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and investment firm Blue Horizon Corporation. The report also predicts that every tenth portion of eggs, seafood, poultry, or meat consumed worldwide will be replaced by plant-based versions.
In India, too, the outlook seems promising, although estimates vary. The plant-based meats market in India is currently reported to be around $30-40 million, according to the retail broking company Nirmal Bang, with packaged foods making up the lion’s share of the business.
According to a Research and Markets report, India’s mock meat market is predicted to reach about $47 million by 2026, growing annually at a rate of 7.5 per cent from 2021-26. Other projections are even more optimistic, with some reports suggesting that the market size in India might reach $500 million in the next three years.
Abhishek Sinha, the founder of GoodDot, an Udaipur-based food tech start-up, told ThePrint that the company’s products — which include meal kits for “vegicken curry” and “unmutton keema” — have received an encouraging response.
“Our annual revenue growth has been almost 100 per cent year-on-year since 2017. We expect 150-200 per cent growth this year,” he said. According to Sinha, India will emerge as the “strongest and largest market” for plant-based proteins because of existing culinary habits and cultural factors.
“Most non-vegetarians consume meat just once or twice a week, so acceptance will be more than any other country,” he added.
Who are the target consumers?
Most customers gravitating towards plant-based meats are current or former non-vegetarians who are trying to go vegetarian or vegan due to concerns about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals, said Varun Deshpande, managing director of the nonprofit Good Food Institute (India), which promotes plant-based alternatives to meat.
“Early adopters of [plant-based meat] products are young, upwardly mobile, and higher disposable income consumers who are conscious about their diet and how it impacts the planet and their health. Many are concerned about microbial resistance and cholesterol after Covid too,” he said.
However, plant-based meat products are priced higher than their non-veg equivalents — sometimes twice or thrice as much — and therefore not accessible to all consumers who might like to try them out.
According to Deshpande, this issue will take some time to resolve.
“The economic and mass consumption gap in conventional meat and our products will take at least a decade as value chain development, production volume, and relevant investments will take time,” he said. However, he is optimistic about the long run.
“There is enough momentum as large food corporations like JBS, Tyson Foods, Nestle, and Unilever have invested significantly [in the plant-based meats segment]. Ultimately, we have to create food that tastes similar or better, costs the same or less, and is available everywhere to create a mass market. Getting down the price level is also a major aspiration,” he said.
How is plant-based meat made?
Various processes and ingredients go into creating foods that resemble different meats. What they have in common is that they are based on proteins derived from plant sources like peas, mung beans, soy, and even rice.
“Recipes” vary depending on the type of meat being replicated, but fats — generally vegetable oils — are usually added to enhance juiciness. Binding agents are common for imitation sausage meats, and beetroot extract is often added for meat-like colour. Yeast extract helps impart a savoury flavour, and many preparations also contain other ingredients like onion, garlic, salt and pepper.
Finally, “high-moisture extrusion” and “shear-cell” technologies are two of the most common processes used to transform vegetable protein into a layered fibrous structure that closely matches the appearance and texture of meat.
Does it taste like the real thing?
Some meats are easier to mimic than others, especially those that are ground (like keema) or processed beyond any real identity (like nuggets). It is, however, tougher to replicate the juiciness, flavour profile, or fibrous texture of a lamb chop or chicken.
Anurag Gawde, an Andheri resident who shifted to veganism in 2021, told ThePrint that he consumes plant-based meats but has two quibbles: one is that “apart from minced meat and nuggets, most products don’t taste 100 per cent like meat no matter what instructions you follow”, and the other is the lack of variety in the market.
Delhi-based Raghav Singh, who said he has developed a taste for mock keema and burji, has a similar complaint: “There’s an absence of popular preparation like drums of heaven and qorma, which is slowing down large-scale adoption.”
According to him, price and availability are also impediments. “The prices are three to five times that of normal meat. These items also tend to be out of stock in kirana stores,” he said.
Varun Deshpande of Good Food Institute (India) acknowledged that achieving more authentic texture and flavour were a work in progress.
“Consumers say some products have a meat similarity, but many have room for further product development. The common feedback is to make products meatier,” Deshpande said.
“It’s easier to make products like minced meat since, as with a decent fat profile, its taste and juiciness is great. There are a lot of companies with great keema products,” Deshpande said.
According to him, these include Imagine Meats (founded by Riteish and Genelia) and Blue Tribe Foods (founded by Sandeep Singh, managing director of the pharmaceuticals company Alkem Labs).
Deshpande said chicken and mutton are “still tricky” since “their texture, fibrousness, and juiciness” need to be exactly right, but that it is quite possible to achieve this similarity with more R&D.
“Even in the animal meat industry, livestock were bred over generations to achieve their current taste. We are also doing something similar, but with the added advantage of climate sustainability,” he said.
Abhishek Sinha of GoodDot also told ThePrint that some products have hit the spot better than others, and that this is also due to ease of cooking. “Our keema is doing really well as we give it in kit form with masala and measuring jar so it’s extremely easy to prepare and you don’t need any extra ingredients or cooking skills. However, people often undercook the replacement for mutton chunks,” he said.
“Our keema pav priced at Rs 29 at our outlet is the highest-selling, followed by chicken. However, for in-home use, people prefer kits like for keema and biryani. Price, taste and ease are most important,” Sinha said.
However, some consumers are also doubtful about health benefits. Tiyashi Dutta, a homemaker from Kolkata, occasionally used plant-based meats to help her household cut down on non-veg consumption, but is still on the fence since the family prefers mock meat snacks like nuggets, kebabs, and sausages — that need more oil to prepare — to other imitation meats.
“These products are very costly and also not so fresh since they are heavily refrigerated and need a lot of oil in cooking and preparation. Though we really want to eat more plant-based meat products, we sometimes have to cancel such meals due to these reasons,” she said.
The question of health
Plant-based meat is broadly pitched with two selling points. Firstly, it claims to avoid animal cruelty while also reducing carbon footprint, greenhouse emissions, and natural resource exploitation. Secondly, it claims to have substantial health benefits over traditional meat counterparts with less/zero cholesterol and much lower antibiotic residues than generally found in commercially reared animals.
According to one widely quoted study, published in the journal Science in 2018, livestock farming is a leading driver of ecosystem loss and environmental degradation worldwide. Meat and dairy use 83 per cent of the world’s farmland and are responsible for 60 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, this study said.
It also pointed out that meat and dairy provide just 18 per cent and 37 per cent of our calories and protein, respectively.
However, some experts believe that research such as this does not paint a complete picture, and does not necessarily mean that plant-based proteins are much more environmentally sustainable.
Experts have also posited that plant-based meats are not nutritionally ideal. For instance, a 2020 review paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems pointed out that whole plant and animal foods “operate in symbiotic ways to improve human health”, and that the nutritional value of meats cannot be replaced with imitations “using isolated plant proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals”.
Further, plant-based meats may contain excess sugar, fat, and salt, and have lower levels of some nutrients, such as protein, vitamin B12, and zinc.
Dr Subhasree Ray, a PhD scholar specialising in ketogenic diets, and who is also a certified diabetes educator and public health nutritionist, believes that plant-based meats need to be taken with a pinch of salt.
“We need to understand that these products are manufactured with many ingredients so that they resemble meat — they’re ultra-processed and not really natural. Many contain vegetable oils, some preservatives, and colour as well,” she said.
According to her, whole foods are better for health and plant-based meats may be as nutritious as “a pack of chips” and potentially as addictive, which may “negate” the environmental benefits.
“We have to be sure about ingredients such as added artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives, which are often not completely disclosed,” she said. “Vegetable oils are added to it which usually have high omega 6 (polyunsaturated fatty acids) content. There are also artificial antioxidants to prevent rancidity which is, in turn, is a carcinogenic agent,” Ray added.
Ray believes that those who crave non-veg might be better off having “country chicken” or sustainably farmed fish, or instead opt for whole foods like nuts and legumes.
Stakeholders in the plant-based meats industry, however, disagree and claim that this characterisation neglects to mention the negative impacts of meat consumption, and does not take into account that different products contain different ingredients.
“We might not be as healthy as plant-based whole food but we are definitely healthier than meat,” Abhinav Sinha, founder of GoodDot, said, adding that the Word Health Organization (WHO) has said that some meats are carcinogenic.
Sinha also said that his company did not use harmful ingredients. “As far as our company is concerned, we don’t have any artificial preservatives apart from salt and oil. Additionally, our products are low in cholesterol and high in fibre. A lot of consumers say they feel much lighter after eating these than a chicken- or mutton-based meal,” he said.
Varun Deshpande told ThePrint that it was always advisable to ask about ingredients and think about health, but also to keep in mind that “meat itself contains lots of things and there are no ingredient labels on it”.
“Artificial vs natural might be a fair critique to make but we must remember these are first-generation products that will get much better, and with fewer ingredients. Also, we can’t feed a growing population with grass-fed meat with looming climate challenges. We are saving a lot of land, water and resources while feeding growing demand and population,” he said.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)