Can Alternative Protein Make Space on the Indian Thali?
Emerging gastronomic adventures for the Indian palate
The world is currently obsessed with the revolutionary potential of alternative protein. With products that imitate the taste and texture of meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs, we seem to be at the cusp of potentially embracing a vegan future. This bioscience fairytale is still early stage globally, albeit with remarkable progress made by Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in the USA. However, when we shift our focus to India, we find ourselves facing a unique set of challenges.
What is alternative protein?
Alternative protein can be broken down in three categories. The first category is plant-based meat made from plants and designed to look like, taste like, and cook like conventional meat. Products in this category initially achieved popularity via offerings from pioneering startups Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which both focused on replicating hamburgers. The second category is fermentation solutions, where microbes produce proteins and functional ingredients for animal-free products. Notable startups in this space include Perfect Day and Nature’s Fynd. The third and final category is cellular meat, where animal cell culture, synthetic biology, and tissue engineering are used to cultivate meat substitutes. Examples in this space include Memphis Meats, which is focused on cellular chicken and beef, and Shiok Meats, which is based in Singapore and developing cultivated ground shrimp for use in East and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Why does India need alternative protein?
Honestly, it’s debatable. Alternative protein in India is currently limited to plant-based products, mostly produced by startups, targeting the top 5% of urban consumers. Taking a step back, the logic of alternative protein generally focuses on environmental, animal welfare and health/nutrition concerns. But India does not have the problem of over production of meat, at least relative to any per-capita global average. In fact, India could easily double production if the demand escalates. We also need to remember that meat, eggs, and seafood are intimately linked to the livelihoods of Indian smallholder farmers. Replacing mutton raised by poor shepherds in Rajasthan with highly processed plant-based protein produced by FMCG companies or fast-food giants is not exactly an argument for sustainability.
However, we are moving to a future where India’s natural resources will be tasked to feed and nourish 1.5 billion people, while also managing the terrible impact of climate change on our food systems. Hence any alternative that reduces pressure on our land, water, and food systems needs to be explored. Looking at global trends, the sector also holds tremendous opportunities for innovation, investment, and economic growth.
What do Indians eat?
Successfully rolling out alternative protein in the diverse Indian market is a multifaceted challenge. India has the world’s largest vegetarian population, but 60% of Indians eat meat and 70% eat eggs. That said, consumption of meat, seafood, and eggs in India are substantially below global averages. In terms of per-capita values, India’s mutton (0.5 kg per person) and poultry consumption (2.1 kg per person) are among the lowest in the world. Studies show that 73% of Indians are protein deficient with 90% of them unaware about their daily protein requirements.
Most of the ideological motivation for the vegan movement and the relevance of alternative protein in India is not based on our current consumption levels, but where they might rise in the future, in line with increasing incomes. It’s important to note that the ideal diet for an adult in India should have 60gms protein-based calories, but the national average is currently at 47gms. Hence there is clearly a need for protein consumption to increase significantly, which begs the question — where should that protein come from?
Traditional vegetarians would say dairy and dal (lentils). There are problems with both of these sources. India’s massive herd of dairy cows and buffalos is an animal welfare nightmare and results in significant methane emissions, plus buffalos eventually wind up slaughtered and exported abroad. Dal is obviously more humane, but digestibility of that protein is a challenge. While lentils are a rich source of nutrients their bioavailability is poor due to the presence of multiple anti-nutritive factors. Moreover, lentil crop yields tend to be low, discouraging farmers from increasing cultivation.
Another challenge to the introduction of alternative protein in the Indian diet is the loyalty to home-cooked fresh food. India is fundamentally a country of ghar ka khaana (unprocessed, home cooked food), with low consumption of heavily processed food outside of the snacking category. Plus, on an average, Indians eat out significantly less than their global peers.
A certain degree of homogeneity in American cuisine made it easy for alternative protein to make a successful entry. Hamburgers were low-hanging targets for this sector because Americans eat an average of 50 billion burgers per year. In contrast, on the Indian thali, meat, eggs, and seafood are prepared in countless number of ways. Meat is also usually only a part of any given meal, and rarely served standalone. Hence one-size-fits-all alternative protein products are difficult to identify for the Indian market.
What can be done to usher in alternative protein in India?
Indian innovators and startups in this space have their work cut out for them. One burger does not a market make, given the diversity of Indian cuisine. Recent studies have shown that 70% of Indian consumers are positively disposed towards “clean meat”. But what people say they will try and what they ultimately consume regularly have a tendency to be very different. Despite lower rates of eating out, the initial step towards introducing alternative protein should be focused on the HORECA segment, where consumers tend to be more experimental and adventurous than when they eat at home. But the format of alternative protein should be accessible and adapted to Indian cuisine if widespread adoption is to occur.
Recent market studies take the guesswork out of Indian gastronomic preferences and provide other relevant details. The fifth edition of Swiggy, India’s largest food ordering and delivery platform, StatEATstics recorded one biryani order per second in 2020, with Bangalore the leading city for meat consumption.
The National Restaurant Association of India’s (NRAI) India Food Services Report (IFSR), 2019 provides further clarity on the Indian eating out preferences.
North Indian cuisines with popular dishes like butter chicken, and paneer tikka masala took the lead followed by Indo-Chinese cuisine. From an industry perspective, the foodservice sector is projected to reach USD 82 billion by FY2022–23. Quick service restaurants (QSRs) and affordable casual dining restaurants dominate the market and could create significant B2B opportunities for alternative protein startups.
Who will ultimately eat alternative protein?
The potential target consumer for alternative protein is likely high-income and relatively young (16 to 38 years), as this demographic is more progressive on matters of food consumption. India is home to the world’s largest millennial population, a fraction of which are tech-savvy, well-traveled, and desire to eat like their global counterparts.
Moreover, alternative protein in India will need to focus on the non-vegetarian population of the country. Indian vegetarians are unlikely to accept the taste and texture of meat analogues, lacking any prior experience (for generations across the millennia) with meat. However, vegetarians tend to fall well short of recommended protein intake levels, creating a unique opportunity in India to develop alternative protein products that are NOT meat analogues. In short, there is an opportunity for alternative protein in India, but the sector will have to chart its own course, and ignore the American playbook, which has little relevance in our local context.