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Plant-based meat: The healthy, green kid on the block?

Mock meat, a rage internationally, is making inroads in India. Climate warriors bat for this sustainable alternative. Others sound a note of caution. 

October 10, 2021 / 12:59 PM IST
Plant-based meat is touted to be a healthier, safer and more sustainable alternative to animal products.

Plant-based meat is touted to be a healthier, safer and more sustainable alternative to animal products.

You might have tried chicken nuggets, a classic shawarma, pomfret masala or butter chicken. But what if you could get the same taste, texture and experience as eating chicken, mutton or fish from a vegetarian item? Something like a veg mutton curry or a veg seekh kabab or even veg chicken pizza?

Welcome to the growing world of plant-based meat, touted to be a healthier, safer and a more environment-friendly and sustainable alternative to animal products.

Plant-based meat is already a rage in international markets that are looking to reduce the carbon footprint linked to animal farming. Plant meat is part of the smart protein sector—which includes plant-based, cultivated, and fermentation-derived meat, eggs, and dairy.

This week, MNC giant Nestle even announced soya-based alternatives to egg and shrimp in Europe. Their mock egg can be scrambled like real eggs or even as an ingredient in baking, the company said on its website. The mock shrimp has the texture and flavour of succulent shrimps, it said.

Plant-based meat is also steadily gaining ground in India with a host of players stepping into the arena. In India, the reasons for preferring plant meat range from the ethical and religious to adopting heathier eating habits and greater awareness about the potentially harmful effects of consuming too much red and processed meat.

“I am an animal lover but used to consume meat. When I was in my final year of engineering, I came across a Dutch government-sponsored study on cell-based meat,” said Abhishek Sinha, CEO of GoodDot Enterprises, an Udaipur-based company that offers alternative protein and other vegetarian products.

“That fascinated me as an end consumer that if something like this comes to India, people like me can enjoy the taste of meat without harming animals. This formed a basis for exploring the space for meat alternatives,” Sinha said.

Varun Deshpande, managing director, Good Food Institute (GFI) India, said plant-based meats are a rapidly emerging innovation with major potential to transform our food supply. “They provide consumers with all the taste and cultural resonance of the meat dishes they know and love, but with vastly better implications for sustainability and security.”

GFI is a non-profit organisation working to build a secure, sustainable and just global food system.

(Representational image) Pizzas and burgers with plant-based meat are available in India. (Representational image) Domino's India recently launched a pizza with a plant-based 'chicken' topping.

Getting into the menu

Plant-based meat is prepared from vegetarian sources such as soya, jackfruit, peas, beans, wheat gluten (seitan), etc., by adding other ingredients such as nuts, and giving it a certain texture so as to resemble, or mimic, the look, taste and visual appeal of animal meat.

Start-ups such as GoodDot, BlueTribeFoods, Imagine Meats, Veggie Champ, Wakao Foods and many others offer either ready-to-eat products or raw material that you can take home and cook in a normal manner.

Alternative meat is increasingly getting into the menus of small and big restaurants as well as fast-food chains, with pizza and burger makers using it as a key ingredient for their veg patty or as a pizza topping. Domino’s India, for example, has something called ‘The Unthinkable Pizza’, which has a similar taste as that of chicken.

BlueTribeFoods supplies to gourmet food retailers such as Nature’s Basket, Le Marche, Modern Bazaar, Big Basket, Q Mart, Food Hall, Simplinamdharis, etc., select society stores as well as the hotel-restaurant-café (HORECA) segment.

“Gourmet food retailers are seeing a demand for mock meat products in the same way two-three years ago, there was a kind of revolution in the dairy replacement segment with soy, almond or oat milk, which is now a fairly well-established category in supermarkets,” Sohil Wazir, chief marketing officer, BlueTribeFoods, said.

Wazir said they are looking at a sub-category next to the meat section in big marts. “Nature’s Basket already has a separate section for plant-based meat.”

BlueTribeFoods is also supplying to the Taj and the Four Seasons hospitality groups. “Nirula’s has a burger made from our products. We supply to burger and pizza makers, and non-vegetarian restaurants that want to have a veggie section,” Wazir said.

Tandoori Hut, a restaurant and food chain with outlets in Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur, Faridabad, Ghaziabad and other places, has a full menu dedicated to soya-based meat dishes. “Our dishes are getting popular among non-vegetarians who want to drop animal meat from their diet chart. Vegetarian people have also tried and liked them,” says Ankit Gupta, who runs their Ghaziabad branch. Tandoori Hut offers dishes such as veg surmai fish, veg keema kaleji, veg chicken tikka, etc.

Likewise, Dubai Shawarma at Golf Course Extension in Gurgaon offers items such as mock meat classic shawarma, lemony mock meat taco, smokey mock meat rice bowl, etc., and Jom Jom Malay at Saket offers a mock meat satay. Ubuntu Eat, a Kolkata-based vegan café, has mock chicken biryani, vegan prawns, etc.

Imagine Meats, a Mumbai-based company launched last year by actors Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza, who are known vegans, has a variety of keema, nuggets and kebabs.

Read more: 10 vegan eateries to dine-in or order from in Mumbai

The taste is one of the key factors drawing non-vegetarians to plant-based meat, Wazir says. “The first reaction from non-vegetarians when they taste it is of surprise. They can’t believe that vegetarian items can actually taste so much like non-veg.”

For Wakao Foods, on the other hand, the simple, underrated jackfruit forms the base of its meat products. They have both raw and heat-and-eat items such as the jack burger patty, butter jack, raw jack, BBQ jack and teriyaki jack.

“Such is the popularity of plant-based diets now that jackfruit, a long underrated mighty summer fruit, has recently turned into a meat alternative in the country,” said Sairaj G. Dhond, founder and CEO, Wakao Foods.

Internationally, the US-based Impossible Foods Inc.’s signature product, the Impossible Burger, is a rage. Burger King will now test Impossible Foods’ meatless nuggets in several markets.

Plant-based meat is prepared from vegetarian sources such as soya, jackfruit, peas, beans, wheat gluten Plant-based meat is prepared from vegetarian sources such as jackfruit.

The health factor

So how healthy is mock or plant-based meat? Does it offer the same amount of nutrition as, say, chicken or fish? Or is there a flip side? Players in the category vouch for both the taste and health factors.

Sinha says some plant-based alternatives to meat have high protein content. Additionally, they have a lot of dietary fibre, which makes them easily digestible. “Plant-based meats also have zero cholesterol and no antibiotics, steroids and growth hormones, which are present in animal-based meat,” both Sinha and Wazir said.

To be sure, studies have shown that protein from animal sources is typically of higher quality than plant proteins. Red meat is also a great source of iron (heme), and may be beneficial when consumed in moderation. Similarly, oily fish is a known source of essential fatty acids, and seafood like oysters are the best source of trace minerals like zinc.

There is also greater awareness and steps within the meat industry to reduce or eliminate the use of antibiotics and growth hormones. For example, the supermarkets and grocery chains that stock plant-based meats also retail corn-fed organic chicken and responsibly sourced seafood.

Ingredients sourced from plants have vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They can be beneficial for weight management, diabetes as well as other issues such as hypertension and cardiovascular diseases, said a report in Medical News Today, quoting research.

“We try to make products with the same nutritional value that an animal meat product will have. If, say, chicken has 18-20% protein content per 100 gms, our veg chicken keema will have the same nutritional value,” Wazir said. “Among our TG are non-vegetarians who like the taste of animal meat but want to try out healthier alternatives.”

Consumption of too much processed and red meat has been linked with heart-related diseases, blood pressure problems, cancer, diabetes, etc. This is also drawing people towards plant-based protein alternatives. "The evidence is consistent across different studies,” wrote Dr Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition, Harvard's TH Chan School of Public Health, in an article last year.

Many other reports say plant-based meat has an edge over, say, red meat and beef.

“I was a regular meat-eater but health issues forced me to turn vegetarian. But I was yearning for the taste. I tried mock meat with a great deal of reluctance. But now I am liking it,” said Sanjay Sharma, 57, a customer at Tandoori Hut.

Vegan food, Dhond said, “helps reduce our risk of cancer but also protects us from other diseases such as type 2 diabetes and arthritis.”

The other view 

Experts, however, ask consumers to look out for extra sodium, saturated fats, palm oil, preservatives or added fats in ready-to-eat plant-based products, and read the ingredient list carefully.

Then there are others who do not bat for any kind of processed or mock food at all, be it vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Anything mock is not OK, said Ishi Khosla, a noted clinical nutritionist based in Delhi. Plant food should be as real and as close to nature as possible, she said.

“As a rule, anything that is processed or lab-made can never be as good as the real (thing). If somebody wants meat, let them have it. If somebody wants to be vegetarian, let them have real veg food. Lentil, beans, etc., anyway have protein. Mock meats are highly hydrolyzed and processed and contain ingredients that may not be best for us. Some can even be harmful,” Khosla said. “I am not game for this.”

Saving the environment

One key aspect that proponents of plant-based meat highlight is the adverse effect of increased livestock farming on the environment in a bid to meet the high demand for meat products. Various reports link animal farming to carbon emission, increased pressure on land and water resources and clearing of forests to grow animal feed.

“Animal farming at the present rate is very unsustainable in the long term because of carbon emission and large-scale land and water use,” argued Wazir.

A recent report in Scientific American, a popular science magazine in the US, said that animal-based foods are responsible for 57% of the total global greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, compared to just 29% for plant-based crops.

An earlier report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent, which is a higher share than transport.

The FAO report said the livestock sector also accounts for over 8% of global water use, most of which goes towards irrigation of feed crops. Livestock also accounts for about 20% of the total terrestrial animal biomass, and the 30% of the earth’s land surface that they now pre-empt was once habitat for wildlife, it said.

Experts across the world, including those associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have been advocating cutting down on the consumption of meat and switching to a plant-based diet to help reduce carbon emission and fight climate change.

“Our key audience is also those who like the taste of animal meat but do not want to be associated with the carbon footprint of animal products and killing of animals—the conscious non-vegetarians,” Wazir said.

Getting vegetarians on board

The key target group of the plant-based meat sector is non-vegetarians wanting to go the veggie way because of health, ethical or other reasons. But what about vegetarians? Is the word ‘meat’ or the meat-like taste and feel getting in the way of getting pure-vegetarian customers on board?

“Yes, the term meat is a deterrent in drawing pure vegetarians. But then there are vegetarians who are experimental and want to explore new cuisines,” says Sinha.

Wazir says vegetarians are welcome to try it but there are people who say it tastes too much like real meat for them to enjoy it. “Since the purpose of the company is to remove animals from the food supply chain, we aim our products at non-veg people rather than vegetarians.”

A lot of people contemplating dropping non-veg items from their diet chart liked plant meat and are promoting it among friends and colleagues, and that is an achievement, Wazir said. Vegans also have a great propensity to like these because many of them were earlier non-vegetarians, he said.

Gupta, however, claims to have a lot of original vegetarian customers on board. “A sizeable number of my customers are vegetarians who want to taste non-veg food but stop short because of religious reasons.”

A sunrise industry 

Research indicates that India will emerge as a major market for the smart protein sector over the next decade, and that it can compete for a huge global market for these foods.

According to some estimates, the industry is pegged to be around Rs100-150 crore at present in India but expanding fast with a potential to touch Rs1,000 crore in the next few years.

“It is still early days for the category but we will get there in 2-3 years just like the dairy replacement sector, which is now established,” Wazir said. “We presently supply in 13 metro+ tier 1 cities and may expand to 25 cities in the next 2-3 years.”

Sinha also feels plant-based meat is one of the most promising spaces in the food sector and India is poised to be one of the biggest markets. “The companies based out of India will have a large global presence. Our company GoodDot is already selling in Canada, Nepal, Dubai, South Africa, Mauritius and Singapore. We plan to increase our presence in other countries also,” Sinha said.

A recent report by Nirmal Bang, one of the leading stock broking companies in India, says the plant-based meat industry is small in India but gaining muscle.

“The PBM (plant-based meat) market in India is estimated at around US$30-40 million, largely driven by consumer (packaged) food followed by a small share by HORECA. In a normal scenario, the market size in India is likely to touch $500mn (excluding exports, which is a multi-billion dollar market) three years from now, again driven by the consumer (packaged) food category,” the company said in a recent report loaded on its website.

The smart protein sector attracted over $3.1 billion of funding globally in 2020, up 3x from the previous year. Of this, $2.1 billion was for plant-based foods, Deshpande said.

Deshpande says the global sector is going from strength to strength and attracting billions in investment as well as praise for its positive impacts on the planet, and the Indian ecosystem is rapidly picking up momentum. “Particularly as we aim to build resilience towards future pandemics and climate change, the multiple launches of delicious, sustainable plant-based meats in India over the next months and years couldn't be timed better,” he said.

Challenges ahead

The challenges in India include creating awareness about the smart protein category and the environmental impacts of consuming animal meat.

Wazir said only a few people in India who have travelled abroad or seen documentaries on the issue are aware of how the animal supply chain is impacting life on earth and the whole ecosystem. The other challenges, he said, are giving non-vegetarians more options in the mock meat category, and matching prices with animal meat such as chicken.

Sharing similar worries, Sinha said that creating large-scale awareness about this new category is the biggest challenge in the space. “Consumer awareness at a pan-India level will require significant efforts and resources.”

Many new players, including restaurants, have jumped into the fray but acquiring and maintaining the same texture, flavour and appearance is also a challenge, Dhond said.

According to Deshpande, to build a thriving sunrise industry, the government, industry, and academia should come together in a ‘mission for smart protein’ – one that advances scientific development, catalyses entrepreneurship, and benefits all sections of society.

Only time will tell if the plant-based meat sector emerges to be a force to reckon with or end up as a small section in supermarket shelves.

Nilutpal Thakur is an independent journalist and content creator based in Delhi