Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma, Genelia D’Souza, Ritiesh Deshmukh have all invested in plant based meat startups in the last 2 years.
Plant based meats are becoming more mainstream in India. The companies that make these products claim to be healthier for the body and better for the environment than animal based meats. The category is a mix of ready to cook products (such as mock-meat nuggets, momos and ready to cook biryani), and raw materials (such as sausages and kheema.)
India is a highly protein deficient country - so a lot of these companies are positioning its products as protein and fibre rich in a bid to attract a health conscious audience. According to Sanjay Sethi, executive director, Plant Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA) the Indian plant-based meat sector is slated to grow to USD 400 million in the next 2 years and that as of now, there are more than 200 plant-based meat, dairy, egg and ingredient startups in India.
Indian celebrities are putting their money in this sector too. In 2022, Cricketer Virat Kohli and his wife Anushka Sharma announced that they will invest in Blue Tribe Foods - another startup in this space.
In 2021, Bollywood actors and couple Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh also announced their foray into entrepreneurship with plant-based meat company Imagine Meats.
Olympic Gold medal winner Neeraj Chopra is also associated with a plant-based meat brand called Good Dot. Good Dot sells a range of ready to cook meat alternatives that can be whipped up in a jiffy.
Sandeep Singh, and his wife Nikki Arora Singh are co-founders at Blue Tribe. Over call Sandeep Singh mentions that the company derives flavours in its products by focussing on texturising protein so that the final product has a texture and consistency similar to actual meat.
“Our TG is not vegetarians or vegans - they don’t consume meat anyway. We want to target non-vegetarians, flexitarians and conscious eaters. Whether it's dairy or egg, we want to create plant based alternatives to all the products which involve animals,” says Singh.
Abhishek Sinha, co-founder of Good Dot agrees that his TG isn’t necessarily vegetarians and that youngsters driven by environmental and ethical concerns are also adopting plant based meats on a large scale.
Blue Tribe’s products are available on D2C channels, modern retail and general trade outlets. It also has tie-ups with restaurants and is available at luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons in Mumbai and the Taj Group of Hotels.
“The second largest source of greenhouse gases in the world is animal farming - the largest is the transportation industry. A lot of antibiotics are used while rearing the animals so when the humans consume it, it leads to antibiotic resistance as well. There are a lot of benefits from removing animal meat from our diet,” says Singh.
Good Dot's Sinha disagrees when questioned if plant-based foods are a fad and calls it a long term shift in our consumption pattern. “We have grown almost 100% YoY since our commercial launch in 2017. We are selling anywhere between 10 lakh to 12 lakh units of GoodDot products every month,” he says.
PBFIA’s Sethi says plant-based meat are most popular in the states and union territories of Delhi, Maharashtra, Haryana, Telangana, and Karnataka. Tier I cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi, Hyderabad, and Chennai have numerous restaurants and fast-food outlets that offer vegan food options.
RTC foods seem popular in this category, and a conversation with Dibyendu Bindal, founder and CEO of Mighty Foods reveals why. “India is a taste-based market. Health usually comes second, but if a food is tasty and healthy - they’re more likely to give it a try. However, with the pandemic, people became more conscious about their health, fitness and immunity and track how much specific nutrients they consume - such as protein,” he says.
KS Narayanan, a food and beverages industry expert (formerly with McCain Foods and Unilever) states that for vegetarians, their primary source of protein is lentils and dairy products. For non-vegetarians, in addition to this, their primary source of protein is from non-vegetarian foods such as meat, eggs and seafood.
PBFIA’s Sethi also mentions that vegetarian sources like soy chaps, soy chunks, and tofu have been used as traditional plant-based meat for years. But their popularity is limited to a small section of vegetarian and vegan population of the country. “Since taste sits at the top of the deciding factors of purchase for alternatives, plant-based meat alternatives can easily be the top preference.”
Mighty’s Bindal acknowledges that the plant-based meat industry is in its nascent stages in India and is taxed heavily. This pushes the price up, significantly higher than non-vegetarian meats.
“To generate one kilo of meat, you have to feed livestock three kilos of grain. A lot of soy, water, has to be put in and a lot of CO2 emissions are generated. All this has a negative impact on the environment. Plant based food doesn’t need that much investment in soil and water,” he says.
Narayanan also raises the issue of the pricing of the products. He points out that when a startup selling plant-based meats sells burger patties, it may cost 200-300 rupees for a pack which has say 2-3 patties. But in contrast, the average cost of paneer is 400 rupees a kilo and one kilo of chicken costs around 600 rupees per kilo.
“In contrast, if I had to buy a kilo of plant-based meat, it would cost around Rs. 1200-1600. There is no value proposition with the product offering in India right now - and this is the biggest challenge that the customers face,” says Narayanan.
“The selling story for plant-based meats is that they are better for the environment and that it is healthier. But the whole point is that for Indians, consumption occasions for non-vegetarian food are relatively less as compared to other countries. If a non-vegetarian eats meat say once a week, he may not want to replace it with a plant based alternative and a vegetarian may not be interested in the product at all to begin with,” he says.
Narayanan adds that India is also home to a unique audience of meat-eaters — ones who don’t eat meat on certain days (such as Tuesdays) for religious reasons and those who don’t eat meat on festivals (such as during Navratri). “This audience doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and there is solid opportunity for plant-based meat startups here.”
He says that there are also opportunities for India to emerge as a powerful exporter - since we have most of the raw materials needed to manufacture high quality plant based milk or plant based meats.
“Some people in the West tend to be lactose intolerant or allergic to certain meats - there is a solid opportunity for Indian companies here, if they can figure out how to deliver a solid value proposition,” he says.