Abid Hussain Barlaskar

Plant-based meat and dairy brands are wooing not vegans, but ‘flexitarians’

A fast growing group of plant based meat and dairy brands are trying to find a place in the Indian consumer’s daily food and nutrition routine.

Indians are being introduced to a category of food products which has the properties of animal-based items, but is sourced purely from plants. Quite a few new brands are busy adding plant-based meat and dairy alternatives to the Indian palate.

As companies like GoodDot, Blue Tribe Foods and Imagine Meats bring in plant-based meat alternatives, brands like Goodmylk, So Good and Good Karma, have vegan dairy alternatives (from milk to mayonnaise) on offer. These new products are aligned with the global ‘vegan’ consumer movement of ditching everything animal-based.

While the trend is just germinating in India, it has already picked up pace globally. The global vegan food market is valued at around $15 billion, and is expected to double in the next five years. It is led by European countries like the UK, Germany, Italy and France, closely followed by the United States and Canada.

The Vegetarian Butcher and Vegan KitKat
The Vegetarian Butcher and Vegan KitKat

Globally, apart from the independent plant-based meat (alternative) brands like Beyond Meat, etc., large FMCG companies have also dipped their hands into the trend. Nestle acquired Israeli plant-based meat brand Garden Gourmet in 2017. Similarly, Unilever acquired Dutch meat substitute company The Vegetarian Butcher in 2018. Major QSR brands like Domino’s Pizza and Burger King have also been adding plant-based meat options to their menus. Nestle even introduced a vegan version of its popular chocolate wafer KitKat.

Dominos plant meat pizza and vegan Whopper
Dominos plant meat pizza and vegan Whopper

The scene is warming up in India. A few days back, Bollywood star Salman Khan was seen promoting newbie plant-based meat brand Imagine Meats on national television. The brand, was launched by Bollywood couple Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh recently.

Thank you Beingsalmankhan & #biggboss14 for shouting so much love on ‘Imagine Meats’ our Plant Based Meats Co. Love you

Posted by Riteish Deshmukh on Sunday, February 21, 2021

Plant-based meat is made from proteins isolated from sources like soy, peas, hemp, etc. Similarly, plant-based milk is derived from almonds, oats, coconut, etc.

While the trend may have blown up in the west, most brand gurus agree that a copy-paste effort will not work in a country as diverse as India. We aren’t really the grill-it-baste-it types when it comes to cooking meat.

In 2013, when the GoodDot team started working on the brand’s lineup, it imported the products from global markets and cooked them as per the Indian recipes. None of them worked. Abhishek Sinha, co-founder and CEO of GoodDot, tells us that the western formats like burger patties, minced meat, strips, etc., would become spongy on boiling. Indian cuisine, which is mostly curries, needed chunks of meat.

"Indian cuisine, which is mostly curries, needed chunks of meat."
Abhishek Sinha, GoodDot

“We focused on the chunk part and went on to create replacements for chicken and mutton, instead of the finished processed products. Indians like to cook the product in their own way.”

Abhishek Sinha
Abhishek Sinha

Sinha says that the ‘chunk’ format was also favourable for non-western markets like Africa and the Middle-East which, like India, also prepared meat in curries.

But India has a clear demarcation of vegetarians and non-vegetarians, with no significant vegan consumer base. Although a larger share (70 per cent) of the country’s population is non-vegetarian, the per capita consumption of non-veg food is a fraction of what is consumed in a market like the US.

In academic terms, they are called ‘flexitarians’, or the ones who are mostly vegetarians, but consume animal protein (fish/meat/eggs) occasionally.

Sinha, a former non-vegetarian himself, says that the target consumers are the flexitarian meat eaters, who are accustomed to the texture and taste. They are the early adopters open to trying plant-based meat. Sinha terms vegetarians as the ‘high hanging fruit’.

“You have to convince them (the vegetarians), but the stickability is extremely high even in them because they don’t have anything similar in the veg food options. Vegetarians get the protein satiation from items like dal, lentils, etc. They could like the protein density of our products.”

Sinha further cites a 2019 study by the Good Food Institute, which suggests that Indians are more likely to try plant-based meat than the Americans and the Chinese.

The story is different in the case of milk. Indians may not be voracious meat eaters but we are deeply attached to dairy – culturally, health wise and gastronomically. Milk isn’t just another source of tasty nutrition, and that’s a major challenge for plant-based milk.

Abhay Rangan, founder of Goodmylk, mentions plant-based dairy as a subset of the whole dairy experience.

Here too, flexitarians make up the key demographic and their motivations include sustainability, ethics, intolerances, etc. While the drivers to adoption are many, Rangan says, most people are just trying to eat better.

Abhay Rangan
Abhay Rangan

However, Rangan mentions that the challenges are on multiple fronts. From a technology perspective, most effort goes into making products as close to dairy in order to reduce the friction.

"We’ve had customers who used Goodmylk products for house warming ceremonies, traditional recipes, coffee-tea habits, etc.”
Abhay Rangan, Goodmylk

Culturally, the real challenge is to make plant-based dairy a part of rituals, habits and traditions. “It is definitely a problem Goodmylk is trying to solve. But we’ve had customers who used our products for house warming ceremonies, traditional recipes, coffee-tea habits, etc.”

In terms of the pricing and distribution, the goals are to match the price of milk and its organised penetration. Rangan says that the price issue can be definitely solved with scale.

GoodDot’s Sinha says that the brand’s products are already matched with the market price of meat. “We had planned to be at par, or lower than meat. Boneless goat meat is priced at Rs 600-1,000 per kilo. Our vegetarian bites, or goat meat replacement, is priced at the lower end of the mutton pricing.”

Both Goodmylk and GoodDot products have another edge over milk and meat. They do not require refrigeration/cold chains and have a much longer shelf life. Rangan, however, says that the shelf stable nature is also a deterrent at times since the consumers are conscious about freshness.

“There is a perception that if something is shelf stable, it may be too processed. This may not be as big an issue for the convenience-seeking millennials, but it is an issue for the larger audience.”

“There is a perception that if something is shelf stable, it may be too processed."
Abhay Rangan

The labs at both GoodDot and Goodmylk are focusing on the taste and texture of their products. The goal is to prepare a product as close to the animal sources in terms of taste, texture and nutrition. For dairy, it includes full dairy stack – milk, curd, butter, ghee, cheese, mayonnaise and paneer.

Goodmylk butter
Goodmylk butter

Like in the regular dairy market, where milk and curd sell the most, vegan milk and curd are Goodmylk’s bestsellers. “It is encouraging because the consumers are using our milk like milk and our curd like curd. I’d be worried if our butter was consumed more because that isn’t how Indians consume dairy,” Rangan says.

Is it really growing?

There is now a dedicated e-commerce platform for vegan products. VeganDukan, which sells vegan food to beauty and personal care products, was launched around a year back. Sagar Mehta, VeganDukan’s founder, realised the need for a one-stop shop on turning vegan himself.

Mehta says that the awareness is spreading across the country and not just in the top cities. “Although the top cities account for most of the orders, we are seeing a lot of interest from regions like the North-East.”

Sagar Mehta
Sagar Mehta

The consumer brackets include the generation X and Y. “It could be because they are more aware and lend themselves to the different causes. They are early adopters of the trends and more concerned about their health.”

Mehta, however, says that plant-based meat and milk are the bestselling products, followed by protein supplements. The average basket size at VeganDukan has increased by around 20 per cent over last year. It was close to Rs 800 and is going to touch Rs 1,000. The repeat customer rate has also improved from close to 15 per cent to about 35 per cent.

Vegan Dukan
Vegan Dukan

Both GoodDot and GoodMylk sell via their own websites, e-commerce marketplaces and offline retail. GoodDot was initially offline-focused, but the focus on online has increased post-COVID pandemic. Most of GoodDot's sales are centered in the south and east of India. Bihar, Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, etc. are big markets.

But how big is the promise?

KS Narayanan, a food and beverages industry expert (formerly with McCain Foods and Unilever), says that while the vegan foods market is likely to remain niche, it is gaining rapid acceptance.

He mentions that with the growing per capita incomes, there is generally a trend towards increasing protein consumption. He stresses that there is no real consumer need to mimic meat, but there will be a select audience that will go for it in the urban centres.

KS Narayanan
KS Narayanan

“It is unlikely that India will take to western meat substitutes in a big way, since the country primarily has vegetarian meal occasions and options. However, plant-based protein options that are versatile, and can be used across meal occasions and in multiple ways can be a larger market opportunity,” Narayanan adds.

“Furthermore, there are a number of days and weeks in a year due to religious considerations, where we tend to avoid consumption of meat, and this could be a good alternative.”

Coming back to plant-based milk, it is already facing resistance from existing dairy players. Gujarat-based dairy major Amul launched an offensive against the vegan dairy brands about the use of the word ‘milk’ to describe their products. Amul even approached food regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) with a complaint.

When asked about it, Goodmylk’s Rangan says that plant-based dairy is not alien to India, and it is not a western conspiracy. “Indians have been consuming coconut milk for ages. Any smart dairy company will look at it as an opportunity. Globally, dairy companies are buying out plant-based dairy companies because they see potential. Any resistance that we see is going to be temporary,” Rangan signs off.

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