Plant-based foods have entered a new era - delicious, succulent, seekh kebabs and mutton samosas, all 100% vegetarian. Today, alternatives to animal-sourced meat, eggs, and dairy (commonly referred to as 'alternative protein' or 'smart protein') look, cook, smell, and sizzle just like their animal-derived counterparts. Over the last 18 months, we've seen homegrown startups in India's smart protein sector serving up plant-based biryanis, kebabs, keema, momos, and more, supporting meat lovers looking for a simple switch from animal products. With market momentum picking up and a wide range of plant-based products now available for consumers, questions about 'why' and 'how' to source these foods are simply turning into - 'what's for dinner?'
The reason? Necessity brought on by a broken food system.
Our existing protein product system is a serious threat to humanity across climate change, biodiversity loss, public health, and more. But asking consumers to make a switch from chicken to chickpeas is unlikely to work. This is especially true in markets like India, where the bulk of increased meat consumption is likely to occur over the next decade. Cutting against the myth that India is a vegetarian country, 70% of Indians attest to eating 'non-veg' (a category that includes meat, seafood, and eggs). However, it has among the lowest per capita consumption of meat at 3.6 kg - vastly lower than countries like the US and China. As income levels and urbanization increase, consumption per capita is poised for growth, with consumers driven by aspiration, taste, and indulgence afforded by meat. Plant-based foods provide an opportunity to make the foods people love in a more sustainable and efficient way. These products are intended to reliably and predictably substitute the consumption of animal-derived meat, eggs, and dairy, because they perfectly replicate the sensory and cultural experience for consumers.
India's plant-based foods industry boasts over 40 companies innovating across meat, eggs, and dairy categories, launching next-generation plant-based foods online, in restaurants, and at retail stores, in formats and flavors that resonate well with Indian consumers. The industry is seeing growing demand from an 'early adopter' segment of consumers representing a market size of 50-70 million including India's upper-middle-income and high-income segments, urban, upwardly mobile, internet-connected, 'in-parts-aspirational-in-parts-ethical' cohorts, and looks very similar to demand seen with their global counterparts in New York, Tel Aviv, or Sydney.
However, the true opportunity lies not just in the early adopter market in the urban mega-cities, but in the hundreds of millions more in the true mass market. And the tide is changing. Companies are leveraging India's mainstream media personalities to build category awareness for this burgeoning industry. Ritesh and Genelia Deshmukh's Imagine Meats received support from a slew of superstar friends - and they announced the launch of their plant-based meat company with Shah Rukh Khan tweeting to his tens of millions of followers and Salman Khan promoting their products on the Bigg Boss Season 14 finale. More recently, Olympian Neeraj Chopra signed on as brand ambassador to plant-based startup GoodDot, and vegan-superstar couple Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma announced their foray into the sector through a brand ambassadorship and investment partnership with Blue Tribe Foods.
Growing awareness aside, a lot of the growth we are seeing in smart protein consumption is being driven by the critical drivers of taste, price, and convenience. At the Good Food Institute India, we've worked first hand with most startups and retailers in the smart protein sector, and have witnessed price reductions being announced through innovative promotions, as we saw with Amazon Fresh announcing huge discounts for plant-based meat products promoting consumer trials last year. We've also seen significant distribution increases in both retail and foodservice, with foodservice delivery giant Swiggy onboarding plant-based meats onto their quick delivery platform Instamart and Haldiram's launching a plant-based keema pao and keema samosa onto their menus, making these products more accessible.
There are also many exciting innovations on the taste front - from burgers and sausages to biryani and kebabs. However, there is still a long way to go before we reach taste and price parity, and widespread distribution. This is especially critical for India - and getting there will require improvements in taste profiles, price through localized supply chains, and ingenuity in bringing to market formats that scale across the length and breadth of the country.
Globally, alternative protein companies have raised almost 11.1 USD billion in invested capital since 2010, of which 73 percent - 8 billion USD - was raised between 2020-2021. However, virtually none of this has reached India or other critical markets. While 2021 was smart protein's breakout year in India, the country saw just 10 million USD in investments, a fraction of the global sum.
Ultimately it is developing countries like India that have the potential to make smart proteins part of the mainstream industry, feeding a majority of the world's population over the next decade and beyond. India's world-class talent pool, agricultural biodiversity, and growing manufacturing landscape make us well-placed to push the global industry forward and demonstrate a model for its growth across the developing world. Our entrepreneurial energy and huge domestic market can grow rapidly over the next decade to rival any ecosystem on the planet, creating a major economic growth story and resilience for our food system. But to unlock this potential, we need to consider smart protein as a movement that is here to stay, on our plates and as a key pillar of India's green economy.
About Author: Nicole Rocque is a Senior Innovation Specialist at the Good Food Institute India (GFI India), the central expert organization, thought leader, and convening body in the Indian 'alternative protein' or 'smart protein' sector.
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