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What’s in store for the plant based industry next?

How the times have changed? Hard core non-vegetarians are embracing more of a plant-based diet while vegans now have more alternatives to animal product counterparts in the market than ever before.

Gone are the days when mock meat like soy chunks, soya chaap, and soya granules that tasted nothing close to meat. Now the focus has shifted to produce meat alternatives that mimic the taste and texture of meat.

Introducing The Latest Alternative Proteins

Plant-based alternatives, alternative meat, mock meat or vegan meat is the term that applies to the products that use plant-based ingredients such as protein isolates and concentrates. Through technologies like high moisture twin-screw extruder, 3D food printing, shear cell technology or electrospinning, these proteins along with water, fats, starches and binders can produce fibrous structure that mimics the texture of animal meat, while flavourings and seasonings are added to obtain the meat-like taste.

Other two developing fields in alternative proteins are fermentation-based and cultivated meat. Fermentation technology involves: biomass fermentation and precision fermentation; the former involves the production of cell biomass in a nutrient rich media, which can be purified and then made to resemble meat, while the latter involves the use of microbes as host cell factories to produce desirable proteins like casein from milk or albumin from egg white. These proteins can then be used to make other animal-based products.

Hybrid Use-Cases

By leveraging the science and technology involved in the production of plant-based and fermentation-based proteins, the advent of novel range of hybrid alternatives to animal counterparts is possible in the near future.

Through fermentation, filamentous fungi can be used in plant-based meat to improve its texture and juiciness, on the other hand microalgae can be used to improve the nutritional properties of plant-based products by providing bland or umami flavoured base.

Companies like Sophie’s BioNutrients are providing much needed ingredient solutions that meet consumer expectations. While it takes 10-15 months to slaughter cattle, and 2-3 months to cultivate soy, their microalgae fermentation takes only 3 days for its production.

Industry pioneers Quorn, acquired by Monde Nissin, first introduced it in 1983 and have grown enormously since then. The company produces a wide range of alternatives through the fermentation of micro fungus Fusarium venenatum. India’s own, Bengaluru based biotech company, BioString uses a proprietary method to harness methane, a greenhouse gas which is 80 times more potent than CO2, to produce proteins for human use as well as feed for animals.

Innovative technologies such as these drive down the use of land, water and energy, and ultimately have lower carbon footprint than their animal counterparts, thus easing the pressure on our planet’s limited resources and enabling us to meet our climate targets.

Industry Leaders Entering the Space

When the world’s largest meat producer, JBS Foods, acquired European plant-based company Vivera for USD 408 MN, the demand and future of the industry could not be discounted anymore.

FMCG giant Nestlé had identified market gaps and released their own products, notably plant-based tuna, plant-based shrimp and plant-based bacon. They have launched an array of plant-based meat and seafood under their brands Garden Gourmet in Europe, Harvest Gourmet in Asia and Sweet Earth Foods in the US. Apart from this, they are also replacing milk solids in their traditional massive-hits like vegan KitKat and vegan Milo. While around the world, Nestlé’s brands Starbucks, Nescafé, and Carnation have also embraced plant-based ingredients by offering numerous alternatives to milk products. They have identified gaps in the plant-based ingredients space and are at the apex position to take a market share of USD 700 MN.

Unilever has also been up-to-date with the explosive growing industry. The Anglo-Dutch consumer giant has included plant-based innovation in their Future Foods commitment. Under this plan, they have strategized to create €1 BN (USD 1.1 BN) annual sales under the plant-based alternatives sector by 2025-2027. They plan to achieve this target with their thriving plant-based meat brand – The Vegetarian Butcher; introducing alternatives to existing products like Hellmann’s Vegan Dressing, vegan ice creams through Ben & Jerry’s, Magnum, Wall’s and Cornetto; by forming strategic partnerships with promising companies such as biomass fermentation company ENOUGH and Algenuity, a company developing microalgae proteins; and through more such innovative ways.

The trend quickly caught-up as other global leaders such as Kellogg’s, Cargill, Tyson Foods, and Danone have entered the market to claim their share. In India ITC is the most recent to join the party with their plant-based meat offerings of burger patties and nuggets under the brand name “Incredible” to “take a nascent phenomenon to the next level”. India’s common household name, Amul, have also launched dark chocolates which are entirely made from cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

Opportunities in the Plant-Based Sector

The plant-based sector, apart from the current use of conventional ingredients like soy, peas and wheat, there is a huge potential for the development of novel meat alternatives using unconventional ingredients like pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas due to their exceptional bioavailability and quality of proteins. While widely produced grains like rice and ragi can be optimised to improve their nutritional quality and used in plant-based alternatives. There is still a lack of research around indigenous ingredients such as green Bengal gram (Chholia) and millets like bajra which can open a new realm of opportunities. NIFTEM- Thanjavur had developed Non-dairy millet ice cream and Non-dairy coconut ice cream. More recently, a professor and students from IIT-Delhi have developed plant-based meat, seafood and egg alternatives.

According to a study conducted by a retail broking firm in September 2021, the Indian plant-based meat market is currently estimated at USD 30-40 MN with the industry slated to flourish staggeringly to USD 500 MN in three years’ time. With the export market into the equation, the industry is valued as a multibillion-dollar opportunity.

Investors are also consistently evaluating startups to fund them and get on board. The total capital invested in plant-based companies in 2020 was USD 2.15 B, a 222% increase from 2019.

Consumers driving the demand

Consumers are also driven by the burgeoning awareness surrounding the environmental, health, animal welfare and sustainability factors. This coupled with the growing economy and increase in disposable income of the middle class, is pushing the plant-based trend.

The sudden bloom of plant-based start-ups in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has given consumers numerous choices to tweak their eating habits without sacrificing their taste buds, the pleasure and experience of consuming meat and other animal products.

We’ve come a long way since the revolution of plant-based alternatives began from soy nuggets, soy milk and tofu. Now the gap between the taste of these alternatives and their counterparts are reducing. Through advanced R&D and technologies around this space in the years to come, the alternatives will be minimally processed with increased bioavailability of nutrients, to arrive at healthier options.

Role of Governments

Considering the pace at which this still-nascent industry is growing, it is important to groom the sector by a regulatory body to avoid any consumer misleading scenarios by any company riding the wave. FSSAI has been diligent in introducing a Vegan logo last year and has notified a draft for the proposal of Food Safety and Standards (Vegan Foods) Regulations, 2021.  FSSAI has been closely monitoring the industry ever-since. It is essential to put forth regulations to avoid any mishaps. The Government of India which has been extremely supportive of this “sunrise sector”, should also lead the way in developing the necessary infrastructure, research facilities, conducting studies and investing in Indian plant-based startups, to boost its economy and for the upliftment of farmers, suppliers, and manufacturers.

With the support of our government in both regulatory and fiscal aspects, Indian startups can become unicorns and also deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which are of utmost significance given the climate threat that we are facing.

Everything points in the direction that the plant-based trend is here to stay. The best time to be a part of it was yesterday, the second-best time is today.

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