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Why India needs to jump on the plant-based path

While veganism has exploded abroad, how quickly is the plant-based concept going to take off in India?

US based National Restaurant Association has a yearly forecast to predict the hottest F&B trends for the year. The trends from the last year and a half have shown a shift of focus in the consumer’s minds towards health and sustainability, with ‘immunity’ being on the top of their minds. Europe which has always been a step or two ahead of the plant-based trends is now propelling innovation in the meat and dairy alternative industry.

“The rising consumer awareness regarding the negative impact of the consumption of meat on health is leading to a shift toward vegan diet,” quotes a report about the European plant-based food and beverage forecast.

India is inching its way ahead if the reports are to be believed. With a wide variety of raw ingredients available for meat alternatives, the agrarian nation can easily match up to its counterparts abroad.

But is there a market for meat analogues? Are people taking to dairy-free beverages?

If the reports are to be believed, the plant-based movement is here to stay in India. With a growing focus on health during 2020 and 2021, a huge number of people are willing to swap out their animal-based meats for plant-based alternatives. A survey by the Good Food Institute, India revealed that 63% of Indians are extremely likely to purchase plant-based meats.

Even if that made you sceptical, a walk through any large supermarket or any gourmet food store will be enough to prove to you that the dairy and meat analogues are in demand. There is no dearth of vegan alternatives in the metros. Right from home-based kitchens, cloud kitchens, restaurants, entrepreneurs and even conglomerates like ITC are all jumping into the plant-based fray.

Perception vs Reality

Plant-based foods generally get a rap for being processed with unrecognisable ingredients. But many surveys, like this one from Food Insights, actually show that people perceive plant-based alternatives to be healthier. The same group also believed animal-based foods are less sustainable for the planet in spite of the majority of responders being omnivores.

A report by the United Nations Environment Programme that assessed the impact of production and consumption on the environment stated that “animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives”.

Plant-based analogues are usually made with concentrated sources of plant proteins from peas, soy, wheat, mung beans or other legumes. More recently mushrooms and jackfruit have gained popularity as core ingredients for meat alternatives. Dairy alternatives have a broader gamut of ingredients that are in use like oats, rice, almonds, coconut, peanuts, hemp and lately even millets.

Not only does animal agriculture contribute to the production of greenhouse gases like methane, rearing animals for food comes with many other issues. The run-offs from animal farms are polluting the groundwater, forest ecosystems are being destroyed to make space for grazing and overfishing is creating endangered species of sea life as collateral damage.

Manufacturing of plant-based foods are much less resource intensive in comparison. Research led by the University of Michigan compared the production of a popular plant-based burger patty with that of one made with beef and the results were dramatic- a plant-based burger patty has a 99% less impact on water scarcity, 93% less impact on land use, produces 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires nearly 50% less energy.

Taste being an important aspect of acceptability, vegan analogues sometimes stick out because people are expecting it to be an absolute replacement. With time companies like Beyond Meat, Daiya, Naturali and closer to home, Blue Tribe, to name only a few, have been able to decode the taste as well as texture that comes closest to what people are looking for in meat and dairy analogues.

A Sustainable Protein Solution

The race to fill up the plate with protein rich foods has led to the food industry qualifying foods based on protein content.

The plant vs animal protein comparisons are stark. For e.g. To match the protein content of 1/3 cup of chicken, one has to consume roughly 1.5 cups of lentils. Animal based sources also score higher on the bioavailability of protein as compared with plant-based foods. Anything with a lot of protein is considered the gold standard for human consumption, often brushing aside the risks.

Much of the rest of the drawbacks that come with consuming that food is pushed to the side away from the public eye. Plant proteins come with fibre, contain no cholesterol and are low in saturated fats. Plant based foods also do not come with the antibiotics and hormones that are otherwise found in animal foods. This goes a long way in promoting overall health. A diet higher in plant-based foods are more nutrient dense and are associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity and other lifestyle diseases.

The impact of the demand of animal-based foods on our environment also cannot be ignored anymore. The planet is staring at a crisis if the demand doesn’t drop. The disproportionate use of agricultural land, overfishing, and the loss of biodiversity are all directly related to using animals for food. Rearing animals also contributes to large emissions of greenhouse gases like methane and are polluting our land and water.

Our food systems need a revamp and so far, the logical solution is only seeming to be that of shifting to a plant-forward diet.

The White-washed Revolution

In the mid-1970s a successful push to allow Indians access to cow and buffalo milk revolutionised the dairy sector. This very sector is now feeling the heat from the alternative plant-based milks. According to a report by GFI, people who drink animal based milks also consume plant milks consciously with sustainability and health being the main drivers behind the decision. While there is also a small proportion who have identified themselves as lactose intolerant and some allergic, there is no confusion between why people are more and more choosing plant-based milks over animal milks.

Animal milks come out on top in terms of protein and fat content, but plant-based milks like almond, soya, rice or oat avoid the major pitfalls of dairy like antibiotics, cholesterol and particularly hormones like the bovine growth hormone.

What Lies Ahead

Having already been labelled as the diabetes capital of the world, India needs to quickly have a rethink on how to tackle this bitter truth. The highest mortality rates are coming from totally preventable diseases that can be avoided with lifestyle changes, especially focussing on dietary interventions. If we continue down the same path, India will have close to 69million diabetics by 2025. This will put enormous stress on our medical systems.

While not as meat heavy as the western diets, Indian diets are becoming more protein and fat heavy particularly from animal sources. This will also begin to put stress on our land resources. The land that can be used to feed its ballooning population will be diverted to feed the animals who will be grown for food.

There is however light at the end of this tunnel. 2021 saw the most number of plant-based startups launching their products in India. From oat, rice, almond and millet milks to vegan sausages and jackfruit patties the plant-based sector is seeing a huge influx of products. The only logical explanation is that people are willing to experiment with their diet in the name of health and sustainability. A rough estimate has summarised that even if 1% of the 500 million vegetarians in India identified as vegan, it would mean there are 5 million people who follow a plant-based diet.

With health and immunity being top of mind in 2020 and 2021, the world has moved to a more plant-heavy diet. 2022 will show us if India is going to follow suit. If 2021 is to be believed, India is not far behind.

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