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Making protein sexy again

India has a huge protein-deficient population, with traditional sources failing to bridge the nutrition gap. Lounge finds out if plant-based protein alternatives can fulfil this need

Meat analogues from (clockwise): Blue Tribe Foods, Hello Tempayy, BVeg Foods and Ahimsa Food
Meat analogues from (clockwise): Blue Tribe Foods, Hello Tempayy, BVeg Foods and Ahimsa Food

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In the famous Hindi one-act play Ande Ke Chhilke (Eggshells), members of a strictly vegetarian joint family flirt with eating eggs in the privacy of their bedrooms, each person believing that their secret is safe and no one is aware of their taboo behaviour till, one day, the daughter-in-law of the family finally breaks the silence and brings the secret out into the open. It turns out that even the devout matriarch was aware that her family was not quite as strictly vegetarian as they pretended to be, but chose to wink at this behaviour. The family can, finally, stop walking on eggshells.

Many Indians’ relationship with protein is similarly complex and fraught. Although Indians are not predominantly vegetarian, as is sometimes assumed, with around 70% of the population eating meat or fish in some form, the cultural practices surrounding non-vegetarian food are mind-bogglingly varied. Some eat meat at restaurants but don’t cook it at home, some eat it only on certain days of the week, some abstain from meat during some months of the year, some ovo-vegetarians eat eggs in baked goods but not otherwise, and so on. And despite its 70% non-vegetarian population, India’s per capita meat consumption is among the lowest in the world at around 4.5kg per person per year, according to data from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). This means most Indian meat-eaters don’t consume it as regularly or in quantities as high as those in the top meat-eating countries.

While this is a good thing for the environment—as is well-known, livestock raised for meat and dairy contributes a whopping 14.5% of human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions, according to FAO—the Indian population suffers overwhelmingly from protein deficiency. A 2017 report by the Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) states that more than 80% of Indians are protein deficient, unable to meet the daily minimum requirement of 60g protein per day per person (the average consumption is around 47g). While the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recommends 0.8-1g per kilogram of ideal body weight of protein for an adult individual, the actual average dietary intake is only close to 0.6g per kilogram ideal body weight among Indians.

For vegetarians who can afford it, adding nuts, high quality legumes and pulses and solid forms of dairy like paneer can make up for the lack of protein in the basic diet, but for most, these fall under the head of discretionary consumption. And the basic diet is simply inadequate to fill the protein gap: To get the daily requirement of 60g protein every day, one would have to consume eight bowls of lentils or drink seven-eight glasses of milk every day, a practical impossibility.

Whole grains and legumes can supply protein in a vegetarian diet but the quality of protein is not high, and one would have to consume large amounts to get the daily requirement of protein
Whole grains and legumes can supply protein in a vegetarian diet but the quality of protein is not high, and one would have to consume large amounts to get the daily requirement of protein (iStock)

As any middle-school biology book will tell you, proteins are the building blocks of the body, and dietary protein is essential to maintain muscle mass, sustain collagen, fight illnesses, have healthy hormonal balance, and much more. Also, a higher proportion of protein in the diet helps you feel fuller faster and is more satiating than simple carbohydrates (a big part of the urban Indian diet), boosts metabolism and keeps blood sugar levels well-regulated. In fact, other than people with certain specific ailments like kidney dysfunction, a protein-heavy diet is universally preferred by modern nutritionists over a carb-heavy one.

Also read: The boom in nutrition

Taking their cue from this, a number of Indian startups, many founded by the younger generations of family-owned legacy food processing companies, are taking bets on protein and coming up with cooler, sexier alternatives to traditional sources—and find themselves in the difficult business of trying to change Indians’ food habits.

India’s protein paradox

“India is gripped with the dual burden of malnutrition and obesity. This imbalance is contributed through an overemphasis on refined carbohydrates, saturated fats and inadequate quantity and quality of proteins in the daily diet,” says Jagmeet Madan, president of the Indian Dietetic Association, in a 2020 report called India’s Protein Paradox, commissioned by the Right To Protein Initiative, an awareness initiative driven by a group of individuals, companies, industry bodies and academicians, and conducted by Nielsen.

This, then, is India’s protein paradox: because most Indian diets end up deficient in protein, Indians make up by eating more refined carbohydrates and unhealthy, deep-fried foods, often leading to obesity and diabetes.

And this is not just a function of poverty—even higher- income households in India report protein insufficiency, uniquely so in the world given that in most countries, going up the income ladder means improved access to more and better quality protein. Yet, a 2017 survey by IMRB found that 73% of urban rich Indians are protein deficient.

Those campaigning for better access to protein among Indians, such as Right To Protein and the Good Food Institute India (GFI India), a nonprofit organization which builds the smart protein sector across science, business, and policy, believe that part of the answer lies in making plant-based protein alternatives mainstream in India. They are aware that India presents certain unique challenges. “You can’t talk about sustainability and climate intervention in India without talking about nutrition. It is a justice issue. Globally, the challenge is to make people who are heavy meat-eaters switch to what we call ‘smart protein’, which is protein from sustainable, plant-based sources, but in India one has to be aware that our goal has to include nutrition,” says Varun Deshpande, managing director of GFI India.

Also read: The Sunday-special mutton curry

As the next generation of meat-eaters emerges, they will be propelled by better incomes to achieve the aspiration to eat better and include more protein in their diets. There should be options to satisfy their nutritional needs while not depleting the environment. While globally, the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat aim to replace the beef burger and pork patty on the plates of Americans and Europeans, in India the challenge is not only to deliver meat alternatives but options for vegetarians as well, so that they consume more and better quality protein.

From mock meat to ‘plant-based’ everything

Nomenclature matters, says Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder and CEO of the Bengaluru-based Vegolution, one of the latest entrants into the plant-based alternative protein market. In India, trials and tastings have shown vegetarians don’t really like “mock meats” as they emphatically do not want to consume anything that tastes noticeably “meaty” or has the word meat in it, he says.

It has been just a couple of months since Vegolution introduced a practically unknown-to-Indian-consumers product into this market: tempeh. Made of fermented soybeans which are packed into cakes and then cut into cubes, tempeh is Indonesian in origin, and is a staple source of protein in parts of that country, like Java. It may sound similar to tofu, but even though the base ingredient in both is soy, tempeh differs dramatically from tofu texturally and nutritionally, being more firm and earthy while containing a higher content of protein, dietary fibre and vitamins, as well as being better for gut health because it is fermented. Tempeh contains around 19g protein per 100g (chicken has 27g protein/100g while most cooked lentils have around 9g of protein/100g).

Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder, Vegolution
Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder, Vegolution

“We had a lot of back and forth over how we would describe the product. Meat alternative, protein alternative, alt-protein, vegetarian protein—all these terms were considered and rejected. Finally, we settled on ‘ready to cook plant protein’,” says Ramasubramanian. “In India, unlike the West, you can’t be trying to find a burger-to-burger replacement. You need a protein source that is extremely versatile and lends itself to all kinds of flavour profiles—from being moulded into a patty to being used as the protein component of a biryani. We found that tempeh fulfilled these requirements,” he says.

Launched under the brand name Hello Tempayy, the product comes pre-cut and pre-packaged, with several marinated variants like Schezwan Chilli, Tawa Masala and Sriracha, along with plain cubes that can be cooked with any masala you would use to make a chicken or paneer curry. During food trials, the company has used the base product to make dishes as varied as a makhani curry, tempeh Bolognese, tempeh ghee roast, tempeh tacos, tempeh kathi rolls and tempeh Thai Buddha bowls—with all the recipes helpfully shared on the brand’s website. “In India, the ingredient is the delivery vehicle for flavour. And you have to stick to local flavours—you can’t make a cool new ingredient that people don’t know what to do with,” says Ramasubramanian. He hopes that the product, available only in Bengaluru as of now at 130-150 for 200g, will not only be picked up by people cooking at home but also by restaurants and fast-food chains; in fact, the brand recently did a food-tasting session using Hello Tempayy cubes at Olive Beach in Bengaluru. Maybe tempeh can be the new chicken, he says, laughing and crossing fingers.

“The future is protein,” says Prateek Ghai, co-founder of Delhi-based BVeg Foods, a B2B manufacturer of plant-based protein alternatives. Ghai and his wife Akanksha, whose family runs a 70-year-old agri-processing business and is among the biggest manufacturers of ice-cream cones in Asia, started BVeg in 2019 after their baby was born. Both felt there was a lack of good vegetarian protein sources for children and that this was the right time to enter a market that’s only going to go up. “People are bored of potato-based, paneer-based snacks, both when they eat at home and when they go out. And today, the technology exists to create great soy-based alternatives that can be moulded into a tikki, a burger, a kebab or even a chicken breast or jerky,” says Akanksha.

Two recipes using alt-proteins.
Two recipes using alt-proteins.

The food-processing technique called High-Moisture Extrusion Cooking (HMEC) has been a game-changer across the world because it has allowed soy, peas and other plant protein sources to be processed in a way that retains nutrients while allowing a ton of flexibility to the final form of the product—whether it sizzles on the griddle as a burger patty, is seared on a seekh or becomes keema. The technique, which has been around for a decade, allows for a wide range of final product characteristics, which can be achieved by altering complex and technical process conditions. It is gaining popularity in India as well.

The Ghais don’t want to brand their product but become co-manufacturers of the base ingredient that F&B brands, restaurants and quick service restaurant (QSR) chains in India and abroad can adapt to their needs. They have just spent close to a million dollars on imported processing equipment and are creating an array of products at their 60,000 sq. ft plant on the outskirts of Delhi.

Akanksha and Prateek Ghai of BVeg Foods
Akanksha and Prateek Ghai of BVeg Foods

There is a bit of confusion over how to position the products in this category—specifically, over how to answer the question “who is it really for”—and brands are struggling with it, say the Ghais. “People are trying to understand which would work better—whether it would be better to sell these products to non-vegetarians as plant-based alternatives to meat, which the world is trying to consciously move away from, or to sell it to vegetarians as a way to introduce varied high-protein foods into their diet. There are no clear answers yet,” says Prateek.

Complex food habits

India is one of the most complex, confusing markets, especially when it comes to products that seek to change conventional eating habits, says Yasmin Ahmad Jadwani, founder of one of the oldest companies in this sector, Delhi-based Ahimsa Food. Set up in 2008, the company sells processed meat-replacement dishes like sausages, salamis, fillets, kebabs and hotdogs under the brand name Veggie Champ, which are available in stores like Foodhall and Godrej Nature’s Basket. Jadwani is cautiously optimistic about the future of the sector but lacks the world-changing fervour of many founders who are just starting off. “The market is picking up, but not in leaps and bounds. At least now people are aware of these products and that it is possible to find meat replacements that are tasty and healthy—earlier, people would laugh when I talked about this—but that doesn’t mean we Indians are going to change how we eat overnight,” says Jadwani.

Confusion around who it’s really for will be resolved once the category goes mainstream and the products are easily available on supermarket shelves, QSR menus and with online grocery retailers, says Deshpande.

Some brands are pretty clear about who they are for: Mumbai-based Blue Tribe Foods, which launched its plant-based alternatives for chicken keema and chicken nuggets a couple of months ago—available online and in gourmet stores in six cities—is clear about its mission statement: convincing non-vegetarians to pick their products instead of buying more meat.

“There are a lot of fence-sitters among non-vegetarians, people who want to consume less meat for ethical reasons, whether that’s concern for animals or the environment, but don’t know what to replace it with. Our aim is to give them that option, so that they can go on eating the way they would have but using a product that’s cleaner and healthier,” says Sandeep Singh, who co-founded Blue Tribe Foods with his wife, Nikki Arora Singh. Sandeep claims that “eight out of 10 people” who taste their chicken nuggets won’t be able to tell it’s a vegetarian product; “that’s my challenge,” he says confidently.

Nikki Arora Singh and Sandeep Singh of Blue Tribe Foods
Nikki Arora Singh and Sandeep Singh of Blue Tribe Foods

The company is now developing a mutton keema alternative. “Food science has advanced to the extent that you can replicate minute variations of taste, texture, flavour and smell in different kinds of meat and meat products in the laboratory using plant products like soy. Why would you need to kill animals to satisfy meat cravings or to get enough protein into your diet? It all comes down to basic molecules,” says Sandeep, who is also managing director of the pharmaceutical company Alkem Laboratories.

It does all sound quite exciting, but despite the enthusiastic reception these products and companies have received in the media, not many are in the market yet. Deshpande says that there has been a considerable setback because of covid-19—at least a dozen new product and brand launches, including high-profile ones like Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza’s Imagine Meats, announced with customary Bollywoodian fanfare in 2020, have been postponed.

However, things are looking up. Beyond Meat has just signed an agreement with Iffco (Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative), a subsidiary of the Mumbai-based Allana group, a big player in the Indian meat industry. “The fact that India’s largest agro-commodity and meat exporter, synonymous with organised meat production in India, is now getting into this category as a distributor shows a huge shift,” says Deshpande. Beyond Meat’s products will be available on online gourmet store Urban Platter, and eventually through stores like FoodHall and Godrej Nature’s Basket.

The soy story

The term “plant-based” is a big buzzword today, and it’s easy to forget that plant-based meat replacements are not that novel an idea in India—as far back as the 1980s, soy nuggets were pushed into the Indian market with almost the same revolutionary zeal as the current lot of products. Soy nuggets, which fall under the category of “texturised vegetable protein”, were supposed to change how Indians eat and—here’s a bit of déjà vu—fill India’s protein gap, says Suresh Itapu, head of food consulting service Nutri-Tech Solutions and an adviser with the Right To Protein campaign. But the way the soy nuggets story played out actually made people wary. The market remained stagnant for decades, till the Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meats of the world took off, making this category seem like a cool place to be in right now.

“The positioning of soy products back in the 1980s and 1990s was all wrong. It was sold as a poor man’s protein or as something for those who are nutritionally deficient. The category never took off in a big way. It was never advertised or marketed well, even though the product sells steadily. Today you need to advertise even something as essential as water. How do you plan to convince people to try an alternative protein product without any advertising and promotion?” asks Itapu, who has been working in India’s soy foods industry for over 20 years. He recalls meeting a well-to-do woman at a soy food promotional event in the early 2000s. She was effusive in her praise for the product: “I was ecstatic. Here was a true believer! And then she said, ‘I must tell you that my dogs simply love it.’”

Slow to change

Indians change their eating habits slowly, says Itapu. “I am passionate about soy and its possibilities, but coming from a strictly vegetarian family, it was a huge challenge for me to get even my own family to adopt soy products. One of the roadblocks of mainstream adoption is that the bigger FMCG companies are not innovating in this category. Once that happens, with today’s superior technology, we will see more people taking to these products,” says the soy evangelist, describing the ways in which soy can be used to make vegetarian-friendly products like dal, which “looks and cooks like regular dal” but has higher protein content, and low glycemic index and high-protein rice substitutes—the so-called “diabetic rice”.

Of course, all these products, especially the meat analogues, are highly processed, and like most processed food, they have high levels of sodium along with preservatives and emulsifiers. With all the emphasis on eating natural, it feels almost counter-intuitive to talk about food that’s made in the laboratory. Nutritionists recommend limiting the intake of processed mock meats; on the whole, natural soy products such as tofu, edamame, tempeh and soy milk are less processed, while the more meaty stuff is higher on that scale. One has to bear in mind, though, that pre-made burger patties, chicken drumsticks and nuggets are also highly processed, while most commercially available meat is full of antibiotics and hormones unless you opt for free-range chicken or grass-fed lamb meat only.

What doctors do agree on is this: It’s best to include a variety of protein sources in your diet. “We cannot allow food to limit the Indian population’s potential to shape its destiny in the 21st century,” says Deshpande.

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