In 2008, when faux fish was served during a religious gathering of strict vegetarians, people got angry at the sight of fish on their plates, and in no time, chaos ensued. The customers failed to understand how fish could be plant-based, said Harish Jadhvani, co-founder and CEO of Ahimsa Food.
“We had to explain to the clients that the product was completely plant-based, but there was a lot of anger among the gatherers,” Jadhvani told KrASIA.
Over the years as people got aware of what mock meats are and their benefits, the 12-year-old Delhi-headquartered company managed to earn its customers’ trust and respect.
Ahimsa Foods is one of the few brands that offer plant-based meat dishes to users who are trying to eat healthy by avoiding non-vegetarian food. The wave of people turning vegans has also been catching on in India, fuelling the migration away from animal meat.
This trend has resulted in a major innovation in the food and restaurant industry that is now trying to appease such clientele with plant-based dishes that taste like chicken, fish, or mutton.
Similar to Ahimsa Food, Rajasthan-based Gooddot sells ready-to-cook vegan meat dishes, while its quick-service restaurant subsidiary Gooddo sells plant-based dishes that look like meat. The company said its raw plant-based meat has been perfected to match the texture of real meat, while the end taste is derived from the cooking style. For instance, to make Thai Green Curry, the startup has partnered with chefs and culinary experts from Thailand to ensure it has its authentic taste.
These companies use a combination of protein rich ingredients like chickpeas, soybean, and other similar legumes.
“Most people are drawn to meat for its texture,” said Abhinav Sinha, vice-president of Strategy, Gooddot.
“There’s a big difference in the overall philosophy of food between the West and the East,” said Sinha. In the West, the meat itself is considered to be the most important ingredient and the recipes involve preserving the integrity and freshness of the meat, he said. But in India, meat is simply a textural component that carries different flavors, which are the most important aspects of an Indian dish, he added.
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Although India was slow to adopt an alternative animal protein diet, things have changed over the decade. And with bird flu quickly emerging as the new pandemic threat, people are looking for alternate options to animal meat for their protein intake. Europe and Asia are battling their worst outbreak of bird flu and as of February 12, 14 Indian states have confirmed avian flu outbreaks with Maharashtra being the worst affected.
Even last year, while the COVID-19 pandemic was raging on, the faux meat market in India gained prominence amid fears of disease transmission. During the pandemic, Sinha said, “We saw an almost 50% jump in our overall sales, queries, as well as website hits.”
Ahimsa Food, however, experienced a decline in sales due to logistics disruption and restaurant shutdowns amid the nationwide lockdowns, although its online sales increased. The startup is yet to recover to pre-COVID-19 levels.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and now followed by the bird flu outbreak, awareness of alternative protein products was seeing steady growth, albeit slowly. “The Western culture has been significantly moving away from animal meat over the past five years, and there is a similar follow-on effect in India,” said Sinha. There has been an increase in awareness, acceptance, and purchase intent for plant-based meats in India, he added.
A 2018 report said the plant protein market of India captures around 10% of the Asia-Pacific plant protein market. It said the major drivers of this market are the rising purchasing power of middle income and lower-income families, growing youngsters, and the middle-aged population interested in lactose and gluten-free products. By 2023, it said, the plant protein market will be worth USD 565.1 million, registering at a CAGR of 8.6%.
India is misconstrued to be mainly a vegetarian country as nearly 70% of the country’s population consumes animal protein. But the demand for plant-based protein is coming from both sides of the food habit spectrum. “I think about two-thirds of our customers are non-vegetarians and about one-third are vegetarians,” said Sinha.
Even strict vegetarians are now looking at plant-based protein for health reasons.
While talking to KrASIA, Mumbai-based plant-based alternative protein startup Evo Food’s co-founder and CEO Kartik Dixit reminisced about one of the conversations with a prospective customer.
“A 65-year-old man from Haridwar who is a purely spiritual man and has never consumed any kind of animal-based product in his life, reached out to us saying that he wanted to try plant-based eggs for his dad because of his protein requirements.” Haridwar is a small Hindu pilgrimage city where the sale of meat and eggs is prohibited by law.
Keeping the health-conscious customer base in mind, Evo markets its product as a plant-based alternative to egg, with the same taste, color, and texture, but with nutrition as its prime focus. Evo has ensured that its product has zero cholesterol and is infused with amino acids and Vitamin D.
The startup has been testing its liquid egg in the market over the last six months and is preparing to launch it commercially by next week. Dixit believes focusing on an egg alternative gives Evo a better chance at gaining a foothold in the fast-crowding mock meat market.
“Companies are really not playing in this area of plant-based eggs so we want to be dedicated to that,” said Dixit. Besides, “egg is a sort of protein source for most people, that they are not really that much passionate about. People really love chicken and mutton recipes, but an egg is sort of functional protein-based food and people with different kinds of religious beliefs eat it,” even a subset of vegetarians, he added.
Evo has signed agreements with 20 brands to introduce Evo egg as a part of their menu in restaurants. However, once the product becomes well accepted, the startup plans to also sell through online channels as a raw ingredient that can be cooked as per choice, said Dixit.
Alternative animal proteins have gained traction in metropolitans as well as semi-urban areas. And the customers come from both upper and lower-middle-income groups.
Gooddot sells its products through restaurants, direct sellers, and its online website. Its subsidiary Gooddo sells its faux meat-based dishes through QSR outlets across Mumbai, Udaipur, and Jaipur.
The startup partners with culinary experts to ensure the authentic end taste of its dishes. Ultimately, Gooddot’s main focus is to create an impact by lowering animal cruelty and slaughter, said Sinha.
According to him, Gooddot’s partnership with RCM, an FMCG direct selling company with an extensive network of stores across India, along with Gooddot’s relatively low-price points has helped the startup generate significant sales volume from the low and middle-income segments.
The total plant protein market, which includes dairy and egg substitutes apart from meat, was estimated to be worth USD 374.1 million in 2018 and is expected to grow at 8.6% CAGR to USD 565.1 million by 2023.
Both Ahimsa Food and Gooddot have grown steadily over the years. Ahimsa Food has witnessed a 25% to 30% year-on-year growth since its inception. Gooddot has been growing 100% year-on-year and currently sells over 15,000 packets of ready-to-cook mock meat dishes every day.
Investors are also bullish on the plant-based protein market in India.
“There is great potential for the faux meat market in India because of the country’s long-established history with plant-based foods and vegetarianism,” said Andrew D. Ive, General Managing Partner of Big Idea Ventures (BIV), a US-based venture capital firm that focuses on food-tech companies. “We think that faux meat strikes a chord with Indian millennials who are particularly keen on eating healthy and ethically-produced food.”
Last year, BIV invested in Evo, which went through its accelerator program. In October last year, BIV also announced its plans to launch an ‘Alternative Protein Fund’ and an accelerator exclusively for Indian entrepreneurs. The Mumbai-based accelerator is set to accept applications this year, while it has started raising capital for its USD 25 million fund.
According to Ive, “The alternative protein sector is in a phase of rapid global growth, and India is one of the most promising markets for an ecosystem of world-class startups to emerge. The conditions in India are ripe for innovation in the alternative protein space,” he said. That’s because India has the largest vegetarian population in the world, and Indian consumers have indicated a strong willingness to try more plant-based products for health and environmental reasons.
With the growing demand for meat and the need for sustainability in the face of climate change, plant-based and other faux meat and animal protein substitutes are not just a choice, but also a necessity. However, adopting a strictly vegan diet may be difficult, and hard to sustain.
Therefore, “We are not telling people to become 100% vegan. The first step is to become a flexitarian. If you’re flexible, you eliminate one day of eating meat, and you substitute it, and slowly get used to the diet,” said Jadhvani.