Walking into a popular pizzeria one weekend, I looked at the advert asking customers to try out the ‘unthinkable pizza’. A couple of jokes later, my friends and I found ourselves ordering the dish. It took us by surprise. The ‘unthinkable pizza’ is made out of plant-based meat. The ingredients are completely vegetarian but designed to taste like meat.
“I wouldn’t even know this is not chicken had they not told me. It tastes just the same,” exclaims Karthik J, a software engineer working with Cognizant.
Not having tried faux meat before, Karthik was surprised at how similar it tasted to meat, while also acknowledging that it doesn’t have the same “buttery feeling” or aftertaste as meat. I felt the same. It was not very different from the regular chicken pizza, but there was something about it that was a bit different. Unable to pin down what exactly is different about it, I set about seeing other options of the plant-based meat.
Mock Vs traditional meat
Vegan or mock meat is made entirely from plants. Though a relatively new concept in India, this market is valued at $1.6 billion across the world, according to Market Research Company MarketsandMarkets. Their data suggests the market is projected to reach $3.5 billion by 2026. It is taking over the India’s food scene as well, one bite at a time.
Domino’s Pizza is India’s first global quick service restaurant to bring the concept to India’s dinner table. On December 22, Domino’s launched the ‘Unthinkable Pizza’, a chicken pizza made entirely out of plant-based proteins. But there are plenty more options available.
According to an IndiaSpend analysis of national health data, more than 70 per cent of Indians are non-vegetarians. While many are willing to try it out because it’s a fad or are experimenting when they are not eating non-vegetarian food, it isn’t a permanent fixture on the table yet. In fact, the biggest challenge the industry faces is to make this change in eating habit a permanent change.
Considering feedback that it doesn’t taste too different from chicken, would people consciously order it instead of meat the next time?
Though plant-based meat is picking up, it has a long way to go before it replaces meat in everyday consumption. The mock meat still isn’t easily available and continues to be priced higher than usual meat.
“I feel like it tastes the same, but I’ve not tasted it enough to make the switch long-term. There’s no reason for it. Just that it needs a conscious effort, which I haven’t made. Making a switch is tough because of two reasons. Parents generally prefer the traditional form of meat, and secondly, meat is much more easily available. Plant-based meat is more of a city-based concept,” explained Anusha V, a civil engineer based in Bengaluru.
Animal meat is easily available in almost every corner of cities and rural areas. Weekend feasts are a tradition that not many want to steer away from, especially the older generation. An added factor is that plant-based meat is still not easily available. While that might be the long-term goal of the industry, consumers know that it’s easier and cheaper to find animal meat.
Eco-conscious millennials drive the market
Despite some hesitancy in traditional households, young adults are keen to try it out for their own reasons. While some just want to try out something different, many environment-conscious adults are ready to make the switch to do their bit for the world.
There are currently 25 companies involved in this smart protein market and the industry is predicted to touch $1 billion business in the next five to seven years. The drivers of this growth will be millennials and Gen Z as they are more likely to ‘eat for the planet’.
“The ‘early adopter’ in India is young, upwardly mobile, perhaps in double-income households, living a busy professional life with a focus on both convenience and nutrition, and eating like her global counterparts. Think of a plant-based Chicken Chettinaad and plant-based Butter Chicken available at your local restaurant or grocery store in a couple of years,” says Dhruvi Narsaria, Corporate Engagement Specialist at the Good Food Institute India, a non-profit organisation which builds the alternative protein sector across science, business, and policy.
COVID-19 and bird flu strong triggers
Apart from the awareness about the environment, the pandemic and the recent bird flu outbreak in the country seems to be providing additional push to the industry.
A lot has changed in the post-coronavirus era. Meat is routinely looked at with suspicion, and people are more conscious of the need to cut down on meat consumption.
“We’ve seen a big difference after coronavirus. Earlier, we would have to convince people to try out mock meat. But now, people themselves are more conscious and interested in cutting down their meat intake. Our primary customers are non-vegetarians who want to reduce intake of meat for moral or other reasons, but want the protein intake,” said Abhishek Sinha, CEO, Good Dot.
The company offers wraps, meals, kebabs, and the like – all cruelty free. Vegan meat is also touted of having higher protein and calcium with lower fat content.
“No doubt, when the concept was new, it took time for people to ease into it. But since its inception in 2016, business has seen an increase of 100 per cent year on year sales,” Abhishek added.
A big emerging concept around the world, mock meat industry has seen an uptick. Retail sales data released on March 3, 2020 by SPINS, a wellness-focused data technology company shows that in the past two years, grocery sales of plant-based foods have seen a 29 per cent jump and are currently valued at $5 billion. While it might be just taking off, India is also a promising ground for the industry. A study by the University of Bath, the Good Food Institute, and the Centre for Long Term Priorities shows that about 63 per cent of the Indians are likely to purchase plant-based meat regularly. The more a region is familiar with the concept, the higher acceptance it has. This is why the trend is catching up in urban cities.
“When we started, our concept was met with incredulity. But now, people are more accepting. Youngsters are more open to change now. Young adults from households that don’t even eat garlic and onions are open to trying out the plant-based meat. Most non-vegetarians also want to try it out, but we haven’t been able to make a long-term impact yet,” revealed Yasmin from Ahimsa Foods.
Those in the business believe that even if the change is slow, it is definitely improving.
“Food isn’t just about palette in India- it’s about caste, religion, community and much more. The advantage plant-based products have is that all ingredients used in the plant proteins are the foods found in any Indian household. They have been around for ages and can’t be harmful or non-nutritious. It’s just protein with no cholesterol,” added Shraddha Bhansali, co-Founder, Evo Foods.
So there might be worries about the side effects, worries of the taste not yet reaching there, and the problem of availability or access, but like every new food choice, it needs its time in the sun.