In January this year, ITC Ltd announced the launch of its plant-based patties and nuggets. The Kolkata-based conglomerate became the first mainstream consumer company to enter the plant-based meat segment. For the last year or so, the market has been awash with food-tech startups that claim to provide healthy, tasty, and sustainable food alternatives to good old meat. These include Blue Tribe, which recently got on-board actor Anushka Sharma and her cricketer husband Virat Kohli as both investors and brand ambassadors; actor couple Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh’s Imagine Meats; Bengaluru-based Shaka Harry; criminal lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Sairaj Dhond’s Wakao Foods; and Udaipur-based Good Dot, which is endorsed by javelin thrower and Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra.

Even Licious, the country’s first direct- to-consumer meat and seafood brand and a unicorn, has thrown its hat into the ring.

All of this begs the question: How big is this market at the moment, and what kind of potential does it have? The base currently might be small, but it is growing rapidly, says Varun Deshpande, managing director of the Good Food Institute, an NGO focused on building the smart protein food space, including plant-based, cell-cultivated, and fermentation-derived alternatives to meat, egg, and dairy. “We expect that from a small base of approximately Rs 400 crore in sales across all of these categories, the sector can grow at an extremely high CAGR of over 50 percent for the next few years. The market could be worth as much as Rs 10,000 crore by 2030 across all categories if companies are successful at scaling beyond the early adopter population to the mass market domestically, and supplying into high-demand markets like the US and Europe.” The global plant-based meat market was valued at $5.06 billion in 2021, and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 19.3 per cent from 2022 to 2030.

But what exactly is plant-based meat, who is it targeted at, and is it as sustainable and nutritious as its makers claim it is? MW takes a deep dive.

WHAT IS IT MADE OF?

Plant-based meat is precisely what the name implies: meat made from plants, which appears, feels, and tastes like regular meat. The ingredients used to make alternative meat — in the form of nuggets, keema, and kebabs to patties and sausages — include soya, pea protein, and jackfruit. “We mainly use peas and soybean and employ a low-moisture protein extrusion method. The protein is then texturised and flavoured,” says Sohil Wazir, chief commercial officer at Blue Tribe. Wazir adds that Blue Tribe is also developing other protein sources like amaranth, hemp, and mushroom.

plant based meat blue tribe

HOW HEALTHY IS PLANT-BASED MEAT?

The very term plant-based meat might sound healthy, but there is more to it than meets the eye. While alternative meat might be low in cholesterol, it uses a large amount of sodium, and tends to have more saturated fat.

Smart protein foods are aimed at offering the sensory and cultural experience of meat, eggs, and dairy through the use of food science and manufacturing techniques, says Deshpande. “This means that many of these products do include processed ingredients and/or are themselves processed. However, the foods to which they are offering an alternative — industrially farmed meat, eggs, and dairy — also go through a long production process,” he says. Deshpande adds that smart protein foods are also “vastly superior from a public health standpoint with, with no need for hormones or antibiotics, no risk of zoonotic diseases, and virtually eliminated the risk of other outbreaks like salmonella.”

None of this cuts much ice with doctors and nutritionists, though. Vishakha Shivdasani, a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a particular interest in nutrition, says that nothing beats a Mediterranean diet when it comes to heart health. “I’d urge you to read the fine print when it comes to plant-based processed food, and I bet you won’t be able to recognise several ingredients that go into its making,” she says. “I’d stay away from anything that is processed and hence, is preservative-laden, and instead opts for grass-fed, free-range meat that does not involve hormones or antibiotics,” says Dr Shivdasani.

DOES PLANT-BASED MEAT HAVE A SUSTAINABILITY FACTOR?

“Cutting out the middle animal means that we can produce the meat, eggs, and dairy that people know and love, at a tiny fraction of the environmental footprint,” says Deshpande. As an example, he points to American brand Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burgers that are supposed to be “so much better for the planet that substituting just one of the three beef burgers that Americans eat every week on average for a Beyond Burger would deliver climate benefits equivalent to taking 12.2 million cars off the road, or powering 2.3 million additional homes.”

plant-based meat

While that statement (by Beyond Meat) should invite scepticism, plant- based meat brands appear to be on much firmer ground when it comes to sustainability. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, a specialised agency of the United Nations, animal agriculture is the second-largest Contributor to human-made greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuels and a significant cause of water and air pollution and biodiversity loss.

Climate scientists have said that limiting global warming, a significant goal of the Paris Agreement, will be an insurmountable challenge unless there are radical changes in how food is produced. According to the online magazine Vox, “years of research on the environmental impact of food make one thing clear: Plant proteins, even if processed into imitation burgers, have smaller climate, water, and land impacts than conventional meats.”

FLAVOUR PROFILE


MW picked up a bunch of mock meat from different brands and fed it to two hardcore meat eaters and a vegetarian, who is also an aspiring vegan, over the course of a fortnight. The plant-based meat the trio sampled included shredded jackfruit masquerading as mutton curry, and a malai tikka made mostly from soya protein. Expectedly, the meat-eating panel wasn’t impressed, and the vegetarian was put off by the texture.

We are no domain experts, but if you are a meat-eater looking for a moral in this story, especially one who is keen on reducing their meat intake, allow us to point you towards this little nugget of wisdom from American author Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”