The great Indian protein rush

The great Indian protein rush

A quiet revolution is afoot where many companies are coming up with creative plant-based protein alternatives to take on Indians’ massive protein deficiency.

Vegan chickpea burger cutlets

Growing up as a vegetarian in an ultra-strict vegetarian household, I always heard whispers of the near-supernatural protein-providing ability of eggs. No one, of course, dared to discuss meat and poultry — eggs were as far as they would venture. There have been occasions when children in my large home were secretly force-fed raw egg yolk (yes eww) because some paediatrician said they needed more protein.

Now with enough meat, eggs and poultry in my system, I look at this childhood experience with a different lens. Maybe it is an Indian thing, but protein has always been a complicated, much-misunderstood molecule. A misconception persists that because Indians are largely vegetarian (which they are not), the country's population suffers from a deep protein deficiency. The reality is more than 70 per cent of Indians consume eggs, meat and fish.

However, this does not mean they eat it every day. Just like everything else India, meat consumption is fraught with complexities — there are immense regional, religious as well as socio-cultural differences. Which is also perhaps why, despite the large percentage, on an average, only around 4.5 kg of meat is consumed by an Indian individual in a year, according to data obtained from the Food And Agricultural Organisation (FAO). This is way below (in fact, among the lowest) other meat-eating countries of the world. Hence the dichotomy — a country with a large population of meat-eaters has more than 80 per cent of its people suffering from protein deficiency (according to a 2017 Indian Market Research Bureau report). Worryingly, Indians, especially women, are unable to even meet the recommended minimum daily requirement of 60g protein. After all, how much tur dal can you stuff yourself with or how many glasses of milk can you gulp down in a day!

A growing global fancy

This nutrition gap, along with the growing global fancy for the so-called mock (plant-based) meats, partly due to environmental concerns (see anchor) and partly due to veganism being the most Instagrammable trend, has prompted several Indian start-ups to explore alternative protein options that can be smoothly incorporated into typical Indian diets. Smoothly being the key word here, since everyone understands how notoriously difficult it is for people to change their eating habits.

Tempeh is one such food that hopes to muscle its way into the paneer makkhnis and the baby corn stir-fries. A traditional Javanese food, tempeh is made from a controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form. A Bengaluru-based nutrition start-up is, in fact, offering a range of tempeh-based products. "Indians are not only seeking more protein, they are also seeking variety as well as ingredients that can provide them other nutrients that we usually miss out on such as Vitamin B12, iron etc," says Siddharth Ramasubramaniam, founder and CEO.

Happily, tempeh is not only rich in a variety of nutrients, but is also vegan and gluten-free and made with no preservatives or additives. "Tempeh can be fried, minced, cubed, or just thrown in with literally any ingredient, across cuisines. Since it has no flavour of its own and is like a sponge, it absorbs all your regular masalas and spices," explains Siddharth. His company is trying to "ease in tempeh" by selling ready-to-eat Tempeh cubes in a range of flavours — from tawa masala to Szechuan chili. "Half the cooking is taken care of and the cubes can be used to make anything from a masala gravy to kebab to a kathi roll." The products are all priced below Rs 200, which makes it a decent alternative to your Saturday paneer butter masala. Just replace the paneer cubes with tempeh cubes (I did) and there isn't that great a difference in taste — the tempeh might feel a bit more wooden on the tongue but that's about it. A small enough sacrifice since tempeh has 10 times less fat than paneer and comes fortified with iron and Vitamin B12.

While Siddharth says theirs was a conscious decision not to enter the plant-based meat market because the idea behind starting the company was to provide alternative nutritional choices and not restrict themselves to the so-called mock meats, there are many others who are launching plant-based meat products in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. The most high-profile announcement in recent times has been Bollywood couple Riteish and Genelia Deshmukh's company 'Imagine Meats' (though Covid seems to have put a break on a full-fledged launch).

Co-founder of another food tech company Sandeep Singh believes though it is desirable to eat meat for its protein and other nutrients, large-scale consumption is disrupting the earth's ecological balance. "Plant-based meats, we believe, do not compromise on quality and also give our earth a chance to rejuvenate." Singh's company had launched plant-based 'Chicken Keema' and 'Chicken nuggets' before and is all set to introduce 'chicken' and 'pork' sausages in September. The company extracts plant proteins from peas and soya and Singh claims that the texture, flavour and nutritional value of these products match up to actual meat. The products are priced below Rs 350.

A dash of inspiration

While it is relatively easy for start-ups to work through the complex technology behind plant-based meats, for foodpreneurs like Roopa Rajan, the growing demand for alternative protein sources has meant getting inspired to start her own company that combines a bit of tradition and a dash of inspiration to create vegan and plant-based 'Indian soups'. Roopa's company makes ready-to-eat soups such as moringa lentil soup, almond fennel soup, spiced lentil, almond rose and agathi lentil. The soups are all vegan with no added artificial flavours or preservatives. "Our aim is to provide choices that are high on nutrients, but without compromising on taste. Our products are helpful to people who find it difficult to eat and digest, especially ones with health issues and terminal illnesses," says Roopa.

A smart protein network

Hearteningly, it is not just smart entrepreneurs and food tech start-ups that are looking to nudge Indians to eat better. At the forefront of the campaign to provide what they call "smart protein" is the Good Food Institute India, a non-profit organisation with the aim to build a smart protein network across sectors in India and thus make plant-based alternatives more acceptable, and eventually, affordable to all. "This is a sunrise industry in India though globally, innovators are far ahead and have created not only meat, but also eggs and dairy products from plants and microorganisms. What we are looking for is a sustainable model of high nutrition, which is also fair on the environment," says Varun Deshpande, managing director of GFI India.

While the earnest fervour of these founders and protein enthusiasts is to be appreciated, they do have a tough task ahead. Not only do they have the onerous job of making people aware that their diets lack protein, but they also have to convince them to explore and experiment with new foods. As Siddharth says, nomenclature also matters. "Which is why, we avoid the word 'mock-meat' or 'plant-based meat'; for strict vegans and vegetarians, the very word meat can be a big put-off."

That said, the journey has begun and there might yet come a time when paediatricians advise their vegetarian patients to eat plant-based eggs every day.

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