Plant Protein is Not a New Concept in India – Sanjay Sethi

Sanjay Sethi

Plant Based Foods Industry Association is the India's first CEO-led association placed in Gurugram, Haryana. This is a national association formed in late 2021 by Sanjay Sethi, Executive Director with a simple objective to create an ecosystem of plant-based foods in India.

Sanjay SethiPBFIA is an apex organization that has in its short span of existence already taken necessary steps towards integrating plant-based sector in India. India is a hub to more than 2000 plant-based food start-ups and some of the leading brands such as Good Dot, Plantmade, BVeg, White Cub, Evolved Foods, etc. already have PBFIA membership. In addition to this the association offers its support to consumer groups such as Vegan Fest.

Recently a delegation led by PBFIA met Prahlad Singh Patel, Minister of Food Processing Industries, Government of India to enable the plant-based ecosystem in the country. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed his intention to promote the sector, it is evidently important to constantly work together to overcome the challenges and resolve macro and micro level issues in order to leverage on the increasing buzz on the consumer end.

In an interview with AYUVE – Sanjay Sethi, shares, “Our mission is completely India focused as we see plant-based industry as an answer to various current challenges of food security, economic growth, environmental impact, health risks, antimicrobial resistance, zoonotic diseases and pandemics. We are constantly looking to grow our membership to strengthen the plant-based ecosystem and its representation in the country.”

Excerpts from the Interview where Sanjay Sethi talks about the plant based food sector in India, consumer sentiment and the challenges in the food sector like protein deficiency.

What is the focus of most Indian plant-based food companies? What is your view?

Currently, the sector is held together by young enterprises/ start-ups and they are innovating to deliver products that can become a well fit to the Indian palate.

Since, each cuisine of India has its unique taste, texture and flavour, the focus is to make products as tasty as meat and dairy. The palate of Indians is accustomed to certain flavour of chicken curry vs butter chicken, so Indian entrepreneurs have taken up this challenge and launching some authentic tasting plant-based products in the market.

In addition to the taste factor, they are working on price parity as this is another major purchase driver for consumers to make a shift towards plant-based foods.

The companies are becoming more and more focussed on the nutritional value of the plant-based alternatives that they offer as well, to become a sustainable business.

"We will not call plant-based protein as an alternate protein because the concept is existing in Indian from the Vedic times. However, the recognition is increasing because we have spoilt the choices of people with easy access to animal-based products - Sanjay Sethi

What about alternate protein sector in India?

We will not call plant-based protein as an alternate protein because the concept is existing in Indian from the Vedic times. However, the recognition is increasing because we have spoilt the choices of people with easy access to animal-based products.

The plant-based sector is an answer to food security, climate change, malnutrition, rising prevalence of NCDs (non-communicable diseases), and pandemics. India’s ambition and commitment to go carbon neutral by 2070 will be impossible without a major shift in its population’s dietary preference. Transitioning to a plant-based diet is specifically crucial because of the growing population, increasing disposable income of the Indian middle-class and their demand for high quality proteins. Which, without the shift from animal-based proteins, will ultimately have an impact on our diminishing water and land resources, increase greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, eutrophication, etc. IPCC’s latest report on climate change also suggests the need to reduce methane emissions by 33% by 2030. Most of the methane produced is a resultant of natural fermentation of ruminant animals. India has the world’s largest livestock population and is the leading producer of milk and exporter of buffalo meat, globally. Thus, India with a necessary transition to plant-based foods, can ease the strain on the nation’s limited land and water resources posed by the production of less efficient animal-based foods. India can also economically benefit from this futuristic opportunity by leveraging on its vast Agri-sector and by becoming a global plant protein supplier.

Plant-based foods companies will play an important role in climate action. The dairy heavy diet followed by most Indians are being tapped by some of the promising Indian plant-based dairy start-ups such as One Good (formerly GoodMylk), Alt Foods, etc. Meanwhile, over 70% of the Indian population, surprisingly, is a meat-eating population. Indian startups are already offering numerous tasty plant-based meat options, such as Good Dot, Letz Viz, BVeg, Vezlay, etc. Much more innovative and disruptive start-ups are on the rise, enabling more products at the disposal of the consumers.

Has the Indian alternate protein consumer evolved?

There is a growing awareness around environmental impact, sensitivity towards animal cruelty, health concerns associated with meat and dairy. With access to digital media, knowledge dissemination is taking place at a breath-taking pace. Something which is known to a few scientists and industry people today, is likely to percolate down to masses very quickly. It is already happening, with scores of new cafes and restaurants in major cities starting to offer soy, oat milk and other plant-based foods as a choice to customers.

With the growing educated population, more consumers are now reading the food labels and are concerned about the origin of the food products. They are consistently educating themselves, through the abundant information available in the internet, on the impact of their food choices. This level of awareness and understanding has helped the take-off of the nascent plant-based industries in India. This awareness is spreading towards the more suburban and rural areas of the nation as well. While flexitarians being the main target group of the plant-based startups, improving the taste and decreasing the price of the final product will help achieve a wider consumer acceptance. Meanwhile, vegans and vegetarians will have more delicious and enjoyable options to try out.

What about the processing and technology involved - How do we ensure healthy practices and standards are in place in food technology-based companies?

FSSAI has drafted the definition for veganism and has also introduced vegan logo to empower consumers and plant-based companies. Plant-based companies can get FSSAI Registration, and after complying with the vegan food regulation standards, their products can bear the FSSAI vegan logo.

The quality can be obtained by following the proper food safety protocols, SOPs and HAACP principles. By complying with the international standards such as ISO 22000, the companies will be able to deliver safe and high-quality products. Additional export standards, such as for EU Standards or US FDA Standards, can also be met by the companies who are willing to specialize in the export arena of the plant-based foods.

It is important to note that alternatives like soya chap, soya keema, kathal (jackfruit), tofu have been embraced by several Indians and are recognized as alternatives. Moreover, other sources like peas, rice, and indigenous millets and pulses are widely grown in India

Are Indian companies eyeing various protein sources - What are the main sources that are being tapped by the alternate protein sector in India? What is the scope?

Plant protein is not a new concept as it has been existing since ages in our dietary habits. It is important to note that alternatives like soya chap, soya keema, kathal (jackfruit), tofu have been embraced by several Indians and are recognized as alternatives. Moreover, other sources like peas, rice, and indigenous millets and pulses are widely grown in India. These plant sources when consumed in appropriate quantities and combinations can be substitute to meat, whey or even eggs that too without the side effects of consumption of the animal-based proteins.

Plant protein market captures about 10% of Asia Pacific (APAC) plant protein market. With the APAC region poised to see the largest growth of the plant-based food sector, we could expect a rise in start-ups which will only add to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and sustainable development.

Despite being one of the largest consumers of plant based food, Indians are said to be low on protein consumption. What is the reason?

The Indian Market Research Bureau suggests that protein deficiency in Indians is more than 80 per cent, and as per the recent National Sample Survey, India has a declining per capita protein consumption in both urban and rural areas. This Survey was done about 10 years ago and we do not know if the increased prosperity indeed reversed the trend and protein consumption is rising now.

Talking about the reasons for poor consumption, lack of knowledge about protein source apart from animal produce, irregular intake of plant-based sources such as pulses could be few of the reasons. Data from the National Family Health Survey conducted in 2015–16 in India indicates that only 20–30% population is vegetarian, having never had fish, chicken, meat, and eggs. Yet, majority of the non-vegetarians report that they consume meat only occasionally. Furthermore, The EAT-Lancet Commission report mentions that legumes are the main source of non-cereal plant protein in Indian diets. However, their consumption is low. Also, the production of pulses has grown slower than the population, resulting in a steady decline in their per capita availability and consumption over the last five decades.

It was decreasing in the past few decades, but for the 10 years, Because of the increasing prosperity, we hope that (no survey data) it is increasing now.

In this context of health and protein deficiency what are the foremost areas that need to be addressed in the sector?

Animal source foods are viewed as the significant contributions to human health through providing high quantities of essential nutrients. However, globally, it is one of the largest sources of GHG and one of the leading causal factors in loss of biodiversity, and in developed and emerging countries it is the leading source of water pollution. While derived animal foods may contain more protein density per gram, plant proteins can avoid the numerous pitfalls associated with consuming animal-based proteins. Some of these include obesity, high blood cholesterol level, heart diseases and some types of cancer.

80 per cent of the Indians are protein deficient and the proof of this statement lies in the fact that India is the diabetes capital of the world. One of the reasons for that is the carbohydrate rich diet of its population which also translates to poorer protein consumption. Apart from diabetes, carbs rich diet is also linked with other lifestyle diseases such as hypertension, obesity, PCOS, etc.

All the fundamental nutrients present in animal-based foods are also available in plant-based foods, provided it is a balanced diet. Traditional combinations of meals such as rice or roti (wheat) with dhal compliments the amino acid composition and provides complete proteins which makes them no lesser when compared to proteins from animal-based foods.

Plant-based foods give us a way to bypass the undesired compounds like cholesterol, trans fat and high amounts of saturated fats that are present in animal foods. Also adding to the long list is the presence of hormones, antibiotics and growth promoters, which bring their own set of complications to the human health.

Plant proteins either in a properly planned diet or in any protein alternative (e.g., protein powders, tofu) are easily able to avert the need to include animal-based proteins. Enhancing the nutritional properties of plant-derived proteins is also possible by various methods. One, for example, is by traditional fermentation which is especially true in the case of increasing the levels of B vitamins.