Is Plant-based meat in India 'Beyond Impossible'?
The author (Ken Lee) is an MBA '23 Candidate at London Business School, where he was awarded LBS Merit and Vodafone Foundation Scholarship. He is passionate about technology and sustainability, and believes in the power of venture capital in driving R&D and creating a positive impact around the world.
Photo credit Rajat Sarki @ Unsplash
Indian cuisine has a reputation for rich flavours, wide variety of spices, and plentiful vegetables. While recipes vary dramatically across the country, a large population choose a primarily plant-based diet. Close to 80% of the Indian population practice Hinduism, a religion that promotes a vegetarian or low-meat diet. Further, the traditional Indian diet focuses on plant foods like vegetables, legumes, lentils, fruits, and low consumption of animal based products. With such a large vegetable consuming population, why hasn’t India surfaced as the leading market for plant based proteins?
Overview of Indian consumers
High level overview of the market
Indian consumers are getting close to 45% less protein than the global average, this is largely due to;
Close to 70% of the Indian population living on less than $2 per day, making many of the high protein foods such as meat unattainable, as a result;
Economic factors is seen as a leading reason for 73% of India’s adult being protein-deficient
Though this is changing gradually as food capita spend per person is growing ~6% annually, the same pace as GDP per capita.
Further, traditional ingredients have inefficient protein delivery. To make matters worse, climate change and pollutions adds further risks to protein consumption in India. Between 1990 to 2010, it is estimated that there is a 60% drop in protein content in beans and legumes.
Feeling the pulse of India
Due to the spread of Jainism and the teachings of Buddha, vegetarianism became more common. Hindu communities are also turning to vegetarianism.
Association of meat-free diet with higher social status
Further, a large proportion of the population eats meat. This may have to do with the fact that, other than upper castes, many of the population continued eating meat. A lot of it has to do with the fact that government data shows that vegetarian households are more affluent and have a higher income, which is how the ‘vegetarian stereotype’ is more likely to take over people’s minds.
Cultural and political reasons to avoid meat
India has a violent history of mob lynching and social ostracisation of people who consume beef because a cow is considered to be sacred in Hinduism. India’s ruling party, BJP, does not hide its inclination towards vegetarianism. Food choices have become very much political.
Protein Consumption behaviour
What have we learned?
Plant-based foods is a great opportunity, while affordability is important, rising incomes and increased willingness to spend will accelerate adoption.
Choice of food intertwines with personal perception of class, political affiliation, and even religious beliefs indicating that a change of mindset is required before adopting plant-based meats
Wide acceptance of non-meat, high-protein products, such as eggs and milk, might lower the adoption curve
Target product is important – we need to deliver non-meat products that are widely accepted, well aligned to the Indian palate, to overcome the ‘cold-start’ problem.
Discovering the Opportunity: Determining Pathways for Plant Based Protein
According to CNBC, the plat-based market in India is roughly worth $650 - $700 million dollars by 2025, an attractive segment, especially when majority of the population is already on a predominantly plant-based diet. So the question begs, what should be the go-to-market strategy?
According to surveys with current local consumers, the perception of existing plant-based offerings tend to be ‘designed for western, not Indian palates’ and ‘overpriced for the general consumers’. Hence, in my opinion, the best way to uncover opportunities in the market is to segment plant-based offerings by size of key ingredients (it’s exponentially more expensive to synthesise larger products) and align this to the Indian cuisine.
Introducing the plant-based pathways:
In this memo, I will begin at the top of the pyramid, with the most expensive ingredient available only to the affluent population; and move to the mass market options.
Pathway 1: Beef replacements
Contrary to popular belief, India has a sizeable beef eating population – 200 mil, or ~15% of the population – largely the more affluent. This has high potential to disrupt as the current offering in India is expensive and prices are rising rapidly (~9% YoY) between 2011 (177 Rs/kg) and 2021 (403 Rs/kg). Further, beef is considered sacred and largely frowned upon by a large portion of the population. Providing a plant-based, guilt-free alternative can satisfy an underserved market in India.
An example is Beyond Meat burger patties, with a protein content similar to that of beef, albeit the price is still pretty high for general consumers.
Pathway 2: Meats replacements (High priority: Fish & Chicken; Low priority: Mutton & Pork)
In 2016, 71 percent of Indians over the age of 15 are non-vegetarian, indicating a strong preference of inclusion of some meat in diet. The consumption of processed chicken (high potential for PB substitute), in India is rising rapidly at 15-20 percent per year. Fish & chicken consumption per capita is rising steadily (3% & 6% respectively). Many of these dishes are cooked in low-med heat (with the exception of kebab), which results in lesser degrees of denaturation. Many of these dishes are cooked with plenty of spices and curries, hence overpowering the taste of meat, PB alternatives.
Example of success: Urban Platter’s tikka chicken with authentic taste, at an affordable price.
Third pathway: Milk and dairy replacements
Milk and dairy are key ingredients in more than half of India’s 2000+ dish cuisine – from desserts to drinks, yoghurt to cheese. This is a particularly attractive market as it does not require cold chain and the perishability of plant-based milk outshines cow milk - shelf life of cow milk is ~9 days vs PB milk which lasts ~30 days without refrigeration.
However, this segment might feel strong resistance to change as dairy is a highly subsidised sector in India. In Feb 2020, an allocation of ₹4460 crores was made towards dairy farming, by the government. Further there is strong competition ranging from camel milk to vegan milk, which is growing ~20% YoY.
A good example would be Sofit Soya Milk, which is the closest taste to cow’s milk when cooked, with a similar protein content. The other offerings (e.g. almond, coconut, cashew) are usually a tad cheaper than soy, but the palatability along with protein content usually pales in comparison.
Fourth Pathway: Egg replacement
Indian consumers consume almost as much eggs in 2017, as all meat combined. Egg consumption is expected to rise 4% YoY, and become a more prominent protein source as compared to meats. Further, egg alternatives have the potential to disrupt food emulsifiers market for baking, estimated at USD $3.6 Bil by 2023.
An exquisite example would be Vegetarian Anda liquid egg. The prices are higher but the protein content per gram is also increased.
Fifth Pathway: Protein boosters to complement cereal consumption
I’m particularly excited about this pathway as it has the potential to democratise access to protein:
Strong home-cooking application: 2 out of 3 meals consumed are prepared at home
Wheat (cereals) continues to form a significant part of the Indian diet, estimated to contribute 22% of volume consumed in 2030
As it does not require ‘growing’ the protein, this can be produced relatively cheaply, and at scale
Long shelf life and does not require cold chain to distribute
Easy adoption, does not require a change in behaviour/palate
There are currently no offering of protein powder that is suitable to be mixed into flour for the preparation of Indian bread/baked goods – a key opportunity for companies.
Sixth pathway: Innovation
This pathways seeks to capture consumer preference for better ingredients and options in their diet. Between 2018-2030, the incremental spend of $325B expected on premiumization of food. This pathway offers creative accompaniments to existing Indian cuisine, resulting in low barriers of entry. For example, an option for a high-protein chutney as an accompaniment to existing dish of biryani; or a protein powdered sugar with Tarla Dalal.
While there are recipes available, there are no offerings for ready-made high-protein chutneys or condiments available in the market – an untapped area for further exploration.
Not all pathways are created equal, some would present a greater adoption challenge as compared to others – palate preferences or even economical.
Polarising volumes of ingredients will also affect lucrativeness of each pathways, as such, I have split them into a 2X2 matrix, with the size of circles as projected market sizes:
I would recommend companies to zone in on pathways 5 & 6 (Protein Boosters and protein condiments). Most of these end products do not require a change in recipe, and have similar mouthfeel and palatability, which will help in adoption.
Due to large volume of milk consumed, pathway 3 remains fairly attractive. One must, however, beware of the government’s protective nature towards milk farmers.
Finally, pathways 1 & 2, while projected at 520 Crores, will face friction in achieving mass market success. Social and economic factors add multiple barriers in adoption and companies will have to invest heavily in advertising to change the sentiment of the public.
India can become an attractive market for plant-based protein if done right. Companies seeking to command a domineering position have to pivot existing approaches that have been successful in the West. India is unique, it is different.
Two massive untapped opportunities include high-protein condiments along with protein booster flour for cooking
Companies should focus on affordability to gain mass adoption rapidly; skip the 3D printed steak and give the market protein chutney of plan based protein flour for Roti Canai
Adapt to existing cuisine and dietary preferences; India is not like the west, meat replacement are bottom of the priority list
Understand demographical patterns in each state to maximise accessibility; availability of cold chain, preference for eating out, distribution patterns
Additional Insight: Environmental Impact
Finally, meat consumption in a populous country like India can result in an uncontrollable rise in animal farming (e.g. Brazil), which can result in a detrimental increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and can create irreversible water scarcity.
Already, India’s agriculture and livestock industry account for 18% of the total national GHG emissions, making it the third largest polluter after China and the USA. Considering the environmental impact along with the dire, unhygienic state of slaughterhouses and animal farms, the need for plant-based meat alternatives in India is pressing. By switching over to plant-based alternatives, the environmental impact from each of these pathways are highly significant.
Appendix A: High level view on environmental impact
Appendix B: Environmental impact to produce 1g of protein
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