There is no dearth in the multitude of dishes and cuisines spanning the considerable length and breadth of India, catering to every dietary requirement. Why then has there been a sudden influx of plant protein products in the Indian market in recent years?
According to the 2014 Sample Registration System Baseline Survey, two-thirds of Indians are non-vegetarian. However, the consumption rate is low compared with the rest of the world; on average, Indians consume just about five kilograms of meat per person in a year, according to a 2019 report by Our World in Data. The majority of non-vegetarians, too, do not eat meat every day, while a growing population of flexitarians eat eggs, but no meat.
“Most Indians consume vegetarian dishes daily, which means there is not much protein consumption across all age groups,” says dietitian Sowmya Bharani.
The Indian Dietetic Association in 2018 said that the country's vegetarian diet is 84 per cent protein-deficient – a substantial figure. The Indian Council of Medical Research recommends 0.8 grams to 1g of protein per body weight kilogram, which most Indians do not meet. Unlike in western countries, where meat is the key ingredient on the plate, in India, the focus is on carbohydrates such as roti and rice, while the protein is pushed to the periphery.
"In the last few years, the athlete population has increased in the country," says Bharani. "Never before have we seen so many people take on sports as their occupation or for the sake of fitness." The growing population of health-conscious individuals and the need to cover the gap in protein-deficient meals have resulted in the demand for alternative protein-rich food sources and mock meat.
Where Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have made plant-based burger patties that can bleed like a medium-rare burger, Mumbai start-up Evo Foods has introduced a vegan egg that one can relish without cracking. This is essentially a “bottle of egg” made with chickpeas, mung (green gram) and peas, which Evo claims is zero cholesterol but loaded with a protein content higher than a normal hen’s egg.
A versatile substitute, it can be cooked in the form of a frittata or an omelette, integrated in fried rice and as the base of a quiche, and even enjoyed in scrambled form.
Evo plans to introduce the product in various restaurants in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru later this year, pandemic-permitting.
Several members of the health and environment-conscious clubs also avoid broiler chicken, much of which is pumped with hormones for a high growth rate and fast slaughter time of just about six weeks. Abhinav Sinha, vice president of GoodDot, notes: "Americans love meat in the form of meatballs or burger patties, which are made from minced meats. The plant-based alternatives, too, create these popular products in minced form, but Indians love their curries, tikkas, and kebabs, which cannot be made with minced meat. So our products are in the form of chunks of plant-based meats, wherein getting the texture right is quite challenging."
GoodDot's signature Vegetarian Bytz mimics mutton pieces, and can be cooked in your favourite meat curry recipe or by mixing water with GoodDot's Curry Paste. Its Vegicken strips claim to replicate the texture of boneless chicken, Proteiz transforms into a chilli chicken or an egg scramble, and the Achari Tikka packet needs only heating. The Bytz is loaded with 24.5g of protein, while the Vegicken strips have 22.3g per 100g.
“Primarily, wheat, soy and pea protein are used to make these products, and other ingredients such as quinoa, flax seeds and gram flour are added depending on the texture desired,” says Sinha, who worked with a team of culinary experts, food technologists and biochemists to make these products for India’s meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, including protein-seekers and fitness enthusiasts.
A healthy and inclusive diet is also high on the agenda for Growfit, a company in Bengaluru that provides high-fibre, high-protein and low-carb food, along the lines of the keto diet, in a bid to cater to diabetics and those with PCOS, as well as those looking to stay fit.
"Vegetarians don't have many protein options other than legumes, lentils and dairy products," says Jyotsna Pattabiraman, founder and chief executive of Growfit. When cooked, lentils lose their protein content to less than 10g per 100g. "People have been experiencing paneer fatigue and are on the lookout for variety," says Pattabiraman. "While whey protein and pea protein can be consumed in the form of a smoothie, there is a need for protein options in main meals. We tried tofu, but people weren't satisfied with its aftertaste." Growfit then decided to go with Bangalore nutrition start-up Vegolution's new kid in the block, Hello Tempayy.
As more and more Indians join the conscious-eating tribe by ditching white rice and sugar and embracing brown rice and jaggery, they continue to look for protein options that fit within the Indian kitchen and are affordable. Tempeh, which is soybeans fermented with a prebiotic and gut-friendly natural starter culture, is one such option.
“It is priced on a par with good-quality paneer but, unlike paneer or tofu, the spice not just coats the tempeh, but also penetrates the product,” says Siddharth Ramasubramanian, founder and chief executive of Vegolution.
Tempeh works well in an Indian curry, Asian stir-fry, a vada pav cutlet and as taco stuffing. One can mince, slice, scramble and cube tempeh, which is low in carbohydrates, high in fibre and laden with protein (18g to 20g per 100gm). “Fortified with B12 and iron, this three-ingredient product made with water, soya beans and a starter culture is power-packed,” says Ramasubramanian.
With a low carbon footprint, these products are cruelty-free and nutrient-rich. With no preservatives, monosodium glutamate or additives, they cater to a large spectrum of people, from vegan fitness enthusiasts to a mother editing her pantry for her child. All you need is an open mind and a place in the palate for new protein sources.