How plant-based brands are making their products work for Indian consumers

While some companies focus on meat alternatives — products that resemble the look and taste of actual meat but without, you know, meat — others are bringing back familiar products in a whole new way.
Hello Tempayy food
Hello Tempayy food

If supermarket aisles and Instagram are to be believed, tofu is back. Not that it really ever went anywhere, but a rise in new brands focussing on plant-based products has returned the spotlight to soy and other non-animal protein sources. In recent years, several companies have brought out their own versions of tofu, tempeh, jackfruit and other vegan products to specifically target a younger, healthier Indian audience that falls in line with a global interest in plant-based diets.

“About a decade ago, you would hardly find vegan-anything,” said Vijay Pandey, co-founder of Health on Plants, which sells a range of plant-based products. However, in the last three or four years, a shift in the market has brought a bevy of new products. While some companies focus on meat alternatives — products that resemble the look and taste of actual meat but without, you know, meat — others are bringing somewhat familiar products back to Indian plates in a whole new way.

Though soy products aren’t new to Indian consumers, they come with their own baggage. Soy chunks and tofu are often described as having a bland taste and tough texture that hasn’t exactly inspired a wide audience to make the shift. Vijay, who started Health on Plants in 2019 as a kitchen experiment before creating the company, knew that all too well. “Many people who are familiar with the taste of paneer find tofu a little rubbery and the taste weird,” he said.

Vijay realised that if they were going to succeed, their tofu needed to get as close to the soft, spongy consistency of paneer as possible. They also added a line of tofu flavours to increase their chances of succeeding with an Indian audience who didn’t quite know how to cook with tofu or just didn’t like its taste. Their current roster now includes coriander, carrot-ginger, chili peanut and more. The flavours also sought to remove the notion that tofu was a foreign product. While the origin of tofu, which is made with pressed soy milk and curd, dates back centuries in China, its culinary use needn’t be limited to Asian cooking, but could be used for curries, salads and so much more, Vijay said.

Crucially, Health on Plants, whose line now includes tofu, tempeh, soy-based curd and vegan cheese, is not just targeting vegans, but anyone looking to reduce meat consumption in their diet. Last year, Eat with Better launched a line of jackfruit curries, hopping onto a vegan food trend in the west that for years has adopted jackfruit into its milieu. Newer plant-based products, however, still are largely found in high-end grocery stories and come at a premium, often with a price tag that doesn't lend itself to mass audiences just yet, though that might be changing. According to LiveMint, India’s alternative meat market is about $171 million with a compound annual growth rate of 8.5% by 2025.

Are you getting enough protein?

In many western diets, the move to vegetarianism must contend with a plate that often puts animal protein at its centre, whereas this isn’t the case in India. While surveys suggest that a majority of Indians label themselves as non-vegetarians, the likelihood is that these consumers are eating meat somewhat infrequently, a diet that’s been labelled flexitarian. “People don’t eat enough meat in India for them to be guilted into eating more plants,” said Karan Bajaj, co-founder of Eat With Better said.

This ties into another health concern in the country — about 70% of Indians aren’t getting enough protein in their diet. Dr Kavitha Reddy, director of Sreya Nutrition, stated, “We don’t get enough protein. Far from it. People think they are getting it, but they don’t.” What’s more, certain weight loss regimes can further erode protein consumption. “Some people have this idea that we don’t have to have protein every day. We don’t store protein in our body. We had to supply it every day.” There is also growing awareness that pulses, lentils and chickpeas are not adequate sources for protein for vegetarians, leading to the search for other more protein-rich sources. The recommended daily protein intake varies widely depending on age, weight and lifestyle but the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight.

There are also many arguments around the benefits of animal versus plant protein, chief among them that animal proteins are considered “complete” due to the presence of essential amino acids, whereas most plant proteins are “incomplete.” Soy, quinoa and chia seeds can be considered close to being on par with animal proteins. “Even in large quantities, [soy] is very easy to incorporate into our diet,” Dr Kavitha said. Ultimately, she recommends a combination of protein sources for a complete and effective diet. “No food is good in excess. When you eat, whether it's tofu or any plant protein, let it be part of a balanced diet.”

The rise of tempeh

As tofu grows in estimation among urban health-conscious Indian consumers, tempeh is coming up quickly as well. A traditional Indonesian preparation made with fermented soy beans, tempeh is finding its way into Indian kitchens as companies seek to promote its benefits as a protein source. Hello Tempayy, a food brand that produces tempeh in a variety of flavours including peri-peri and tawa masala, claims that their product holds about 38 grams of protein in a pack, and according to Health on Plants, its tofu contains about 28 grams of protein per pack and about 50 grams of protein per pack in its tempeh.

“If we could deliver food that could nourish vegetarians, we felt that’s where the biggest opportunity lies,” Siddharth Ramasubramanian, the founder and CEO of Vegolution, which makes Hello Tempayy, said.

The brand, which was founded a little over two years ago, sought to bridge the protein gap in India, Siddharth said. While fake meat companies such as Impossible Meat in the U.S. have quickly grown and gained their own followings — India has seen an increase in the faux meat market as well — Siddharth realises that they didn’t want to follow a ‘lift-and-shift’ strategy from the United States or Europe.

“For us, India is a unique market and has its own unique circumstances and we wanted to have a food solution that actually made sense for the country,” he said. “It was very clear that whatever food we introduce, it needs to be cookable in the Indian kitchen.”

And while Health on Plants saw paneer as a path to interest consumers in tofu and tempeh, Hello Tempayy sought the opposite approach. “For us, calling it a paneer alternative is quite narrowing. Because that means I will use it wherever I use paneer. Which is not in a taco,” he said.

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