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Indian seekh kebabs. Photo credit: Sumitmalhotra / Wikimedia Commons

No market for alt-protein in ‘veggie’ India? Think again, study says

May 29, 2020

India has a (not entirely accurate) reputation as having been a strictly vegetarian society since time immemorial. Given that, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the chances of next-gen meat alternatives taking off there are somewhat slim. The reasoning goes something like this: Indians have never really eaten meat and have little desire to, so there’s no need for them to replace it with a ‘cleaner’ alternative that looks, feels, smells, tastes, and bleeds like meat.

But the findings of a new study indicate that there are opportunities for alt-protein makers to tap the Indian market in a big way – as long as they know who their audiences are.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University in the US found that Indian consumers are generally willing to pay a premium for plant-based meat alternatives or cell-based cultured meat – though the size of the premium varies considerably depending on the profile of the individual consumer.

Close to 82% of India’s 1.3 billion people identify as members of the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religions – all of which are seen as having some form of vegetarianism as central tenets. Hindus make up the vast majority, and each of these religions has been practised in India since ancient times. Significant Christian, Muslim, and Sikh minorities, on the other hand, are typically viewed as meat-eaters.

However, the reality is much more complex. Regionally, there are differing norms when it comes to eating meat, even among Hindus. Between 64% and 74% of Indians across all faith groups are thought to eat animal meat (including fish and other seafood) “at least occasionally,” according to the National Family Health Survey. Chicken, mutton, and fish are the most popular sources.

Even those Indians that avoid meat and eggs altogether tend towards lacto-vegetarian diets incorporating dairy products.

India’s taste for animal protein is only expected to grow as the population gets bigger and more Indians enter the middle class – reflecting a trend seen in other emerging markets, where rising disposable incomes are often correlated with higher meat consumption.

The study’s authors surveyed consumers in Mumbai about their preferences and willingness to pay with regards to four protein categories that can be considered as substitutes for one another: conventional animal meat, plant-based meat analogs, ‘lab grown’ cultured meat, and chickpeas.

Each of these four categories was assigned an artificial price range based on market prices at the time the study was designed. The cheapest category was chickpeas – a traditional, widely available protein source in India – followed by animal meat and then plant-based alternatives. Cultured meat was the most expensive.

The study found that respondents are generally willing to pay a premium over the price of animal meat for alt-protein. Plant-based alternatives commanded the biggest premium, while respondents indicated they’d pay a somewhat smaller premium for cell-based cultured meat.

This may suggest that plant-based products – such as those offered by the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods – have the best chance of success in the Indian market, at least in the near term.

Plant-based proteins “didn’t benefit” from China’s Covid-19 meat shortages. Read more here

Digging down, researchers sorted respondents into four groups – ‘veggie lovers,’ ‘meat lovers,’ ‘plant-based meat enthusiasts,’ and ‘clean meat enthusiasts’ – based on their stated protein preferences.

Making up over half of the survey sample, the latter two groups demonstrated “strong positive preferences” for alt-protein over animal meat and chickpeas.

However, both ‘enthusiast’ groups “also prefer conventional meat to [chickpea], suggesting the availability of meat alternatives may be an important barrier in transitioning away from conventional meat,” the study’s authors said.

Even the ‘veggie lovers’ may present opportunities for alt-protein businesses, the study argues – despite respondents in this group displaying “highly significant, negative preferences” for animal meat, plant-based simulations, and lab-grown meat compared to chickpeas.

Moreover, chickpeas and other preferred protein sources among the ‘veggie lovers’ are typically seen as being more sustainable than all of the other three options, taking the teeth out of environmental arguments in favor of simulated meat products.

But the researchers acknowledged that “[policy] interventions aimed at reducing dairy and egg consumption are more relevant” to this group – indicating a prospective market for plant-based egg and plant-based dairy products in the country (Mumbai-based Evo Foods, which makes a vegan egg replacement, received angel funding earlier this month.)

Meanwhile, getting the 28% of respondents in the ‘meat lovers’ group to move to animal-free alternatives “will require pricing of simulated meat considerably lower than conventional meat.” This suggests that, of all four groups, converting ‘meat lovers’ away from animal meat “will require the most effort,” the researchers said.

What’s your view – does India hold promise for alt-meat makers? Or would they be barking up the wrong bodhi tree? Let me know at [email protected]

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