An experiment in taste has already become an opportunity in the food market
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
ON A RECENT WEEKDAY, ON A TABLE across from me sat an early evidence of what is touted to be a transformative moment in our lives. It may help mitigate climate change, perhaps make us healthier and less cruel, maybe even curb a future pandemic.
For now, it sits in a solemn pizza box.
Inside, above its ample base, and in an ocean of mucilaginous cheese, lay what looked like minced chicken. Only, it wasn’t. It was a meatless meat pizza. Or what Domino’s Pizza calls “The Unthinkable Pizza”, one that is a “100% vegetarian pizza with a 100% chicken like taste”.
The pizza chain does not reveal what exact ingredients it uses to mimic the taste of chicken, except to say that it is a plant-based protein. But it isn’t the only one wading its feet in this new category of alternative protein. Something of an explosion has occurred in the last one year, as several startups and well-meaning food scientists have begun launching, or are close to launching, this entirely new category of food. Just earlier this year, even Salman Khan was promoting a plant-based meat company, Imagine Meats, started by the celebrity couple Riteish Deshmukh and Genelia D’Souza. This is a rapidly expanding industry elsewhere in the world. The US-based maker of plant-based meat Beyond Meat went public in 2019, and another US firm, the plant-based burger firm Impossible Foods, raised $700 million in funding last year. According to a Barclays report, the market for meat alternatives could be worth $140 billion within the next decade.
At the heart of this market is the emergence of consumers with a concern for animal welfare and climate change. There might have been people in the past who were concerned about the environmental cost of raising livestock or were uncomfortable about their contribution to animal cruelty but could not bring themselves to change their diet, either because they were slaves to their taste or because of their need for protein. But now, the founders of these startups say they don’t need to because plant-based meat gives an equal amount of protein and are getting close to becoming indistinguishable from meat.
Although the pandemic has come in the way of the development and launch of many of these products, the belief that it is a virus that jumped from animals to humans is pushing more people to reconsider their eating habits, say those behind these products.
“Food science has advanced to the extent that we are increasingly able to replicate minute variations of a meat’s flavour, its taste, texture and smell, using plant alternatives in a lab,” says Sohil Wazir, the chief commercial officer of the Mumbai-based Blue Tribe Foods. “You don’t need to kill an animal because you can now get a plant-based one which tastes nearly the same.”
Consider for a minute the qualities of meat. The taste of fat, the fibre and gristle in the meat, the delicious bits just around and inside the bone. It isn’t easy to recreate the sensations all of these produce. And plant-based alternatives are currently at a fairly early stage with just a few items out in the market.
But Wazir says with every new iteration and research, they are getting closer.
Blue Tribe Foods, launched by Niki Arora Singh and Sandeep Singh in 2019, has so far launched two products, a plant-based version of chicken nuggets and chicken keema. But several more are in the works, from alternatives to mutton kebabs and pork sausages to lamb patties.
While the alternative protein space is more established in the West, with plant-based burger patties and nuggets having found converts in those markets, the trick for its success in India will not, Wazir believes, be in recreating those items. “The Indian palette is very different. And we will have to go beyond these items to do things like kebabs or meat chunks that can be cooked (in curries),” he says.
Plant-based meat alternatives are, of course, not entirely a new category in India. Several Indian cuisines have a rich tradition of using vegetables such as the jackfruit as a meaty vegetable, long before being rediscovered by vegans as meat alternatives elsewhere. And soya nuggets, heavily promoted as a meat replacement, were once fairly popular items.
Wazir, however, distinguishes the new crop of plant-based meat alternatives from soya nuggets. The latter was especially targeted at vegetarians, he says, and could hence get away with a distant resemblance to meat. “(The current) plant-based alternatives are for non-vegetarians who want to consume less meat for ethical reasons,” Wazir says. According to him, non-vegetarians can only be convinced to switch when the replacement, unlike soya products of old, is indistinguishable from meat.
“At the end of the day, it will all come down to taste,” Wazir says. “How close can you get.”
Most of these companies use a wide variety of vegetable substitutes—soy, peas and chickpeas being the most common among them—to create food that don’t just mimic the taste of meat, but every other sensory aspect, from its texture to smell. A chicken alternative is currently the most common product because
apart from chicken being the predominantly consumed non-vegetarian fare across India, it is also—especially in its minced format—relatively easier to recreate. But many more are either ready or in the works. There are mutton and seafood alternatives, even eggs.
KARTIK DIXIT WANTS TO CREATE THE perfect egg. Not just an egg that will taste exactly like one, and with its many benefits in baking and the variety of ways in which one can cook it. But he wants to improve it. He wants an egg with all of its goodness but without its cholesterol, or even the messiness of its shells. “What good is the eggshell?” he asks triumphantly over the phone. “It’s like if you are creating meat, will you make the bones too? What good is that?”
He is pained, he says, every time he hears people asked to eat only the whites of the egg so as to reduce their cholesterol intake. “Take the yolk out and it messes with your egg experience. What good is an egg without its yolk?”
He’s spent the last two years pursuing this ambition of creating and improving on the egg. Along with his co-founder Shraddha Bhansali, who also runs a popular vegan restaurant in Mumbai, and working with food scientists and researchers, his startup Evo Foods, has come out with a plant-based version of an egg that comes in a 500 millimetre bottle carrying an equivalent of 12 eggs.
At a tasting held for around 50 individuals at Bhansali’s restaurant, Dixit says, most of them found it exactly like a normal egg, the consensus being that it is 95 per cent close to an egg. Dixit is less forgiving. He thinks he is about 90 per cent there. “The remaining 10 per cent, we are working towards. We have to go deep into the molecular structure of the egg, and try to find which molecules work up their magic while cooking, which gives the egg its particular texture and aroma,” he says. “It’s like a software development cycle. This is version 1.0. There will be a second and a third version. The final version will mimic the egg in every way.”
A vegan for over four years, Dixit says he wanted to work on alternate proteins for long, but wanted to get into a space where his impact could be immediate. “The egg is an interesting food in India. For a (religious) vegetarian, the egg is less guilt-inducing. It’s like a grey area. A plant-based egg is the best way to introduce clean protein to the Indian market,” he says.
Dixit and Bhansali’s firm began by analysing over 500 plant-based ingredients, before arriving upon a combination of mung beans, peas and chickpeas. But eggs, he says, are complicated to replicate. “Eggs look deceptively simple, but they are complicated. You can do milk alternatives fairly easily, for instance, almond milk. With meat (alternatives), too, there are some tried and tested recipes. But to make something replace an egg, for it to be a liquid and to make it behave like an egg does with all its properties—that’s not simple at all,” he says.
This is the reason, according to him, why despite this explosion in plant-based meat companies globally, one finds very few looking for an egg alternative. Dixit refers to Zero Egg, a plant-based egg manufacturer from Israel, and how it takes around seven to eight minutes to prepare, before another 10 minutes of cooking. “No one can wait 15 to 20 minutes for an omelette,” he says.
Dixit’s alternative to the egg itself is far from perfect. It takes over a minute longer to cook compared to normal eggs, and it cannot, at this moment, be used in baking. He is working on a new version that can be used in baking, he says, but is currently unsure if it can be incorporated into the current version as an all-purpose plant-based egg, or will have to be sold separately as one recommended solely for baking.
This isn’t the only thing on his mind right now. His product was supposed to be launched as a vegan alternative in several restaurants across Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru in April, but the pandemic’s second wave has delayed it. In the next eight to nine months, he hopes to make the product available through their website, and hit retail shelves within two years.
“The market is evolving. People want better eggs without antibiotics and cholesterol, and hopefully, this is where we will come in,” he says.
As plant-based alternatives evolve, competition and issues around nomenclature have begun to come up. Amul, since last year, has begun to threaten to take manufacturers of plant-based milk, like those made from almonds and soya, to court for calling their products milk. According to Food Safety and Standards Authority of India regulations, the dairy co-operative claims, no company can suggest that a non-milk product is made of milk. In ads and press interviews, the co-operative says there is a misinformation campaign going on to suggest that these plant-based milk alternatives are healthier than milk.
Amul has a history of fiercely defending its dominance in the milk industry, from claiming that vanaspati cannot be marketed as “vegetable ghee” (since ghee can only be derived from milk fat and not vegetable fat) and calling ice-creams that use vegetable oil instead of milk fat “frozen dessert”, to suggesting that there can be no “peanut butter” but only “peanut spread” because butter is clarified ghee, which can again only be derived from milk. More famously, last year, when Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in Joker and used the occasion to deliver a passionate speech in favour of veganism, India awoke the next morning to an Amul ad that featured the Amul girl forcing butter into Phoenix’s mouth while calling him “Joaqer”.
“It’s a bit tricky,” says Siddharth Manvati, the co-founder of Clear Meat, which is working on growing meat in a lab setting. “The info you give to the consumer has to be consumer-friendly, so that the product is able to connect with the right audience and is not misinterpreted. Even in our case, there is a bit of confusion between lab-grown and plant-based meat. Our product is not for vegetarians or vegans. We have to create a framework to help people understand what is plant-based and lab-based, and not hurt anyone unintentionally.”
CLEAR MEAT’S PRODUCTS, WHENEVER IT comes out in the market, like other lab-grown meat, should be able to serve non-vegetarians better compared to their plant-based counterparts, because unlike the latter, they won’t taste like real meat. They are meat.
Manvati, a biotechnologist from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), established Clear Meat along with Pawan Dhar, professor and dean at JNU’s School of Biotechnology, in 2019, although the two had begun working on this since 2017. The two of them had been working on a drug discovery incubatory cell at JNU called Foresight Biotech since 2015, working on creating therapeutic solutions for the pharma industry, from issues related to breast cancer, tuberculosis and diabetes, to other ailments, when one of the strategies devised appeared to work in the alt-protein space better. “Our intention (at Foresight Biotech) was to create a format to find solutions either by killing cells or making them survive in a healthy environment. So the intention was playing with cells itself. One specific strategy wasn’t actually making sense on the lines of drug discovery or therapeutics. Once we started implementing this strategy on the alternate protein (space), it started making sense in application. That’s how we got into it,” he says.
Although lab-cultivated meat production is still at a nascent stage globally—it is currently commercially available only in Singapore—many believe this eventually will reduce our dependence on animals for meat. That our large cattle fields will at some point in the future be replaced with large bioreactors growing animal flesh.
By growing meat outside the bodies of animals, many biotechnologists believe, we will be able to cut out the cruelty and environmental costs associated with raising cattle without having to sacrifice our dependence on protein and taste.
But this industry does have one big problem. They all depend on an animal serum, most commonly foetal bovine serum (FBS), a kind of mixture harvested from the blood of foetuses excised from pregnant cows, to grow the meat. It isn’t just expensive, but the very thing—animal cruelty— the industry is seeking to do away with.
“That’s why globally we haven’t seen anyone release a lab-grown product yet,” Manvati says. “On average, in any lab setup, FBS accounts for about 10 per cent of the whole nutrient broth given to cells. But because of the process involved in obtaining and also because of various other processes, FBS accounts for approximately 60 to 70 per cent running cost of the setup. It isn’t just about removing killing. You have to also answer this to bring price parity (with regular meat).”
Many researchers are working on finding a replacement for FBS. Clear Meat has managed to find a solution, a process which is patented and which Manvati declines from disclosing, to work around this issue. They have so far grown minced chicken using this process, and in the future plan to also focus on other cell types, including fish, mutton and beef.
Their minced chicken is about 85 per cent like regular chicken, Manvati says, and among other things, is currently whitish in colour, since no artificial blood has been added. One big success, he says, is that using their replacement for FBS, they will be able to make their product as expensive as regular chicken. The final product, he expects, should be available for around Rs 850-Rs 1,000. Currently seeking funding to take their technology from a lab setup to an industrial scale, they will use the next couple of years, he says, to perfect the product.
Growing meat in a lab is a laborious process. He takes about a week to grow just 100 gm of meat. Because this industry is so new, many things are currently not in place. One will require huge bioreactors with 500 to 1,000-litre capacities to produce 25 to 30 kg of meat daily, which does not exist yet. But as this industry grows, Manvati says, these things will fall in place. The company has already been approached by some established raw meat FMCG companies, Manvati reveals, and he hopes they will eventually be able to license out the technology, so these companies can push their products.
They still have a lot of work cut out for them. From perfecting their product to being able to industrialise the process, apart from getting government bodies, whom they are already in talks with, to conceptualise a new legal framework for an entirely new type of food product.
Last year in 2020, Manvati and Dhar, along with a scientific officer working with them and one of their helpers, gathered at Manvati’s home. They had planned a tasting for a larger group later in April, which would eventually get called off after the announcement of the lockdown. Manvati had prepared a chicken keema dish with their cultivated meat. It was a scientific exercise to try the validity of their concept, but Manvati couldn’t help but feel the goosebumps. “It was a big moment,” he says. “We had been working towards this moment for the last three years.”
It more than matched their expectations. It wasn’t just edible but about 85 per cent there, the group agreed. The holy grail will be to eventually get it all the way up to 100 per cent. And Manvati believes they will get there and industrialise the whole process within a year or two.
Back at my table, I take a small considered bite of the plant-based chicken pizza. It has some of the texture and a faint taste of chicken. Not quite chicken, but not entirely vegetarian either. It will, of course, be foolhardy to expect a quick service restaurant to churn out the perfect product. And it showed. It appeared far from satisfactory to goad a carnivore to replace his meat. But close enough perhaps to expand the palette of a devout vegetarian; maybe, even help in the rehabilitation of a once conscientious non-vegetarian.