Clone of Green Evolution

From eating well to a plant-based diet, the newest trend taking over grocery shelves and restaurant menus, Indians are increasingly returning to their green roots
Clone of Green Evolution

Indian athletes participating in the 2024 Paris Olympics are in for a pleasant surprise. An exclusively curated plant-based vegetarian menu which dovetails with the government’s ‘leaf over beef’ philosophy. They are in good company: Olympic sprinter Morgan Mitchell who specialises in the 400m race adopted a plant-based diet two years before representing Australia at the 2016 Rio Olympics. American Olympic silver medallist Dotsie Bausch is another leafy soul.

Actor Shahid Kapoor loves chicken, pigs, cows, fish and other animals; hence he eats only plant-based vegetarian fare. So does Stevie Wonder. Vegan power couple Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli, already own a plant-based meat brand, Blue Tribe, which offers mock chicken nuggets, mutton keema, chicken momos and sausages.

Vietnamese spiritual teacher Supreme Master Ching Hai aka Suma hopes the world will one day adopt a totally plant-based lifestyle and campaigns for laws that promote plant-based eating.

A plant-based diet revolution is sweeping the world. India is part of it. The country’s plant-based food market size is worth $468 million and the Indian vegan food market was $1,372.3 million in 2022; it is expected to climb to $2,756.6 million by 2030. As for the world, the global business is projected to reach $113.1 billion by 2031. Siddharth Ramasubramanian, Founder, Hello Tempayy, a bean-based vegetarian protein and ready-to-cook brand, says, “People are increasingly becoming more conscious of what they eat, and we’ve seen a rise in awareness around the importance of protein in one’s diet.

We are seeing an exponential rise in protein-rich food products catering to vegetarians. We launched in 2021 and have seen a growth in distribution, sales and repeat buying. While we saw instant demand in metros and Tier 1 cities, our new line of ambient products (no refrigeration) is seeing a sudden increase in sales from Tier 2 cities as they are starved for new foods that break the monotony of the same old options.”

The ethical eating pyramid has been growing tiers over the past decade. Vegetarians were always around on the top shelf, vegans appeared in mid-20th century; the word was coined in November 1944 by British vegetarian activist Watson, and his school teacher wife Dorothy Morgan, by taking “the first three and last two letters of ‘vegetarian’” which according to Watson signalled “the beginning and end of vegetarian”.

Watson was wrong although only three per cent of the world’s citizens, or 100 million people, are declared vegetarian or vegan. The new kid on the ethical soapbox is plant-based food. Note, all vegetarians are not vegans while all vegans are vegetarians. All plant-based food adoptees are neither totally vegetarian nor vegan. Rajeev Venkat, Author and Corporate Advisor, explains the distinction: “The difference between a vegan and a plant-based lifestyle is that you can skip the strict rules of veganism, which prohibits tucking into any animal product.”

He is a part of a growing tribe of health-conscious individuals in the country who have crossed over to a plant-based food lifestyle. “Speaking personally, adopting a whole food, plant-based diet has numerous health advantages such as lowering the risk of diabetes, enhancing the gut microbiome and promoting longevity,” shares Venkat. The man who calls himself a perennial student on the path of Advaita Vedanta is the author of Cast Your Caste Away: The Clarion Call of Sanatana Dharma. He clarifies that his focus on eating healthier is more for his well-being than goaded by any food activism.

Plant-based food is the ethical grub of the hour worldwide. An international survey conducted by GlobeScan, a global insights and advisory consultancy, and EAT, the science-based non-profit for global food system transformation done immediately after the pandemic began to wane in 2022 concluded that 41 per cent of global food consumers predict people eating plant-based food instead of meat over the decade.

Food and financial insecurity created by the pandemic led to many people switching to sustainable and ethical eating: it is cheaper and healthier. More than one in five respondents eat plant-based or vegan food; up from 17 per cent in 2019. Plant-based diet fans are growing; 40 per cent of Gen Z, 43 per cent of Millennials, 37 per cent of Gen X, and 28 per cent of Boomers are interested in this alternate food choice. Boomer Ritv Kapoor confesses, “Moving to a plant-based diet wasn’t a quick decision for me. It took years of weighing my lifestyle’s advantages and disadvantages.”

Nearly nine in 10 consumers are conscious of climate change and hence, purchase environmentally healthy and responsible food; of whom 64 per cent are willing to pay more. In India, where plant-based diets are becoming popular, a survey conducted by Rakuten Insight in February 2024 showed more than 48 per cent of respondents consuming food products that are driven by concerns over animal cruelty in food production. Rising cardiac problems and diabetes have aroused people’s interest in healthy supplements and enriched foods.

With more people adjusting their diets to lower animal protein intake and turn vegan, the demand for plant based ingredients continue to grow. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found that plant-based diets that limit animal products can reduce the risk of dying from heart disease. The researchers highlighted that vegan and vegetarian diets which are gaining traction can be too rigid for many.

Instead, following a more flexible pro-vegetarian diet (PVG) could offer comparable health advantages and are more manageable. Which are the plant-based foods? Lentils and legumes such as moong dal, chana dal and kidney beans; Rice, wheat, jowar, bajra and other grains; vegetables; spices and herbs such as turmeric, cumin, coriander, and even garam masala; street food such as pani puri, vada pav and bhel puri; traditional Indian sweets and desserts such as Mysore Pak, kaju barfi and jalebi made using nuts, lentils, and wheat flours; the merits and demerits of flour is a whole new food debate.

Kapoor is a food entrepreneur and CEO of a vegan business enterprise. He founded People of Tomorrow, a 100 per cent Delhi-based Vegan restaurant. He feels people don’t know the negative aspects of dairy. “Initially, I misunderstood the term ‘vegan’ by equating it with lactose intolerance. When I was 21, coincidentally my dermatologist suggested eliminating dairy as part of treating my long-standing acne issues.

Accepting her advice improved not just my skin but also digestion,” shares Kapoor. Exposure to different viewpoints while travelling broadened her knowledge about the vegan movement and its underlying reasons; in her early 20s, she met a vegan Israeli traveller who explained to her the ethical basis of his lifestyle; it is more than just a diet, it includes various consumption habits.

“Despite cultural influences, learning about the environmental impact of dietary choices became a pivotal moment that influenced my move towards a plant-based lifestyle,” Kapoor points out. What is behind this taste for green? Cultural consciousness, ethical concerns and health reasons, of course. A 2023 report published by India’s Plant Based Foods Industry Association (PBFIA) found a “noticeable increase” in plant-based eating in India: 67 per cent of consumers of plant-based products are motivated by animal welfare, 54.1 per cent are worried about the environment, while 48.6 per cent believe in its health benefits. The environment factor is considerable.

A recent Oxford University study reveals that eating plants is better for the planet than eating meat. It suggested that people who don’t eat meat produce 75 per cent less greenhouse gases compared to daily meat consumers. Choosing a diet with little meat, turning vegetarian or pescatarian (fish allowed) is kinder to the land, water and biodiversity. However, the ongoing cultural change is a crucial initial move in that direction.

DRIVING FORCE

Food is tricky territory, with cultural and ethical issues stirring the pot. India has the world’s highest percentage of vegetarians: an estimated 20-39 per cent of the population and the BJP government has been promoting vegetarianism as a better lifestyle choice. Studies, however, offer contradictory information; nearly a third of all urban respondents in a 2018-19 Indian food survey published in 2022 noted that vegetarian diets have declined to 26.5 per cent. It is complicated. Indian cooking is mostly vegetarian, which may also include meat depending on the region, religion and caste.

A Pew Centre study says eight in 10 Indians limit meat in their food and only 39 per cent of them call themselves “vegetarian”. This may explain the rising popularity of plant-based food. Prriti Paayal, Founder, Ishwarii Himalayan Food Private Limited, a popular Delhi plant-based food store, reveals, “Our USP is selling only plant-based products, catering to a growing consumer demand for healthier, sustainable and ethical eating choices.” She lists her reasons: pollution, lack of non-additive food in the market, food intolerances and allergies. She feels plant-based food has a broad market of health-conscious, environmentally aware customers. The store sources from their local orchards and farms in Himachal Pradesh high-quality ingredients, while supporting local agriculture and promoting sustainability. “Our targets are flexitarians,” Paayal explains, adding, “We aim to reach those who’ve eaten meat for years but now seek alternatives a few times weekly.”

CULINARY INNOVATION

Not just stores, but restaurants have got on to the plant bandwagon. Each chef has his or her own mantra. For Bengaluru-based Nidhi Nahata, it is “food is our medicine”. For Karishma Sakhrani, Chef and Partner, Communion, Mumbai, it is “culinary inclusivity”. Varun Totlani, Head Chef of the fashionable Mumbai restaurant Masque points out, “plant-based ingredients are not limiting. Overall, we get orders for more vegetarian dishes than non vegetarian.

One of my favourite dishes is the Ponkh and Strawberry: a fresh, light, almost chaat-like mix of different textures of strawberry (smoked, fresh, dried and pulped) with crispy ponkh and a strawberry dressing.” The global plant-food economy is riding the wave. Sample this: Sodexo Live! the French food caterers for the Olympics Village and for 14 venues at the Paris Games, has created 500 plant-based dishes.

In February this year, the super luxury Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in Switzerland, under the leadership of Managing Director Richard Leuenberger, launched a plant-based dining experience created by acclaimed Michelin Chef Zineb Hattab. One of their 11 restaurants, KLE Palace went totally animal product-free for five weeks. “A plant-based restaurant in a prestigious setting such as Badrutt’s Palace Hotel highlights the current popularity of upscale plant-based cuisine.

Success lies in delivering top-notch quality and attracting individuals eager to explore novel flavours. Seemingly simple dishes like a crispy tostada, poached pears, and toasted sunflower seeds can unexpectedly transform into memorable highlights of the dining experience,” says Hattab. In the past, before vegan became trendy, restaurant menus were boring. Not anymore. Plant based inventions that spell creamy, cheesy, crunchy and comfort have made dining more exciting for the ethical diner.

“The idea that vegan based dishes cannot taste great is so yesterday,” chuckles Tashyaa Mehrotra, Head Chef at People of Tomorrow. The international vegan experience is expanding with novel spins. Dubai-based chef Jitin Joshi is known for presenting little-known regional Indian dishes with a vegan twist. “Our Benarasi tamatar chaat made with heirloom tomatoes and vinegar-toasted cumin dressing is popular with customers. Another street food-inspired chaat is Sakarkandi chaat made with ash cooked sweet potatoes and mixed with chana (black gram) and avocado. We serve it with sweet potato crisps,” he shares.

For travellers bitten by the home food bug, Joshi says lentils provide comfort and warmth. “We’ve rajma-chawal which is a staple North Indian dish eaten with white rice,” he says. The Kind Roastery and Brewroom in Bengaluru is India’s first coffee roastery with a large vegan menu. “Sharing food is a universal language that brings people together and fosters a sense of community and connection. Vegan comfort food here inspires meaningful interactions and shared experiences. By offering diverse and flavourful plant-based options, we ensure that everyone can find something delicious to enjoy, regardless of their dietary choices,” sums up Pallavii Gupta, Founder.

Sustainable, ethical, healthier are nouns that describe plant-based food. But it is complicated. Superfoods have become a cult, promoted by dieticians and food conglomerates. Ironically, many of these are ancient ingredients in the Ayurvedic influence in traditional Indian kitchens. The hypocrisy of mock meats is more market-driven than an ethical compromise since multinational fast food chains found they couldn’t depend only on meat in their burgers to make a profit.

There are contrarians too, like Manoshi Bhattacharya who believes that plant-based food doesn’t necessarily equal total health, since vegetarians must eat more than non-vegetarians to reach an equal protein intake. “I would like to add that not all plant-based alternatives are ‘healthy’. If they are highly processed or have preservatives or additives, then they do not fit the bill for us,” says Ramasubramanian.

The theory that highly recommended plant-based food items come with a legacy of ill health: for example there is wheat in pani puri, and rice in bhel puri; both have a bad rep for gluten and excess carbohydrates. In India where cardiac diseases and diabetes are major health concerns, vegetarians can get their plant protein from white mushrooms, paneer (not for vegans, please), peanuts, tofu and tempeh, which have no carbs or gluten. The argument is that 100 gm of raw lentils hold 20 gm of protein, but also 46 gm of carbohydrates, which turn into an equal amount of glucose. In comparison, 100 gm of raw meat has 20 gm of protein and nearly 80 per cent water.

Is the new avatar of vegetarianism here to stay? Being a less rigid and accommodating diet, it could even flourish. When Vivekananda asked his master Ramakrishna, “Shall I give up meat?”, the answer was, “Why should you give up anything? It will give you up.” Do not give up anything in nature. Make it so hot for nature that she will give you up. Through climate change, people are making it hot for themselves. Going by the results, plants look the best option for survival.

Bean There, Grown That

What?

Regional Indian cuisines have predominantly been plant-based by default—from the humble idli, dosa, appam and idiyappam to fruits, vegetables, dal-chawal, rotis and poha. With evolving food preferences, however, there has been a demand for plant-based foods that ape a good chicken-based dish or dairy. There are two types of plant-based food:

Processed

Includes vegan chicken nuggets, vegan mutton kebabs, plant-based cheese, plant-based ghee alternatives, etc

Unprocessed or Whole

Includes vegetables, fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, seeds, nuts and whole grains like wheat

Why?

Environmental sustainability: require less water and land compared to animal-based foods

Health benefits: A whole food plant-based food diet is rich in nutrients, fiber and antioxidants; can help prevent lifestyle disorders such as diabetes (type 2), hyperthyroidism, blood pressure and PCOS

Ethics: Avoids animal cruelty and reduces human impact on wildlife habitats

Affordability: Naturally occurring plant-based foods are often less expensive than animal-based foods, making them more accessible to people with limited incomes

Prevent pandemics: As per a United Nations report, 60% of infectious diseases known to affect humans have an animal origin

How?

Science and technology has enabled researchers to come up with plant-based alternatives that mimic the texture and taste of meat, dairy and poultry. Plant based alternatives can be derived from three ways:

Plant-based food processing: Includes artificial meat produced by using ingredients derived from plants. The applications are the same as animal-based meat—in salads, curries, burgers, finger food, and gourmet dishes. There are also plant-based replacements for dairy products including milk, curd, yogurt, cheese, butter, cream and ghee. For example, aquafaba, the leftover water from boiling chickpeas, can be used as a creamer for desserts

Fermentation: Microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria are used to ferment plant-based ingredients to create plant-based cheeses and meat. These can be consumed directly and are delicious, sustainable and nutritious

Cultivated or cell-based: This technology involves culturing animal cells in a lab to create meat alternatives, without the need for animal slaughter. The ‘meat’ is artificially produced by cultivating a small sample of animal cells taken via non-invasive methods

Plant-based meat alternatives

Black beans: These are most commonly consumed as burger patties. These are not just a rich source of protein but also fibre and antioxidants

Tofu: A significantly lighter alternative to chicken and beef. Its versatile nature lends itself to salads, curries, bakes, grills and fries

Lupin: A protein-rich legume, its fermented beans can be consumed as kebabs, sausages or cutlets which feel and taste like chicken meat

Soy Protein: A well known source of protein among vegetarians. Consumed as nuggets, chunks or in minced form

Jackfruit: Considered a meat alternative because of its stretchy and chewy texture. Recipes are like meat dishes

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