In the food space around the world there takes place a different kind of development which is the emergence of plant-based meats. Promoted as a healthier, more eco-friendly alternative to actual meat, these new meats are at a faster pace taking over space on restaurant menus and grocery shelves in the USA and Europe.
In india, the people to announce their venture into this space are actors Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh who are launching their company, Imagine Meats, this week. It has been in progress for the last one year, the first product is expected to roll out by the fourth quarter of the year.
In an exclusive interview with indianexpress.com, the couple speaks about their journey to creating plant-based meat alternatives for the Indian market.
Why have you decided to venture into the alternative, plant-based meat space?
Genelia Deshmukh: Four years ago, when we turned vegetarian, for us, vegetarian food only meant potatoes and paneer. We got used to it slowly. Realizing the fact that we didn’t really miss meat, but just the taste of it. Riteish, especially, missed it. So we started to ponder upon if there was a way for us to do all the right things for animals, for the environment, but also get the taste of meat. And then last year, we went to the Good Food Conference in the USA and we were awestruck that this idea which we had, had already been worked on so much all over the world. That’s when we started working on our idea more deeply and now we’re nearly approaching the completion stage.
Riteish Deshmukh: For people turning vegetarian, it’s quite easy switch back to eating non-vegetarian food. Genelia is someone who believes that non-vegetarian food isn’t for her and she chose the vegetarian lifestyle. But I’m a little different; I’m a vegetarian — almost a vegan — but I do crave meat. I feel like eating chicken biryani, or a burger, but when we went to the USA, we were exposed to a lot of plant-based meats. Genelia took one of those burgers, minced it and made kheema out of it and we had it with pav. It tasted just like kheema pav and I realised I don’t need meat. It was the perfect kheema that I had craved this last 2-3 years. This is how our journey started.
There have been meat replacements before like soya nuggets etc, which most meat eaters view as a poor substitute for the real thing. How is the plant-based meat experience different?
GD: We had thrown a party where we served this keema to our non-vegetarian friends, to see whether the taste would feel any different to them, or whether they would accept it as meat. We didn’t reveal it was (plant-based meat). And nobody could make the difference. Personally, I have never enjoyed soya nuggets etc, because I can feel the difference.
In India, there are a lot of specified days when people don’t eat meat. For example, with the arrival of Shravan, there will be a lot of non-vegetarians who will wait for those 30 days to be over. Or take Navratri. We also have a lot of vegetarian friends who are curious about meat. So there is space for alternative meats, if rolled out well. We will also give people the opportunity to experiment with their own flavours.
RD: Right now there’s a lot of focus on the Western style of eating and it’s mostly in the burger-eating space. And we are not a burger-eating nation, although we do like consuming burgers. So we were looking at developing products like chicken tikkas, kebabs etc. We have right now collaborated with (American food processing company) ADM. Their in-house food scientists have worked through Covid and the lockdown to come up with what we want, which is not the staple kind of taste that they are catering to. Of course, in the future, we will engage with our own food scientists, but currently we want to go with what we think is best for the product.
What kind of products do you aim at launching?
RD: We would like to remain tight-lipped about that, but four-six products will be launched in phases. It will of course, cater to the Indian palate, so we’re aiming at things like seekh kebabs, chicken tikka, lamb keema, chicken keema. These are the priorities.
When do you expect to introduce the first product?
RD: We were going to put it out earlier, but let’s see how fast we can go with everything right now. Hopefully, by quarter four this year.
There are some health concerns about plant-based meats, notably the high salt content. How do you plan to resolve that?
RD: People love consuming meat because of how it feels in their mouth and if you’re choosing to eat meat, we want to provide a healthier option at your fingertips. Of course, there will be major concerns like high salt content etc., but it’s a process. There will be version 1, followed by version 2. We’ll keep upgrading our products with each passing year.
GD: It’s definitely something that doesn’t contain cholesterol, and generally cholesterol is only found in animal products. There are a lot of people who want to reduce their carbon footprint, they want to adopt sustainable living. I know people who are eating meat and who want to make that switch, whether it’s being a flexitarian or a vegetarian. There are people who are keen to consume meat twice a week, but they want to do it the right way. So this is obviously suited as a better option, given everything that goes on with the meat industry — the water, the slaughterhouses, the gases.
One could debate on the fact that in India we don’t consume meat on the scale that the USA does. So why does it make sense to launch plant-based meats here?
GD: Assuming that we are a more vegetarian country but at the Good Food Institute we learnt that 70 per cent of the population consist of non-vegetarians. There’s also a large section comprising of “guilty” meat eaters, who wouldn’t eat at home but will eat out, for whatever reasons it maybe. They can take plant-based meat at home and cook it.
RD: It is not about changing everyone. This is a new market, it’s a niche and emerging market. Of course, there is a future where everyone thinks of plant-based food, and it’s fantastic. But no way is smooth and there will be challenges now. What I’m trying to say is that there are many who eat meat, and maybe instead of eating it five times, they could try eating this twice a week. It’s better for you, and it tastes the same.