Plant-based meat is here to stay

Mumbai-based Blue Tribe Foods, just about six months old, already has a couple of plant-based meat products in the market, with more on the way. With restaurants and chefs showing interest, India’s sustainable foods market looks all set for rapid growth.

With concerns around environmental impact growing as climate change threatens our very way of life, there has been a noticeable shift towards more sustainable practices when it comes to food production. Several prevalent methods, especially in the meat industry, account for a large portion of the planet’s green house gas emissions. Consequently, there has been a concerted effort to replace traditional meat with lab-grown and plant-derived alternatives. While this trend has been sweeping the West for a few years now, in India, we’re just about catching up. Blue Tribe Foods is a Mumbai-based start-up that has ventured into this field with a couple of products already available in the market.

Chicken nuggets
Look just like the real thing, don’t they? But these chicken nuggets are made from a mix of pea and soybean protein.

We caught up with Sohil Wazir, Chief Commercial Officer, Blue Tribe Foods, to talk about how their plant-derived mock meat is poised to usher in a sustainable, healthy and nutritious alternative to traditional meat.

Blue Tribe Foods was founded by Sandeep Singh and Nikki Arora Singh towards the end of 2020. The products are made from peas and soybeans, with the help of a process called low-moisture protein extrusion. “The idea is to recreate the texture, bite and flavour of meat, even in how it cooks. This process extracts the protein from the plant products and gives it the texture of meat. It’s basically reverse engineering, where we figure which product has what kind of texture, and then replicate those characteristics using different plant proteins. For instance, our chicken kheema is made from soybean protein, while the chicken nuggets are made from a mix of pea and soybean protein. It all depends on the kind of texture we want to end up with. But that’s obviously not the entirety of the characteristics of meat. We also add vegetable fat and other flavourings to recreate the exact smell, taste and texture of meat. The chicken nuggets, for example, are ready to cook with onion and garlic flavourings added to the mix already, whereas the kheema replicates raw chicken, and has been formulated accordingly,” says Sohil.

Sohil wazir blue tribe foods
Sohil Wazir, Chief Commercial Officer at Blue Tribe Foods, says that the entire plant-based meat sector needs to be put under a well-defined category, so as to make conducting business easier.

The testing and R&D is done at Blue Tribe Foods’ own lab, headed by Dr Navneet Deora, the Chief Technology Officer, while the production is done by OSI Group’s Vista Foods, contract manufacturers who are allied with big chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King and ITC. “We formulate the recipe and source the ingredients, while the production is handled by the contract manufacturer. We don’t source the crop from the farmer directly yet, what we get is the texturised vegetable protein, which is the format we need for our products. This is sourced from several companies, all of whom naturally have non-GMO certificates and other sustainability certificates in place.”

Within just about six months of operations, Blue Tribe Foods already has chicken nuggets and chicken kheema available in the market. Next up, there are several other products in the pipeline including chicken sausages, mutton kheema, mutton kebabs, chicken burger patties and boneless chicken chunks.

Chicken kheema
Blue Tribe Foods’ chicken kheema is made from soybean protein and also contains essential micronutrients usually present in meat.

There are a few challenges to be surmounted though, not just for Blue Tribe Foods but the entire plant-based meat sector.

One major hurdle is finding packaging that can both withstand temperatures that are frozen foods are usually exposed to and at the same time, not have a negative impact on the environment. While a suitable solution hasn’t been found yet, the search continues.

Another major challenge, as with any business, is policy. The biggest problem that the plant-based meat sector is facing is of categorisation. Sohil explains, “Plant-based meat is not a defined category yet. This makes several issues especially related to taxation rather complex. Every player in the segment is conducting business depending on their interpretation of what category plant-based meat falls into. What we need is a well-defined system with the same rules applicable as to any other food industry categories.”

And naturally, for a new innovation such as plant-based meat, it’s crucial for the audience to understand and accept the product. The best way to spread awareness and educate the market, especially in this case, is through on-ground tastings and samplings. But with the pandemic playing spoilsport, these sorts of initiatives will have to wait for the moment. Thankfully, among the biggest drivers of opinion in the F&B industry, restaurants and chefs, have shown interest in Blue Tribe’s products, including the reputed Chef Thomas Zacharias. Hopefully, with support coming in from trusted quarters, acceptance across the market would be swift.

Going ahead, Blue Tribe Foods wants to establish an entire range of plant-based meat products that will allow meat eaters to switch to this sustainable lifestyle. “We want to offer meat eaters an opportunity to substitute or reduce their meat intake with our products. And while taste is the crucial factor here, we also add all the necessary micronutrients that are present in meat. So, the idea is to have plant-based meat that tastes like the real thing and at the same time, provides the consumer with all the necessary nutrition.”

Blue Tribe Foods is currently present in nine cities – Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kochi and Chennai, where customers can directly order on Blue Tribe Foods’ website. It’s also tied up with several national chains such as Nature’s Basket and Foodhall, among others, while talks are on with Amazon and Big Basket.

It’s a long road ahead to change our food habits and consequently, reduce the impact on the environment. Plant-based meat has quickly emerged as one of the champions of sustainable food practices and although still in its nascent stages, it definitely is a significant step in the right direction.

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