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How Ready Are We For a Transition Into Plant-Based Diets

May 8, 2021 2:10 PM 4 min read

Not all of us can lay claim to religious veganism as much as Joaquin Phoenix, but we aim to understand the rising significance of shedding animal meat and dairy products for a better world. 

Be it to prevent animal cruelty, build sustainable supply chains or promote eco-friendly diets, the world is sure witnessing a rising momentum towards vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets, and with it, an outbreak of businesses catering to these alternative needs in food. 

Let's see how the plant-based food (and dairy) industry is doing these days. 

The Plant Kingdom

Note that the term "plant-based" points towards a broader definition of sources clubbing not just plant proteins but also plant extracts, carbohydrates, botanicals etc. With increased diversification, these alternatives are beginning to resemble traditional animal products in blend, flavour and texture. 

Take Nestle's Garden Gourmet brand, for instance. This is a company that has been investing vigorously in plant-based meat and milk analogs lately. Last year, Nestle generated sales of close to $223m from plant-based offerings alone and clocked double-digit growth in the segment. Beyond Meat, a popular plant-based burger brand, went public on Nasdaq in 2019 at a valuation of $1.5bn which swung up to $13bn in just under three months! 

Moving on to faux dairy. Nestle is beginning to catch up to its European rivals like Danone and Lactalis here as well by launching a new pea-based milk brand. In fact, Unilever, the world's largest ice-cream supplier, is also adding non-dairy options to its portfolio consistently.

One of the factors that has driven the global dairy alternative market is rising levels of lactose intolerance (at least 65% globally). Add to that concerns regarding calorie excess, obesity, hypercholesterolemia etc. This is where plant derivatives come in handy with interesting options like soy, coconut, almond, rice, hemp, flax etc. In addition to dairy-free options in yogurts, desserts, spreads and cheese. 

There are also other incentives to ditch dairy especially for professional sportspersons, when one realises the adverse effects milk causes, like mucus production which then leads to inflammation and prolonged recovery cycles. Olympian Dotsie Bausch explains how critical milk-affected oxidative stress can be to an athlete's body as she urges people to reconsider their dairy diets "unless they are baby cows". 

Daring to Look Past Dairy

Choice in beverages depends on two things primarily - health and convenience. Rapid increases in purchasing power and increased consumer awareness towards health, fitness and climate risks have become the most significant drivers of demand for dairy substitutes. 

Secondly, improved accessibility of products has also received a boost from online retail deliveries through players like Amazon, Vegan Online, Goodness Direct etc. 

Companies have also begun to develop novel hybrid samples for those who are still beholden to their love for milk, especially when consumers don't mind spending as much as $60 on three pints of non-vegan ice-cream, as long as it boasts a certain value-added character. 

Although plant-based diets have been criticised often for their inability to meet dietary protein requirements, it would be grossly overselling not to admit that animal protein diets are hideously insufficient as well. Studies have shown how it takes 21 pounds of protein fed to a cow to make just one pound of protein for people who consume it later. 

And then we have climate imperatives which have singularly steered consumer choices in recent days towards eco-friendlier options. Release of methane from livestock has been long associated with increase in greenhouse gases (14.5% globally). Cattle is reported to be responsible for a massive 62% of the total emissions contributed by the food industry. It is also estimated that land use and water consumption in animal farming could be highly minimised by opting for substitutes. 

One must also consider the long-distance food supply chains and their sustainability, which was particularly affected during this pandemic. Plant-based consumption chains are easier to localise compared to animals. 

To be fair, it is important to acknowledge price fluctuations in the alternative industry too. Most of the raw materials used in non-dairy are nuts and edible grains which are largely allocated for direct consumption rather than processing. But this can be solved eventually with agricultural expansion. 


White Revolution 2.0

Indians are traditionally believed to be vegetarian. But given India's status in the Global Hunger Index (94 among 107 nations, as of 2020), its nutrition policies have always edged towards maximised nutrient intakes, which are cheaply and conveniently available from animal sources.


The $25m-large plant-based beverage market in India is nascent compared to the $140m-large dairy industry. But it is slowly gaining ground. The market is a mix of by foreign (Hershey's, Borges, Life Health Food) and domestic (Raw Pressery, Nature Vit, Drums Food, Urban Platter) brands. 

The Economic Times reports an expected growth rate of 25-30% annually in the industry. But there are many crinkles on its path towards growth, mostly regulatory crinkles. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) still prevents non-dairy products to be termed "milk", reserving its use for cow and buffalo milk exclusively. 

There is also an uneven taxation regime. The GST on plant-based dairy is currently at 18-20% as compared to 5% for dairy. 

Pricing difference remains the biggest obstacle to marketability and growth of non-dairy products in India. In addition, the challenge to overturn the palate and consumption patterns of set-in-their-ways Indian households can't be undermined. But brands are constantly experimenting with products by adding raw alternatives or boosting sales through subscription-based retailing etc. 

With these factors in play, it looks like we're heading towards a beeline in non-dairy farms at some time in the future. Which is a relief because if it occurred in dairy farms instead, it would lead to udder chaos. ;) 


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