Mock meat unlikely solution for Indians

Shagun speaks with food critics and nutrition experts to understand whether Indians need mock meat and other plant-based alternatives or if the food industry is just promoting these for profit

By Shagun
Published: Friday 01 December 2023
Representational Photo from iStock_

academic, food critic and historian
“Mock meat demand created by the market”



For millennia, Indians have sustained themselves on a plant-based diet, a legacy deeply rooted in our rich culinary heritage. In the northern regions of the subcontinent, roti, made from wheat, millets, or corn, serves as the staple grain, while in the southern regions, rice or millets take centre stage, providing nourishment. Our traditional cooking medium has always been plant-based, relying on cold-pressed oils derived from plants like mustard, sesame and coconut. Even our sweetening, souring, colouring, and flavouring agents are drawn from the plant kingdom.

It is no exaggeration to say that, with the exception of a small minority, the Indian masses have historically adhered to a diet that was not only vegetarian but also largely vegan and organic. This explains why buzzwords such as “plant-based” and “vegan” have left many of us feeling confused.

While it is true that not every Indian was a vegetarian, and some did include meat, fish or poultry in their diets — especially those living in forests or along coastlines — the foundation of Indian cuisine has always been grains, legumes, lentils and seasonal vegetables such as squashes, eggplants and yams. These ingredients provide balanced meals that blend flavours with nutrients. The wisdom of Ayurveda has permeated Indian kitchens, ensuring that our diets are aligned with seasonal and regional appropriateness.

No one in India ever felt the need for mock meats or plant-based milks. The emerging trend of plant-based alternatives is driven by marketing tactics employed by food industry giants seeking to capture the vast Indian market. Nutritionists, often complicit in this agenda, contribute to the hype by rediscovering “superfoods,” primarily imported cereals and seeds. Advertisers relentlessly bombard us with subliminal messages, stirring desires for aspirational foods, often highly processed junk, that are a part of the modern lifestyle. Peer group pressure intensifies this vicious cycle.

One can almost pinpoint the moment when this shift began — the entry of the Golden Arches (McDonald’s) into India and the reintroduction of once-expelled fizzy colas. McDonald’s, KFC and Domino’s soon realised that meaty patties or toppings of forbidden meats would not propel sales on the subcontinent. This is what gave birth to the indirect strategy of conquering the market with mock meats and plant-based proteins.

In recent years, fortified foods and extruded vegetable snacks have launched an assault on Indian staples like dalia, poha and others. So far, idli-dosa, momo, litti chokha and chila have struck back, mocking the mock meats, breakfast cereals and oats that flooded the market. We must, however, remain vigilant. The fight to preserve our culinary heritage and dietary practices is far from over.

Food historian and physician 
“Meat a healthier protein source than plants”



Our food consists of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. While carbohydrates and fats provide energy for our bodies, proteins are essential for continuous tissue repair and growth.

In India, the high prevalence of diabetes and heart disease necessitates careful consideration of protein sources. While plant proteins are a valuable source of essential nutrients, they often accompany a substantial amount of carbohydrates. These carbohydrates resemble table sugar in their metabolic effects and eventually break down into glucose. For example, a 100-g portion of raw lentils delivers 20 g of protein but also contains 46 g of carbohydrates, which eventually convert into an equal amount of glucose. In comparison, 100 g of raw meat contains 20 g of protein, a little fat and close to 80 per cent water.

For individuals with diabetes or prediabetes, consuming large quantities of plant foods could be det-rimental. Therefore, non-vegetarian patients are advised to obtain their proteins from animal sources. The other challenge is that vegetarians need to consume more quantities of food to meet their protein needs compared to non-vegetarians. Despite the carbohydrate concerns, there are several excellent plant pro-tein sources available to vegetarians. White mushrooms, for example, provide 20 g of protein per 666 g of raw weight and contain a relatively low 15 g of carbohydrates. Other good options include paneer (125 g delivers 20 g of protein and 27.5 g of carbohydrates), peanuts (100 g provides 25 g of protein and 12 g of carbohydrates), and tofu or its fer-mented version, tempeh (100 g offers 17.3–20 g of protein and up to 7.64 g of carbohydrates).

In India, mock meats made from plant-based ingredients are gaining popularity. These products are still under development and not yet included in the US Department of Agriculture’s nutrition database. However, Beyond Meat, a mock meat producer, claims that every 100 g of their product provides 17.7 g of protein, 15.93 g of fat, and 2.62 g of carbohydrates.

Seitan, a wheat protein isolate, has been produced in China since the 6th century. While it is high in protein, its ultra-processed nature makes it difficult to digest.

Laboratory-grown meat is a new concept that involves growing meat tissue from animal cells. This approach is still in the developmental stage, but it holds promise for providing a cruelty-free alternative to conventional meat with similar nutritional value.

The environmental impact of food choices is a complex issue. While the popular belief is that a plant-based diet is better for the environment, a recent study in Nature Ecology & Evolution suggests that in-tensive land use in pre-Columbian America led to greater deforestation than modern cattle farming prac-tices.

The best dietary choices are those that align with individual health needs. By educating themselves about various protein sources and their nutritional implications, people can make informed decisions.

Associate professor of cattle biology at Cornell University, New York
“Make animal production green, not ditch it”



The climate crisis is the “biggest threat modern humans have ever faced,” as said by naturalist David Attenborough. But who is to blame? Is it the wealthiest 1 per cent, who contribute more than double the emissions of the poorest 50 per cent? Or is it the energy and industry sectors, which produce over half of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? Not quite. Humans often point the finger at a much more sinister culprit: the cow. In an attempt to lower nitrogen emissions, the Netherlands has decided to reduce livestock numbers. Reports advocating for switching from meat and milk to plant-based alternatives to reduce GHG emissions are a common occurrence.

The comparison of Global Warming Potential per kg of food promotes the belief that plant-based foods are more environmentally friendly when compared to animal-sourced foods. However, we must consider the nutrient density of foods, which refers to the amount of nutrients per calorie of food. We can also consider nutrient density in relation to GHG emissions generated by the food production system using lifecycle assessment methodologies. Milk contains essential amino acids (or proteins), lactose, saturated fat and calcium, along with many other minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and B vitamins. Many plant-based milk alternatives have low levels or lack these key nutrients.

Another argument often presented is that plant and animal proteins are equivalent. However, this view does not consider the protein quality required by the human body. A review for Food Research International says that the lower digestibility of plant proteins, relative to animal proteins, also deserves consideration.

In India and the US, a part of the population experiences deficiencies in specific nutrients, including quality protein, heme iron (plants have non-heme iron, which is less bioavailable), or vitamins B6 and B12. These deficiencies may contribute to low birthweight, stunting in children, or sarcopenia later in adulthood. Designing plant-based alternatives to animal-sourced foods cannot be done on the basis of single nutrient substitution but requires consideration of nutrient interactions and their relative digestibility and bioavailability.

Domestic cattle are going to remain a part of the global landscape, and meat and milk will remain part of human diets. The good news is that scientists are work- ing to identify innovative practices that reduce nutrient waste and GHG emissions on farms. Animal agriculture aims to be sustainable and remain a pillar of our global food system. In turn, farmers will conti- nue to serve as stewards of our land and cattle will continue to contribute to our survival.

This was first published in the 1-15 December, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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