What’s on India’s plate?


12 Sep 2021



VS Kannan Sitaram

What’s on <span>India’s plate?</span>

An exploratory new world… with internet access.

In millennial India, Rujuta Diwekar, with 25 lakh followers on Facebook and Instagram, is the Goddess of Good. Every day, as we contemplate pet pooja, we read her posts on what is good to eat, when it is good to eat it, how little or how much of it we need, and everything else governing what’s on our plate. She’s not alone, either. There’s Pooja Makhija, Goddess of Nutrition, who promises to rebuild your faith in food, and is followed by about 4 lakh Facebookers and Instagrammers. There’s Seattle-based Richa Hingle, Goddess of Veganism, sharing flavourful plant-based Indian-inspired recipes – including aloo gobi and baked onion pakodas – with over 13 lakh followers on Facebook and Instagram. And so on.

It’s this pantheon of influencers and experts that is guiding today’s consumers as they make choices for themselves, their homes, and their families. They’re posting, Instagramming and tweeting their ideas and knowledge. The same consumers also turn to friends and family – on WhatsApp, of course, for advice ranging from whether jaggery is better than sugar, or dark chocolate preferable to milk. Food choices are being revisited, as they never have been before, sparking off worldwide and India-wide trends, reshaping the food industry.

So much has changed.

The big villains are, of course, sugar, salt, fat and empty carbs. So now, in many urban homes, bread is homemade or from a boutique baker, as are, indeed, many baked goods that used to come out of a grocery bag. The bread, of course, is multigrain, sprinkled with sunflower seeds perhaps, because, as we all know, maida-based white bread is, well, toast! Brown sugar, honey and jaggery are replacing white sugar. Roasted snacks are eating up fried ones.

We are also looking for cleaner products, greater nutrient density, and bio-compatibility. So now our grocery list contains dark chocolate, protein powders, A2 milk, ghee (welcome back, we’ve missed you!), virgin and cold-pressed oils, red and brown rice, organic food, millets, quinoa, nuts, seeds, green tea, almond milk... a whole universe of new foods that are now replacing category mainstays.

These are disruptions we’ve been seeing for a while now, even before the pandemic struck – BCG did a 2019 study on changing consumer trends in India, which we summarised in this video. Key takeaways? Information-centred shopping. A full-on embrace of health and wellness. And the rise of the female decision-maker.

After all, this female decision-maker knows that food isn’t just nourishment, it’s also fuel for transformation, whether powered by do-good ingredients, or immunity-boosting effects. I would explain her motivations best as not just “less” XYZ, but “more” ABC.

Having said all of which, the Indian consumer simply will not compromise on taste. Foodpreneurs must continually innovate to ensure that the twin engines of taste and goodness are both firing on all cylinders.

A new wave of food trends.

Among the many emerging themes in this space, we at Fireside believe there are five that will reshape the Indian food industry over the next decade.

  1. Function, function, function: Functional foods that change the way the body functions. Indians are already comfortable with fermented foods like dahi, rich in probiotics. As more evidence accumulates about the importance of gut health for everyday wellbeing, more fermented foods will enter the Indian market. Can there be foods that help you sleep better or reduce your blood pressure or increase bone density?
  2. In brands we trust: The last few years have seen some erosion in consumer trust in large food brands as consumers discover that brands have not been truthful to them. Think of brands which sell products which are made of maida, which are fried, which are sugar rich, which are cooked in oils with trans fats- and have no hesitation in claiming health values. Trust in brands will be rebuilt, but will now be predicated on origin, transparency, and authenticity – sometimes even factors like local provenance. And brands that betray this trust will rapidly lose franchise in this WhatsApp world.
  3. Food for beauty: Skin and hair care cosmetics are increasingly relying on ingredients that you would find in your kitchen cabinets or in the fridge. Onion oil, turmeric face washes, pomegranate masks, coffee face scrubs…. because these natural products have active ingredients that are good for your skin and hair. It is then a short step for consumers to choose foods and beverages that have a strongly positive effect on your skin and hair. We believe that India will see several brands offering Food for Beauty solutions.
  4. Responsible consumption: As consumers we are concerned about what we eat and its impact on our health and our appearance. We are also increasingly concerned about the impact our consumption behaviour is having on the environment. And we will more and more prefer brands that actively promote responsible consumption: use less packaging, use recyclable packaging, ingredients sourced locally, believe in fair trade, and the like.
  5. Last, and not the least, we see the rise of meat-free diets: That’s a curious call in a country which has the largest vegetarian population in the world, where meat-eaters eat less meat than they would like to because of the cost of meat, where protein deficiency is very wide-spread... and where there are clear trends that point to more meat consumption as incomes rise.

That’s because we believe that this trend will be shaped by forces somewhat different to what has been seen in other cultures. Elsewhere in the world, a vegetarian/ vegan diet is a response to health issues, animal cruelty, the terrible conditions of the meat industry, and, more recently, carbon emissions. In India, we believe, the major driver will be the feeling of wellness a vegetarian diet leads to, a trend that is being shaped by celebrities. Tweeted Virat Kohli, some years back: “Being vegetarian now – I felt like, why didn’t I do it before? You start feeling better, you start thinking better, your body is lighter, you are more positive, you have energy to do more, so, overall it’s just been an amazing, amazing change.”

Joining him is Anushka Sharma, another celebrated vegetarian, as are Genelia and Riteish Deshmukh, who, by the way, just launched a 100% vegan, plant-based meat brand, Imagine Meats. The thing to note is that the move to vegetarianism is no longer about denial, about  vrats and ‘pooja days,’ it’s part of a completely positive, self-care movement. It makes you feel better! We believe the strongly positive association that this is generating for vegetarianism/ veganism in India is very powerful and will make this trend more mainstream. In fact, an Ipsos study reveals that 63% of Indians are already willing to try plant-based meat!

An F&B Expert’s View: Rinka Banerjee on Trends in Food


What else must change as these trends reshape food consumption in India?

Indigenous technology must develop that allows us to make the most of our resources, for instance, using locally-grown pea protein instead of importing it. That supports farm-level innovation and ingenuity to reduce cost and minimise waste. Much like technology has enabled aggregation for e-commerce players, is there an equally enabling application for Indian farmers? Processing technology is far too West-centric and assumes high levels of demand as high-quality equipment is still imported – local technology must evolve to enable efficient operations at the Indian scale of demand.

The burden of packaging on the environment must be dealt with. How do we balance the ease of e-commerce with the surplus of e-packaging? And of course, move to less packaging and recyclable packaging. In fact, how can we improve waste management practices at every level, whether in how we dispose of it, or how we reduce the amount of waste generated during production itself?

We need to develop reliable end-to-end cold chains so that food wastage is minimised and freshness is maximised. Agronomical practices need to move on to reduce dramatically the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides

As India’s entrepreneurs innovate to fill in white spaces in F&B to serve and delight a generation of woke consumers, perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves as a community is what we as investors and entrepreneurs are doing to help create a change for the better. As always, we’d love to hear your ideas and responses to this blog – as well as your thoughts about the future of the food industry. Thanks for reading!

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