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Smart protein trends and predictions for 2024
Saturday, 06 January, 2024, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Sneha Singh
In the rapidly evolving landscape of the food industry, 'smart protein' is fast emerging as a revolutionary sector. Smart protein (also called alternative protein globally) is a pioneering food category that provides viable alternatives to animal-derived meat, eggs, and dairy, with vastly better implications for food security, public health, and planetary health. Smart protein has the potential to transform our food system, nourish our people, and renew the environment that gives us sustenance. As we look ahead, 2024 promises to be a year where smart protein takes centre stage in India—with approximately 113 startups actively innovating in plant-based, fermented, and cultivated proteins, supported by a network of over 100 companies, the sector is on the cusp of a major breakthrough.
 
The acceptance of ‘smart protein’
India has often used “smart” as a prefix in the name of policies, plans and projects to indicate renewal toward a future that is more efficient, sustainable, technologically advanced, and, thereby, smart. In recent years, many government agencies have prioritised the growth and development of smart protein across multiple sectors, including research and development (R&D), exports, talent development, and manufacturing. This was seen at its most impactful in 2023—with APEDA, MoFPI, FICCI, DST, DBT-BIRAC, and Invest India, among others, working closely with the smart protein ecosystem across all three modalities. This reflects a forward-thinking approach to address the evolving needs of the food industry and global sustainability concerns, and with the Department of Biotechnology (Government of India) instituting a sectorial committee on ‘smart proteins’, there is increased optimism that this momentum will continue, with the expectation of dedicated funds being allocated to support the sector.
 
Indigenous meets innovation
Following the spotlight on millets in 2023, 2024 promises to usher in a wave of innovation with novel ingredients and indigenous crops in the smart protein sector. Besides climate-hardy crops like millets, legumes, and pulses, mycoprotein, a highly researched plant-based protein, stands out for its ability to address micronutrient deficiencies and match animal proteins in nutritional value. Algae-based products are another area to watch. With their potential as a sustainable food source and their wealth of nutritionally valuable compounds, algae are on the brink of a breakthrough. India, with its favourable geographical and climatic conditions, is poised to become a key player in the cultivation of microalgae and seaweed. Technological innovation is the linchpin in this narrative, and 2024 could be the year we see these innovations bear fruit.
 
Tech-powered future of food
In 2024, the alternative protein industry in India is set to leap forward with AI and 3D printing technologies leading the charge. AI advancements, as seen in GreenProtein AI and Climax Foods Inc., are redefining plant-based meat production, creating products that rival traditional animal proteins in taste and texture. Then there's 3D printing, which goes beyond just texture and taste. Imagine a world where food production is not only sustainable but also has the capability to precisely meet dietary preferences and nutritional requirements, thanks to the precision of 3D food printing. With institutions like NIFTEM-Thanjavur leading research and development in this domain, 2024 is poised to witness significant advancements in 3D food printing, particularly in creating alternatives to animal-derived products that cater to the diverse palate of the Indian consumer.
 
Expanding geographies
Collaboration seems to be the buzzword for 2024. Companies like Shaka Harry, Evoled Foods, and Blue Tribe Foods, along with Plantaway, GoodDot, and Greenest, have emphasised the need to move away from working in silos, and are increasingly entering HoReCa and B2B associations to take plant-based alternatives to a broader audience. This trend will be a key driver in an industry poised to burgeon to a staggering $4.2 billion by 2030. Amidst this exciting evolution, the FMCG giants are not far behind. Nestlé, joining the ranks of ITC and Tata Consumer Products, is gearing up to introduce a range of plant-based products tailored for the Indian palate. With government bodies like APEDA supporting the export ambitions of startups like Wakao, Greenest, Shaka Harry, and BVeg, we may also witness a surge in plant-based exports—poised to reach a whopping INR 6,824 crore by 2030.
 
P(l)awsible change
Even the pet food industry is catching up with the plant-based phenomenon. As the amount of pet parents increases and sustainability becomes a priority for them, the demand for plant-based pet products is also witnessing a surge. Leading this change are innovative brands like Pawsible Foods, which utilise innovative fermentation techniques to convert mushroom by-products into high-value mycoprotein that is palatable for pets. Similarly, Cleen.PET is redefining pet nutrition with its focus on cleen plant/fungi-based protein.
 
The promise of precision fermentation
Nearly 65 per cent of precision fermentation companies are focused on creating dairy proteins. Globally, 136 companies are focused on fermentation technologies. Additionally, another 100 businesses, including giants like Nestlé and Unilever, have a vertical in alternative protein fermentation. While Indian companies like Phyx44 and Zero Cow Factory are spearheading the precision fermentation-based milk protein innovation in India, India’s inherent biomanufacturing capabilities can witness several new entrants in the sector.
 
Keeping it real (and) clean
By incorporating high-quality plant-based ingredients, manufacturers can offer products that not only align with the ethical and environmental values of modern consumers but are also healthier. This approach is particularly relevant in India, where there is a cultural predilection for plant-forward diets. As such, we can expect a surge in products that boast of 'clean labels,' emphasising natural ingredients and fewer additives, which will cater to the informed and health-aware Indian consumer. This trend is likely to drive innovation in the food industry, with a focus on developing products that are both nutritious and aligned with the principles of sustainability and wellness.
 
Plant-powered performances
As the world gears up for the 2024 Summer Olympics, there's more than just athletic prowess on display—we're set to witness a surge in real-life examples of plant-based diets in sports. Additionally, building on the momentum generated by the 2018 documentary "The Gamechangers," the Olympics' partnership with Nestlé-owned Garden Gourmet promises to spotlight plant-based diets' role in high-energy performances. This initiative aligns with the Olympics' ambitious goal to halve carbon emissions by doubling plant-based food offerings, and we can expect to see plant-based diets taking centre stage not only at the Olympics, but in sports nutrition discussions too.

(The author is acting managing director, The Good Food Institute India)
 
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