27 April 2024


An Industry on a Mission to Make the World Vegan


The plant-based diet is the 'in' thing as the world embraces veganism on a scale never seen before. Once considered a fringe lifestyle, veganism is slowly taking centre stage on the global dietary map, and that's good for the planet. With an estimated 1.4 billion population, India, the land of original vegetarians, holds immense promise for a food habit that is expected to take on climate change in a big way.


Mr Santhosh Stephen, Managing Director, Symega Food Ingredients Ltd, is an industry veteran who has spent years at the helm of the Kochi-based company. He takes us through the fascinating world of the plant-based food industry where science, technology, and nature merge and innovation is the buzzword. Excerpts from the interview:

What’s the size of the Indian plant-based food industry and how fast is it growing? Household-wise, how deep is the market penetration?

The Indian plant-based food industry is witnessing robust growth, reflecting changing consumer preferences towards healthier and more sustainable food choices. While precise figures vary, estimates suggest that the market is expanding at an average CAGR of 9% from 2023 to 2030, with significant potential for further growth. Market penetration at the household level is increasing steadily, driven by factors such as health consciousness, environmental concerns, and ethical considerations.


What are the key challenges to the plant-based alternatives market in India?

The major challenges to the plant-based alternatives market in India include

  • Limited awareness and accessibility – many people in India are still unaware of the wide range of options available or the benefits of incorporating more plant-based foods into their diets. Access to these products can be limited, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas where traditional diets still dominate.
  • Affordability concerns are a significant barrier for many consumers considering plant-based alternatives, especially when compared to cheaper animal-based products.
  • Regulatory barriers pose challenges for companies operating in the plant-based food space. From labeling requirements to food safety standards, navigating the regulatory landscape can be complex and time-consuming. Clear and consistent regulations that support the growth of the plant-based industry while ensuring consumer safety are essential for fostering innovation and market development.
  • Plant-based alternatives must not only taste great but also offer variety, nutritional value and convenience. That requires continuous innovation in product development in tune with the evolving consumer preferences and dietary needs.

Is the rapidly growing sector able to cope with the demand for natural resources?

The rapidly growing sector is indeed facing challenges in coping with the demand for natural resources. Even today, a major chunk of raw materials is sourced from China, largely due to cost factors. Sustainable sourcing practices, technological innovations, and collaborations across the value chain are essential to mitigate these challenges and ensure long-term viability.

When it comes to innovative and cost-effective technologies where does India stand? How easy is it for the Indian players to access technology?

India is increasingly recognized for its innovative and cost-effective technologies in various sectors, including food processing. Access to technology is improving, thanks to initiatives aimed at fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. However, there is still room for improvement in terms of infrastructure, funding, and skill development to fully harness India's technological potential.

What are the top vegan alternatives that are best suited for the Indian consumer or the ones most in demand?

Top vegan alternatives that are best suited for the Indian consumer or in high demand include plant-based dairy products, meat substitutes made from soy or jackfruit, and protein-rich legumes such as lentils and chickpeas.

What about millet-based products?

Millet is largely gluten-free and rich in fibre and nutrients, offering a wide range of culinary possibilities. The milk made from jowar can be a suitable substitute for milk derived from cattle. Jowar milk can be used in products like coffee and payasam (kheer).( BLURB?) Since it needs a negligible amount of water and uses environmental-friendly methods to grow, it is a highly sustainable crop.

What are the common perceptions/misgivings about plant-based products that you come across while interacting with consumers in the country and abroad? How do you tackle them?

Most consumer concerns are about taste, nutritional adequacy, and affordability. We address these by focusing on product innovation, nutritional fortification, and consumer education initiatives.

What can manufacturers do to ensure their plant-based products are viewed as healthy alternatives as the labels claim?

Manufacturers can ensure their plant-based products are viewed as healthy alternatives by prioritizing transparency, quality ingredients, and accurate labeling. Collaborations with nutritionists and health experts can also help reinforce the health benefits of plant-based diets.


The Indian govt has formally endorsed the plant-based diet to fight climate change. Does it mean anything to the industry at the ground level?

The Indian government's endorsement of plant-based diets, exemplified by initiatives like the ‘International Year of Millets’ in 2023, signifies an increasing acknowledgment of the connection between dietary choices and environmental sustainability. This endorsement offers a positive boost for the industry, emphasizing the need to promote plant-based alternatives at the grassroots level, particularly if the government takes concrete actions such as introducing highly nutritious plant-based food or beverages in their mid-day meal scheme for school children. This would not only shape dietary habits early on but also promote the consumption of sustainable and environmentally friendly foods, setting the stage for a healthier adult population within a sustainable ecosystem.

Plant-based products are more expensive than the animal-based products they seek to supplant. How do you address the issue of affordability in the time of skyrocketing prices of ingredients?

Addressing the issue of affordability requires a multi-faceted approach, including:

  • Supply chain optimization - Streamlining the supply chain is crucial for reducing costs associated with production, distribution, and logistics. This involves optimizing processes at each stage, from sourcing raw materials to delivering finished products to consumers. Efficient supply chain management can help minimize waste, lower transportation costs, and improve overall operational efficiency, ultimately leading to more affordable plant-based products.
  • Economies of scale - Increasing production volumes can lead to economies of scale, where the average cost per unit decreases as output grows. By expanding production capacity and increasing sales volume, manufacturers can spread fixed costs across a larger number of units, resulting in lower per-unit production costs. This allows companies to offer more competitively priced plant-based products to consumers.
  • Targeted subsidies or incentives could also play a role.. Government subsidies or incentives can play a significant role in reducing the cost of plant-based foods for both manufacturers and consumers. This could include subsidies for farmers adopting sustainable agricultural practices, tax incentives for companies investing in plant-based production facilities, or financial support for research and development of plant-based technologies. These measures help lower production costs and encourage investment in the plant-based sector, ultimately leading to more affordable products for consumers. Additionally, addressing the disparity in GST between natural products like fresh milk (which is taxed at 0%) and plant-based milk (which is taxed at 18%) is crucial. Both products benefit the farmer community, with the latter being more environmentally friendly. By adjusting GST rates to reflect this, the government can encourage investment in the plant-based sector and make plant-based products more affordable for consumers.


Are meat eaters the only target consumers for you or do you also attract vegans by providing them more choice of quality proteins and variety?

Our target consumers include both meat eaters seeking healthier alternatives and vegans looking for high-quality plant-based proteins and variety. By offering a diverse range of products, we aim to cater to the evolving needs and preferences of all consumer segments.

Young people are the natural target consumers because they are super aware of what they must eat. Plus, they have compassion for the planet. Do you agree?

Indeed, young people represent a key demographic group for the plant-based food industry, given their heightened awareness of health, sustainability, and ethical considerations. Engaging with this demographic segment through targeted marketing campaigns and educational initiatives is crucial for driving adoption and building long-term brand loyalty.

The common concerns about plant-based food it that it is too processed and contains high levels of saturated fats, salts and sugars. How do you win over the sceptics?

To address concerns about processed foods and nutritional content, we prioritize ingredient transparency, product innovation, and nutritional labeling. By highlighting the natural goodness of plant-based ingredients and minimizing additives, we aim to convince the sceptics and build trust among consumers. While some plant-based products may undergo processing, the general population should be made aware that not all plant-based foods are highly processed. For instance, minimally processed options such as jackfruit-based products are gaining popularity, showcasing that plant-based alternatives can be wholesome and nutritious.

What’s next for your company in terms of products and expansion?

Looking ahead, Symega Food Ingredients is committed to expanding our product portfolio, leveraging emerging technologies, and exploring new market opportunities. We will continue to prioritize innovation, quality, and sustainability as we strive to meet the evolving needs of consumers and contribute to a healthier, more sustainable future.

Numerous studies and AI projections point to a largely vegan world in the next several decades. What is your assessment?

While projections of a largely vegan world in the future are promising, customer response will ultimately shape the trajectory of the plant-based food industry. By continuing to innovate, educate, and advocate sustainable food choices, we can work towards a more plant-forward future that benefits both people and the planet.

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