Managing the Protein Conundrum in India


We behave according to our assumptions of how the world works-whether, for instance, we are eating healthy food or junk food. Our mental models heavily influence how we consume information, and how we react to it. And often, mental models become barriers to any transformation process, rather than enablers.

Today, we are living in a world that is facing urgent challenges which are affecting individuals, organizations, governments and society alike. We often fail to adapt to our rapidly changing environment due to those deeply embedded ways of seeing the world. The biggest challenge with mental models is that we often don’t realize that we act a certain way. Let us understand how both food production and consumption in India are being influenced by this factor.

According to a recent study by Right To Protein, research agency Nielsen highlighted a trend that Indians consume inadequate levels of proteins due to very poor understanding of protein. The study shows that only 3% of the Indian mothers surveyed, really understand why one should consume it daily as a part of balanced meals.

As per the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) given by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for Indians, 0.8 to 1 gm protein per kg body weight per day is sufficient to meet the basic nutritional requirements. However, the average intake is about 0.6 gm per kg body weight. A 2017 survey shows that 73 percent of Indians are deficient in protein while above 90 percent are unaware of the daily requirement of protein. The Indian Consumer Market 2020 shows high monthly expenditure on cereals, processed foods with only one-third of the food budget being spent on protein-rich foods. Actual protein sources such as dairy products, animal foods, and pulses are consumed in a comparatively limited quantity by Indians. Healthy foods are getting more and more costly in India and that limits the people’s access to a balanced meals.

We have paradoxical challenges in India food market that we have to be both deeply embedded in the local market and stay connected with the across the globe at the same time. All stakeholders in India food ecosystem should be able to recognize their biases resulting from the lenses through which they view the world and make assumptions.

Indian food is most popular for its diversity. The variety of foods, spices and dishes that are native to India makes Indian food one of the most wholesome foods in the world. Vegetables, legumes, beans, curd are being eaten together in one meal in traditional Indian dietary practices since time immemorial. For meat eaters, best sources of proteins needed by the body, are poultry, eggs, dairy, fish, meat which naturally contain all nine essential amino acids, the building blocks of life. 

Most plant sourced proteins are “incomplete” because they are missing one or more of nine essential amino acids. For example, grains are deficient in amino acid lysine, while legumes and pulses do not have methionine, but combining these food sources, such as having lentils or beans with rice or chapatti, provide balanced nutrition. There are also a variety of pulses in Indian food. Combinations like dal rice and rajma rice have been popular in Indian since ages. These combinations are perfect protein meals with all the essential amino acids. Bajra, nachni, jowar along with different rice grains are grown in abundance in India. Traditional India thali, in right portion, makes for a complete meal, including all essential nutrients in the right proportion. The Indian curry, if cooked with the right ingredients and proper amounts of oil, is good for immunity and reduce inflammation. Pickles, when made with the right quality of salt (rock salt) and oil, it is one of the best probiotic foods that you can have. Regional diets or foods such as fish in Bengal, lassi and chaas in North India, special variety of red banana in Karnataka etc are the healthy source of proteins.

India has always been the fertile ground for plant based diets with its large vegetarian population and the fact that even non-vegetarians consume a significant number of vegetarian meals here. Start-up ecosystem along with large corporations are moving in a big way in this space specifically when pandemic has exposed the dark side of animal agriculture and reminded us of the importance of being healthy. investors’ capital have their eyes on the plant-based food revolution and are chasing for the businesses that show promises. Technology further enables plant-based businesses to be lucrative and grow seamlessly.

Recent reports from many food researchers suggest that plant based meat sector is still fighting the perception battle of “unhealthy”, “high additive”, “Junk” in Asia-Pacific region. It is getting clearer now for both new-generation producers and consumers that plant based diet or vegan diet are not always healthy diets. We need to ensure affordable, clean labels, organic format along with taste, texture, flavours and the overall consumption experiences to achieve conversion to plant based diet as a source of proteins.

Most Indian diets are vegetarian-heavy and lack the fast-acting proteins necessary for quick muscle recovery specifically for booming fitness sector. Health supplements bridge this gap which, in turn, aids in muscle growth. Many reports indicate that 60-70 per cent of the dietary supplement being marketed across India is counterfeit and using various unapproved and potentially harmful chemicals.

Most of us often hold assumption with “either/or” thinking. We often become emotionally attached to a choice and see it as either good or bad. We set up the alternatives as adversaries and turn them into “us versus them”. “Either/or” thinking is more like the distortion that occurs when people assume they need to defend their positions.

But when it comes to creating functional ingredients consumers want, a one-size fits all approach may not work. Because of differences in ages, lifestyles and regions, consumers prioritize different health needs and product formats.

A lot of change is happening in technology, regulations, demographics and consumer tastes. The paradox of corporate strategy is that no one can predict the future correctly, and developing a long-term corporate strategy. But at the same time, creating a long-term strategy with considerable commitment and going wrong can lead to devastating consequences. The disruptive innovation taking place is making predictions even harder. Companies rushing to address the same target market such as plant based diets or cultured or fermented versions will have to face strong competition. Margins will be small and revenue growth will be slow. Start-up entrepreneurs must lead the way rather than just competing. By getting overly competitive, you risk following someone else's direction rather than your own. 

There is an urgent need to create awareness on what to eat, how much to eat, the importance of macronutrients and the kinds of easily available sources of protein. We should empower the youth with the right knowledge so that they really understand the science behind it and can make informed choices to have access to high-quality supplements at affordable prices. Our youth should appreciate that,  for everything, they have to go through hard work. If you put on weight in a proper frame of time, then you have to lose also in their proper phase. There is no shortcut.

We do not need to remove the choice of proteins from the animal meat entirely.  We should integrate the new products from plant-based or cultured or fermented as new sources of protein, into our diets.

Technology is leading the disruption in the current status quo and strengthening the foundation for a more sustainable food industry. People who are driving technological advancement are not always equipped to consider the human implications of their work. We should be continuously learning the balancing both being technically-savvy with a focus on humanity.

Jayanta Roy
Management Consultant
Mumbai, India
Mobile/ Whatsapp: 9833524730

Brief ProfileBusiness Leader/ Strategy Consultant & Leadership Trainer/Coach with 28+yrs of experiences in South Asia and MEA regions in Agri-Food & allied Life Science sectors. (21+yrs with MNCs-Unilever, DSM etc and 7+ yrs as Independent Consultant)