Healthy nibbles to regional treats: How snacking has changed in India

·7-min read
Healthy nibbles to regional treats: How snacking has changed in India

It is 5.30 pm on a Friday and the 'Cooking From The Soul' team, a group of home chefs in an apartment complex in Bengaluru, have finally put down their aprons. On the day's menu is Dabeli, and Deepti Aggarwal, Pooja Beria and Vasudha Goyal have carefully assembled buttered pav stuffed with a tangy and spicy peanut–potato mix. The dish is topped with some spices, pomegranate seeds, sev, onions and contrasting sweet and spicy chutneys, heightening the medley of flavours.

Orders have been placed through a WhatsApp group, and over the next hour, their friends, neighbours and other members in their society are informed that their freshly made Dabeli is ready for pick up. Residents stream in one by one, and soon head out with their containers carrying the best antidote for the hunger pangs that creep in from nowhere on Friday evenings.

If this routine sounds familiar to you, then you are not alone. You may not be seeking fresh snacks from a kitchen a few blocks away, but you are definitely seeking it from somewhere. In 2019, Mondelēz International released its first- ever state of snacking report exploring the rise of snacking in India. The report stated that an average Indian adult now eats more snacks than meals. In fact, this is a global phenomenon as seen by the 2020 Global Consumer Snacking Trends Study by Mondelēz. The report revealed that 9 in 10 global adults increased their snack consumption during the pandemic and snacking will continue to be a part of the ‘new normal’. As uncertainty loomed all around us, we turned to our snacks to assuage some of our growing concerns. 

“There definitely is a growing demand for snacks, especially healthy snacks,” said Bharadwaj Karanth, founder of Fruit Treat – a venture based in Sringeri, Karnataka, that manufactures fruit and vegetable chips using the vacuum drying technique. Karanth established Fruit Treat in 2019 to provide a means for value addition for farmers in and around the region. “We are now associated with more than 150-200 farmers, and we directly source produce from them. Especially jackfruit, which is available in abundance here during the season and not properly utilised. So many fruits and vegetables go to waste as not everything gets sold in the market. We source them and keep them in cold storage, and use it for our process,” explained Karanth.  

Okra Chips from Fruit Treat

While Karanth did not originally set out to establish a healthy snacking venture, he saw that it was the best way to create employment opportunities for the youngsters in the region, while also making agriculture more profitable. “I began exploring this concept in 2016 when I was teaching in a college here. I saw that many of the students were migrating to the larger cities in search of employment. I wanted to set up something in Sringeri so they could continue working here,” he added. 

Around the same time that Karanth was experimenting on the healthiest way to create fruit and vegetable-based snacks, Najeeb Bin Haneef, an engineering student at the Sahrdaya College of Engineering and Technology, Thrissur, along with a few of his batchmates, was trying to solve a similar conundrum. What began as a semester project to design photobioreactors (a special bioreactor used for culturing phototrophic organisms) quickly took an interesting turn. “Setting up photobioreactors is an expensive affair, but we saw that the micro-algae that was produced has immense potential for various products.” Haneef established his startup, Zaara Biotech, along with the ICAR-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology, Kochi, and between 2016 and 2019, the team did extensive research to come up with an algae and seaweed-based food product.

Haneef explained that despite being packed with nutrition-rich compounds, seaweed and algae were largely untapped from a food perspective. When the Zaara Biotech team put their minds to it, they realised that the need of the hour was a product that can be consumed by people across backgrounds, across all ages and one that has a long shelf life and a mass consumer base. So, they made the country’s first algae and seaweed-based cookies – b-lite. Today, Zaara Biotech not only exports its cookies to countries like the US, UK, Germany, and Japan, they also received 10 million USD funding from a UAE-based firm, shared Hanif.

Spirulina Protein Cookies from b-lite

Tea-time snacks with a purpose

Fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and seaweed – you name it and you can find it in your snack. But beyond an array of snacking options, entrepreneurs are going the extra mile to make snacking favourable for those who are making the snacks as well. And as much as we need our health food fix, we also need a bite of familiar flavours. The ‘snap’ noise of a muruku, the crunchy bhujias that disappear in no time, the flaky mathris that make drinking tea all the more exciting– or as Ashish Nichani, cofounder of the Postcard summarises it, there is a time and place for both and sometimes we need our happy food.

Nichani and his cofounder Sudarsan Metla launched Postcard in 2019, creating a platform for regional snacks and, more importantly, snack makers, so their products can reach homes across the country. They began this journey with another venture, Place Of Origin, a curated marketplace for speciality foods which they set up in 2015. “We worked with 450 stores from 125 locations across India, making it possible for a snack maker in Pune to reach customers in Kolkata or Kochi,” shared Nichani. He explained that regional flavours and products often don’t make it to the larger supermarkets, and as the team continued to work with the snack makers, they also worked on creating a more sustainable model, which led them to Postcard.

Team Postcard works with small entrepreneurs enabling them to better their existing processes while helping them with skilling, food safety and other certifications. “We are here to build on their expertise. When we look at a snack maker in Kolhapur, we also look at where the jaggery for the snack is coming from, where the peanut is coming from, and how we can sustain those supply chains and the heritage of the place. So, we are trying to trace the fine line between being a scalable business while being true to the concept and to the fact that food is authentic when made with local ingredients and expertise,” he added.

Raising the bar

While Postcard is giving regional flavours a national audience, Monsoon Harvest founded by Umeshwari Machani and Srivardhan Sethuram is offering snacks made with traditional grains and native Indian produce, but with a modern twist. Monsoon Harvest’s snack menu includes options like ‘Nuts & Seeds’ bars and ‘Buttermilk & Millet Crackers’ in flavours like caramelized onion and roasted garlic, along with an interesting medley of trail mixes. Established in 2016, the team said that they have evolved with their consumers, who are constantly on the lookout for unique and easy-to-consume breakfast and snack options while also being open to new flavour combinations. 

Machani shared that although the need for healthy eating was prevalent when they started Monsoon Harvest, it has since grown exponentially. “Our customers love to enjoy a few spoons of muesli or a quick bite of our granola bars as a midday pick-me-up! The perception of health and nutrition has certainly changed over the years, and consumers are more and more aware of what they eat and also the long-term impact it has on their bodies and the planet as well,” she said. 

Monsoon Harvest is using this increased interest to work on healthy and innovative snacking options while empowering the farmers from whom they source the ingredients, especially the millets. The team is formulating a strategy to directly source from farmers and developing the technology for farmgate operations. Flavour, sustainability, and innovation, it looks like the entrepreneurs have found a way to tick all the boxes. 

In the meantime, the ‘Cooking From The Soul’ team is gearing up for their next snack counter and on the menu is Ragda Pattice (a popular street food snack). “We always plan the menu such that we don’t repeat options and people don’t get bored,” they said. With the astounding array of snacks that are empowering home chefs, farmers and regional snack makers, it will be safe to say that boredom will be the last thing on the menu.

​​Sharmila Vaidyanathan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru. Her articles have appeared in Scroll, The Better India, The Goya Journal, Nature in Focus and other publications.

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