“We debated initially as to whether to start with packaged foods or restaurants for our platform, but went with restaurants because these involve a lot of shareable information and solved specific needs, especially when users travel,” abillionVeg Founder and CEO Vikas Garg told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“But immediately, we saw a real ‘desert’ or gap in the space for information on packaged foods in the plant-based space. People aren’t so aware of the nutrition, ingredients and so on.”
Garg also explained how users of the platform very naturally made the shift from using it to review dishes to using it to review packaged foods.
“The one thing products in the plant-based space tend to have in common is that they are expensive [but] when a user spends more money on these than normal, of course they want to be sure that it’s really good [quality],” he added.
“[So all] of a sudden we started seeing people starting to use this review engine to review packaged products, [without us telling the users it could be used for that purpose], so now we’re moving to building it properly [for them to do so].”
It is certainly a logical transition for the company to make: At present, the platform already sees ‘a good stream’ of reviews coming in daily for packaged foods, especially from big supermarkets in the United States like Target and Trader Joes’, as well as closer to home in Singapore, where plant-based products purchased at Redmart or NTUC Fairprice are also commonly reviewed.
“Singapore was our biggest market for a long time, and a lot of our most passionate users are here,” he said.
“We’re in 55 countries now and the top five markets are US, Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong and Indonesia, mainly in Bali. These make up some 75% to 80% of our total users.
“[Our users are] mainly women from the ages of 16 to 35, [and] they really like it because the platform is like a missing piece in the plant-based arena.”
He also revealed that abillionVeg’s best-reviewed product is the JUST Egg, with over 100 individual reviews from users.
In order to properly develop a dedicated review platform for plant-based packaged products, Garg and his team are currently looking at building what they call ‘product pages’.
“[These are pages] where companies will be able to claim their product page on the platform, and upload the relevant information on their sustainable, plant-based products there where consumers will be able to find them,” he explained.
“Right now, when users review the products, it is being done according to point-of-sale or geographical tagging and not the individual manufacturer – we want to shift it to become more about the manufacturers than the location of purchase.”
He added that he has already spoken with several big manufacturers to get them on board, for example Danone and Unilever.
“[We] want to incorporate the ability for manufacturers to highlight information such as allergy information, product information and descriptions, pricing and so on, [making] this into a database that is searchable,” Garg added.
“We’re at the very early stage of building [this up] properly, [but] should have the first proper beta for this up by 2019.”
Garg also said that one of the main motivations behind the creation of the platform lay with sustainability.
“The reality is that if we all spent a little bit more time consuming plant-based options, we could tackle every single sustainability issue (e.g. poverty, hunger, pollution, etc.) within our generation,” he said.
“We want to [make] the world a better place for people who want to find healthy, sustainable options, [which is why] we decided not to build a new substitute product (for animal-based products), [but instead] a platform.
“[The aim] is to tackle both the supply and demand sides of things, to provide a foundation for businesses as a platform to help [both big and small companies] to connect with consumers around the world.”
When asked about how he handles critiques made by individuals who do not support a plant-based or vegan lifestyle, Garg said: “You are what you eat. The connection between meat and cancer, diabetes, heart disease is not just speculation, the links have been proven.”
He also calls protein deficiency ‘a myth’, saying that: “At some point in the 20th century, everyone became infatuated with [protein and protein deficiency], but there is no such thing as a protein deficiency.
“Even other issues like amino acids and Vitamin B12 deficiencies can be addressed with fruits, vegetables and grains given the right ingredient combination - many of our veg products come fortified with B12.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), although processed meat falls into the same category as tobacco and asbestos in terms of carcinogenicity, the risks still differ.
“[Although] processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous,” said the WHO.
“The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”
Funding for expansion
Earlier in 2018, abillionVeg received US$500,000 (SG$700,000) in funds from eight investors.
“With the funds raised, [we] will further improve [the] search engine and review platform,” said abillionVeg via the official press release.
“[We will also] continue to broaden the experience by integrating additional features and product segments for users, [as well as] enable businesses to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable options.”