Even a year ago, Chennai-based software engineer K Balaji, like many other South Indians, was not greatly fond of paneer. Today, though, he has developed a taste for (cottage cheese) -- after being urged by his dietician to include it in his diet to boost his protein intake.

He is not alone in developing a liking for a product often sniggered at for its low taste quotient. The food item, popular in the North but largely alien to the South, is now ubiquitous in Chennai’s stores. A bewildering array of regional players such as Aavin, Milky Mist, Hatsun, Jersey, GRB, Ananda and Akshyakalpa have milked the paneer opportunity and are competing strongly with Amul and other national majors.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing focus on nutrition have boosted paneer sales in the TN capital and other parts of the south.

Changing tastes

South Indians once held paneer in disdain, largely because it did not figure in traditional regional cuisines. But with a growing openness to new cuisines and health awareness about low-fat, high-protein diets, paneer is being widely embraced. For vegetarians in particular, it is a great alternative to meat, fish and eggs.

Dr PV Lakshmi, Chief Dietician, Gleneagles Global Health City, Chennai, points out that paneer is low in calories and fat, and improves energy levels while enabling a smooth digestion process. Non-vegetarians are taking to paneer, too, as micro nutrients, proteins and the glycemic index of the former are similar to those in non-veg foods, she says.

Amul, too, has reported a big growth in the south. “We have seen more than a 50 per cent growth in paneer sales in southern states,” says Jayen S Mehta, Senior General Manager (Planning & Marketing), Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd (Amul).

The increasing home consumption of paneer in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere in southern India, where it is not a ‘staple’ ingredient, has contributed to the growth, he says. Typically, the dish was ordered at restaurants, but the closure of eateries during the lockdown has led to more and more households cooking paneer dishes at home, resulting in a tremendous boost in retail sales.

Chennai could be consuming around 30 tonnes of paneer every day, Mehta estimates. Post pandemic, people were also opting for packaged products instead of loose, unbranded paneer, he adds. Several players have been quick to play the hygiene card to improve sales.

The popularity of paneer is also being boosted by organised players who are introducing recipes, which are being showcased on digital channels, says T Satishkumar, Managing Director, Milky Mist, a dairy company that began in 1992 with the aim of empowering farmers.

The demand, he says, is likely to increase both in urban and rural areas because of growing disposable incomes. Paneer has also made significant inroads into the western fast food category, which appeals to the youth, he adds.

Milky Mist today has extended into nearly 20 dairy products and none can miss the distinctive violet-blue-white packs in the stores. The Erode-based dairy in TN was one of the first dairies to introduce such packaging using German machines, he points out.

According to him, the paneer market in India was worth around ₹75,000 crore in 2019-20 and is likely to see a 15-18 per cent CAGR in 2020-25. There is no official data on Chennai or Tamil Nadu, he adds.

But anecdotally, at least, one can spot the growth from the spurt in supply. Shashi Kumar, Founder & Managing Director of Akshayakalpa, a Karnataka-based rural outfit that started off with the aim of encouraging young people to take up agriculture as a vocation, says the rise in the number of paneer brands may be attributed to the younger generation having more exposure to varied cuisines.

Since the generation is conscious about sustainability and what they consume, there is also a spurt in the demand for organic paneer, he says. Akshyakalpa, which comes in a light orange coloured pack, offers handcrafted organic paneer made from organic cow milk.

For consumers, clearly, paneer is no longer the bland product that it was once seen as. Not surprisingly, for dairy firms, it is ushering in yet another white revolution.