Bangalore: Eyeing India’s 40 million diabetics, a growing population largely concentrated in the middle class, consumer products companies have launched or planned several offerings, from sugarless chocolates and nutrition bars to shoes and bracelets.
The firms also hope to latch onto weight-conscious, calorie-counting consumers through these high-margin offerings.
India has the largest population of diabetics in the world and the World Health Organization predicts it will reach 300 million by 2025. High-stress environments, with little exercise and plenty of junk food, is triggering the condition starting in childhood, doctors say.
Healthy approach: The diabetics section at a store in Bangalore. At 40 million, India has the largest population of diabetics in the world and this is predicted to grow to 300 million by 2025. (Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint)
While the diabetes drug market amounts to Rs1,250 crore, analysts say it is difficult to estimate the spending in this niche, nascent space. But the market has come a long way since the 1980s sugar substitutes made by the early entrant and market leader, Cadila Healthcare Ltd.
Now, fast moving consumer goods companies, or FMCGs, boast diverse products from food and drink manufacturer Naturell (India) Pvt. Ltd’s Rite Bite nutrition bars to Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation’s Amul-branded sugarless chocolates and ice creams. Marico Ltd has a “saffola functional food” for diabetics, while Dabur India Ltd makes sugarless Chyawan Prakash, a nutritional supplement made of natural ingredients.
This apart, there are dietary supplements containing traditional cures such as bitter gourd powder, several health drinks, specialized sandals for diabetics, imported jams and cookies. Several drug stores and supermarkets have dedicated sections for diabetics these days.
Even the unorganized sector is trying to corner its share, with special rice for diabetics and bracelets promising a cure of the disease.
Diabetics in the country’s sweet-toothed south no longer have to miss out; Sundar Diabetics Dezire Pvt. Ltd runs a fast-expanding chain retailing 30 varieties of Indian sweets. With stores in Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad already, “we are looking at greater penetration in the southern states and possible tie-ups with retailers and hospitals,” says Lavanya Ramu, director and key founder of Sundar Diabetics Dezire. The Chennai-based company holds product and process patents for making Indian sweets from levulose, a fruit sugar.
“I enjoy my sweets and have tried everything from sugar-less chocolates to cookies. I try many varieties, especially when I go abroad as many more options are available abroad,” says Gaurav, 30, who was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago.
He did not want his surname revealed as many of his relatives do not know of his condition. Gaurav is the archetypal customer for the new suite of products.
As the average age at which diabetes develops in India has reduced to the 20-30-year-old bracket (it used to be 30-40 earlier), the disease’s latest targets still want to enjoy and spend; the recently diagnosed, thus, can evolve into life-long loyal customers, as diabetes is a life-long condition.
A small market it may be, but the products have high margins. There also seems to be a shift among some consumers overall to healthier eating habits, a population that those targeting diabetics think they can also cash in on.
“Most companies are extending into not just diabetes products but all types of health foods. The margins are higher here and the products are targeted at the higher income segment,” says Anand Shah, research analyst on FMCG at Angel Broking Ltd, a Mumbai-based brokerage firm.
Shah expects to see more companies entering this space. However, no market estimates are available on the size of the health foods market in India as it is still a small segment with overlap between food, dietary supplements and drugs.
“Our sugarless nutrition bar is aimed at both diabetics as well as others as it offers a health benefit to weight conscious customers,” says Vijay Uttarwar, Naturell’s chief executive.
Four months into the market, he says the product is doing well but declined to share numbers.
The nascent Indian nutrition bar market, he says, has the potential to touch Rs300 crore, considering that the chocolate industry in India is pegged at Rs600 crore. His logic, he says, is from the US market, where the $3 billion (Rs12,750 crore) nutrition bar industry is half the size of the $6 billion chocolate industry.
R.S. Sodhi, the chief general manager of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, is equally enthusiastic about Amul’s new sugarless icecream offering. “We received a lot of requests for this product. We aim for 10% of total ice cream sales to come from this product,” he said.
That amounts to about Rs35 crore, which the firm hopes to achieve either in the current fiscal or the next; Amul’s icecream sales amount to Rs350 crore in a year.
Understandably, some doctors are worried about unsubstantiated claims and false advertising, advising patients to consult them first and then consume.
Vijay Viswanathan, who runs M.V. Hospital for Diabetes and Diabetes Research Centre in Chennai, estimates that only about a third of patients need nutritional supplements and that, too, only when they lose weight.
With some drug stores now having signs for their “diabetic shoes”, Viswanathan cautions that only about 30-40% of patients need specialized sandals, while the majority can get by with comfortable footwear that has a backstrap and no toehold.
“Patients see products advertised on television and go ahead and buy it. They should instead check with their physician and then only purchase these things,” he advises.