Given his punishing deadlines at work, Bangalore-based software engineer Naveen Sharma eats “anything that is available” in front of his computer. Potato chips, dal fry, rice and Red Bull energy drinks hold equal nutritional value for this well-built 28-year-old. Little wonder, then, that Sharma claims he has been skipping breakfast for the last four years. “Breakfast! That’s the kind of stuff you get only when you are vacationing at home,” he says. He postpones “the really healthy food for dinner”. That’s when pounds of chicken tikka, trapped in shreds of butter naan, dive into his stomach, washed down with yoghurt, vegetables, pulses and “beer on weekends”.
Among a growing breed of under-30 professionals in India, Sharma believes that anything that fills your stomach when it starts sending queasy rumbles qualifies as food. Busy with their deadlines through the day, these youngsters don’t have time to ‘calculate’ the health quotient of what they are eating.
And, with attitudes towards food changing, they are the ideal targets for an increasing number of companies worldwide, which are marketing ‘meal replacement’ products. It’s a simple exercise, or so they claim. Scoop just two spoonfuls of the powder into eight ounces of water, and voila, you have the nutritive properties of 20 grams of protein, calcium and the antioxidative properties of one fruit serving, charging you up for the day.
N. Seshadri, a researcher at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, says that concerns about obesity and the establishment of the food supplements market in India are closely linked. “There could be a much faster growth of the meal replacements market in India than in the West thanks to globalization, and the consequent flow of information and knowledge on health issues,” he says.
Says Luigi Gratton, vice-president, Herbalife, a California-based, direct-selling nutritional products company that rakes in over $3 billion (Rs12,000 crore) in annual retail sales: “Unhealthy eating trends are a reality across the world and it is no different in India. There is a definite opportunity for us.” Gratton is in India these days to rev up the distributorship for his company. His managing director (India), Shekhar Sethu, is more forthright: “India’s growth story is well known, and information technology has a huge role to play in it. We are actively looking to market our brand of shakes among this group of people.”
Herbalife’s Formula 1 Nutritional Shake Mix is said to contain all the necessary proteins, vitamins, minerals and fats an adult requires, without the calories (too much of it would lead to obesity). Armed with a slew of weight-loss and skin-care products, Gratton is confident that the company’s successes in the Brazilian and Mexican markets will pan out in India as well. “There are great similarities in the way we approached Mexico and Brazil,” says Gratton, “and just like these countries have become more aware of their unhealthy eating habits, we are confident that India too will respond positively.”
It’s too early, though, for Gratton to feel elated. The client-base for Herbalife’s shakes is still extremely limited and the most common refrain among users is that they picked up the health drink “purely on an experimental basis”. Says 26-year-old Swati Das, a Delhi-based fashion designer, “It is more about psychological comfort.” Many others say that they tried the products “because the direct selling agent was a friend who couldn’t be refused”. Brand building, then, says Sethu, is his company’s priority for now, to take the number of its centres in the country to 50 from the present 20. He did not, however, disclose the company’s earnings or the projected customer target.
But there is stiff competition from companies trying to cash in on this new lifestyle trend. Such as Novartis’ Optfast and Medifast, which are meal replacements sold in powder form. Says Ranjit Shahani, vice-chairman and managing director, Novartis: “Optifast by itself has not made significant inroads. But I am confident that within the next decade, with Indians growing increasingly conscious of their obesity levels, there’s a great business opportunity for us. A huge section of the market is still untapped.”
Direct-selling giant Amway launched its nutrition and wellness range of products in India more than seven years ago. Arvind Junagade, senior vice-president (technical), Amway, claims that their 18-product nutrition and wellness range accounted for over 50% of their turnover. While most of their products fall under the supplements category, Amway also markets health products such as Positrim, a meal replacement—a starter pack costs Rs2,099.
The bait that is usually laid out by distributors of these products is a promise of an expert referral system. “Our distributors attend training sessions where they are taught the nutritional values of these products and how to use them,” says Gratton.
Amway claims that the Positrim drink helps in healthy weight reduction and maintaining trimmed waistlines, if taken once a day instead of the regular meal for 10 weeks. Gratton says he gets frequent emails from customers about details on the safety and nutritive values of the ingredients listed on the products. “So, when we have a strong referral system, it helps in increasing the brand value and popularity of the product and the company,” he adds.
An increasingly large number of nutritionists, however, advise their patients to refrain from getting hooked to meal replacements. Honey Khanna, consulting nutritionist with Max Healthcare, New Delhi, says that meal supplements can never be a substitute for food. A premium consultant on diet and weight management, Khanna says that meal replacement products are wrong in their “one-size-fits-all” approach. “Obesity is a problem,” she says, “but each obese individual has to be dealt with differently.”
Extra doses of iron in packed health products, she says, can often lead to more complications. “Balancing the level of iron in your body is a delicate and vital issue. Too less and you are anaemic, too much and you could damage your organs.” She refers to a genetic condition known as haemochromatosis, where your body stores more than the necessary amount of iron it requires. “Now, imagine the consequences if you feed on these foods to lose weight without knowing that you suffer from this condition,” she says.
Sakshi Chawla, chief nutritionist with the Fortis Group of hospitals in Delhi, agrees: “Managing your weight is not as simple as having the 1,000 calories an average adult requires in a day.” Striking the right balance of fibres, carbohydrates and sugar in the body, says Chawla, is still a process best known only to mother nature. “Powder packs may claim that they give you the right calorie mix. But if that was true, I would have been out of business a long time ago,” she says.
In defence, Junagade says that instructions to use these products are clearly spelt out on the label itself. If backed up by proper diet and exercise, the supplements can be very effective, he says. He also refutes charges that supplements and replacements are unsafe: “Most of our protein powder products are organically grown. In the Indian context, where you don’t know how pure your food is, health supplements or substitutes make sense. You are absolutely sure these are safe.”
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