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The snack pangs of Mumbai’s weight-watchers could sustain a whole subeconomy. Every day, K.C. Chandra’s workshops on the city’s outskirts churn out diet snacks in bilious quantities: 50kg of roasted banana wafers, 36kg of flax-crusted bhakarwadis, 80kg of soya chakli, 15kg of toasted khakhras and truckloads of other teatime goodies.

Chandra, it appears, is still not making enough. His tangy Home D’elite products, which claim to be low-fat, are wiped off the shelves at outlets across the city by the evening. Women, who make up 80% of his customers, he says, cannot have enough of his pani-puri masala khakhras.

Among the other popular names feeding the hunger for low-calorie nibbles in Indian cities are Khub Khao, Conscious Foods, Health Total, Whole Foods and Garden (until recently unabashedly calorific, it has now started a roasted line).

Walk in any evening to diet destinations such as Neelam Foodland in suburban Mumbai and the righteous crush for the soya-rich, oil-free and sugarless fare could match a sale opening. Some packets come with a brand name, some with addresses and phone numbers. A few come with neither, just a label that sternly states ‘Diet Food’. But are health snacks all they are cracked up to be? Will that roasted bhakarwadi dissolve into your bloodstream without generating any fat cells?

Never, says fitness expert Vrinda Mehta. Fitness instructor to the star set at Juhu, she is readying to launch her own line of health snacks in June, but has no illusions about their virtues. Recently, she did a laboratory check on a randomly picked packet of delicious “healthy" soya wafers. Her findings should scare anyone off health food bingeing.

The fat content was 24% per 100gm, eight times the limit allowed in anything that can be clubbed as low-cal. Baked or fried, it had about as much fat as a small helping of Lays.

“You can’t control weight if you indulge senselessly in even good-health snacks. Now I have strict instructions for my clients. No one puts a single morsel of a health snack into their mouth, no matter what the label says, until I’ve checked it," she says.

Six years ago, when The Good Food Company launched Khub Khao, the only other name in the market was nutritionist Kavita Mukhi, who is now associated with Conscious Foods. Chandra, too, was beginning to discover a remarkably large market for his small batch of baked chaklis, which he sold at his family’s traditional spices-and-sweets shop.

Over the last three years, the demand for health snacks has risen enough for several players, big and small, to try their hand at mixing soya, rice, millets and urad dal in various proportions and baking shelf-loads of munchies. Kishore Passari, who runs Khub Khao, says demand for guilt-free foods has increased by 25% in the last three years. The big brands have been quick to follow: Lehar Lite, Garden’s low-fat, Amul’s Probiotic ice creams, Maggi’s light soups are all recent launches clamouring for this snack space.

However, there is one fact about taste buds there is no getting around. Anything made of coarse ingredients, with little or no oil to bind it or hold the spices down, will not tickle the palate and encourage a repeat trial. And the entrepreneurs were quick to catch on to this fact. The most popular snacks now are ones that manage to smother the flat taste of healthy ingredients with sharp, spicy flavours. This, in turn, means increasing the fat content in the snack.

“If diet food means food that is dry and bland, then no one buys it," says Pradeep Shah, who owns Neelam Foodland. The shop sells at least 15kg of its soya chips every day. “We have to ensure that the taste is close to the regular version."

Mehta says there is a rule of thumb for rejecting any health snack: If it tastes amazingly delicious, it cannot be low-calorie (see box). Anything low in fat and refined ingredients will just not give the palate the same satisfaction as a fried snack.

Chandra says he manages the balance between taste and health by using soya milk to bind the flours. But he warns against overindulgence. “I’m not making my customer’s diet plan and I’m not claiming that my foods heal. You could benefit by using my khakhra instead of a fried papad in a meal, or a soya chakli at teatime instead of fried chivda. But if you eat mindless quantities of health snacks, you are not doing yourself any good," he says.

Khub Khao has steadfastly stuck to its health agenda and not attempted to tease the tongue. It is not the most visible name in the snack market though it has dedicated followers for its puffed millets, moong jor, sev and bhel. It is also the only brand that advises its consumers to go ahead and try a fat test.

“You will not see us in small stores because we insist on staying totally natural. And we don’t say we are diet food, everybody requires a different diet. If protein is not good for me, I have to avoid even fat-free moong jor," says Passari.

The way out of the dilemma is to treat a health snack as just that—a small filler between meals. Even a genuinely low-fat khakhra will contribute to the calorie intake because of its carbohydrates. If you are on a diet that allows for 2,000 calories a day, and only 10 per cent of this should ideally come from snacks, then 10 khakhras wolfed down while watching TV will not melt away miraculously.

This might sound depressing, but that large bowlful of salad that your dietician generously allows you as a snack, is about the only option that will not undo all the hours on the treadmill.

Dietician Anjali Mukherjee says she does not recommend low-cal snacks to her patients. “Of course, people who are in a position to make that choice should opt for health snacks because they cannot damage your system like junk food. But it is still better to stick to natural foods like fruits, salads and sprouts. And if you must try the low-cal offerings, trust your tongue to detect flavours and textures which are natural," she says.

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