Tuesday, March 13, 2012


People are increasingly getting aware about the nuances of healthy foods thanks to a barrage of information blared through the idiot box and "writings and lecturing" from many informed as well as misinformed "pundits". The result is that every product in the market is being scrutinized critically before making a purchasing decision. Whether this is good for the industry or not, is a million dollar question. Obviously industry feels that front of the pack label is an important medium for communication with the consumer and therefore try to cram it with as much information about the product to win over them. Though there are still some questions regarding the adequacy of information provided on a label, it still serves a useful purpose as far as a discerning consumer is concerned and both industry and consumer activists must sit together to improve upon it as much as possible to serve the purpose of transparency and fulfilling the right to information for the citizens.

Label claims as being made on labels are invariably questioned with regard to their veracity and regulatory authorities need to be more careful in permitting printing of such claims. It was not long ago that that European food authorities evaluated health claims by hundreds of products and found most of them based on flimsy scientific data. That only a few could get through their critical lens speaks volume about the mechanism in place in the EU countries that favors the citizens. Many heath claims are made with barely any reliable data but drawing on some academic research by students in Universities. Human health parameters have many features similar to that of animals but there are also major differences which necessitate cautious interpretation of results generated through animal experiments. 

There is a subtle distinction between a health food and a well being food. While a health food must have specific advantages in restoring or promoting on or the other aspect of human health, a well being product just needs to prove that it is good for preventing any diseases and disorders afflicting humans as long as they are not harmful. Many  nutrient fortified and enriched foods come under the category of well being products and cannot be called a health food. There are hundreds of such products already in the market well accepted by the consumers all over the world. Foods supplemented with Omega-3 oil from other sources can be considered as health products and there are similar products coming into the market to address specific health related need. Of course there can be a totally fabricated or designer food containing sch health boosting ingredients and such products are becoming main stream consumer items patronized by health conscious consumers.

In India there are a few natural products already in the market containing increased amounts of vitamins, minerals and other special micro nutrients which are popular with people in spite of the stiff price tags on them. There are also designer products made with permitted ingredients and offering diverse flavor and tastes making tall claims regarding their usefulness to improve health if consumed regularly. Unfortunately there is no effective mechanism in the country to bring to books the manufacturers of such products who are able to get away with impunity while making money riding on unproven claims. Some of the claims include fantastic brain development, fast body growth, getting tall in no time, increasing memory and many others. What is unfortunate is that respected nutritionists and University academics are drawn into this racket for pecuniary benefits! 

Amid such a scenario recent launch of two products by well established industry players provides a sharp contrast. The first one containing Oats and dehydrated vegetables deserve some applause for it fulfills the need for a ready to cook Oatmeal preparation for the well being of most of the consumers including diabetics. Most products based on Oats in western countries are rich in sugar and these are not considered desirable for regular consumption. This Indian product is superior to others in that it contains a variety of vegetables in dehydrated format. Cooking this with sufficient water provides a ready to consume product rich in beta glucans and nutrients contained in the vegetable ingredients. Most importantly they come in diverse tastes and organoleptically superb. Of course there is some scope to improve this product further and the same can be expected soon once the product gets established.

Another product is a malted beverage boasting of the health advantage of Oats. It is not clear whether Oats and Malt extract are compatible in nature and how much oats can be loaded into a beverage. Besides oats need cooking to disperse while a malted beverage is just mixed with hot milk. Though this product has been launched through out the country, the relevance and acceptability are factors that will determine its success. From a food technologist's perception malted beverage is a poor carrier for oats and there is a limit as to how much oats can be consumed through this products. Normally 50-100 gm of oats only can confer any health advantage and this fact goes against the soundness of the product design.   

Unless products are developed keeping in mind the basic concepts of nutrition and health promoting nutrients, there is every likelihood of such products falling on the way side during their progress towards a viable one. One or two products like the oats+vegetables cannot make the well being industry a mature one and unless many major players pitch in with similar products with undoubted positive health benefits India will continue to be a market for only fast foods and not-so-healthy foods.   

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