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A wealth of health

Priyanka Jayashankar

Organic, low-carb, fat-free, nutraceutical _ there is a vastrange of foods and supplements for the health-conscious.Catalyst examines how marketers are takingadvantage of the opportunity this presents.

IT seems like the perfect day out for foodies and hypochondriacs when a diabetic granddad adds chocolates (sugar-free) to his shopping list and a heart patient deep-fries organic vegetables (in low-fat oil).

Players in the health food business would love to call this a win-win situation. Marico, the FMCG major, says customer loyalty for its low-cholesterol edible oil brands, Saffola and Sweekar, has been driven by a strong proposition and consumer experience, says Marico's Marketing Head, Saugata Gupta.

To make Saffola a key player in the heart care speciality segment, Marico has carried out several product innovations and marketing programmes. In 1998, the Saffola brand came out with the `Losorb' variety (for low oil absorption). A Web site, www.healthykhana.com, was launched two years ago. The site provides a free diet planner and guidelines for diabetes, hypertension and weight management. "While it is not possible to directly correlate the Web site with sales, the site has attracted over five lakh visitors during the past two years. Over 25,000 consumers have registered with it," says Gupta. Marico has been building up its customer base through the retail segment. The market for branded refined oils, according to Gupta, is worth nearly Rs 2,000 crore — making up 10 per cent of the edible oil segment. "Branded refined oil category penetration is led by the urban areas and a few other pockets — particularly in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. This is also one of the fastest growing categories in the country, led by consumers' shift towards healthier and safer options." Marico has also diversified its health food range under Saffola by launching `health mixes' for cholesterol and sugar control.

As many people are `going back to nature' and shunning preservatives, organic food outlets are seeing better times. Enfield Agrobase Ltd, which produces certified organic food for exports as well as for the domestic market, distributes its products in dedicated organic food outlets in Delhi, Chandigarh, Pondicherry and Kodaikanal and has its own retail outlet in Chennai.

"The demand for our products in Indian metros is indeed huge and is growing at a fast rate," says N. Subramanian, Enfield's Managing Director. The company is a member of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement, an organisation headquartered in Germany, which sets standards for organic practices. Enfield's products are making headway in the export market. Subramanian cites a growing number of niche customers for processed food without chemicals. "The demand for organically cultivated cashewnuts, mango and coconuts and the value-added products in each of these organic products has been growing substantially during the last two years. These tree crops can certainly be raised on a large scale with organic certification," explains Subramanian.

Manufacturers and supermarkets are lining up a variety of low-fat and low-carb food to woo health-conscious consumers. Saga Food Products Pvt Ltd, a health food maker, has a distribution network in the metros as well as in the smaller towns. Its products, Manna Health Food Mix and Manna Diafood (for diabetic patients), are being exported to the US, Malaysia and Singapore. "We have an extensive ad campaign in the country, targeting people who are going back to traditional food," says I. S. Sajan, marketing manager. Imported health food brands are having a high turnover in niche retail outlets. At Nuts 'n Spices, a departmental store chain in Chennai, about 75 per cent of the health food brands are imported. "Sugar-free products are selling the fastest in the health food category," says manager Rajesh Sanklecha. In the last two years, the sale of health food has shot up by about 40 per cent, adds Sanklecha.

Nilgiris, the departmental store chain, has a large clientele for food such as oat bran, sugar-free jams and supplements. "About 90 per cent of our products are health food brands," says store manager G. Jyoti Ramalingam. He points out that families are substituting skimmed milk with soya milk as doctors are recommending the latter for children.

Although 60 per cent of the health food brands are imported, Niligris' own products (manufactured in Erode, Tamil Nadu) are bringing in higher revenues. Nilgiris' broken wheat bread and six-grain bread and wheat flour with 20 per cent soya content have many takers among diabetics.

Similarly, in Nuts 'n Spices, there are regular customers for Indian products such as green tea, bajra and Waheeda Rehman's Good Earth Foods (cereals and whole wheat crackers). In fact, Enfield Agrobase's MD is unfazed by the influx of MNCs, imported food varieties and sprawling stores. "The entry of large supermarkets and MNCs could only enhance the scope for growth of organic food products, as they will attract discerning customers with an eye for quality," he indicates, adding that Enfield products will soon be distributed in FoodWorld supermarkets.

Green & Health Bio Marketing Pvt Ltd is a supermarket chain with outlets in Kolkata and Chennai; and 30-40 per cent of its products are health food varieties. Keeping in mind the burgeoning market for health food in smaller towns, Green & Health is going to set up shop in Tiruchi.

Amma Nana, an exclusive departmental store in Chennai, which is frequented by expatriates, has also witnessed the health food fad. About 40-50 per cent of its food products come under the health food category, out of which 80 per cent are soya products and the rest are cereals. There are regular customers for imported low-fat breakfast cereals, non-aspartame sugar substitutes and other organic food varieties from Karnataka, says the store manager of Amma Nana. Low-fat salad dressings and sauces have a niche clientele, she adds.

But, of course, tofu and olive oil do not always whet the appetites of traditionalists. Thus producers are offering health food ingredients that are suitable for Indian recipes. Take, for instance, SVS Agencies, which is run entirely by women entrepreneurs. The Chennai-based health food manufacturer offers a range of soya-based products: soya wheat flour, soya brokens, soya salted nuts and fenugreek powder and sprouted roasted ragi flour. "As the awareness and acceptability of soya is still limited, we offer products which suit the traditional Indian diet and also provide supportive therapy for people with diabetes and obesity," explains S. Iyappa, its marketing manager.

Dr Tusna Park, a Chennai-based weight management expert, supervises the production process of SVS Agencies to promote a greater awareness of soya food, on a purely voluntary basis. Pointing out that Indians, in general, are pre-disposed to obesity, diabetics and cardio-vascular disorders due to the high carbohydrate content in their diet, she says that low-carb food like soya has the maximum potential to treat these conditions. However, the combat against high cholesterol, diabetes and cardiac diseases has intensified in the country, with a slew of companies claiming their products are ideal dietary supplements. These companies brace themselves with well-knit distribution networks to capture a larger slice of the `wellness market.' Green & Health Bio Marketing Pvt Ltd has tied up with the Kerala-based Livlong Nutraceuticals. The pharma company manufactures diet supplements in the form of capsules using herbal extracts according to Green & Health's specifications. Green tea capsules, which are meant to reduce blood pressure, have a customer base of 4,000 in South India. Through a direct marketing network, Green Tea's sales have gone up by 40 per cent in the last six months, says K. Srinivasan, its administrative officer. The other supplements include Ala-3 (a capsule for lowering cholesterol), Artroid (for joint pain) and Aswamala (a stress reliever). To market these products, Green & Health has distributors in Western India and a team of dealers in smaller towns.

Meal replacement supplements are also becoming quick-fix solutions to obesity and high cholesterol. Formula # 1, a meal replacement soya drink, is one of the fast-selling products of Herbalife. This company, which also offers herbal nutritional products for sportspersons and children and vitamin tablets and fibre capsules, uses a combination of multi-level marketing and direct marketing across 59 countries. About 50 per cent of its distributors in India are women and many of its customers, says its spokesperson, Sridhar, end up becoming distributors. Citing a 30 per cent rise in sales in 2003-2004, he says most of the customers are in the "weight management category."

Given the upbeat scenario, the wheel of fortune is pointing towards conglomerates and SMEs in the health food segment. Urban consumers, for their part, are not turning a blind eye to ailments and remain open to healthy alternatives. With choice expanding rapidly, there's much to chew on.

The doc says yes

To wean away patients from junk food, a host of dieticians and nutritionists are endorsing health food products. Manna Health Mix is being recommended by doctors at Apollo Hospital and M. V. Diabetics Clinic in Chennai. Though Marico has no institutional tie-up, certain medical organisations are advocating the use of Saffola products. "Some of these institutions have also been independently researching oils/diet regimes," says Marico's Gupta. "Research over the years consistently shows that even doctors and dieticians recommend Saffola."

Most of Enfield's customers are above the age of 40 and have been advised by their doctors to go in for organic food. Ten per cent of US wellness company Herbalife's distributors happen to be from the medical fraternity. "This group is aware of the importance of nutrition, especially in India today. Their interest in Herbalife has been fuelled by the scientific approach in the development of our nutritional products," says K. Sridhar, a company spokesperson.

The flip side of the health food market is that labels are sometimes used to dupe customers. Even products having just 5-10 per cent of soya content are being promoted as health food brands. While ten per cent of soya content would enhance the protein content of the health food product, it will not be enough to prevent cardiac diseases, obesity and diabetes, explains Dr Park. Some time ago, a white bean began to be marketed as a soya bean variety in Chennai. Dr Park analysed the product in a reputed food laboratory and discovered that it was not soya bean. (The genuine soya bean is golden in colour with a brown mark).

Dr Krishna Kumar, a researcher on paediatric dietary and cardiac solutions from Harvard Medical School, Boston, and currently Chief, Paediatric Cardiology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi, seems rather unconvinced about the health food business. Basing his strong views on a breakthrough non-surgical early intervention procedure for cardiac problems, he says the health food market merely packages what is already available in nature. On the emergence of the low-carb fad in the US and India, he says, "No health fad sustains itself. There is very little substance to the claims that are made." Certain low-carb diet solutions in the US, according to him, produce side-effects including a high ketone level in the blood. An entirely soya-based diet can also prove counter-productive, the cardiologist says.

"Diet solutions are not substitutes for medicine. What is good for North America is not good for Kerala. You cannot have a blanket diet solution for everyone."

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