‘Sweet’ Victory of a One-Man Army

Monday, April 22, 2024
What happens when a single person stands up to a $90 billion international food company’s faux advertising? The answer isn’t what you would expect.

Revant Himatsingka, who goes by FoodPharmer on social media, is ushering in tidal waves of change in the consumer awareness of Indians by debunking overlooked ingredients of popular food products in the market and their implications on our health. From sugar mines lurking in the ketchup bottles and juice tetra packs to banned colourants in energy drinks and chip packets, nothing is spared from the food vigilante’s eye.

His informative videos, sprinkled with pop culture humour, have garnered him over 2.5 million followers on social media in a year. He emphasises the importance of reading the ingredient list, the widespread phenomenon of ‘health-washing’ in advertising, and choosing natural alternatives to the lovable ‘snacks’ that claim to add to our happiness but rather contribute to a risk of diabetes.

In April 2023, Revant made a 1-minute video on Bournvita, which is manufactured by Mondelez International, speaking about how the product claims to contribute to ‘strong bones and muscles’ but actually has an exorbitant amount of sugar (nearly 50%) as well as dangerous food colourants.

Mondelez sent him a legal notice to take the video down, but after being backed up by various organisations, the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights has, in turn, issued a notice to the confectionery giant to withdraw its misleading packaging and advertisements. The Government has now also ordered Bournvita to be removed from the ‘health drinks’ category from e-commerce sites. In addition, Bournvita reduced added sugar by a massive margin of 15% in their product.

A sweet victory, indeed, but still only the first step in a marathon-long battle. “For the most part, the labels and advertising won't change. The real victory is when there is a change in the (food) laws that demand a reduction in sugar levels,” shares Naresh Gupta, Co-Founder at Bang in the Middle.

The catalyst that connects a product with the consumer is advertisements. When motivating ads are aired of a mother coaching her son to be a better athlete and placing a mug of Bournvita in his hand, the viewer is enamoured by how fit and focused the actors seem to be, forgetting that they are actors in the first place. In real life, neither paediatricians nor sports coaches would recommend that children have these candied malt drinks, which irreversibly prime the taste buds of children from a young age, getting them addicted to sugar for the rest of their lives. “Tayyari diabetes ki” is the more apt tagline suggested by Revant.

Dr Rujuta Parikh, a paediatrician who has worked with UNICEF India, says, “Bournvita and other ‘health drinks’ are a BIG no. High sugar levels are the leading cause of obesity in urban sector children, which has reached a maddening high now. For fussy drinkers, I suggest fresh cocoa powder with dates as a natural sweetener.”

While many upper-class kitchens have started to replace sugary snacks with superfoods like millets, the lower to middle classes still succumb to the easily available, low-cost treats. But what’s laudable in the work being done by the FoodPharmer is that his videos are made in both English and Hindi for a wider reach, especially for those who will benefit most from it and are in the lowest strata of the health hierarchy.

“With digital platforms enabling two-way communication, accountability will be a hygiene requirement for brands. To earn the affinity of their audience, they will need substantial product changes to back their claims,” expresses Anujitha Jain, CEO of Alchemist Marketing & Talent Solutions.

“If (such products) limited their marketing to taste, there would be no issue,” Revant writes on Twitter. It's true, we all cherish a sweet treat once in a while. But to market them as ‘healthy’ and daily essentials – that’s where intentions turn devious.

In the latest alarming reveal, Nestle is found to follow global guidelines of zero added sugar in baby food across Europe. But in the Global South, India included, it was found to have nearly 3 grams of sugar per serving. WHO advises against the introduction of added sugars before the age of two years, yet there is no upper limit in our country for the prescribed added sugar served to infants.

It isn't possible that MNCs saturate their products with sugar and genuinely believe that their food items are healthy and hence market it that way. And this is where advertisers come in as accomplices. They are the ones who carefully chisel the image of a product, and their responsibility is to creatively reflect what’s actually inside the box, not manipulate the masses by misleading them. But as we wait for advertisers and MNCs to find their moral compass, it is influencers like Revant who, quite surprisingly, will save the day.