Food Ingredients India (FI-India)

‘Scratching the surface’: Why India needs to redefine nutrition amid huge scope for nutra growth

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

The flag of India. © Getty Images
The flag of India. © Getty Images

Related tags India Fssai front-of-pack labelling

India is only scratching the surface of nutritional research – with an excessive focus on a few key nutrients – while its burgeoning nutra sector can play a leading role in helping consumers adopt more healthy lifestyles.

These were some of the key takeaways from a panel discussion on the first day of Food Ingredients India (FI-India) held in Mumbai between August 17 and 19.

Pawan Agarwal, former CEO of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) told the session that  nutrition should not solely be defined by the presence or absence of a few macro and micronutrients, and question the role of on-pack labelling.

Titled ‘Future of Food in India’, other guests on the panel included FMCG giant Marico’s chief R&D officer Shilpa Vora, Equinox’s CEO Ashwin Bhadri, Fireside Ventures’ food and beverages investment VP Ankita Balotia, and Tata Consumer Products’ global head R&D Vikas Gupta. The panel was moderated by Rinka Banerjee, founder of Thinking Forks.

While consumers are becoming more conscious of the nutritional value of foods through front-of-pack labelling, Agarwal believes that it is “not a great thing”​ and more should be done.

This is because front-of-pack labelling he believes it is a reductionist way in denoting a product’s nutritional value, as it only considered the presence of a few key macro and micronutrients.

He said that there was a need to understand nutrition based on the traditional paradigm as well.

“What is the matrix that we are using for calling India nutritionally deficient? Normally, the matrix is based on the rates of stunting and anaemia. More than 50 per cent of Indians are anaemic, of which, 50 per cent had mild or moderate anaemia and the consequences are not serious at all.

“I don’t think we have a good matrix for calling India nutritionally deficit. We are just scratching the surface of nutrition research. We define nutrition based on a few macro or micronutrients.

“I think the conversation has to change from defining nutrition from reductionism, a trait of modern nutrition, to understanding the traditional nutrition paradigm too,” ​said the CEO of Food Future Foundation.

The way to a healthier diet, he believes, is about people eating a greater variety of food and to do so, there is a need to establish a “positive relationship” between people and food.

“To me, ‘front-of-pack’ labelling is not a great thing. I think it is far more important to get a major campaign to change people’s relationship with foods. I think people have to connect with food more positively,” ​he said.

Holistic health, functionalism driving future of food

The other panellists echoed that holistic health, functional food, and nutraceuticals, would drive the future of food in India.

Gupta, for example, pointed out the trend towards the “natural lifestyle”, and there was already a trend around the use of ayurveda, and traditional Indian spices botanicals such as curcumin and ashwagandha.

“There is a huge trend around ayurveda, curcumin, and ashwagandha use. That trend is underutilised today, and it will [continue to] develop.”

He also noticed a trend towards functionalism and hence companies fortifying food products with micronutrients such as zinc and vitamin C for immune health.

“But the issue is how much do consumers need to consume to see and effect…I will put my money on naturalism, I believe that’s what will shape the future of food innovation,” ​said the Tata Consumer Products global head R&D.

In the same vein, Balotia said that there was an ongoing trend around the concept of nostalgia and food as medicine.

“People are going back to the roots and the idea of food as medicine, for example, ayurveda and herbs,” ​she said.

This is an evolution from the past few decades, where healthier foods were defined as the absence of preservatives, which then progressed to consumers reading nutrition labelling.

The preference for traditionally healthy grains and flour became the next wave before it gave way to clean-label and minimal processed products.

Healthy is nothing without good taste

Taste is of paramount importance even when companies are trying to develop nutritional food products, said Vora.

Recalling past examples, she said that consumers had rejected the company’s offering of high fibre and protein products.

“We went back to the drawing board. So, it’s about finding the sweet spot between taste and health and finding the right flavour profile to enhance the taste.

“The moment you start to dial down the taste, consumers will not like it,” ​she said.

This was also the view of Gupta, who said that taste cannot be comprised. As such, there is a limit to the amount of sugar and salt that companies could remove.

Agarwal, on the other hand, said that taste needed to be a part of food science and technology innovation more than ever.

Digital-first trend

Asked the emerging consumer trends, majority of the panellists said that the food and beverage market was moving towards a ‘digital-first’ marketing strategy.

Gupta pointed out that digitalisation would be imperative for companies to connect with consumers in the digital age. 

“New novel foods are coming out and people are looking forward to trying it…Food companies have to leverage on social media. You can reach a product to more people quicker nowadays, now is the time…”​ added Bhadri.

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