Indian regulator clamps down on e-commerce sites selling “health drinks”

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Bournvita and Horlicks could be found when searching the term "health drinks" on Amazon India. ©Screengrab from Amazon India
Bournvita and Horlicks could be found when searching the term "health drinks" on Amazon India. ©Screengrab from Amazon India

Related tags e-commerce health drinks Energy drinks India

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is clamping down on e-commerce websites selling “health drinks”, as there are currently no regulations set in place for such products.

The regulator pointed out that many of these “health drinks”, such as Bourn Vita by Mondelez, are considered “proprietary foods”, and should be categorised as dairy based beverage mix, or cereal based beverage mix, or malt-based beverage.

Other brands, such as Horlicks by Hindustan Unilever, are also commonly regarded as a “health drink” or even “energy drink” in India.

Identifying such products as an “energy drink” is also problematic as the current regulations define an “energy drink” as carbonated and non-carbonated water-based flavoured drinks containing specific ingredients.

“The term – “energy” drink is permitted to be used on the products licensed under FCS & (Carbonated & non-carbonated water based flavoured drinks), standardised under sub-regulation 2.10.6 (2) of FSS (Food Product Standards and Food Additives) Regulations 2011.

“Further, ‘health drink’ is not defined / standardised anywhere under the FSS Act 2006 or rules / regulations made there under,” ​said the FSSAI.

It said it has advised all e-commerce food business operators to remove or delink such products from the category of health drinks or energy drinks on their website.

“This action will enhance clarity and transparency regarding the nature and functional properties of the products, allowing consumers to make informed choices without any misleading information,” ​it said.

Why the “wrong categorisation” and what led to the clampdown

It was due to complaints and feedback from the public that have led to FSSAI conducting a crackdown on e-commerce firms selling these products as health or energy drinks.

Pradip Chakraborty, former director at FSSAI, pointed out that Bourn Vita and Horlicks were long-standing brands in India and the wrong categorisation of these products had largely stemmed from the e-commerce companies.

“Actually, Bourn Vita and Horlicks are very old products which we have been consuming since our childhood. As you know, the FSS Act has come into existence in August 2011, and before that we have eight different Acts regulating food products across the country.

“Bourn Vita and Horlicks were previously regulated by The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 and there were no specifications about health or energy drinks in the Act.

“When these Acts were abolished in 2011, only the licence for uninterrupted business in the country were given to the companies operating these brands,” ​he told NutraIngredients-Asia.

Subsequently, there were complaints on how the products could claim to be health drinks when there is no provision or standard specifications for such products.

Products without specified standards stated in the Act would fall into the category of “proprietary food” instead. 

“This was how Bourn Vita and Horlicks have marketed the products [as proprietary food], but in the e-commerce platform, there were people who have complained to the FSSAI about how they were marketed as energy and health drinks.”

He said that the authorities had initially told the e-commerce platforms to voluntarily delete energy and health drinks from these products.

“However, they have not done it, as they continued to use the terms as a marketing strategy to mislead consumers to augment sales,” ​he said.

A check on the website found that brands such as Horlicks continued to associate itself as an “energy drink”, while Horlicks and Bourn Vita could still be found on e-commerce sites FlipKart and Amazon India when searching the term “health drinks”.

NutraIngredients-Asia ​has reached out to Hindustan Unilever and Mondelez for comments.

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