In today’s Finshots, we discuss the nutraceuticals market boom in India and why the government wants to change how it’s regulated.

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The Story

The Indian nutraceuticals market was valued at about $4 billion in 2020. But it could jump by 20% every year and burgeon into an $18 billion industry by 2025!

For the uninitiated, a nutraceutical is a dietary supplement that contains bioactive agents from plants or herbs that are supposed to promote wellness. Confused? Well, we’re talking about those melatonin gummies you pop for a good night’s sleep, the biotin pills that claim to improve your beard and hair, the protein powders, the immunity boosters and the period pain busters.

They come in fun packs whose labels say that they’re made from natural ingredients like fruit and herb extracts or some extra vitamins that help supplement your diet. Basically, stuff you don’t need to worry about before consuming. And some surveys indicate that over 70% of Indian households consume these dietary supplements.

So how did Indians fall in love with nutraceuticals?

  1. For starters, over 40% of Indian adults lead a sedentary lifestyle. This means that they’re physically inactive for long hours owing to busy work schedules. And that could translate into hormonal imbalances in the body. Besides, working long hours also means not being able to eat a balanced diet. So that could cause vitamin or nutrition deficiencies which we try to make up using other means.
  2. Some nutritionists believe that the food we eat today isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. For instance, the quality of Vitamin C in tomatoes today may not be the same as it was 30 years ago. That’s because fertiliser overuse, contamination or over cultivation may have poisoned the soil over the years, inhibiting its ability to provide enough nourishment to the food we grow. And maybe that has nudged some of us to turn to supplements.
  3. Then there was the biggie — the pandemic. COVID-19 brought people closer to proactive healthcare. There was a new-found interest in health, wellness and disease prevention. People like you and me began reading up about nutraceuticals on social media and other places on the internet. Their ingredients weren’t as hard to understand as pharmaceutical labels.

    Also, a renewed push to revive our traditional Ayurvedic medicines during this time meant that the wellness industry also capitalised on this. They simply had to promote ‘natural’ products and it would fly off the shelves. Products like Chyavanprash became super popular again.

But there’s a problem. 7 out of 10 Indians seem to take these supplements without consulting a doctor.

And as per Dr. Preeti Chhabria, the Director of Internal Medicine at Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital, this unfettered popping of wellness pills isn’t a smart idea. For instance,  if you keep popping an iron supplement because you think it’s good for you, you could end up with too much iron than what your body actually needs. The iron will be stored in your body, especially, in the liver, and can cause diseases like cirrhosis. Even Vitamin D for that matter. If you end up with an excess, it can lead to a toxic buildup of calcium in your blood and cause bone pains.

But despite these inherent risks, these colourful and flavourful nutraceuticals are easily available over the counter. And you don’t need a prescription to get your hands on them. You can buy them off an e-commerce website, an airport store or really anywhere.

And you can imagine that the government and regulators aren’t happy with how things are turning out. They want to salvage the issue before it gets out of hand. So, a few days ago they formed a panel to consider bringing nutraceuticals under the embrace of the country’s drug regulator CDSCO (Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation).

Currently, nutraceuticals are classified as food. They’re not drugs. That’s why they’re regulated by the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India). So they don’t have to go through rigorous phases of clinical trials or product testing before getting a formal regulatory approval. As long as they don’t claim to cure any diseases and have approved ingredients in the permissible quantities they’re good to go.

But with rapid growth come problems too.

A couple of years ago, the Association of Consumer Protection (a non-profit organisation run by former FSSAI employees) conducted a nutraceutical and health supplement survey. And they found glaring issues of misleading claims and even dangerously high levels of nutrients. For instance, vitamin D supplements contained more than 8 times the prescribed recommended daily allowance of International Units (a unit used to measure the activity of vitamins, enzymes and hormones).

Also, when the FSSAI themselves conducted their study from 2019 to 2022, they found that nearly 5,000 samples of these supplements were unsafe, over 16,500 were substandard, and about 11,500 labels were misleading!

That’s the abysmal quality of nutraceuticals that many Indians have probably been putting in their bodies!

So yeah, tightening the screws on nutraceutical oversight and regulation doesn’t seem like a bad move, eh?

But you can bet that there’s going to be pushback.

For instance, nearly a decade ago the FSSAI was dragged to the Supreme Court for an advisory it issued. It wanted manufacturers to get a recipe-by-recipe clearance for products even if the ingredients were safe or already approved. But the top court refused to allow such a mechanism as the FSSAI didn’t have the authority to analyse products as good or bad. It suggested that the regulator strengthen the labelling and packaging rules instead.

Then in 2015, regulators also wanted some multivitamins to be brought under the definition of drugs. But that didn’t quite materialise.

So you can be quite sure that the industry will lobby against a change even now.

They don’t seem to be happy that the government didn’t take them into confidence before conducting such a review. Especially since the first set of regulations governing nutraceuticals only came about only in 2016 and things are still falling into place. And not to forget that even global markets such as the US treat nutraceuticals as food and not drugs.

So yeah, with the government trying to turn nutraceuticals into a $100 billion industry by 2030, we’ll have to wait and see which regulatory route they opt for.

Until then…

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