In today’s Finshots we talk about the Indian health regulator’s recent clampdown on malt and milk based drinks

The Story

You’ve probably heard of the jingle, “I’m a Complan boy! I’m a Complan girl!” or perhaps -“Boost is the Secret of My Energy” or the evergreen“Horlicks — Get Taller, Stronger, Sharper.”

They all have two things in common. They’re extremely catchy and they’ve convinced an entire generation that powdered milk drinks can do wonders for kids’ nutrition and health.

However, while the jingles continue to remain in vogue, the health claims may be quickly falling apart.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently issued a directive that could effectively change the landscape of the “health drink” market in India and several major players are considering dropping the “health” label from their “health” drinks.

So what’s happening here?

Well, you need to look at children. Yes — Children.

Between the ages of 5 and 16, children grow rapidly. And during this time, they need regular meals, healthy snacks, and plenty of fluids — especially if they’re active. However, India continues to have a peculiar problem. Nearly half of our country’s children do not have access to good nutrition and some even struggle with stunted development. In fact, this problem was once so pervasive that it effectively created a massive market for multinational companies.

The Health Drink Market.

The claim was simple. If you used a milk-based drink to supplement your kids’ usual daily dietary intake, then that would pave the way for the child's “proper” development. This claim hit a fever pitch in the early 2000s’ when the makers of “Horlicks” released a clinical study showing how the beverage aided height and weight growth in school-going children. The claims from the study soon made it into ads and with it came the popular jingle — Taller, Stronger, Sharper.

This trend quickly caught on and several other players also released their own ads backed by “clinical studies”. For instance, Complan went to town with the claim that their drink could help your children grow twice as fast (twice as tall too?).

The market exploded and consumers (Mostly mothers) started believing in the transformative power of malted drinks.

But then, questions started pouring in. There was increasing scrutiny of some of these extraordinary claims. And when Revant Himatsingka, a young man who goes by the moniker Food Pharmer, turned to Instagram to create a short video on one of Cadbury’s brands — Bournvita, it became a national talking point. In the video, he outlines the biggest problem with “health drinks”. Their sugar content. 100 gms of Bournvita contains 37 gms of sugar and Himatsingka rightly points out that the brand might as well change their jingle from ‘Tayyari jeet ki’ (Preparation to win) to ‘Tayyari diabetes ki’ (Preparing for diabetes).

Anyway, at some point, even the government began taking notice and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recently issued a directive asking all Food Business Operators (FBOs) to ensure appropriate categorization of health and energy drinks sold on their websites.

Here’s what the directive said…

…FSSAI has advised all e-commerce FBOs to promptly rectify this misclassification by removing or de-linking such drinks or beverages from the category of ‘Health Drinks / Energy Drinks’ on their websites.

This corrective action aims to enhance clarity and transparency regarding the nature and functional properties of the products, ensuring that consumers can make well-informed choices without encountering misleading information.

The claim is simple. Unlike many countries, India doesn’t have a specific regulatory framework for “health drinks” or “energy drinks” and several brands have exploited this loophole to freely market products under misleading categories. But with the recent directive, brands and FBO's will now have to recategorize these products.

But will this solve things for good?

Well, we can’t say for sure.

Appropriate labelling could increase consumer awareness. But these drinks can still lay claim to the “nutritional benefits” their beverages offer. For instance, while HUL has dropped the health label from ‘Horlicks’ and ‘Boost’ it is now repositioning the beverage as a “Functional and Nutritional drink”. We don’t know about you. But that still sounds pretty healthy to us.

Also, the bigger question here is — “How does the government dissuade companies from incorporating so much sugar in their drinks?”

Children love these beverages because they are sugary. And there’s nothing on the packaging that tells prospective mothers the damage of consuming “excess” sugar. Perhaps, if we had clear labelling guidelines with packages highlighting the risk of eating excess sugar, you’d see more companies changing their ingredients mix.

But until then, we suppose the onus lies on consumers. If consumers don’t push back with their wallets, then “nutritional drink” manufacturers will continue to market the same products. Perhaps only you can decide what’s good for your children and maybe then brands will also follow suit.

Until then…

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