Why a health-food movement is spreading across India

A professional food photographer from Mumbai, Pawan Manglani knew how to eat healthy but, during the stressful months of the first lockdown, he stopped taking care of himself. Processed food, desserts, alcohol and aerated drinks entered his diet and continued well beyond the pandemic. Manglani, 36, could see the changes in his body and stamina. Walking, climbing stairs and playing cricket became difficult. “I didn’t want to go out and buy a new set of clothes. On February 1, 2022, I decided that I was going to discipline myself,” he says.

He joined a gym and began to eat fresh, whole and home-cooked food. He began searching for an alternative to colas, which he was fond of. A friend introduced him to a fermented tea called kombucha. Little known in India, kombucha has a 2,000-year history and is rich in probiotic bacteria and antioxidants; it is also an acquired taste. Manglani tried a number of brands until he found the flavor he liked, made by Umami Brew, a brewery in Pune that is customizing kombucha for the Indian palate by using local fruits, herbs and spices.

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Manglani now has a separate shelf in his fridge to hold three months’ supply of kombucha bottles that he or his friends bring all the way from Pune to his Andheri home. When he wants a drink, Manglani pops open a bottle, serves kombucha in a whiskey glass with lots of ice, sips it slowly and enjoys the flavour, relieved that it is good for the body. “I have recommended it to a lot of people and helped them get off sugar,” says Manglani. He does not overdo the kombucha either, keeping it to twice a week.

In Mysuru, 18-year-old Arshiya Ruman MZ tells other children not to eat food from outside unless they are sure about the hygiene. When it comes to her comfort food, ice cream, Arshhiya opts for a dairy free brand called Just Gelato that uses seasonal fruit and other natural ingredients. She does not have any other ice cream even when she goes out with friends. “The more naturally you eat, the better your health is. We never knew there was a virus coming at us that would kill people or make them ill. We must choose what we eat wisely so that people see us and choose responsibly as well,” she says.

A dietary movement is underground in the country, hastened by the pandemic. People are caring more about the food they are putting in their bodies. The conscious eater, who used to be an outlier in their social group because they checked ingredients, nutritional values ​​and hygiene before eating, is now a mainstream role model. Cooking blogs, influencer posts and everyday conversations are peppered with references to a balanced diet, intermittent fasting and energy supplements. “Immunity booster” was one of the most-searched terms of the pandemic.

In her 2018 book, Ultimate Grandmother Hacks (Rupa), nutritionist Kavita Devgan writes that traditional practices, such as adding raw onions and chillies at lunch and dinner and eating as a family with the TV switched off, had all but disappeared from modern households. It was during the pandemic that the Delhi-based Devgan began to notice that a change was happening among their clients, especially millennials (who are an important segment in a country where 66 per cent of the population is below 35). “They are going back to tradition in little things, like carrying a fruit when they go out because they have realized the importance of antioxidants and enzymes in fruit,” says Devgan, who published another book this year, The Immunity Diet (Rupa). “People are now more aware, reading a lot and adapting faster to a healthier lifestyle as compared to earlier when their focus was more on just weight loss,” she adds.

The last time India experienced a major shift in eating habits was after the economic liberalization of 1991, when age-old staples made way for foods rich in sugars, fats and proteins. Cola wars and a fast-food boom resulted in restaurant chains mushrooming in major cities and, then, Tier II and III towns. The unfamiliar taste of foreign food, from pizzas and burgers to coffee and donuts, attracted Indians who were also feeding on sitcoms and films from the US and Europe that brought a Western lifestyle into their living rooms. One of the results of globalization is that India has become one of the world’s hubs of lifestyle diseases.

In June 2022, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation released data that monthly deaths due to heart attack had risen six times in the first half of 2021 in Mumbai compared to previous years. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), India is home to the world’s second-largest adult diabetes population, and every sixth person with the disease in the world is an Indian. “The past three decades witnessed a 150 per cent increase in the number of people with diabetes in India,” says an ICMR statement.

“We had started realizing that we are going down the wrong path and had to change our habits but it was slow because adapting to a healthy process is difficult when we are tempted by junk food. The pandemic hastened the process as people started to lap up information about improving their lifestyle. What might have taken another decade has happened in two years,” adds Devgan. India was one of the epicentres of COVID-19, a tragedy in which everybody lost someone. There was a lot of misery even in people that had the disease spared. Those who recovered had been through terrible health scares. The crumbling healthcare system of the country added to the shock. People realized that their biggest asset was their health — and it was, to an extent, in their control.

A symbol of the changed mindset comes packed in the lettuce bowl. Once a humble accompaniment, the salad has become a meal in itself. Restaurants, stand-alone outlets and home cooks have begun supplying salad and soup in many cities. Delhi-based chef Tanuvee Agarwal maintains a kitchen garden for her fine-dine catering, called Atticus, which turns lush during winter months with greens, lettuce, tomatoes, baby potatoes, radish, carrots and other vegetable. She started to pluck these to make salads, for which she offered a subscription plan — Rs 1,500 for three days a week or Rs 2,500, for five times a week. Agarwal, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn in the US, was surprised at the huge footfalls she received for salads. “A lot of people we began supplying to were working 9-5 from home and had no time to cook. Ordering salad from a trustworthy place was a matter of convenience for them,” she says.

Atticus’ offering ranged from “kohlrabi, mustard leaves, radish and tatsoi with lemon vinaigrette salad” with warm lentil soup to “mixed crisp greens, baby carrots, mushrooms, celery with light hummus salad” with roasted pepper soup. The number of customers increased 20 per cent each year during the first two waves. Agarwal introduced non-vegetarian ingredients in 2021 and plans to increase this range this winter. “There is a myth that if a person is eating salads they are cutting down on calories. If you eat salad with a lot of mayo, you are not achieving that. We are focused on producing healthy salads, which are low in fat content and genuinely healthy,” she says.

How does one know what is healthy, especially while grocery shopping? Myth and jargon abound in the marketplace of health food, with harmful products sometimes branded as good food. Two words that have entered consumer vocabulary recently will help clear the confusion—transparency and traceability. The former received a boost in December 2021 when the Delhi High Court made it mandatory for food businesses to make a full disclosure of all their ingredients, including plant and animal sources, on the packaging. The latter is a feature that empowers buyers to find out the origins of their product.

One of the first companies to introduce the traceability feature in India was True Elements, which makes healthy breakfast and snacks such as flavored pumpkin seeds, rolled oats, Goan cashews and protein-rich nuts and berries. If you enter the name of the product with the batch code on the company’s website, you can see its journey from the farms, where the ingredients were procured, with detailed quality reports. “Since the pandemic hit us, customers are even more sensitive about what they consume and are more aware of the impact it will have on themselves and the environment. The market is now inclining towards health-oriented and sustainable foods, especially Clean Label products and ingredients,” says Puru Gupta, who co-founded True Elements with Shreejith Moolayil in 2015. True Elements is present in many cities including Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Nagpur.

Devgan advises that home-cooked food should form 80 per cent of one’s diet. The industry, however, has found a way to package health food for easier access. According to Prasoon Gupta, co-founder and CEO of Delhi-based Sattviko, whose products include Antioxidant Makhana Snacks, the market for health food is growing at 20 percent and is pegged to touch $30 billion in five years. “More people are looking for a convenient eating experience without the guilt of bingeing on unhealthy food or compromising on taste,” he says.

In December 2021, UK-based market research firm, Euromonitor International, and PepsiCo India released a report, titled “Impact of Covid-19 on the nutrition choices of urban Indian consumers in 2021”. It said that almost 90 per cent of urban consumers would willingly pay more for healthy alternatives in food. That the food industry has responded with speed indicates that the health-food movement is set to grow stronger. For now, unhealthy potato wafers and sweets dominate shelves, but they are sharing space with snacks, sweets and savories that are labeled “vegan”, “organic”, “gluten-free”, “free of pesticide and artificial ingredients”. There is a rising interest in A2 milk and milk products and organic groceries.

It has become a better landscape for health-conscious mothers such as Mumbai-based Pia Desai. She has always exercised and eaten healthy but became more conscious when her children were born around a decade ago. There were few healthy food options available in India at the time, so Desai used to request friends who were traveling abroad to bring back baby food and snacks for her children. “As the market opened up and new snacks came in, my life became easier,” she says. Though the communications profession cooks every day, she has solved the problem of her daughters’ tiffins by buying bunches of Snack-A-Doodle strawberry apple bars. “What I like is that there is no processed sugar. It is a little sweet from the apple and children love it,” she says.

Snack-A-Doodle was started by two mothers in Mumbai, Radhieka Pandeya and Simer Dhall, in April 2021 when online classes and a lockdown life made the need for nutritious snacks more persistent. “The pandemic was a game changer for health-conscious brands. We have noticed a month-on-month repeat customer rate of 30 per cent. We pride ourselves in being honest about our product ingredients,” says Dhall.

Big business houses have taken note of the health-food market. One such is Marico, manufacturers of Saffola cooking oil. The consumer goods giant announced in May 2022 that they had acquired a 54 per cent stake in True Elements. “True Elements has built its first phase of growth predominantly with a portfolio of innovative clean-label product offerings and high consumer trust. The focus of its next phase will be on building the equity of the brand further and accelerating its entry into newer households. The investment in True Elements is a conscious step towards accelerating the expansion of our Foods portfolio as we aim to achieve the next ambitious milestone of Rs 850-1,000 crore turnover in Foods by FY24,” says Sanjay Mishra, COO, India business, and CEO , new business, Marico Ltd.

Making a lifestyle change starts as a challenging journey, with obstacles such as peer pressure and withdrawal symptoms. But, surveys show that a significant number of people are exercising, eating well and making a commitment to healthy living. The broader rules of eating well haven’t changed for centuries. “With any habit, you have to be patient. Give it time and you will see a change,” says Devgan.

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