It’s mid-November, and there’s a scurry at the food regulator’s office. Worried entrepreneurs haggle with a scientific panel in control of an all-important list. ‘Consider our ingredient’, they reason, for a mention in the list could mean a free pass with product approvals for all health supplements with the ingredient. For good.
But while they haggle, the CEO of HealthKart Sameer Maheshwari, seated comfortably in a conference room called Mary Kom, beams. Having overcome obstacles, confusions and anxieties over the year, since the regulation on health supplements was enacted, Maheshwari looks like a student fresh out of examination season. Come January 2018, when the new regulation kicks in, Maheshwari will be enviously placed to build on Muscle Blaze, his flagship product. Or so he thinks.
However, even organised players like him have a long way to go. They have gained regulators’ trust but they still have to gain consumers.India’s health supplement sector, which is dominated by imported products—bigwigs like Abbot, Amway, Sun Pharma, and newer entrants like HealthKart—is expected to double its size to US$ 4 billion (Rs 25,795 crore) by 2020. It will offer high growth, but it will also demand stringent compliance in the new year when every health supplement manufacturer will have to adhere to the new law. A law that’s a mouthful—Food Safety and Standards (health supplements, nutraceuticals, food for special dietary use, food for special medical purpose, functional food and novel food) Regulations, 2016.
It’s a regulation which the health supplement manufacturers have wanted for the longest time, especially after winning a case against FSSAI in Supreme Court in August 2015. It saves them time and money in getting product approval if the ingredient in the product is already approved. The new regulation is also a shield against counterfeit, unregistered and unapproved products, which some surveys have suggested constitute 70% of the market.
More importantly, a wellness player can now easily persuade the consumer to buy a herbal supplement, vitamin or muscle builder, with the promise of standardised quality.
As cliched as prevention-is-better-than-cure sounds, it isn’t easy to sell health supplements when the benefits of their regular use are not easily visible. India is home to a large population that is deficient in nutrients. It affects one in three people globally, but women and children in India are afflicted much more than the global average, as reported by The Ken last year. These people are more likely to suffer from lifestyle diseases. Yet, one of the fastest growing sectors in health needs to fight the consumer trust battle in India. For established names, the timing couldn’t be better. In October, American nutraceutical firm GNC Holdings (General Nutrition Centers) tied up with one of the largest pharmacy chains in India, Guardian Healthcare in Gurugram, to exclusively distribute and market its products.