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Weightloss industry dragged down by unsubstantiated claims

By RJ Whitehead , 12-Oct-2012

Last week’s launch of global weightloss major Rapid Nutrition into India saw claims that the company’s Leisa’s Secret scientific programme will be the first of its kind in the country.

That is a big claim in anyone’s book, but when a vast and fast-growing middle-class suffering from well-chronicled issues of obesity provides the backdrop, in a country that is being jealously coveted by international corporations, it is in effect frankly staggering.

It’s not as if medically endorsed programmes are not in demand in India—just last week, FoodNavigator-Asia reported on how 80% of urban professional women in the country are overweight. Middle-class Indians, after all, have both the money and the wherewithal to opt for effective solutions.

Taking the easy route

According to Amit Strivastava, Rapid Nutrition’s local promoter, weightloss players have taken the easy route, marketing standalone products accompanied by claims that have not been validated by the medical community.

The market is ruled by pyramid and multilevel companies; their business model is all about economics and nothing to do with science. Consumers try these with little or no results and quickly lose faith,” Strivastava explains.

Because of India’s vast geography, he reasons, there is space for everyone, no matter what they claim, and there is a free-for-all when it comes to advertising.

A number of companies focus on packaging and providing huge claims. Many of these claims are international, so there is no way to revalidate them, and no way to find out if they exist or not. People end up trying whatever is available on the market out of desperation.”

He argues that weighloss companies fear that doctors will ask too many questions if they approach them for endorsement of these standalone products: “They will need scientific background, and understandably, the manufacturers will not really want to give this. Even though most standalone products will work to an extent, like fat burners.”

Many of these are hard-core diuretics, he says. The consumer will see the weight coming off and be pleased by the results, but what is not apparent is the way this is taking place in the body. “You don’t realise that you are damaging your kidneys,” says Srivastava. “You can feel a warmth inside and feel good about it. But the body is a complex mechanism, and it can’t lose weight single-handedly—it needs a multi-pronged approach.” 

Working in tandem

Dr Hemalatha Rajkumar, a nutrition scientists at the National Institute of Nutrition, and joint secretary of the Nutrition Society of India, agrees. 

There is no substitute for a healthy diet and physical excercise,” she tells us. “A weightloss programme should always be carried out in conjunction with medical professionals, otherwise it could have adverse effects—even to the point that the patient ends up putting on weight as a result of his diet.”

She says that many weightloss products’ claims are unsubstantiated, a result of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (1954) being replaced by a regulator, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), in 2006. Initially, this was a toothless body, but new labelling and claims rules, formulated in 2011, have given the FSSAI more weight and authority to act.

Strivastava, meanwhile, explains that Rapid Nutrition has been working closely with the FSSAI to set up its own watchdog, the Heal Foundation, to serve the regulator. 

This organisation works closely with the FSSAI to enforce their rules on nutrition companies that put out false claims. It works in collaboration with doctors by keeping an eye on advertisements and then calling on these companies to justify their claims. They also take on the case of patients who have consumed something based on claims and ended up with a complication.

Like Rajkumar, he says that weightloss must take place in collaboration with a dietitian or gym trainer, and this is part of the Leisa’s Secret programme.

Get set for growth

He predicts massive growth for the company over the next few years, from INR30cr this year to INR2,500cr by 2017, and puts these expectations down to market trust.

When consumers can find a product they can trust, and which they know is endorsed by some of the country’s best known and most respected doctors, that will drive our sales. We have the first-mover advantage here, and there are a whole lot of products out there that promise more than they can give.”

But Indian consumers are well known for their adherence to the bottom-line, and this sensitivity towards prices can even trump expectations and quality. There is no doubt that there is a market for scientific weightloss programmes in the country, but the only thing left to find is whether consumers will take to these as more emerge on the market—if they are willing to pay a premium for safety and substantiated endorsements.

Indeed, it might well be time that the weightloss industry starts shedding some of its own mass.

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