Food & Wellbeing: Sifting Myth From Reality

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With health and wellness dominating the minds of consumers, food manufacturers are making a beeline for patenting many new-line products to protect their innovation and techniques

Today, most of us are flooded with an avalanche of mostly unsolicited advice on what kind and type of food we should eat. The advice gets more pressing if one is suffering from any kind of lifestyle ailment such as diabetes. However, while such advice is common and comes in heaps, it is important to winnow out the good ones from the more platitudinous kind.

“I have been a diabetic for some time now and I am constantly being bombarded with lots of advice on the kinds of food I should consume ranging from low-carb food to moderate carbs, keto, and other types… With so much information overload, I was induced to creating a digital body twin for myself in an app that tells me what I should eat, how much to eat, and what’s my metabolic score at the end of the day. However, I still get the feeling that all I get to hear is perhaps loads of information but not real knowledge and I hope that the panellists in this session will bring their expertise to bear more light on this subject,” mused Ramaswamy Venkatachalam, co-promoter of Lifespice India as part of a session at India Food Forum 2022.

So, is there really a credible measuring gauze for wellness and well-being and how does one go about defining it in a satisfactory way? Also, most people generally tend to associate healthy food as not being really tasty enough. Is it possible to demolish the oxymoron of healthy food as also being tasty? And what role does food play in the wellness space? But before one moves further into the thick of discussion, it’s important to first understand what’s wellness and how one defines it.

“Well-being is the state of happiness in your mind. If you are happy in your mind, it doesn’t really matter whether you eat once a day or six times a day. I run restaurants and I can say for a fact that serving home-cooked style food doesn’t sell…people visit restaurants to enjoy that special sensory experience and they expect the food to feel and taste very different from what they eat at home. If they get a happy meal at the restaurant even if it comes loaded with ingredients that cannot be termed healthy, diners go away with a happy state of mind and that in itself creates the conditions for good digestion, well-being, and good health. At the same time, it’s fallacious to say that home-cooked food is not tasty. All of us, down the lines of generations, have been fed and reared on home-cooked food, which is both healthy as well as tasty. So, any kind of food that triggers happiness inside you, is good food and that food is both healthy and also tasty, and it can come to us either through a chef or a mother’s hand or through spices…the bottom line is that food that triggers happiness also creates the conditions for our well-being and health,” noted Chef Harpal Singh Sokhi, director, Turban Tadka Hospitality, also part of the discussion at India Food Forum 2022.

Pranay Jham, co-founder, ACTIVeat, took off from where chef Sokhi left off, adding that happiness comes from what one loves to do. “Happiness and well-being also come from eating food that one really likes and also by balancing one’s life whether it’s by way of doing workouts or doing anything that takes your mental stress away and makes you happy. So, apart from eating what one likes, one should also balance life by ensuring that one gets enough sleep, keeps adequately hydrated and does things that one enjoys, all of which allows one to stay at the top of the game.”

Ruby Sound, dietitian & nutritionist and secretary of the Indian Dietetic Association, brought into perspective how food, lifestyle, science and personalized advisory come together to create the foundations for long-lasting well-being for any person. “Food may be different for all of us.  As a dietitian, I look at food from both the wellness and illness angles. Today, people approach dietitians not only to seek food solutions for any underlying ailment but also to advance and extend their state of well-being. For any dietitian, the most important thing in any food product is its nutritional value. So, we look at the nutrition label of the product to know about its calorific value, what percentage of sugar, salt and fat it has, and the amount of protein it carries. Those numbers carry the critical information that we look at for deciding how healthy the product is and whether it promotes a person’s state of well-being. For a person who is ill or hospitalized or has an underlying health condition, taste is not the priority; health is. We look at food as a source of nourishment and not as something to tickle the palate. We look at the science of the food ingredients, the guidelines prescribed by ICMR and NIN and the specific requirements of a person when deciding on what and how much of a food product is needed for the nourishment of an individual and these can vary according to age, gender, and other conditions of a person.”

Sachin Agarwal, chief operating officer, Nature’s Basket, a chain of gourmet retail stores that has carved an enviable reputation for stocking healthy food products and for its impressive Health & Wellness section, said, “Retailers like us have always wanted to do something special around the Health & Wellness category. In line with this vision, we created special zones at our stores about 5 years ago and named them ‘Diet’ or ‘Health & Wellness’ zone. During the period of the pandemic, we improvised further and created more such sections: for instance, a special Salad counter or a Cold-Pressed juice section besides bringing upfront some special food categories like fox nuts and dry fruits. All such initiatives were thanks to the feedback we got from our customers regarding what they were looking for and wanted to buy. However, in spite of taking these commendable initiatives as a result of our customer feedback, we have found that the knowledge of our store staff lags compared with what the consumers would like to know about some of the products stocked by the store. Thankfully, owing to some recent technologies coming in like food traceability, consumers are now able to gain a lot of information regarding the source of a food product, when it was harvested and packaged and when the product reached the store, and so on and so forth. Retailers too are working to offer more authentic and reliable information on the products to their customers and it is a trend that will catch greater force and momentum going forward. Even our store layouts have undergone a change in favour of a higher focus on health-driven products with almost 40% of the store space now being allocated to health and wellness products.”

With health and wellness dominating the minds of consumers, food manufacturers are making a beeline for patenting many of the new-line products to protect the innovation and techniques that have gone into the making of the product.

“As a lawyer specializing in intellectual property rights, I can say that recent years have seen a lot of food manufacturers applying for patents, which was earlier the preserve of companies in software, electronics and pharmacy domains. Many of the companies participating and exhibiting at this Food Forum such as the likes of Dabur and the DS Group are fairly active in filing for patents to protect their intellectual property rights for the various formulations that they keep introducing. Many such companies are coming out with various herbal products and unique formulations done after repeated lab tests, trials and clinical data and these products are able to demonstrate high synergistic and efficacious therapeutic behaviour, which needs to be patented and protected. Instead of having to consume five things independently, if companies are able to make just one product or a tablet that proffers all the benefits of 5 different products, then it certainly raises the therapeutic efficacy of the product and this is a frontier towards which food science is rapidly progressing. Having said that, I also need to point out that most food manufacturers still do not have a significant appreciation of the role that intellectual property rights can play in their new food products. This situation is quite a contrast to the conditions in the US and other developed countries where there is a lot of IP work going on for food manufacturers who want to differentiate their products from others in the marketplace and to prevent others from copying the formulations once they are commercialized,” said Tarun Khurana, co-founding partner & patent attorney, Khurana & Khurana.

With food and well-being the focus of the panel discussion, Ramaswamy Venkatachalam of Lifespice India, which was also the session partner, said: “According to the World Health Organization, the burden of fatal diseases on the living population today is growing at over 8% per year, which is very unfortunate. While this statistic made us sit up and think hard about it, it also proved to be the spark that led to the birth of our company. The company was born with the purpose of producing product/s that can help to reduce this alarming burden of fatal diseases in the population. To put it simply, Lifespice’s purpose is to help people live longer and healthier and our spice products play a big role in enhancing the well-being of our physical bodies and minds.”

According to Venkatachalam, Lifespice is not just another spice manufacturer but more of a science-based spice creator that supplies only original spices.  Without claiming its products to be some kind of medicine or cure for certain diseases, Lifespice sees itself as a nutraceutical brand that helps to regulate genes and improves well-being.

To fulfil its avowed purpose of promoting well-being, Lifespice spent about a year and a half doing research related to the science of spices followed by testing in pharmaceutical labs after which it applied for patents and as a result of which the company was able to come up with products and offerings that helped people to reduce their disease burden. “Basis our research on spices, we came up with certain formulations and combinations of spices, which help to deliver health-boosting phytochemicals that keep diseases at bay and help us live longer,” said Venkatachalam, adding that Lifespice can justly claim to be India’s first science-backed spices company.

“We did over a year of research on zebrafish, which shares bio-equivalence with the human species and has the same major organs and tissues as humans with their muscle, blood, kidney and eyes sharing many features with human systems. We made some spices that were fed to the fish while others were given a placebo. After some 10 days of feeding the fish, we noticed that those that consumed our spices showed better gene regulation. Based on those experiments, we came up with certain combinations of spices that help to fight diseases like cancer, asthma, diabetes, and high cholesterol,” said Ganesan Varadarajan, founder of Lifespice India.

The article first appeared in the December 2022 issue of the India Edition of Progressive Grocer Magazine.

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