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With things taking a not-so-sweet turn for ‘health’ drinks, is it finally time for govt to step in?

As Cadbury Bournvita’s sugar content fiasco unravels, delved deeper to understand whether the statutory body should come up with stricter norms and guidelines to alleviate the issue of product content not adding up to the claims

Cadbury Bournvita, which positions itself as a children’s health drink, has come under public scrutiny and also under the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) radar for  ‘misleading’ consumers through its labelling, packaging and advertisements. 

Notably, the Commission has requested Mondelez India's president to review and withdraw all ‘misleading’ ads of Cadbury Bournvita within a seven-day window from April 21, as it violates not just the Guidelines of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) but also the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.

This came days after Revant Himatsingka, aka foodpharmer - a social media influencer, released a video calling out its makers over the issue of high sugar content and not standing by the claimed product benefits. The video was later taken down by him as he received a legal notice from the brand, and he also apologised to Cadbury for it. 

However, to make matters worse for Mondelez, NCPCR took cognisance of the same and decided to step in and the Department of Consumer Affairs (DoCA) has also been approached by nutrition bodies who want its interference.

Nisha Sampath

Speaking to, Nisha Sampath, Brand Consultant and Managing Partner, Bright Angles Consulting, shared that the writing is on the wall for brands that make misleading health claims. She also pointed out that it is not just Bournvita, but almost all milk food drinks (MFDs) are guilty of a mismatch between ingredients and claims.

“The truth is that MFDs as a category evolved because kids did not like the taste of milk, and needed something to make it tastier. While the MFDs do add vitamins and minerals, as such the category gives taste and energy and enables kids to imbibe the goodness of milk. But in itself, an MFD cannot make you healthy, which is why the claim is misleading. Furthermore, the ads make you feel that your kid will miss out or underperform without it – which is ethically wrong,” Sampath said.

Vikas Mehta

Vikas Mehta, an independent consultant, who had earlier worked on Horlicks - one of the competitors of Cadbury Bournvita - during the days when the ‘health drink’ was still being mixed in water and not milk in the Indian market, also shared a similar viewpoint.

“There is no doubt that no matter what we eat today in terms of packaged food, there is an excess of something or the other and mostly it is sugar because of the taste. In fact, each of the big manufacturers has followed the FSSAI guidelines and therefore, I don’t think anybody has broken any laws,” he stated.

He went on to add that the problem begins with the FSSAI rules themselves and how and what they define as good-bad, excess sugar, excess fat, etc. “What really happens is that everybody manipulates their findings to meet the FSSAI guidelines so that no laws are broken,” Mehta added.

Rahul Jauhari

Rahul Jauhari, Managing Partner, Flibbr Consulting, also pointed out that there are two parts relevant to a brand’s messaging- the ethics and appropriateness of the messaging and the regulatory aspect. 

“A brand that claims to be ‘healthy’ should be ready to be judged on that very plank, both in terms of the messaging and the ingredient story. A consumer expects a responsible ‘health’ brand to be transparent about what goes into the product, and even about the potential pitfalls of excess consumption. At the same time, if a brand does not follow guidelines laid down by the FSSAI, it’s the job of the regulatory watchdog to pull the brand up,” he opined.

He also emphasised that the fact that one video has created such a furore is a sign that consumer awareness is rising and consumers are deeply suspicious, if not confident, of marketers sugar-coating their claims. 

“To top it all, Bournvita’s misguided attempt at bullying Revant Himatsingka into silence has had the opposite effect for it has stoked this very suspicion,” he said. 

According to World Health Organisation’s Sugar Recommendations, at all stages of life, an individual should ideally reduce the intake of free sugars to below 10 energy percent. 

WHO recommends, “For one- to three-year-old children, 10 energy percent is equivalent to about 30 grams of sugar per day (about 6 teaspoons) (calculated based on D-A-CH reference values for nutrient intake). For children 4 to 6 years, it is about 35 grams of free sugar per day and for children 7 to 10 years, it is about 42 grams of free sugar per day. For an average adult (with a calorie intake of 2,000 kcal), 10 energy percent is equivalent to no more than 50 grams of sugar per day (about 10 teaspoons or 14 sugar cubes).” 

On the other hand, the FSSAI, under Food Safety Standards (Labelling and Display), proposes display of red-colour coding for the products that have added sugar content value more than 10% of total energy (kcal) provided by 100g/100ml of the product.

In the Commission’s findings as well, it was observed that Bournvita also fails to adhere to the guidelines issued by the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA), i.e- Guidelines for Prevention of Misleading Advertisements and Endorsements for Misleading Advertisements, 2022 and prima facie observed to be a violation of 8- Children targeted advertisements- (o) claim any health or nutritional claims or benefits without being adequately and scientifically substantiated by a recognised body.

Additionally, under FSSAI’s guidelines on Food and Safety (Advertising and Claims), the general principle states that where the claimed benefit is related to or dependent on the method of preparation of the food, the same shall be provided on the label and that the claims shall specify the number of servings of the food per day for the claimed benefit.

Taking into consideration the aforementioned recommendations and guidelines, Mehta stated that it’s not a problem with the company, but the FSSAI guidelines for the claims made by the MFDs are based on the presumption that children won’t have any other sweet at all, during the day or in the worst case scenario, all the other ‘sweet’ products that the child would be consuming would sum up to the rest of the half and therefore be within the prescribed recommendations.

“This is where there is manipulation because the brands are looking at it from their respective angles and what they’re doing is not illegal. Therefore, in my opinion, there is a need for FSSAI to step in and look at things from not just a Bournvita or any so-to-say brand’s perspective but standardise it as the total intake of sugar in a child’s day. In fact, why not bring in standardisation across categories which also includes juices and if it’s as bad as it is being showcased, why not ban it (added sugar) and why the halfway measure or take a similar route as the ban on advertising and marketing of cigarettes,” he pointed out.

He also added that if FSSAI allows one to put other forms of sugar - such as fructose, sucrose, etc. under added sugar, the brands are not at all at fault, if the law is being followed. 

“At the end of the day, the culprit here is FSSAI because there is ambiguity in the guidelines themselves. Also, the right way forward which was the earlier proposed labelling guidelines by FSSAI on what is healthy and what is unhealthy has not come out even in a two-year’s time period. After all, there are two kinds of products- one for children and the other for adults and there are different labels for each of them,” he emphasised.

Jauhari also pointed out that while advertising very often works on hyperbole and claims, the claims made therein need to be defensible at some point and have some truth. But NCPCR’s notice to the makers of Bournvita, in his view, seems to suggest that it’s not just the messaging which is being questioned, but the brand has not followed FSSAI guidelines on what must go on the label and that is a cause for real concern, for both- the brand and the consumers.

“As a consumer, I applaud brands being questioned and being held accountable for their claims. As a marketer/communicator, I wish brands would engage openly with consumers and take consumer feedback as input to improve product quality. You can’t always shut down someone who questions the veracity of your claims. Less so in today’s time where consumers are not lonely voices- rather they are powerful voices that can get amplified on social media in minutes,” he opined.

Sampath shared that the brands can proactively clean up their act as it’s only a matter of time before regulators take action. “The brand needs to have a ‘values and ethics’ custodian who advises the stakeholders to act in better ways. Wrong actions taken to milk short-term profitability can have long-term repercussions on a business.”

In her view, while brands can take the initiative of listing down the product ingredients as it is and not modify them in any way, it’s also down to regulators and authorities to enforce labelling that helps consumers to make informed choices.

“Countries like Chile and Mexico actually cracked down on junk food like colas and sugary cereals, charging a hefty ‘nutritional tax’ and also forcing manufacturers to add warnings like ‘high sugar’ which are easy for consumers to read and understand. They literally treat these categories the way we treat cigarettes, trying to force people to consume less. We may choose to adopt a similar path in India, given the size or our population and the number of consumers down the pop strata who may not be literate to read labels and hence need to be supported to make healthy choices,” she suggested.

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