Manu Balachandran, Forbes India
July 28, 2023
Revant Himatsingka doesn’t despise junk food.
The 31-year-old firmly believes that those who consume it also know the perils and long-term risks associated with it. From obesity to heart disease and diabetes, junk food is often counted as a more serious threat to life than even smoking according to some studies. “Most people who consume Coke and cigarettes know they are bad for you and consume them,” Himatsingka says.
Himatsingka, however, has a problem with junk food masquerading as healthy. That’s why over the past few months he has been busy calling out its makers, and in the process taking on some of the world’s biggest FMCG behemoths.
Since April this year, Himatsingka, through his social media profile, Foodpharmer, claims to have taken on almost all the FMCG companies in India, whose products he has reviewed, and in the process has been swamped with lawsuits. Himatsingka has a following of half a million followers on Instagram.
“Food is probably 60-70 percent of what shapes our health,” Himatsingka told Forbes India over a telephone call. “And what is shaping our food today is packaged food, which is very different from what our grandparents grew up eating. Most packaged food is just selling junk and they’re marketing it as healthy. This happens even more in relatively poorer countries.”
Himatsingka began his war against fake claims with a video about Bournvita, made by confectionary maker Mondelez. That video, critiquing the children’s drink for its excessive use of sugar, was shared across social media and on WhatsApp. Himatsingka poked fun at Bournvita’s tagline Tayyari Jeet Ki (preparing for victory), instead suggesting that Bournvita was preparing children for diabetes.
He listed out all the ingredients in Bournvita, debunked claims that the drink is healthy, and remarked that half of a package of Bournvita is sugar, and [it] even contains cancer-causing ingredients.
Trouble soon followed. Mondelez sent Himatsingka a legal notice asking him to take down the video within 24 hours. Coincidentally, the notice came to him on the last day of his notice period at McKinsey where he had been working as a consultant. Unfortunately for Mondelez, the video continues to be in circulation, more so across WhatsApp. Himatsingka took down the video and even issued a statement saying that he had no interest or resources to take on the company in any court cases.
“Most people have Coke once a week,” Himatsingka says. “But people have Bournvita twice a day. So you end up having 14 [servings of] Bournvita in a week. So, the net impact of Bournvita is probably worse than that of Coke.”
“As a growing market, India is potentially a natural “dumping ground” for poor products and processes that have been used by prominent brands in other markets,” Devangshu Dutta, the founder and CEO of management consultancy firm Third Eyesight says. “It is incumbent upon Indian customers to be diligent, picking up cues not only from Indian consumer-activists and but also their counterparts in the developed economies.”
From Kolkata to New York and back
Himatsingka grew up in an upper-middle-class household, with a homemaker mother and a father running his own business in Kolkata.
After his schooling, Himatsingka went to New York to study finance at the New York University’s NYU Stern School of Business where he graduated in finance. For a year after that he worked with a bank in the US. At 22, he ventured out into writing a book, Selfienomics, a self-help comedy book focusing on managing finances, health, religion, death, starting a business, and even completing projects on time.
“I wrote one chapter on how to read a food label even then,” Himatsingka says. “Back then, and even now I believe that it is the most important skill in the 21st century.” While he did secure admission into the illustrious IIM Bangalore, Himatsingka turned it down, instead focussing on his book.
By 2018, Himatsingka went to do an MBA at Wharton and followed it up with a course in nutrition, while also starting work at McKinsey as a consultant. “As a consultant, you work to solve business problems and you try to structure solutions,” Himatsingka says. “We focus on our career when it comes to structuring solutions and being data driven. But I try to extrapolate that into life. In life, one of our most important aspects is health.”
Himatsingka was also concerned by the growing link between cancer and heart diseases to packaged and processed food. In 2019, a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggested a possible link between “ultra-processed” foods and cancer. The study defined ultra-processed foods as those lacking vitamins and fibre, which also contain high levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Such ultra-processed food, the study noted, represents as much as half of the daily energy intake in several developed countries.
“This is such a big problem and no one is talking about it,” Himatsingka says. “No one is trying to solve it. So, I thought, I wanted to do something in this space.”
That meant, Himatsingka, who by his own account was making very good money in the US, decided it was time to come back home, and try and do something around awareness. “I’m very social impact driven,” Himatsingka says. “April 1st is when I made the Bournvita video. I made a video showcasing how Bournvita was falsely labelling itself. Their label showed that you get stronger bones and muscles. Then I got a legal notice from Bournvita asking me to take down the video in 24 hours.”
The idea for the Bournvita video, Himatsingka says, came from his concern that a product like Coke had become the face of obesity and junk food, while many others were marketing themselves as healthy, without it being so.
Mondelez, the makers of Bournvita soon retorted that the drink contains nutrients such as Vitamin A, C, D, iron, zinc and copper that help build immunity and have been part of its formulation for 70 years. It also said that every serve of Bournvita has 7.5 grams of added sugar, much less than the recommended limit for children.
imatsingka though found support from unexpected quarters. The Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest India (NAPi) a think tank comprising independent experts in epidemiology, human nutrition, community nutrition and paediatrics, medical education, administration, and management, issued a statement supporting Himatsingka.
“The food product Bournvita falls under the ultra-processed food (UPF) category based on its ingredients list,” NAPi said in a statement. “This industrial formulation is inherently harmful. There is enough scientific evidence present in the public domain pertaining to the negative impact of increasing consumption of UPFs on human health, which include several chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and depression (Non-Communicable Diseases-NCDs).”
The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) also issued a notice to Mondelez asking the company to review and withdraw all misleading advertisements, packaging, and labels. The NCPCR is a statutory body to protect child rights.
Fighting it out now
Personally, for Himatsingka, the pushback from Mondelez couldn’t have come at a worse time. “I had just quit my job. And my family was asking me what I was trying to do with my life. They said ‘you had such a good job, you left all of that, now you are getting into a legal fight’,” Himatsingka says. “So I removed the video as they asked me to. And that got even more attention.”
Since then, Himatsingka has been actively taking on FMCG companies and their products in the country, ranging from ketchup, and chyawanprash to juices and bread among others. Himatsingka recounts having received legal notices from Dabur and even been asked to remove a video by Sting Energy, owned by PepsiCo.
He says his strength, however, comes from many parents who have reached out to him and are thanking his efforts for making them aware of the importance of reading labels. “People are reading labels for the first time and have now started figuring that many of the products are not that healthy,” Himatsingka says.
However, the pressure of the job continues to be heavy. “There is a lot of pressure,” the 31-year-old says. “These companies send legal notices and I have no idea how to deal with it. These are very technical and very dense documents, where they analyse each line and write a paragraph on each line. I once got a 300-page document from one company and they were asking me for a few crores. It’s strenuous.”
What lies ahead?
For now, the 31-year-old says his focus remains steadfast on raising awareness around food.
“Because of the Bournvita controversy, the rollover impact is that all the other companies are also going to get scared now to falsely market themselves,” Himatsingka says. “I cannot think of a human problem that is relatively easy to solve than nutrition labels and it creates massive impact.”
A few weeks ago, Himatsingka raised awareness about the growing consumption of bread in India and how most makers of bread who sell whole wheat or brown bread use more maida, which has less fiber, and is unhealthy. He had also called out juice makers for their use of sugar by comparing various mango juices available in the country.
“When a movie comes out, there are reviews and I can openly say whether I liked a movie or not,” Himatsingka says. “So why can’t I say the same about a food product? I’m just unboxing a product and saying what is there inside it. So I don’t think I’m legally wrong. They can ask me for whatever money they want. But I don’t think they can win on that.”
Along the way, he says he has also seen positive changes in companies. For instance, Himatsingka made a video on ketchup and explained how Maggi Rich Tomato Ketchup has more sugar than tomato in its ingredients. “Last month, they (Nestle) announced that they’re changing the recipe,” Himatsingka says. “They’re reducing their sugar content and they are going to have more tomatoes than sugar. One tiny change like that has such a major impact on the large scale.”
Experts agree that the growing scrutiny about ingredients is certain to give FMCG majors sleepless nights. “Given that food has a disproportionate share in our spend, an enormous impact on our health as well as a tremendous ecological footprint, it is only natural for consumers to question the composition, the origins, and the overall impact of the food that is being sold by leading brands,” says Dutta of Third Eyesight. “Over the last several decades, packaged food has become laden with synthetic flavouring, colouring, and shelf-life-extending chemicals, which are being called into question by activists through blogs and social media. On several occasions, prominent companies are forced to change their product composition or, at the very least, admit to the health-negative implications of their ingredients.”
Meanwhile, over the past three or four weeks, Himatsingka says he hasn’t been flooded with lawsuits. That’s partly because he has become quite careful about how he words his statements, instead focusing only on the merits of his argument.
“There are millions of problems in the world. But most of the problems are very hard to solve, like air pollution. But teaching people how to read a food label is easy. I feel learning how to read a food label is more important than coding in the 21st century, where most of what we’re eating is processed or packaged.”
Indeed, the fight is long. And Himatsingka is only gearing up for more.
(Published in Forbes India)