‘I don’t have a problem with packaged foods. I have a problem with companies marketing these foods as healthy and misleading customers.’ Photo Courtesy: Revant Himatsingka aka Food Pharmer
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While you and I continue to indulge in unhealthy treats, a 31-year-old Indian is on an unwavering journey to raise awareness about the havoc packaged foods and beverages are wrecking on public health.
Very recently, Revant Himatsingka aka Food Pharmer chalked out a sugar board that brings to one's notice the amount of sugar some of the most prominent beverage brands have. On his Instagram handle, which has a following of over one million, he is seen urging people to create a similar sugar board and paste it in either their office spaces or home. This is to ensure each of us is mindful while gulping down the sugary drinks and understand their health hazards.
To dig deep into his efforts, Mid-day Online conversed with this âsocial' content creator who shared why he is on this journey.
Breaking the conventional pattern, Himatsingka opens with a rhetorical question to the writer - "What is the most important thing in our life? Health. What is health largely shaped by? Food choices. What are we majorly eating today? Packaged food, which is blatantly lying to us about being healthy.
While there are multiple reasons behind creating content around packaged foods, this Kolkata-based young Indian who has studied nutrition at New York University shares the germ behind it all: "I have always had an interest in nutrition. Growing up, I often used to see health-conscious people sipping on energy drinks marketed as healthy. I could sense it was wrong. I felt bad that these people were willing to make healthy choices but were picking up the wrong products."
âI was asked to take down the first video I posted'
Himatsingka, who is also the author of a book titled âSelfienomics: A Seriously Funny Guide to Living the Good Life', now runs an Instagram handle under the name âFood Pharmer'. The name has a fun pun on the word âPharmer' which is a combination of the words âfarmer' and âpharmacy' (relating to medicines.) "The idea behind the name is that if we eat food produced by farmers we can reduce our dependency on pharma and that food is medicine," says Himatsingka.
This Food Pharmer put out his first video on April 1, 2023, highlighting the excessive amount of sugar Bournvita has. After the video went viral attracting 12 million views, Himatsingka was told to take it down following a legal lawsuit from the company.
Himatsingka who is also an MBA graduate from the Wharton School of Business, having three years of working experience as a consultant with McKinsey, USA, was in Bhutan when he first received a lawsuit.
"I had less time to take down the video and decide my plan of action. I had never witnessed anything on such a large scale. The document I received was lengthy and had a lot of legal jargon which was beyond my comprehension. So, yes that was a stressful time, I did fear legal action but not so much. Himatsingka titters, "My parents definitely did worry since I had left my job in the US, returned to India to create videos and had already got myself into a legal battle in just two weeks."
He mentions that although he decided to take down the video, doctors came out in support and signed a document stating that all that was said in the video by him was indeed true.
He also faced four more lawsuits following his first one, however, that has not deterred this 31-year-old. On being asked what keeps him going, he says, "I have understood that this is a part of the process. What I am doing is not easy. It is not easy to bring about a change, especially when giant companies are involved. There are chances this might go on even though I hope it doesn't because this is for a larger good."
He adds, "Unlike earlier, now I make a careful choice of words. From the past lawsuits, I have realised that the words I use can be twisted in any way to build a strong case against me. I understand the risk my videos have so I now work strategically. Although it might look easy on the screen, I put a lot of effort into getting the script right to convey the right facts to my audience without fearing legal actions."
This said the content creator points out that there have been significant changes. "Whether it is the impact of my videos or not, we don't know. Bournvita recently reduced its sugar content and states it has 14 per cent less sugar than the time when I made the video. Maggi ketchup also reduced their sugar content by 22 per cent. This too was after I made a video sometime around April, or May this year. So there has been a reaction and a positive impact."
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It is only natural for consumers like you and me to pick a product by looking at the front side of the packaging. For example, most products like bread or biscuits, as mentioned in this content creator's video might claim to be wheat-based or multi-grained but have more amount of white flour or maida in it. Similarly, ketchup brands claiming to be made from farm-fresh tomatoes might not even have tomatoes. The same is true with fresh juices that might just have fruit flavour instead of actual fruit juice.
"It is important to educate consumers about the food they are consuming as healthy. Since there was a lot of misinformation and marketing tactics at play, it was easy for consumers to fall prey to it," says Himatsingka.
This 31-year-old makes videos engaging for the audience by keeping them short, using simple terminologies and adding humour. His short informative videos have brought to the limelight false information and helped many Indians switch to healthier choices.
This said the videos created by Himatsingka have brought on a wave of positive reactions from netizens. While some say he should be awarded a âBharat Ratna' some compare him to a new-age freedom fighter fighting against the evil of packaged food.
"It is mind-boggling reading so many emails and messages from people saying that they have reduced consuming packaged food which has improved their overall health," says Himatsingka.
Parents especially have become more aware of what they are feeding their children as healthy unlike earlier when they believed the product to be healthy simply because the advertisement claimed it to be healthy without really questioning if it was indeed true (this is especially true with milk drinks and baby foods).
A lot of our incorrect food choices are made due to a lack of understanding, knowledge and awareness. It is essential to know the nutritional value of every food to be able to make mindful food choices.
Himatsingka shares a relevant observation: "Many of us believe that chocolates are bad for health and avoid eating them because of their sugar content. However, we also eat biscuits each day which is even worse."
To be able to counter the evil of packaged foods, it's essential to read food labels. "Today, being able to read food labels is an even more important skill than coding." Besides speaking about brands selling unhealthy packaged food, Food Pharmer also educates his audience on how to read food labels and pick better alternatives.
He shares a few tips:
1. Always turn around the packet. Brands can make any claims on the front packaging to entice buyers.
2. Check for the expiry date of the product. Most people opt for a product whose expiry date is longer. That is the wrong practice. The longer the expiry date, the more preservatives it will (usually) have. Avoid such products.
3. Check the ingredient list. The ingredients are mentioned in order of weight. The one mentioned at the top will be present in the product in the highest quantity. The ingredients will be mentioned in the order of their quantity.
4. Make sure that sugar, white flour or maida and palm oil are not on the first four places on the list. If they are placed first, it means the product is unhealthy and should be avoided.
5. Avoid products in which the names of the ingredients are unheard of or complicated to understand and pronounce. These are usually the harmful ingredients although this always might not be the case.
6. Also check the nutrition label of products. For example, if you are buying a protein bar that claims to be high in proteins, check how much protein quantity it holds. Some mention having just four grams of protein while a human body requires more protein.
âI don't have a problem with packaged food, I have an issue with it being marketed as healthy'
This Food Pharmer always strives to make videos on the most relevant topics. He plans to focus on foods people consume the most and daily. This involves breads, health drinks, masalas, instant noodles, beverages, and snacks. He also picks out subjects where he believes there is more misinformation and a severe lack of awareness.
Currently, Himatsingka is busy raising awareness about the sugar content present in beverages like soft drinks and packed fruit juices. Many netizens are seen installing sugar boards in their offices and homes to resist indulging in drinks that can have a hazardous impact on their health.
He says, "By adopting such practices we remind ourselves to make mindful and healthy food choices." He urges everyone to make healthy choices whenever and wherever possible. "Instead of binge-eating chips, eat murmura or makhana. Instead of having sugary drinks, have coconut water, lime water or just plain water."
Adding to this he says, "Create a list of the foods that you like to eat which are also healthy and try to carry them with you to the office or college. Prepare food charts of unhealthy foods and remind yourself of how they negatively affect your health. By adopting such practices, you will be able to reduce the intake of unhealthy packaged foods."
Himatsingka himself loves eating makhana, chana and peanuts (in moderation) mixed with chopped onions, tomatoes and squeezed lemon juice.
On being asked if he practices what he preaches, the Food Pharmer says, "Yes, I do try to implement the same in my own life. I too get food cravings. I too enjoy a cup of ice cream, instant noodles or even chips from time to time, but I also resist it as much as I can. There is nothing wrong with relishing a packet of Maggi once a month or enjoying an ice cream once in a while on special occasions. However, indulging in them regularly is problematic."
He adds, "I don't have a problem with packaged foods. I am not telling people to discontinue eating packaged food completely. I am asking people to consume these foods in moderation. I have a problem with companies marketing these foods as healthy and misleading customers. The only way to fight this is to read food labels and make healthy choices."
This social content creator has been closely working with nutrition and other health experts, carrying out his research to be able to provide factual information to his audience. In this process, he says he has not earned a penny for himself. When asked what are his future plans, he says while there is nothing concrete in place as of now, he has a few ideas to raise more awareness about the importance of nutrition, food and reading food labels by developing a food curriculum, especially at the school level.