India: a subcontinent on a mission

India aims to become a major force in the international health foods market within a decade. Derek H Shrimpton reports on a country with a burning ambition.

India?s first Nutraceutical Summit and Exhibition, held in Mumbai in October last year, gave a powerful signal of the shape of things to come. At first glance, it may seem as if India is a newcomer to the international arena for health products, yet its industry?s origins are 2,000 years older than any in Europe. And the exhibition certainly demonstrated the country?s intention to enter the world market as a major player in the coming years.

Organised in part by Ajit Singh, president of the newly formed Indian Health Foods and Dietary Supplements Association (INHADSA), the show made it clear that Indian expectations are for major developments within a decade, and not over a longer period of time. There is unanimity of purpose in India between major companies and, more importantly, in government, where both ministers and the substantial state research organisation are behind the idea.

Underpinning the development of health products suitable for international sale is the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in Mysore. This is no newcomer to international science, having been a major participant in the First International Congress of Food Science and Technology held in London in 1962.

At that congress, the CFTRI reported research on carotenoids, isolated proteins, amino acid production and the fortification of pasta with B vitamins, vitamins A and D, calcium, phosphorus and isolated protein. It also reported on hygiene standards in production and the development of simple indicators of microbiological quality. This was a forerunner of the generally accepted norm for quality production of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and the protocols associated with it. GMP is regarded by the Indian health food industry as an essential prerequisite for the marketing of health products.

The CFTRI is now the largest food research institute in the world and the only one involved in mainstream teaching. With such substantial and in-depth scientific support behind the health food industry in India, it is hardly surprising that this industry is now confident of becoming established in the international market, not merely as a supplier of raw materials, but as a supplier of finished products of the highest quality.

A plan for success
An eight-point plan was presented at the Nutraceutical Summit and Exhibition by Dr Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The plan maps out the course required by the Indian health foods industry to sustain its strength within the home market and to become a major player in the international market:

  • A new regulatory category is required for dietary supplements
  • Food safety laws should be the basis of regulation
  • Products with medical claims should be excluded and regulated under drug laws
  • Safety, GMP and efficacy are of prime importance
  • The consumer comes first
  • Permissible limits of composition should be specified
  • Functionality should be known
  • Industry should provide the safety data

An early sign that this plan is not merely spin but a statement of serious intent was demonstrated at a meeting of the Codex Committee on Nutrition and Foods for Special Dietary Uses in Bonn, Germany, in November 2003. There, the Indian government representative supported the control of upper safe levels for the formulation of vitamin and mineral food supplements on the basis of scientifically assessed risk analysis.

Good Manufacturing Practices are regarded by the Indian health food industry as an essential prerequisite for the marketing of health productsAt the core of the plan is the recognition that current nutritional knowledge has advanced to the stage where the effects of specific dietary components on health can no longer be ignored by regulators. Furthermore, some components, including plant constituents such as polyphenols and isoflavones, may have a significant part to play in the promotion and maintenance of health. It may also be desirable to consume some of these components in greater amounts than can be expected from current eating habits.

Consequently, Sushma Swaraj, minister for health and family welfare, has recognised the need for regulation based on food law, in which a special category would be created for nutraceutical products. In the last quarter of 2003 there was active discussion within the Indian health food industry and with the Indian Government Committee, chaired by Dr Mashelkar, which is charged with the task of preparing a draft regulation. The conclusions of this committee and its recommendations for regulating nutraceuticals as a special category of food are expected this year.

Functionality has been identified as an area for research by the Indian scientific establishment. It is recognised that current knowledge is inadequate and, consequently, it is not possible to make specific claims or to be entirely confident of the criteria for safe long-term use. Researching the functionality of nutraceuticals is undoubtedly daunting, but it is encouraging that both India?s industry and government have placed this topic among the key priorities for the international development of the nutraceuticals industry.

Exporting success
Two organisations are at the heart of India?s export drive: INHADSA and the Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM Bank). In addition, many international companies are already located in India, including Herbalife, DuPont, GlaxoSmith Kline, Akzo Nobel Chemicals, Hindust Lever, Heinz, Novartis and Roche. There are also a growing number of Indian companies that are working internationally such as the Associated Capsules Group (ranking number three in the world for encapsulating), Solae (an alliance between DuPont and Bunge), Avesthagen, RSA Vitamins, Zytex and MM Activ. These companies export a range of products from raw materials to completely formulated supplements and also enzyme preparations and immunological and diagnostic products.

On top of these sectors, the Ayurvedic Drug Manufacturers? Association is a national body closely associated with nutraceuticals, but functioning in a recognised medical field. It is active in promoting exports in co-ordination with many Indian companies including Chemexcil and the EXIM Bank. The main competitor to India is seen as China, while Western countries, particularly Europe, are seen as the biggest opportunities for business. There is a growing conviction that Ayurvedic medicine and philosophy, based on knowledge accumulated over 4,000 years, offers India several advantages. However, it is also recognised that for this to be successfully exported, the herbs that form the basis of its products have to be standardised, or at least their potency must be measurable.

Traditionally, this conflicts with the philosophy itself, which recognises the variation of natural products grown under a variety of climatic and soil conditions. The Ayurvedic philosophy accommodates not only variation in the product, but also between individuals, and this is difficult to apply in an impersonal ?supermarket economy?.

Pragmatically, it is recognised that the complete Ayurvedic approach is only likely to be possible through registered alternative medicine. On the other hand, many of the herbs used are susceptible to the ?Western treatment? of standardisation and calibration, and the Indian industry, with the support of the major national research institutes, is preparing to do this.

To scientists, the most refreshing aspects of the Indian market are, firstly, the complete support of the research institutes and the government. This interaction provides the possibility of developing and maintaining the highest standards, not only of product quality, but also of product function and metabolism.

Secondly, there is an almost total absence of concern over genetic modification. Indeed, the technology is seen as a development of breeding and hybridisation techniques, and is therefore a way to resolve many of the nutritional-health problems that beset the world today. This mature approach is apparently shared by the population, which expresses none of the hysteria so common in the European press.

The inability to exploit genetic knowledge may yet prove to be the Achilles? heal of the European food industry in general, and the health food industry in particular, as it meets the challenge of a major and innovative economy in the shape of India.

Derek H Shrimpton is scientific advisor to the European Federation of Health Product Manufacturers
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