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India's millennials get a taste for ayurveda

Traditional wellness system redefined in home market as consumer health concerns mount

NEW DELHI -- Himalayan herb-infused energy drinks, ayurvedic shakes and powders, herbal juices and gummies, immunity boosters and more such products are jostling for buyers' attention in Indian shops as COVID-19 ravages the country.

Capitalizing on surging demand for chemical-free products and health-boosting ingredients, Indian restaurants are also launching ayurvedic menus, fashion designers are crafting ayurvastra (herb-treated) apparel, and wellness companies are tapping into a groundswell of beauty-enhancing plants and herbage.

Ayurveda, a Hindu wellness system popular in the international health and spa industry, has been an integral part of Indian households for thousands of years. But its contemporary form -- easy to consume, carry and attractively packaged -- is now finding greater resonance at home among modern consumers, especially millennials. Government surveys show that 45% of Indians born between 1982 and 2000 prioritize leading a healthy life, have fitness apps installed on their phones, and are willing to pay a premium for good health.

This demographic, which is entering its prime spending years, is expected to drive sales in the Indian ayurveda market to about $10 billion by 2024 from $4 billion in 2018, according to Research and Markets, an Ireland-based global research market store.

"The consumers' understanding of the significance of a healthy lifestyle when the world is facing its worst health crisis is a gargantuan opportunity for ayurveda and e-commerce brands," says an official at the Himalaya Drug Co., an herbal health care manufacturer based in Bangalore. The company recently added a raft of ayurveda products to its portfolio containing herbs such as guduchi, a bitter plant also known as amrit, basil, amalaki (Indian gooseberry, also known as amla) and ashwagandha (Indian ginseng).

The Phalada Pure and Sure range of ayurveda products. (Courtesy of Phalada Pure and Sure)

Dabur, one of India's largest consumer-product companies, has introduced Amla Juice and an "immunity kit" containing herbal elixirs to its repertoire, along with products featuring tulsi (also known as holy basil), including Tulsi Drops and Giloy Neem (a climbing vine) with Tulsi Juice. Phalada Organic Consumer Products' new range of superfoods -- including Superfood Amla Powder and Organic Superfood Triphala Powder -- draw on the power of plant extracts, herbs and tree barks. Triphala is a traditional herbal mixture of three astringent tree fruits.

According to Shrey Badhani, co-founder of Kapiva, India's first modern ayurvedic nutrition brand, the types of food people eat have changed significantly in recent years. "Through Kapiva we're bringing in selectively sourced, natural functional foods to Indian consumers. The idea is to innovatively and seamlessly integrate ayurveda into the daily diet of modern consumers to bring multiple health benefits to them. We believe ayurveda is a holistic approach to wellness and not just a curative science."

Badhani says the company's name is derived from kapha, pitta and vata, the three doshas (energy forms in the body) in the ayurvedic universe -- which are said to bring overall wellness when they are in balance. The company, which is forecasting annual turnover of $14 million by 2021, offers juices, ghee, organic oils, health tonics, green teas and other products sold online and through large general traders. Next year, it plans to enter sales categories such as snacking, children's drinks and breakfast-related foods.

Restaurants -- one of the business sectors hit hardest by the pandemic -- are launching ayurvedic herb-based dishes, cocktails and mocktails. Menus now flaunt dishes such as raw turmeric salad, moringa (drumstick) dumplings and mountain plants and grains believed to assist wellness.

Top: Shrey Badhani, left, and Ameve Sharma, co-founders Kapiva, India's first modern ayurvedic nutrition brand. The company offers 50 products in the ayurvedic foods space. (Courtesy of Kapiva)

A traditional shop in Kolkata grabbed headlines recently by launching "immunity sandesh" (a dairy-based sweet) infused with 15 herbs and spices including turmeric, holy basil, saffron, cardamom and Himalayan honey. Rooh, a restaurant in New Delhi, is offering a unique cocktail and mocktail menu based on the six different tastes of ayurveda -- sweet, salty, pungent, bitter, sour and astringent.

At Daryaganj, an award-winning chain of fine-dining restaurants, two types of immunity boosters are proving to be a hit. One is a traditional drink with jaggery, lemon and a dash of turmeric. The other, an antioxidant-rich cumin-carom seed herbal tea, aims to help improve digestion and gut health.

"Jaggery is known for its iron content, and is an important micronutrient for healthy immune function. Vitamin C present in lemon aids in the absorption of iron and strengthens the immune system. Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory agent as well an anti-carcinogenic," says the restaurant's chef.

Amit Bagga, CEO and co-founder of Daryaganj Hospitality, says the company is seeking to produce more such healthy dishes at its restaurant. "Our 2020 Lockdown Turmeric Chicken has a strong turmeric base, as do our tandoori kebabs, which also contain fresh herbs. All our curry bases are a combination of seeds and nuts which enrich the gravy with good fats, facilitating the absorption of curcumin found in turmeric. We're very invested in the space of offering healthful dishes to our customers."

Top: Amit Bagga, CEO and co-founder of restaurant operator Daryaganj Hospitality. (Courtesy of Amit Bagga) Bottom: The interior of a Daryanganj restaurant in New Delhi. (Courtesy of Daryanganj)

According to Ved Prakash, a fourth-generation Delhi-based ayurvedic practitioner, ayurveda is witnessing a resurgence in India because people are realizing that it is not medicine but a way of life. "Ayurveda is not a quick fix; it promotes wellness. It addresses the root of the problem by fortifying the body and improving its resistance to disease. That's why during the pandemic, kadha, a drink made from herbs like ashwagandha, licorice, basil and others, has been very popular," he says.

According to ayurvedic beliefs, says Prakash, the discharge of ama (toxins) from the body is the bedrock of good health. An ayurvedic diet relies on ingredients that aid the removal of toxins from the system, resulting in a healthy, disease-free body.

The Indian government is providing a tailwind for the fast-growing wellness trend through the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy, launched in 2014, which is tasked with promoting indigenous alternative medicine, including through education and research. The ministry, known as AYUSH, had its budget doubled to $283 million in 2020-21, and an All India Ayurveda Institute built by the government in New Delhi at a cost of $21 million aims to become a research hub for scientific information about the quality, safety and efficacy of ayurvedic products.

Meanwhile, the ministry has moved to combat concerns about the veracity of some manufacturers' claims for their products through a new "AYUSH Mark" voluntary product certification scheme. The process is managed and monitored by the Quality Council of India, a voluntary body that operates a national accreditation structure to promote product quality. AYUSH Standard and AYUSH Premium marks are issued for domestic and international market products, respectively.

"We set a very rigorous standard for the products that enter public domain because this is people's health we're dealing with," says a ministry official. "We check various parameters -- what herbs the companies are using, where are they being sourced from, their scientifically proven health benefits, the claims made by companies etc. We also test multiple batches of samples to ensure strict quality standards."

Some companies also say they are taking care to maintain product quality. For instance, each of Kapiva's products is sourced from its origin. For the amla juice, the fruits are ripe when plucked and are cold-pressed to retain optimal nutrients. The company's aloe vera juice is sourced from the state of Rajasthan, where the aloe plant thrives. The herb is juiced within four hours of cutting the leaves since its nutritional profile plummets with time.

However, consumer rights activists say that buyers' awareness of how to compare genuine and bogus claims is low. "Most people are enamored by the health benefits the companies claim can accrue from consuming their products. But there needs to be a targeted governmental campaign to educate such people better about these products, the herbs used and pitfalls of consumption, if any," says Shashi Chaliya, a consumer activist.

Activists like Chaliya are also calling for buyers to avoid uncertificated products, arguing that the health of millions is at stake, and that a failure to police wellness products properly would be a bitter pill for India to swallow at a time of heightened health fears caused by the pandemic.

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