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Features

Why urban millennials are junking junk food

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It’s a breezy evening and three young professionals are catching up for a quick cuppa at a popular outdoor café after work. The conversation ranges from the weather (excellent) and new places in town (the new, large microbrewery in the city’s northern parts) to music (Bob Dylan’s new album) and, of course, family and work (largely boring). When it’s time to order food, there is instant consensus – everyone is hunting for the healthiest options on the café’s menu. Multigrain bruschetta, perhaps? Salad? Yogurt parfait? Anything that doesn’t have sugar or carbohydrates will do.

Over the past five years, a whole host of health food start-ups have taken root in the country. And in just a short span of time, this ecosystem has already evolved to cater to—seemingly—every single conceivable health food need and fad. Whether it is low-carb high-protein grains and flours, organic produce, healthier versions of old Indian favourites like rajma or biryani or butter(-less) chicken curry, or internationally popular trends like dried Tibetan lemon, kale chips, activated charcoal drinks, alfalfa seeds or yogurt parfaits, new-age companies offer them all. “It (health foods) has moved from just being a trend now to something a lot more substantial. We are seeing consumers move or at least attempt to move to a healthier lifestyle. In a city like Bengaluru, where focus on physical fitness has really outstripped other major cities, it’s natural that this trend would find a firmer footing here than anywhere else,” said chef Manu Chandra.

Although he maintains that he is a propagator of decadence, Chandra has, naturally rather than by a conscious choice, brought in healthier elements to his restaurants from the get-go. At his Toast & Tonic restaurant, for instance, the chef uses a lot of millets, organic produce, nuts and seeds and seasonal local produce. “I need something which creates excitement for a client from a gourmet perspective, not from a health perspective. But if it can align the two then great, and I think that’s what really works for us,” he adds.

The Bengaluru menu

A majority of the nation’s health food start-ups—FreshMenu, eat.fit, Grow Fit, HappyHealthyMe and Healthy Buddha—are headquartered in Bengaluru. Some, like Healthy Buddha and Grow Fit, sell their fresh products only in a few cities, of which Bengaluru is the top market. FreshMenu, for instance, gets around 65% of its business from India’s Silicon Valley. With several other new-age brands across the city—including Fit Dish Fetish, Chefkraft, PurpleBasil, Fresh Pressery, The Well Dressed Greens, Enerjuvate Café, Hwealth Café and Vaathsalya Millet Café—consumers have lots of choice.

Healthy Buddha delivers organic produce from its fields to consumer’s doorstep. Photo:Jithendra M/Mint

“I tried Fit Dish Fetish for a month and it’s better than having burgers and pizzas. But such delivery options are only a good alternative for people who don’t have time to cook at home. If you have time to cook at home, then there’s nothing better than that,” says Dr Srinand Srinivas, a 32-year old doctor who specializes in sports medicine. While several of Srinivas’ patients – both amateur and professional sportspersons come to him for personalized diet plans, none check with him before subscribing to these delivery services. That’s partly because these firms are so well marketed that his patients sign up directly without consulting a doctor, he says, adding that the number of health-conscious consumers in Bengaluru will only grow as fitness remains a high priority.

The establishment

Apart from the profusion of start-ups cashing in on this fitness trend, there are, of course, established retailers like Future Group and Godrej catering to the health-conscious consumer through their Foodhall and Nature’s Basket stores. Still, while most of these firms and experts agree that Bengaluru is naturally more open to experimentation, some say the phenomenon of eating healthy is equally strong in cities like Mumbai and Gurugram. “The whole concept of health and wellness of, among others, the millennial consumer’s consumption habit is becoming key. It manifests itself in your lifestyle, the food you eat, the products you put on your body and everything else. We will see a lot more proliferation, a lot more choices, and different stories around ingredients around more natural options,” says Kanwaljit Singh, founder and managing partner of Fireside Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund focused on consumer brands.

There are three key segments in health foods:

Online health food ordering and subscription: This is driven by names like eat.fit, the food brand of healthcare and fitness company CureFit Healthcare Pvt. Ltd, FreshMenu (Foodvista India Pvt. Ltd) and Grow Fit (Healthzone Organic Foods Pvt. Ltd).

Packaged health food: Snack bar maker Yoga Bar, Greek yogurt brand Epigamia, organic cold-pressed juice label Raw Pressery and smoothie maker Goodness! (DropKaffe Food & Beverages Pvt. Ltd) are among the popular choices.

Healthy, organic produce space: The big players here are brands like the country’s largest grocery start-up BigBasket (Supermarket Grocery Supplies Pvt. Ltd), gourmet meat start-up Licious (Delightful Gourmet Pvt. Ltd), milk brands like MilkLane and Akshayakalpa, Healthy Buddha and HappyHealthyMe.

Once the convenience of delivery is established, consumer stickiness for otherwise hard-to-follow-through diets and healthy eating routines also becomes easier, according to the health start-ups. “We started doing salads very soon from the time of launch because there were customers who said we just can’t get salads delivered,” says Rashmi Daga, founder of FreshMenu, which was set up in 2014.

While FreshMenu is more of an online restaurant with cloud kitchens, like eat.fit and Grow Fit, it is also planning to focus on the online subscription space soon. The start-up already has customers who subscribe to its salads and breakfast options. Its most popular breakfast dish is a yogurt parfait, Daga says, which contains Greek yogurt, museli and fresh fruit. The company has served more than 10 lakh customers since it began.

Namdhari’s Fresh store in Bengaluru.Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

Another top player Eat.fit focuses on creating guilt-free, healthier versions of Indian comfort food. It also uses millets, quinoa, quinoa-based pasta, and super-foods like flaxseeds, saffron, and turmeric. Then there’s Grow Fit, which dubs itself a full-stack nutrition company. “We are very outcome driven and have nutritionists tracking consumers during their subscription time, ” says Jyotsna Pattabiraman, founder, Grow Fit.

Organic farm produce company Healthy Buddha, set up around four years ago, delivers packaged snacks, which include healthy options like chana jor flakes and jaggery chikkis. But the farm start-up’s mainstay is delivering fresh, organic produce straight from its fields in and around Bengaluru to the consumer’s doorstep between three and six days a week, depending on the delivery location. Its farm-fresh produce is currently delivered only in Bengaluru, to around 2,200 customers a week.

Licious, which does the same in the meat space, says it is focusing on antibiotic free, additive free products that have made it a hit with the health-conscious consumer. “A significant section of our target group who are gym-goers regularly purchase different cuts of chicken, given its health quotient. Moreover, as a brand we are working towards adopting transparency and traceability for all our products,” said Pratik Maitra, the start-up’s associate vice president of marketing.

The Swadeshi Movement

When it comes to healthy food, Indian consumers want both local and traditional food options as well as those that are in sync with international health food trends. But what sells more? Is one end of the spectrum likely to grow faster than the other?

Both will continue to grow, believes Manasa Rajan, head of food design and R&D at eat.fit. Rajan says there is awareness among consumers of global trends, thanks to social media platforms like Instagram, but consumers also want to go back to their roots. Gautham PB, founder of Healthy Buddha, concurs. Despite growing demand for global produce like kale and passion fruit, his start-up focuses on encouraging consumers to try traditional, local ones like jowar, bajra, ragi, other millets, raw honey, cold-pressed oils and unpolished rice.

Grow Fit focuses very heavily on Indian or desi (indigenous) tastes in both its ready-to-eat as well as packaged offerings. “People sometimes tend to drop out quickly if they stick to just salads and grilled food. They want to go back to the food they grew up with. We don’t think salad is sustainable as a health food. Sometimes you hear about people eating only salads and then they go and binge and undo all the good they’ve done. So we always say the healthiest diet is one that you can stick with,” says Pattabiraman.

Fireside’s Singh agrees and says the centre-of-plate food is still going to be largely Indian, while people will experiment more with global trends on an occasional basis. A consumer would rather substitute wheat chapatis with millet atta chapatis, for instance, rather than eat something global everyday just because it is perceived as a healthier option. FreshMenu, for instance, is known for its world cuisine. But its founder Daga also acknowledges that there is a growing trend towards going back to our roots and to ancient grains, in particular.

FreshMenu is betting on warm salads going ahead, which will be more western in terms of palette. The start-up also launched a line of quinoa super-bowls recently, served with chicken steaks or a side of vegetables. Grow Fit is planning to experiment with fermented foods like kombucha, a fermented beverage made using yeast and bacteria that can be traced back to China.

But, truth be told, consumers who are really serious about eating healthy are choosing to go back to their own kitchens. “I used to order a lot from health food delivery firms like FreshMenu a couple of years ago. But then the quality started to drop and I had managed to make time to cook at home so I switched to making my own salads, grilled proteins and stir fries. It puts me in control of every single meal I eat and it’s much easier to find ingredients these days at places like Foodhall and Nature’s Basket,” said Sona Harris, a designer and entrepreneur.

Still, the landscape could see a lot more packaged food companies in future, believes Singh, especially due to the e-commerce channel. Health food is still largely an urban, metro phenomenon. The awareness has not yet trickled down to other cities. Premium pricing of such products and a nascent supply chain also put most out of reach for consumers in non-metro areas. Clearly, there’s more (healthy) food for thought.

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