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'Learning to read a food label is more important than coding in the 21st century': Revant Himatsingka aka Foodpharmer

He speaks about his viral social media videos that have created a stir in the FMCG sector, and how pressures of the job are often alleviated by public support

Manu Balachandran
Published: Jul 31, 2023 03:08:58 PM IST
Updated: Jul 31, 2023 03:28:50 PM IST

'Learning to read a food label is more important than coding in the 21st century': Revant Himatsingka aka FoodpharmerHimatsingka had left his highly paying job at consultancy firm McKinsey to return to India in his attempt to make millions of Indians aware about reading food labels.
For a few months now, Revant Himatsingka has made a habit of taking on India’s biggest FMCG behemoths.  
The 31-year-old’s videos, published on his social media profile, Foodpharmer, have kicked up a storm on the internet, with many calling out FMCG companies for masquerading junk food as health options. The Ivy League-educated Himatsingka had left his highly paying job at consultancy firm McKinsey to return to India in his attempt to make millions of Indians aware about reading food labels.

Himatsingka started out with a video on Bournvita, the children’s drink from Mondelez, where he claimed that Bournvita was preparing children for a life of diabetes, considering the amount of sugar and sugar substitutes in the drink. The video went viral, with Mondelez even sending Himatsingka a legal notice.
Since then, Himatsingka has followed up with videos on juices, bread, and ketchup among others. In an interview with Forbes India, Himatsingka explains why he started the social media profile, how he deals with the pressures of the job, and the rollover impact that his videos have on the FMCG sector. Edited Excerpts:
Q. What prompted you to start your fight?
Food is probably 60-70 percent of what shapes our health. 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 itself as healthy. This happens even more in relatively poorer countries.
There's an interesting study, which suggested that the two leading causes of death are cancer and heart disease and that is often caused by packaged and processed food. This is such a big problem, and no one is talking about it or trying to solve it. So, I thought, I wanted to do something in this space.
So, while I was making very good money in the US until very recently, I decided that I'm going to come to India and try to do something in this space. I'm social impact driven and April 1 is when I made the Bournvita video.
I don't have a problem with junk food. I have a problem with junk food marketing itself as healthy.
I have lesser of a problem with Coke or cigarettes because most people who consume Coke and cigarettes know it is bad for you. Most people have Coke once a week, but people have Bournvita twice a day. So, you end up having 14 [cups of] Bournvita in a week and the net impact is probably worse.

Also read:  A pinch of salt: Can Tata Salt be a Horlicks, Complan or Bournvita?

Q. But you took down the video later?
I got a legal notice from Bournvita asking me to take down the video in 24 hours. And I took the video down.
I had just quit my job. And my family was like, ‘What are you trying to do with your life? You had such a good job. You left all of that, now you got a legal fight within two weeks. So, I removed the video as they asked me to. And that got even more attention.
But one of the leading doctor bodies, the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi) signed a document supporting me, verifying whatever I said in the video. About 10 days after that, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights sent Bournvita a notice asking them to take down their package.
Thousands of parents have messaged or emailed me saying they are reading labels for the first time in their lives. They have also started figuring that a lot of other products that they thought that was healthy, isn’t.
Personally, I am not against Bournvita. I'm against false marketing. I have made videos after that against so many other companies and I have got legal notices. I have got a legal notice from Dabur for Chyawanprash and Real Juice. Sting Energy got my video removed.
Q. How do you deal with the pressure?
There is a lot of pressure. I have got offers worth crores in the last few months and I have turned down every single offer. There's also immense public support and it is encouraging. Any negative pressure is often alleviated because so many parents have shared how their children look up to me.
But, yes, it’s still stressful because 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. Of course, it's strenuous, and I am not a lawyer, and a lot of people have emailed me for legal advice.
Even though I am not a lawyer, one thing I know is that when a movie comes out, there are reviews and videos made about it. I can openly say whether I liked Pathaan or did not. So why can’t I say the same about a food product? People review iPhones. And they openly say the iPhone’s sound quality is good or bad. So, I am doing the same thing. I'm just unboxing a product and saying what is 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. I have only said what’s exactly printed. I am not doing any lab reports.
Q. How do you get the legal help then?
I don't have a team. I'm a one-person team. So, whatever I feel is right, I do that. So far, I've been relatively amicable when they ask me to remove a video. I'm not fighting too much. With lawyers and relatives, they only speak about the worst-case scenario. And the best-case scenario is that millions and millions of Indians start reading labels. They start buying healthier, and companies change their packaging and product. That is the best-case scenario. So, there is a tradeoff here and I feel the reward is much greater than the risk.
Q. Would such lawsuits deter you from making videos?  
It does. My tagline is nutrition comedy. So, I try to use humor, and there are some jokes which I often think of, which now I think might be offensive. In my first video, I said whatever came to my mind. While I am still openly making videos on brands, I'm slightly more aware of the repercussions of every word.  So, I am more careful. But I have an internal motto, which is that, if you send me your legal notice, I will make sure that it is highlighted in the public that you're going to regret sending that notice.
I'm from a business background, and if I was on a marketing team of any of these companies, the stupidest decision I can make is trying to send a legal notice. So, I would advise them not to do it. I don't understand what the rationale is. It's so stupid.
Q. So, is it all about social impact then?
I cannot think of a human problem that is relatively easy to solve than nutrition labels, and it creates a massive impact.

Also read: 'Influencers need to become professional, organised and know the law': ASCI CEO
Q. How do you identify what to speak about?
For the time being, it is food. I don't want to be a guy who just goes and uncovers scams. Food is at least for the time being, the primary thing about which I make videos.
Q. But that would pit you against most of the FMCG guys?  
I think I've made a video in some form against every major FMCG company. There are some videos that I make which is focused on one product. There are some which have seven-eight products.
I made a video on ketchups about three months ago. And last month, Maggi announced that they are changing the recipe. Maggi ketchup was called Maggi rich tomato ketchup. And even though it's called rich tomato ketchup, it has more sugar than tomatoes. So, I highlighted that in my video. Last month, they announced that they're changing the recipe. They're reducing their sugar content and they are going to have more tomatoes. So, one tiny change like that has such a major impact on a large scale.
Because of the Bournvita controversy, the rollover impact is that all the other companies are also going to get scared to falsely market themselves.

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