Quantum Brief

We are giving Bharat Ratnas to actors promoting Pan Masala: Revant Himatsingka, aka Foodpharmer

Revant Himatsingka on his journey since the Bournvita controversy, being called a de-influencer and how he deals with brands in his line of fire.

By  Indrani BoseNov 20, 2023 12:23 PM
We are giving Bharat Ratnas to actors promoting Pan Masala: Revant Himatsingka, aka Foodpharmer
Revant Himatsingka said, "I sometimes empathise with brands, because if everyone is lying and you don’t, you may fall behind. If customers were aware that brand A is clean and brand B is not, then they would pay extra for A, but right now, they are not aware of this. That’s why I am trying to educate customers how to read labels." (Image by @foodpharmer via Instagram)

Revant Himatsingka, a health and nutrition influencer known as Foodpharmer, gained fame after his video highlighting the high sugar content of Bournvita went viral. Storyboard18 discussed with Himatsingka his journey since the controversy, his take on being called a de-influencer, his strategy to deal with brands, the rationale behind choosing certain food categories, and more.

For seven years, you posted videos under your handle `revanthimat’, but would get less than 100 views. Then you rebranded yourself as the `Foodpharmer,’ and your very first video on Bournvita went viral. How has the journey been ever since?

I have more than a million followers on Instagram alone. Half of my videos go viral on WhatsApp. Lakhs of people have told me that they have started reading food labels for the first time, and that all these years they were giving their children certain food products believing them to be healthy or that they will make their child taller or stronger. But now they realise it was mostly sugar.

The Bournvita video went viral not only on Instagram, but also WhatsApp. The original video was in English, but people translated it into Hindi and shared on WhatsApp; there was a Marathi version as well.

The entire online and media controversy led to an increase in the number of views. It was not just an Instagram reel anymore; it became a movement. There was a hoarding on Marine Drive (Mumbai); there was a team of leading doctors in India who signed a document saying that whatever I said in the video was correct. And these were people I don’t know.

I have learnt that people are desperate for the truth. Also, it’s very important that we simplify health. Whenever I make a video, I always try to ensure that I say something which someone with no interest in health would want to hear. I want to appeal to someone who is not health conscious.

I also learnt that things which may seem obvious to some are not obvious to others. You may know that Nutella is not healthy, but everyone in India does not know that. Therefore, nutrition education is required. The same with chocos. A lot of people don’t know it’s unhealthy. They fall for the marketing, which says that chocos has protein and fibre.

Most Indians look at the MRP and expiry date. Do you see things changing — more awareness on the part of consumers, and accountability on the part of brands?

There are some schools which teach how to read food labels. More people are reading more than just the expiry date and MRP. The good thing is that hypothetically, if 15-20 million people start doing this, brands will have no option but to accurately market themselves. Right now brands think that nobody reads the labels, so they write whatever they want and get away with it. If we start reading them, brands will have to improve the ingredients. They cannot sell palm oil and maida and call it atta biscuit.

It is not easy to change an existing brand, but I am quite sure that a brand which launches a new product will be careful. There are arrowroot biscuits by Britannia which have 0.1 percent arrowroot, yet they write `arrowroot biscuit’ in large font. I am very sure that if they launch a new biscuit, they will not do the same thing as they have seen how consumers react nowadays to half-truths and lies.

Gen Z is supposed to be purpose-driven. Do you see them being more aware about food labels?

GenZ is still relatively young, so they are more curious compared to earlier generations. Compared to a 50-plus person, they haven’t yet formed strong habits. They care more about social issues like climate change and recycling. They are slightly more health-conscious, and through these videos, they get to see how companies are misleading customers. Hence, they’re more likely to read food labels compared to earlier generations.

“If someone is honest, they have to pay for their honesty,” you said in an interview. How can brands balance between ethical marketing and profit?

It is not an easy problem to solve. I sometimes empathise with brands, because if everyone is lying and you don’t, you may fall behind. If customers were aware that brand A is clean and brand B is not, then they would pay extra for A, but right now, they are not aware of this. That’s why I am trying to educate customers how to read labels.

Brands can balance between ethical marketing and profit by being more honest about the product, and communicate that in an interesting way. There are some new age companies that joke about their products containing sugar, or they say that yes, the product has sugar, but it’s super tasty.

Having said that, I am not against junk food. I am against junk food that markets itself as health food. That’s why I barely ever target Coca Cola; I target companies which claim to be healthy.

Technically, you are a de-influencer. Do you agree?

It’s kind of funny that some people are calling me a de-influencer. I recently put up a post, and there were 6,000 comments, half of which said that “you are the first real influencer we have come across.”

For me, an influencer is someone who tries to influence another person positively. I am trying to influence the youth very positively; I am trying to showcase what is unhealthy and what is healthy.

India’s biggest influencers are promoting soft drinks. When they promote those things, people call them an influencer. But when I say Mountain Dew or Sprite is bad, people call me a de-influencer, though I am the one who is actually helping people. There are actors promoting Pan Masala, and we are giving Bharat Ratnas to them. We should call those people de-influencers, and call me an influencer.

Some say your videos are about fear-mongering, and also misrepresent science. What’s your response?

For every one person who is a hater, there are 10,000 who love. There are way more people who are seeing that what I am saying is right. So, if there are some detractors here and there, I don’t pay attention to them.

Take my Bournvita video, for example. A team of India’s leading doctors and nutritionists signed a document saying that what I am saying is right. There are so many other videos of mine about which doctors have said, "This is what I tell my patients, but now someone else is saying the same thing in a catchy and funny way using Bollywood references. I value that because if I’d said the same thing myself, people may not have heard it." Also, in many of my videos, I have collaborated with doctors — from a dentist to a gut-health expert.

How did the brands you spoke about react to your videos? How are you dealing with their reactions?

Brands don’t like the truth being said. To put pressure, they usually send a legal notice — a very long document with a lot of jargon. If a lay person reads it, they will understand only half of it as there are many technical terms.

Every line of yours is analysed. They will highlight thumbnails and titles. The notice usually says that if you don’t delete the video within 24 hours, they will go to court.

I have become slightly more careful. Nowadays, I don’t typically say that a particular product causes a certain health issue. I say this product may contribute to this health issue.

If you make a video on just one brand, the company gets angry, but if you make the same video and criticise five brands, then they have less of an issue because the public reaction is spread among five brands. So, sometimes I make a video which has five brands instead of one.

What's your rationale behind choosing certain categories of food?

I choose those categories which market themselves as healthy, and those categories which we consume more of. For example, if you look at any article on obesity or diabetes, most of them will have a photo of Coke, a chocolate, or a burger.

Many Indians give Bournvita to their children twice a day. So, in a week, these children are having Bournvita fourteen times. But, they are having one coke a week. Despite having more Bournvita than Coke, most articles on diabetes will focus on Coke and not Bournvita.

So, I usually choose those products which we consume way more of without realising. The same with biscuits. People think chocolate is making them fat, but it’s the biscuits. We are having 3-4 biscuits a day, or about 25 a week, whereas we have only one or two chocolates in that time.

In non-food categories like skincare and toothpaste, a shampoo may say it has aloe vera, neem, or coconut. But how do we know it actually uses those ingredients? We just blindly trust the packaging.

Having said that, I don’t fully understand those categories. That is why I have stayed away from them.

Do you see yourself doing brand collaborations in future? Does it fit into your content strategy?

I am not sure about the future, but I will never promote junk food or a product which falsely markets itself as healthy. I have promoted many healthy products so far, but I have done it without any money.

How do you plan to evolve and grow as a personal brand?

For now, the goal is to continue spreading awareness. India is the most populous country in the world and there is such a dearth of information that I feel like if I add enough value, I will eventually make money in some way.

Since I go to schools to teach kids how to read food labels, maybe I will conduct online classes which can reach millions in one go, rather than me going to one school from the other.

First Published on Nov 17, 2023 10:07 AM