A viral video on Instagram by social media influencer Revant Himatsingka recently took on Bournvita, alleging that its ingredients weren’t as healthy as the brand claimed. In the reel, Himatsingka, who goes by the Instagram handle Foodpharmer, went to the extent of saying that some of these ingredients were outrightly harmful. Bournvita promptly served him a legal notice, and Himatsingka took the video down.
The episode, though, has again turned the spotlight on health and wellness influencers who have followers running into thousands. Himatsingka, for instance, has 134,000 followers.
India has the largest base of influencers in the world, according to a 2022 report by Zefmo, an influencer marketing firm. By the end of 2023, their number is expected to exceed 100 million. The organised influencer marketing sector is expected to breach Rs 3,000 crore in FY2023-24, with the revenue share of micro-influencers increasing from 9 per cent in FY23 to 14 per cent in FY24.
While a breakup is not available, a large chunk of this ecosystem is made up of health influencers who regularly dish out advice and tips, while also recommending products to their wide base of followers.
The growing category is now on the government’s radar. In an interview to Business Standard recently, Rohit Kumar Singh, secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs, said the government is looking at regulating health and wellness influencers with new guidelines.
The proposed guidelines will make it mandatory for influencers to disclose and prominently display their qualifications for dispensing advice on health and wellness.
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Life coach Mickey Mehta says the move is welcome. “The government should come down very strongly on these influencers who readily belt out advice and recommend products for money.”
He adds that he turns down at least three-four brand promotional offers every month since they have a negative impact on health. He takes the example of whey protein, which is often recommended by influencers to help strengthen the body.
“Natural sources of protein are healthy and wholesome. But the whole madness of protein powder is not about health, but the industry. People don’t understand that protein needs to be taken with complex carbs,” he says, adding that “instructors with six-month courses posing as influencers don’t understand the perils of protein on the kidneys and how it can even lead to inflammation and acidosis.”
Tanny Bhattacharjee, a yoga influencer on Instagram with 1,116K followers, says she got her professional teacher’s training from Yoga Alliance in Rishikesh, and also did a short online course on nutrition.
“I started with propagating female fitness on social media and the content started picking up, so brands started reaching out for promotional activities,” she says.
Bhattacharjee, who now endorses a handful of health products on her page, claims that she uses them all before recommending them to her followers. “Sometimes followers reach out themselves to ask about supplements they should take to help with their health issues.”
Neha Ranglani, a vegan nutritionist, says that discretion is very important when it comes to using products. “People need to work with health coaches who will tell them what they need, how much they need, why they need it, and when to stop,” she says. “Not everyone needs everything. Influencers need to understand this and stop loosely promoting the so-called healthy stuff such as ‘giloy’ or supplements.”
Ranglani, who has 142k followers on Instagram, got a degree in dietetics from SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, and did a course in integrative nutrition from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, New York.
“The key to promoting brands on social media is to take a long look at the ingredients list. It is also important to know how genuine a brand is and speak to them about their sourcing of ingredients,” she says.
Being a vegan, Ranglani promotes only vegan products, with a focus on home-run brands. “It is a great space to educate people as long as it is not done for profits,” she says. She, too, welcomes the idea of guidelines.
Arun Gupta, however, feels differently. A paediatrician and convener of Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest, a think tank, Gupta says while the intent of the guidelines seems good, "the move might not help much. It is the government’s job to take care of regulations on the quality of food. Some regulations exist but they are weak.”
He gives the example of baby food, which he has been monitoring for 30 years. The government has not done much on that, he says.
As for influencer qualifications, he says, “They can always get fake degrees to keep doing what they do. So, the control needs to come from the other side, with the people in power framing stricter regulations on the quality of products.”