Anyone who’s on social media and shops online is acquainted with targeted advertising. Search for a product and your social media timeline will be filled with its ads. However, with the plethora of options available, it often becomes difficult to tell the real from the fake or even illegal.
This is what happened with Mumbai-based food technologist Sharadha. Originally from Chennai, Sharadha had been getting ads for a Keto pill supplement under the brand ‘Simple Organics’ on Facebook for about a week. When she investigated it on Monday, she found that the product, listed on Amazon, was flouting a number of food safety regulations.
Found this on @amazonIN . Flouting all possible rules of @fssaiindia . Ingredient list, no license number, unapproved ingredients, undeclared shelf life. Being sold in open on Amazon! @ceo_fssai @MoHFW_INDIA I keep seeing endless ads on Facebook pic.twitter.com/jKUYeVBjGI— Sharadha G (@G1Sharadha) April 8, 2019
She tweeted, “[No] ingredient list, no license number, unapproved ingredients, undeclared shelf life” were some of Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) norms that the listing was flouting.
This product by Simple Organics made claims of promoting weight loss and offering to pay customers’ money back on its website, if they do not see results. On Amazon, the listing did not provide a comprehensive list of ingredients. While it does mention substances like “sodium beta-hydroxybutyrate, calcium beta-hydroxybutyrate, potassium beta-hydroxybutyrate” etc., Sharadha points out that they are required under Indian law to also clearly state things like additives, water content, the capsule material and so on.
Further, the product marketed itself on BHB or beta-Hydroxybutyric, a ketone that is produced from the fat in the body when you are fasting, or when the body does not have glucose. The body can use ketones as an alternative fuel source.
A preliminary internet research reveals that BHB is a popular selling point to those on Keto diet. Ketogenic diet, better known as keto, is a low carbohydrate, high protein and high fat diet that promotes weight loss. There are also several products with BHB being sold in India on several online portals apart from Amazon too.
Under the Nutraceutical Regulations which were put into effect by the Health Ministry in 2016, only certain approved ingredients are allowed in health supplements, and BHB is not one of them. As per the regulations, nutraceuticals must also adhere to several standards for purity, formulation, nutrients and nutritional ingredients, enhanced function claims and so on in India.
While the listing has since been taken down by Amazon, Sharadha pointed out on Twitter that as of Tuesday morning, she was still seeing ads for the same on Facebook and Instagram.
@ceo_fssai @fssaiindia @amazonIN Amazon seems to have delisted this, but still there are sponsored ads on Facebook and Instagram. The website is https://t.co/bpk8fQwHsB none of them have declared ingredient list transparently. Bogus license number too— Sharadha G (@G1Sharadha) April 9, 2019
Speaking to TNM, Sharadha says that this is alarming on multiple levels. “I was able to tell that it was a fake product because I am a food technologist. FSSAI has very strict norms regarding labelling, transparency in ingredients and licensing when it comes to health supplements. But someone else who is not as well educated or cyber literate may not be able to tell the difference between authentic and bogus products,” she says.
When TNM reached out to Amazon on the matter, the company passed the buck to the sellers and their knowledge and goodwill of doing business legally. “Sellers selling their products through the Amazon.in marketplace are solely responsible for all necessary product compliance and are required to sell products which are legally allowed to be sold in India. Whenever concerns about the listed products get raised, we review the case with the sellers. In this case, the said products are no longer available for sale,” it said.
A larger problem
When TNM searched for “diet pills” and “keto” online, the options to purchase online were numerous. While some of them prominently displayed legal information like FSSAI labels, there were many others that did not. Some American-made ones, like the Simple Organics Keto pills that Sharadha reported, carried a disclaimer saying that the statements had not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the apex food safety body in the US.
In India, the FSSAI, in collaboration with Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the International Alliance of Dietary/Food Supplement Associations (IADSA) set up ReCHaN (Resource Centre for Health Supplements and Nutraceuticals) in 2018 to look into rules and regulations for health and dietary supplements.
An FSSAI official confirmed to TNM that there are unlicensed products that are being sold online. “We expect the e-commerce platforms to take action, delist the product, and also inform us so that we can take action against them.”
However, a former FSSAI consultant cited that the food regulator is also complacent when it comes to weeding out illegal products. “The health and wellness market has become huge with a lot of players and products. Moreover, there is a significant backlog of products that need approvals and also lack of appropriate updates to general public on ingredient approval status. Products that are already there in the Indian market - not all of them are licensed according to Indian norms, but are selling anyway.”
In general, consumers must look out for a clear marker of FSSAI label, license number, a green or brown dot denoting if the product is vegetarian or non-vegetarian respectively. You should also look out for a clear list of ingredients which must include additives and packaging material too. To see the detailed list of approved ingredients for health, dietary supplements and the like, you can see the Schedules under the Ministry of Health’s Nutraceutical Regulations.