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A Fast Food Nation With Problems ... and a Health Craze

Ellen Lee|Special to CNBC.com
Monday, 8 Oct 2012 | 4:02 PM ET

Jaideep Sippy was living the jet-setter’s life a few years ago in India. A former executive for BJETS, a private aviation firm, he traveled the globe, sampled fine cuisine and consumed his share of airline food.

But after one particular trip, Sippy, who also helped establish Louis Vuitton and other luxury brands in India, returned home and drove straight to the hospital. It turned out that he needed surgery to repair his colon, damaged from a lack of fiber in his diet.

It was a life-changing moment for Sippy, who has since started The Style Kitchen, a startup developing healthy foods in India.

“The idea was really formed in my hospital room,” Sippy said. “I figured out that we've moved a lot of fiber from our food. You go out and get your technology job, which may not be in your hometown. You live with a bunch of friends. And Domino’s says you can buy four pizzas for 40 cents each, so that’s what you eat. Then in five years you're exactly where I was.” (More:A Gluttonous Food Industry Lacking Investors)

Now a growing number of Indians are taking control of their health, opening the doors for businesses such as The Style Kitchen. The shift comes in response to the country’s surging rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among the highest in the world, and the widening presence of fast food chains such as Domino’s , McDonald’s , and Yum Brand's KFC .

“People are eating all kinds of food, and living a more sedentary lifestyle,” said Nandita Iyer, a nutritionist in Bangalore and author of the vegetarian cooking blog,“Saffron Trail.”

“A certain part of the population is more aware and they're taking steps to exercise more, eat organic and get their share of vegetables and fruits.”

Just as the organic and natural foods industry has taken off in the United States, so has it begun to reach India. Citing an increasing awareness about health and the environment, a report by YES Bank, a private sector bank in India, said that it expects India's organic foods market to grow 20 percent year over year. (More:10 Hot Indian Startups)

ADF Foods, which produces and sells Indian packaged foods in India, the United States and around the globe, has been tweaking its recipes for the health-conscious palette. For its line of Indian pickles, such as its garlic pickle and carrot pickle, for instance, it has replaced peanut oil with olive oil, which has the benefit of lowering cholesterol.

“The health aspect is definitely kept in mind when we come up with recipes,” said Swathi Rai, general manager of finance for ADF Foods.

“People are becoming more health conscious in India. Because of the Internet, the television shows they see and their travel, they are becoming more aware about being healthy.”

"People have started spending more on health."

Prashant Tandon and Sameer Maheshwari launched HealthKart.com, an online retailer of health products in India, last year. The web site, which, among its array, sells nutritional supplements, sports equipment and diabetes products, has quickly grown to about 1 million visits per month.

Sameer Maheshwari and Prashant Tandon, co-founders of HealthKart.com
Sameer Maheshwari and Prashant Tandon, co-founders of HealthKart.com

Its rise has been fueled in part by India’s burgeoning economy, with more people buying health-related products, said Tandon, who earned an MBA from Stanford and worked at McKinsey & Co. in San Francisco before returning to India. Half of HealthKart.com’s sales come from outside India’s big cities.

“India is going through a health transformation,” he said. “People have started spending more on their health... People in small cities have money to spend, but they need to go to a big city, or pay extra to access (a health product). That was a clear pain point.”

HealthKart.com has already attracted the interest of investors in the U.S., raising $8.5 million in venture capital funding from Sequoia Capital, Omidyar Network and Kae Capital. Its latest development is HealthKart Plus, a mobile app that searches and compares generic drug options for Indian consumers. (More:India Declares, 'We're Back in Business')

But despite the growing awareness about their well-being, the country’s health concerns remain. India’s fast food business continues to expand, even jumping into the health food craze—McDonald’s plans to introduce its first two vegetarian restaurants in India next year.

India curbed smoking in public in 2008, but more than 24 percent of men in India still smoke tobacco, according to the World Health Organization.

And a genetic predisposition, poor diet and lack of exercise means that health disease is striking Indians at a young age, researchers say.

Since his health scare, The Style Kitchen’s Sippy has swapped club sandwiches and steaks for a diet rich in greens and fish. Under the brand Missisippy, he also plans to introduce a fiber-rich cereal, cookie and savory snack in the next few months.

“I don't think I’m alone here,” Sippy said. “Two years ago, when I started talking about these things, most of my friends thought I was an alien. Now most people want to jump on the bandwagon. They want to be healthier.”

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