Why is fast food especially bad for go-go India?
July 10, 2013

Fast food companies often market products as offering aEURoehappiness in a boxaEUR? and encourage consumers to aEURoeeat like you mean it.aEUR? Fast food is growing especially quickly in emerging markets, where the accelerating pace of productivity and increasingly accessible markets (along with growing disposable income) provide ripe opportunities. This is certainly the case in India. The fast-food industryaEUR(TM)s growth corresponds to the expanding waistlines in the country, particularly because in general the population is genetically vulnerable to obesity-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This means that obesity prevention methods, such as counter-marketing initiatives, are particularly necessary today.

IndiaaEUR(TM)s quickly changing economy is projected to lead to significant income growth over the next couple of decades, leading to an addition of more than 100 million households to the middle class by 2030 and a faster annual growth of disposable income. These changes in the economic structure of India, coupled with a market demand of speedier eating, have helped to propel the recent growth of the fast-food industry there. Though there is still a broad wealth disparity in India, consumer expenditure on food services increased 30% between 2005 and 2009. Fast-food owners are responding. The fast-food market is still relatively new in India: the first major fast-food chain opened less than 20 years ago. Yet India has the third-largest number of U.S. fast food chains among emerging market nations. The growth of U.S. fast-food chains in India has been outpacing both GDP growth and overall consumer spending by a multiple of 7.8 and 8.5 times, respectively.

It has long been a general assumption that high-fat, unhealthy foods are one factor that contributes to obesity. In India, as elsewhere, the growth of the fast-food market provides greater accessibility to high calorie processed foods. And the aEURoecalorie shockaEUR? in India is just as great as other countries; several fast food sandwiches specifically offered in India provide more than 700 calories and more than 40 grams of fat for a single serving. Why then is the growth of fast-food chains a particular problem for India?

A recent article in the Milken Institute Review points out that Indians are less muscular and have a relatively higher percentage of body fat than people of European and African descent, leading them to be at a higher risk for obesity-related diseases. Experts at the World Health Organization determined that Asians are at substantial risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease even at BMIs lower than the prevailing definition of overweight. In addition, while the U.S. will see a dramatic increase in diabetes, the growth is expected to be much greater in India, where the number of adult diabetics is projected to rise by 61% from now to 2030. The obesity rate in India has already more than doubled in the last 20 years.

How then can India respond to the rapid influx of processed foods in the fast-food industry? One of the main solutions offered in the Review article was the adoption of counter-marketing initiatives. Sending positive messages about nutrition can be effective, especially those targeting parents and children. Marketers of unhealthy foods take an aggressive approach in developing economies as they fight for a piece of discretionary income. To be effective, counter-marketing must be similarly thorough. As an example, India has done a good job of promoting aEURoesmoking killsaEUR? messages in an effort to make the public more aware of the danger of smoking. The same must be done to make the public more aware of the danger of habitually eating unhealthy foods. After all, if French fries were portrayed in the same light as a pack of cigarettes, wouldnaEUR(TM)t you alter your choice?