Drinking success

Drinking success Peach Berry Clarity: Clear Your Mind: Gotu Kola from India, enhances clarity & meditation, heavenly with peach and blackberry juices - thus reads the label attached to the bottles containing this concoction. Further, the write-up by the California-based Mrs. Wiggles Rocket Juice Company, the producer of this exotic drink, states that it is an "Indian drink made of brahmi , a spiritual herb used by the Indian yogis."

The beverage essentially consists of "99 per cent triterpene (an active ingredient of brahmi) and fruit concentrates like grape, peach and apple," adds the write-up. The company has been selling the drink as a food supplement for the last 10 years in California and "in all the important cities in the East Coast - from New York to Honolulu". "We have a market in Hawaii too," says Yvette Kingston, production manager of the group. "We sell it in juice counters and grocery shops.And considering that we produce around 19,000 litres of the beve-rage every week, we can certainly say that we have a lot of takers," she adds.

Brahmi or Bacoppa monneri is a herb that has its roots, so to speak, in the Ayurvedic granths - the ancient Sanskrit scriptures that form the basis of Indian medical heri-tage. That brahmi has the unique property of energising brain cells and augmenting memory has been known by Indian medical practitioners more than two thousand years ago. Yet, in the Indian market no beverage brewed out of this wonder plant is avai-lable, and an average consumer who can afford to buy such a product has little option but to reach out for a synthetic drink or a soda to slake his or her thirst.

Hands tied Indian Ayurvedic companies, however, have numerous "arguments" for their non-actions. "It is because no herb-based product which makes a therapeutic claim (promises to bring about any kind of change in the structure and function of body) are allowed to be sold as food stuff in the market. They can only be sold as drugs," says Anand Narain, head of the Dabur Research Foundation, a wing of Dabur India Limited, India's premier pharma-ceutical company.

However, Vaidya Balendu Prakash, chairperson, Technical Advisory Commi-ttee on Ayurvedic, Unani and Siddha medicines - a high-powered body based in New Delhi and operating under the aegis of the ministry of health, summa-rily dismisses these "excuses". "The Indian laws dealing with herbal pro-ducts are remarkably flexible. Yes, they have to be sold as drugs. But a separate drug licensing authority operates for Ayurvedic medicines and the norms and conditions set up by this unit are extremely manufacturer-friendly," says Prakash.

Before introducing an allopathic drug, the manufacturing company has to go through long-drawn and exhaustive clinical trials. In the case of Ayurvedic products, this rule is waived. And the producers are allowed to transact over-the-counter. In other words the products can be sold without prescriptions like any other consumer article. "So what is stopping them from selling their wares in a more attractive package, like in the form of a drink?" asks Prakash.

But Dabur along with several others which are working in the same field only think in terms of capsules, powders and tablets. Such consumer-friendly drinks and food items like Gotu Kola, which will probably appeal to a much wider group of buyers, does not figure in their future plans at all. "Well, I am sure it is a great idea," admits Vijay Kumar of the Bangalore-based Himalaya Drug Company, "But, no, we have no such product on the anvil, because our government does not allow us to do it."

Wobbling R&D Prakash is convinced that the Indian consumers are yet to taste a drink like Gotu Kola not because the government has put in obstacles but because Indian Ayurvedic manufacturers are too lazy. "Our pharmaceutical sector is extremely weak on the research and development ( r & d ) front. And they are just not prepared to invest funds in the right channels. So how can you expect them to come up with new and interesting products?" is his scathing comment.

So the Mumbai-based Zandu Pharmaceuticals continues to offer a brahmi-brewed Brento tablet to the customers and in Bangalore, the Himalaya Drug Company sells a similar pill with a different name - Mentad. The most talked about of them all is of course the Memory-plus tablet recently launched by the Central Drug Research Institute ( cdri ) based in Lucknow. It has since sold the manufacturing rights to Velvette India Limited, a pharmaceu-tical and cosmetics manufacturing company based in Chennai.

Scepticism galore
Indian markets are such that allopathic drugs seem to have more of a credibility value. For instance, grumbles C M Gupta, director, cdri, "We did toxicity as well regular pharmacology tests on Memory Plus. And yet we are facing flak from some of our colleagues in other research institutes. They accuse us of 'throwing' the drug in the market without making the necessary tests." In the case of Gotu Kola, according to Kingston, taste, smell and ph analysis tests were carried out, which incidentally are very basic examinations which reveal the hydrogen-iron content of the juice among others and can by no means be described as a rigorous chemical scrutiny

cdri is already in the process of developing yet another drug made of brahmi . "We have completed Phase i of our research and have submitted the details to the Drug Controllers' Office. If the authorities allow us, we are ready to do clinical trials," he announces. In other words, all the formalities that are required to launch a conventional allopathic medicine would be fulfilled. "In fact, we are going to introduce it as an allopathic drug, in order to ensure a less sceptical response," says Gupta.

So instead of making a concerted attempt to remove the scepticism that clouds over India's very own traditional methods of medication and trying to rebuild a sense of confidence about these time-tested techniques, India's present system appears to be moving in the opposite direction. As S S Juss, marketing manager, Zandu puts it, "We are selling all our products, even Chyawanprash as a drug. And in the process we are targeting buyers who are already suffering from some kind of ailment."

Holistic approach
But that is certainly not what herbal or ayurvedic preparations are all about. "The Indian systems of medicine, unlike the modern scientific medical system, has an holistic approach," says Darshan Shankar, director, Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health and Traditions, a Bangalore-based ngo which is actively promoting the traditional methods. "Their ultimate focus is prevention and not disease treatment." And this can only happen when the herbal products recommended by the classical scriptures and even the recipes our great grandmothers passed on to us become a part of our daily diet once again.

He is convinced that there is an urgent need to reinstate these traditions in their original glory. And offering a handful of pills to the Indian customers is certainly not the most effective way of attracting their interest towards herbal products. Some herbal goodies, like those produced by Rocket Juice Company might definitely yield better results.

How do the Indian herbal product manufacturers respond to this idea? Almost all of them feel that it is an interesting thought. But their hands are tied by government regulations, they say. "We at Dabur are a law abiding lot, you see," says Narain. "In the us, it is far more relaxed, so business houses like the Rocket Juice can afford to be innovative," puts in Juss of Zandu.

Prakash, again, scoffs at these arguments. "In the us, it is easier to get a license for a food supplement. To launch a new drug, exhaustive clinical trials have to be conducted which may drag on for years. So the producers opt for the easier route. Here the government is actually trying to make life easier for the herbal drug manufacturers by relaxing the rules. Yet they respond only by complaining," he rues.

It was in 1989 that the us Food and Drugs Administration ( fda) came up with Dietary Supplement & Health Education Act which allows companies like Rocket Juice to market its products which makes claims of bringing about changes in the structure and function of body, provided it is supported by clinical trial evidence or a disclaimer which stipulates that this product has not been approved by the fda . Most of the herbal juices are sold with a disclaimer note as the fda till date has officially approved of only two herbs - ginger and garlic. However, this area of acquiring permits is still not very well-defined.

"In contrast, the Indian industries are offered a far more direct approach. The drug licensing authority, especially the units operating in the states are extremely liberal about the manufacturing licenses. In fact, sometimes they are far too easy going," comments Shanta Shastry, director, Indian Systems of Medicine under the ministry of health. Prakash shares her concern. "Take the case of the herbal cosmetics sold by the beauty queen Shahnaz Hussain," he says, "They get their products licensed as herbal drugs and then sell them as consumer items. In reality, these products contain about two per cent herbs and the rest are all a mixture of chemicals." The Technical Advisory Committee is now planning to come up with a new ayurvedic cosmetics law to stop this kind of malpractice. "So you can say that the problem we are facing in India is not about too many regulations but in fact, about too few of them," declares Prakash.

And so the slanging match continues between the industry and the government. But the fact that emerges clearly is that while thousands of business houses are making hay while the herbal boom reigns in the West, all that the Indian industry can do is to crib about the "unreasonable and heartless" authorities.

With the help of inputs from Anil Agarwal ( usa ) and Sumita Dasgupta (New Delhi).

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