Such concerns have prompted the food regulator, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India, to send notices to 38 companies for misleading advertisements.
Heinz's popular product Complan faces prosecution for claiming the product helps children grow twice as tall as they would if they had any other another drink. Boost and Horlicks from the GSK stable claim their products provide more stamina and make children smarter. Kellogg's claims on the slimming qualities of their product have also been questioned.
The government has also initiated prosecution procedure in 19 cases. Dr Shweta Khandelwal, of Public Health Foundation of India says, "This is an eye-opener for all of us. We should realise and understand that whatever claims are being put out in terms of nutrition labels that are being put out are not always what you should believe on. These companies claim that they use a lot of studies to base their studies upon. However in reality, these studies are not conducted in scientific rigueur. They lack many technical qualities. This is a common thing that people experience. They do not even know the difference between ingredients and tag lines for example, so I could say that they (consumers) are fooled every day. Another factor is the mixing of normal terms, terms that we use in everyday language with scientific terms, mislead as well."
Her view is not shared by the world of advertising. Ad gurus feel that consumers are smart enough and point out that there is already a system of checks and balances through the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) that has in the past pulled out a number of ads that have crossed the line.
Executive Director and CEO of Draftfcb + Ulka, Ambi MG Parameswaran told NDTV, "I believe in a free market economy, there is enough competitive pressure to stop you from making false claims. As consumers become more and more aware... and more knowledgeable, as a famous advertising man said - they are not morons. They know what works and what does not work. They know what is an advertising claim, and in their mind they know what is an admissible over claim that brands can do and get away with. The government should help strengthen ASCI's arms. No self-respecting firm will lie about their product. And in the past as well we have seen these hollow claims don't last. These products cater to a section of society that is well read and can see through lies. ASCI is an important body. It is set up by activists, clients and media and the government must instead focus on giving ASCI more teeth. ASCI has in the last one year put in place a tatkal system where you can actually file a complaint and get a panel to review it within a week or so. Finally no company, large or small, wants to sell fraudulent products or make intentionally false claims.
The companies in question could not be reached for comment, and a survey of their consumers showed opinions are diverse.
A young parent said, "People are far more well-read and conscious and I don't think they will simply be taken in by the tall claims made. I'm not fooled by it." Another lady said, "I bought a product after the claims I saw made in the ad. But when I bought it, it didn't live up to the promises it made."
Is one chocolate drink better than another, or can a product really sharpen your child's memory? In this world of claims and counter claims, one may still say the consumer is King, but it seems the King needs to read the fine print to know the real from the imagined so as to not get taken for a ride.