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Health food booms in India

Yogurt, juices and other low-calorie foods with Indian characteristics.

A customer shops at a Best Price Modern Wholesale store in the northern Indian state of Punjab May 12, 2010. New stores have sprung up in India catering to rising demand for health food among a growing class of wealthy consumers. (Ajay Verma/Reuters)

MUMBAI, India — As I devour a (delicious) frozen yogurt, store manager Ankush Chopra tells me that Indian celebrities frequently visit his Mumbai shop. He rattles off names of Bollywood stars and then pulls out his mobile phone to show me proof. He turns his phone to me so I can see the photograph he took of one such actor, Jackie Shroff, wearing sunglasses and sitting in his car in front of the store.

“He has taken the 'berry blast' flavor, one medium, one small,” Chopra tells me. “With all the berries [as toppings] – strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry.”

Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon prefers the original flavor, Chopra adds.

As we chat in the store’s outdoor seating in Mumbai’s relatively posh Pali Hill neighborhood, a deliveryman from the nearby market walks up to the shop, carrying a two-foot wide basket of fresh strawberries on his head.

Cocoberry, India’s first non-fat premium frozen yogurt, opened a year ago in an effort to capitalize on a rising demand for health food among India’s growing class of wealthy consumers. The health food market, measured at $92 million in the end of 2008, is expected to nearly triple in size by the end of 2013, according to Shushmul Maheshwari, the chief executive of market-research company RNCOS.

The beginning of an organized, formal market for health food began a few years ago when big retailers began offering health products in their stores, Maheshwari wrote in an email. This developed as a result of a rise in education level and the emergence of strong advertising channels by which retailers could reach consumers.

In a related trend, more Indians in New Delhi are choosing organic foods.

The frozen yogurt company, which enhances its 98 percent fat-free yogurt with vitamin E, plans to invest 120 crore ($26 million) over the next two years as it expands its operation in cities across the country. It plans to have 100 outlets by the end of 2011, says business development manager Deepa Negi.

Walk into a Cocoberry store and the experience feels remarkably similar to walking into a Pinkberry in Los Angeles. Store workers offer you the choice of frozen yogurt in a rotating variety of fruit flavors or original. If you can’t decide, try a sample. They then fill your small, medium or large plastic dish with yogurt out of a machine as if it were soft ice cream, giving it a perfect swirl at the top. And finally, you can choose from a toppings bar offering 16 fruit or candy options.

But despite the striking similarity in layout and options, managing director G.S. Bhalla says Pinkberry did not inspire him. In fact, he argues, the company tried to create something completely different.

One way Cocoberry is special, he says, is that it is about more than just food. It is a lifestyle. To buy the frozen yogurt is to associate oneself with healthy living, modern ideas, socially and environmentally conscious living, the latest fashion and – at least in Mumbai – Bollywood stars.

“We’ve created a brand that young people want to be associated with,” he says.