Why India needs to crack down on packaged food Apextalk

An Instagram influencer has received a legal notice for flagging the alleged negative impact of a health drink. He was pushed to withdraw the post, sparking outrage on social media. The problem runs deeper. Food companies often take advantage of weak labelling laws. Mint explores:

What did the Instagram post say?

The post highlighted the nutritional ingredients of Bournvita, a popular drink for children which claims to provide ‘strength every day’. It said the health drink is loaded with sugar alongside chemical emulsifiers, raising agents, artificial flavours and colours. The post received wide traction as most consumers often ignore back-of-the-pack nutrition information. The label shows that although Bournvita has essential minerals and vitamins, nearly half of it is sugar by weight (49.8 gm per 100 gm) — that’s more sugar content than even carbonated beverages (about 11 gm per 100 ml).

How pervasive is this problem?

Manufacturers often mislead consumers by making false health claims, such as fruit juice makers using ‘natural,’ ‘real’ etc. in their brand names. Edible oil makers often sell their product as ‘kachi ghani’ (cold-pressed) with a disclaimer in small font noting that ‘kachi ghani’ is ‘part of the brand name and does not represent the true nature of the product’. Recently, a celebrity promotion advised mothers to feed children biscuits instead of losing sleep over what to cook. The ad was withdrawn after nutritionists pointed out that biscuits made of sugar and milk solids cannot replace a freshly prepared meal.

What did Bournvita say in its response?

The company said a 20g serving of Bournvita has 7.5 gm of added sugar, which is “much less” than the daily recommended limit for children. This ignores the ‘total sugar’ content of 10 gm (added sugar+the sugar in ingredients) per serving, and the fact that just one glass of the drink provides 40% of the sugar a child can have in a day (25g per day).

Are better labelling laws a solution?

India does not have a law that prohibits marketing of junk and ultra-processed food for children. Last year, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India released a draft policy on front-of-pack labels which can alert consumers on high levels of sugar, salt and fat in packaged food. But nutrition experts said health-star ratings will confuse consumers. A sugary food item with added vitamins and minerals can be whitewashed to look healthy. So, experts asked for ‘warning labels’ which are easy to understand.

What are the health implications?

Ultra-processed food can lead to overeating due to their sensory properties—you empty a packet of chips, and want more. In India, non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension is rising. A 2019 health ministry survey found one in 10 school children to be diabetic while one in 20 had hypertension. A study commissioned by FSSAI found that 95% of packaged food items exceed recommended thresholds for either salt, sugar or fat. No wonder, the food industry is pushing back hard.

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