India needs to urgently implement front-of-pack labelling system for processed food

Money Control, August 23, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta and Simi TB

In today’s fast-paced society, where convenience often surpasses nutrition, it is vital to look at the impact of ultra-processed foods on our health. While city dwellers have ample access to information about healthy eating choices, raising awareness among our rural folk is vital due to the rising non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in rural India. Several recent studies have unveiled this disheartening reality. For instance, a recent India Diabetes study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research
highlights the escalating rates of diabetes, hypertension, obesity and cardio-vascular problems in rural regions, surpassing previous estimations.

Similarly, a study conducted in 2022 by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences indicates that 38.6 percent of adults and 35.4 percent of Indian children suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, surpassing the global average of 25 percent. Furthermore, according to official records, in 2022, there were 8.08 lakh fatalities attributed to cancer out of a total of 14.61 lakh cases. This marks a steady annual rise when compared to the 7.89 lakh cases recorded in 2021. Nonetheless, there are indications that the genuine count of cases could be two to three times greater than the officially documented numbers, raising substantial concern. These distressing findings collectively indicate that the primary factors behind these trends are the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, sedentary lifestyles, high-calorie diets and obesity.

Health Impact of Ultra-processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods are food products that have undergone extensive processing and contain many added ingredients. These foods typically go through multiple stages of industrial processing, often involving chemical additives, artificial flavours, colours, preservatives, and unhealthy fats and sweeteners. They are typically found in the form of packaged snacks, ready-to-eat meals, sugary drinks, processed meats and pre-packaged desserts. Unlike fresh and minimally processed foods, ultra-processed foods often lack important nutrients and fibre, while being high in calories, unhealthy fats, added sugars and sodium. They are designed to be highly palatable, convenient and have a long shelf life. Examples include packaged potato chips, biscuits, bread, sodas, candy bars, sugary cereals, fruit-flavoured yogurts, instant soups and fast-food items.

As these foods often lack essential nutrients, they are associated with a range of health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Consumers therefore must recognise the harmful effects of these foods on their health and well-being. Educating consumers about the importance of a balanced diet comprising fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins is crucial. Incorporating these elements into our daily meals, can enhance our energy levels, maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, a healthy life not only benefits individuals but also alleviates the strain on healthcare systems, allowing scarce resources to be allocated to other societal needs. Statistics from 2019 reveal that India’s total health expenditure amounted to Rs. 5.96 trillion, constituting 3.2 percent of its GDP.

Front-of-Pack Labelling

Front-of-pack labelling plays a crucial role in assisting consumers in making health-conscious food choices. By providing essential information about nutrients like fat, sugar and salt on the front of packaged foods, this clear, standardised labelling system empowers individuals to compare products and opt for those that align with the best dietary needs.

In July 2022, after a decade of deliberations, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) introduced the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling & Display) Amendment Regulations, 2022. The objective is to establish a front-of-pack labelling system for all packaged food items in India. However, despite years of consultations, ongoing debates and differing opinions persist among regulators, industries, health experts, nutritionists and consumer organisations regarding the specific type of label suitable for adoption in India. In spite of the lack of agreement at the policy level, there is a pressing need for a widespread awareness campaign aimed at both urban and rural consumers. Such campaigns should emphasise the significance of healthy consumption, which would emphasise on the pivotal role of front-of-pack labelling in enabling informed and wiser decision-making.

Recently, discussions were underway in the monsoon parliamentary session regarding the imperative need for a robust front-of-package labelling system within the nation. Members of Parliament, led by Bhubaneswar Kalita, Chairman of the Health Parliamentary Standing Committee, underlined the urgency for the government to promptly implement stringent guidelines in this matter and ensure the mandatory inclusion of warning labels on foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

Need For Warning Label

The introduction of warning labels is crucial to consumers, particularly those in rural areas, who face challenges such as limited access to nutritional and health information, language and literacy barriers, and health disparities. These warning labels enable them to quickly make informed and healthy choices as these labels act as visual cues, indicating the potential risks associated with consuming certain products. For instance, a warning label on foods high in sugar, sodium or trans fats could help individuals avoid such items that contribute to obesity, hypertension or heart disease. The implementation of warning labels in many other countries has already helped empower consumers to prioritise their health and choose healthier alternatives, thereby aiding in the reduction of NCDs.

The well-being of our rural consumers is just as important as that of their urban counterparts. By sensitising rural communities about the impact of ultra-processed foods on health, emphasising the significance of making informed nutrition choices and advocating for easy-to-understand front-of-pack labelling and warning labels, we can enable rural consumers to take control of their dietary decisions. Access to accurate and easily understandable information is essential in promoting healthier food choices and improving overall health outcomes in India.

(Pradeep S Mehta and Simi TB work for CUTS International, which has also served on the advisory body of FSSAI. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication. )

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