What Ails Health Claims

Financial Express, December 29, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta and Simi TB

In today’s world, biscuits have become a regular snack for many people. Whether with a cup of tea, on the run, or even as a quick meal replacement, these crunchy treats are now a part of daily life worldwide, especially for children. Parents view biscuits as an easy way to curb their children’s hunger. While one or two biscuits sufficed for a day in the past, it’s now common for parents to offer their children an entire packet daily. This change is driven by the belief that biscuits are harmless, affordable, and offer a quick solution for busy parents. This shift in eating habits prompts the question: Do biscuits truly deliver the health benefits they profess? Can they genuinely improve our strength, height, or boost immunity?

As biscuits replace traditional meals for the younger generation, scrutinising their nutritional content and advertising accuracy becomes crucial. This examination is vital for individual health and the well-being of future generations.

Marketwise, the Indian biscuit market is forecasted to grow at a CAGR of 4.13%, reaching a value of $4.078 billion by 2029. Factors such as innovations in technology and the rising demand for healthier alternatives contribute to this growth, with creative variations in shape, flavour, packaging, and health-conscious options captivating consumers. Urbanisation and increased disposable incomes in India further drive the market, with affluent individuals allocating more money toward convenient food choices like biscuits.

Analysing popular biscuit brands against the WHO South-East Asia Region Organisation’s (SEARO) Nutrient Profile Model (NPM) benchmarks reveals alarming results. None of the commonly perceived safe and healthy biscuit brands meet the WHO regional standards for essential nutrients such as total sugar, total fat, sodium and energy content per 100g. While WHO SEARO standards are yet to be officially adopted by Indian food regulators, it offers valuable recommendations aligned with international guidelines for preventing chronic diseases and considers the country’s dietary requirements.

The findings highlight potential long-term health risks for consumers. These concerns extend widely across various biscuit brands, presenting it as a persistent issue rather than isolated incidents. Nearly all examined brands show a consistently high energy, sugar, sodium, and fat content, surpassing recommended levels. Consistent consumption of biscuits with such elevated nutrient levels poses significant risks for lifestyle-related health issues, including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and dental issues.

The World Obesity Atlas 2023 report reveals a concerning trend in India, projecting a substantial increase in obesity risk for boys from 3% in 2020 to 12% by 2035, and for girls from 2% in 2020 to 7% over the next 12 years. This surge underscores the urgency of addressing dietary habits and making informed nutritional choices, emphasising the need to limit the consumption of products contributing to excessive calorie intake and potential health risks.

Under the Vision 2047/Viksit Bharat plan, efforts are underway to align social indicators, including non-communicable diseases (NCDs), with those of developed nations. Preventive measures, particularly promoting a healthy diet, are therefore vital in combating NCDs. Therefore, we need to look closer at the snacks market, which is one part of the whole jigsaw puzzle.

Certain biscuit marketing, with claims like “supports/boosts immunity” or visuals suggesting increased height, lacks substantial scientific backing, exploiting consumer trust and leading to purchases under false pretences. Despite an advisory from the Central Consumer Protection Regulatory Authority in January 2021, cautioning against misleading claims exploiting the Covid-19 situation, such practices persist. Scientifically questionable concepts like ‘immune boosting’ can perpetuate inaccurate information, fostering a false sense of security and potentially encouraging higher-risk behaviours. This misinformation may result in financial loss and increased confusion on effective responses to future pandemic situations.

“Front of Package Labelling (FoPL) undeniably achieves the goals of promoting safe and transparent food products, aiding consumers in making healthier choices. Food regulators must take the lead in imposing globally agreed ‘cut-offs’ on concerning nutrients in all packaged and processed foods. This proactive approach establishes a standardised and informed framework, safeguarding the health and interests of consumers,” says Seema Mehta, a public health management expert and professor at IIHMR University, Jaipur.

Johnson J Edayaranmula, executive director, National Resource Centre for NCDs, Kerala comments, “Biscuits won’t work miracles for your child’s health. When consumed occasionally and in moderation, they generally pose no harm to one’s health. What is crucial for the parents to understand is that biscuits can never replace a proper meal and are not as nutritionally beneficial as they claim. Making an informed decision is the key, particularly in the context of the rising NCDs in India, where dietary habits play a crucial role in shaping long-term health outcomes.”

The findings and expert insights underline the urgent need for clear and accurate nutritional front of pack warning labels on all packaged foods. These labels should be simple enough to transcend language and literacy barriers, allowing consumers, both urban and rural, to quickly understand the nutritional content in all popular snacks. As biscuits remain a household staple, implementing clear labels not only protects public health but also promotes a shift towards healthier dietary habits, aligning with the broader goal of community well-being.

(The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group) Views are personal.

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