A clear front-of-pack food label [FOPL] on packaged foods can be an important tool for public policy to help consumers in making healthier food choices more so amid Covid-19 crisis and arrest non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and childhood obesity which is on increase in the country, health experts including a senior doctor from the AIIMS, who has been a part of ICMR study on the impact of food on health, have said.
They said that Covid-19 induced work from home culture and restricted movement has made the fight against obesity and NCDs much more of a challenge, hence FOPL should help cut down what they called the ‘silent killer.’
Dr. Naval K Vikram, Professor, Department of Medicine, AIIMS, Delhi said that “India faces a rapidly escalating burden of NCDs, having the second-highest number of patients suffering from diabetes in the world. Increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes in young adults, as well as adolescents, is alarming.”
Dr Naval who has been leading the advance research on the complexity of diabetes and metabolism at the country’s leading health research institute was of the opinion that the warning labels (FOPL) would provide useful guidance and help people stop from buying high fat/salt and sugar (HFSS) packaged food and bring subsequent behavioural changes in the people towards healthy diet.“This would also encourage the food industry to reformulate the products,” he said.
Dr Manish Tiwari, Director of the Institute for Governance, Policies and Politics (IGPP), in an online discussion recently with Dr Naval too recognized the negative effects of NCDs on the health of the population, the importance of diet in combating NCDs and the role that FOPL can play in better consumer choice in relation to food purchase and consumption.
Tiwari said that the NCDs is continuously increasing particularly during the last two years since the Covid-19 pandemic as physical activities have been restricted and consumption of HFSS laden food products has risen sharply.
Dr Vikram concurred with Tiwari’s views and opined that making FOPL mandatory as has been done by Chile will help in a long run as has happened with the tobacco products like cigarettes whose consumption has come down after warning labels were made compulsory. In 2016, Chile had introduced food labels to warn consumers of HFSS to tackle high obesity rates. “It has started reaping benefits as the obesity rate is showing decline,” said the senior doctor.
Giving insight on the proportion of ‘silent killer’ spread in the country, Dr Vikram cited national health survey results. “The number of overweight children increased from 2.1 per cent in NFHS-4 to 3.4 per cent in NFHS-5. Not just children, obesity among women and men also increased. The percentage of overweight women rose from 20.6 per cent to 24 per cent while in men the number increased from 18.9 per cent to 22.9 per cent, according to the NFHS-5,” pointed out the doctor.
Dr Vikram also expressed concern that obesity and NCDs were on increase not only in metros or urban settings but also in rural areas, where the food industry has made inroads through their well-oiled marketing strategy.
He warned the parents and youth not to fall prey to the marketing gimmicks of the packaged food industry like offering unhealthy food at low rates or on discount. “Healthy food is little costly but HFSS laden food which have zero calories are easily available and ready to be made. This has accelerated the pace of NCDs and obesity,” warned Dr Vikram as he called upon the Government to ban junk food advertisements on TV during children’s peak viewing times to curb childhood obesity.