Dr. Rohit Goel is a leading cardiologist and Senior Consultant, Interventional Cardiology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram, Haryana
These days, a lot of discussions is going on among various stakeholders in the food sector regarding the role of mandatory front-of-pack food labels in making India a healthier nation. What type of food labels would help consumers make an informed and healthy food choice and encourage the food industry to make their products healthier?
Those who are not aware, they should know that the FoPL provides consumers with easy-to-understand information about the real nutritional value of the food products they eat or drink. In other words, the FoPL aims to inform the consumers about the content of sodium/salt, fats, saturated fats, and sugar in packaged foods which are linked to burgeoning cases of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, stroke and heart-related health problems besides obesity.
In fact, ‘high in’ style warning labels on the front of food packets, is a proven strategy for informing consumers clearly if a certain food or beverage is laden with high saturated fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). And, Covid-19 has just reinforced how vital it is for the Government to ensure that its citizens eat healthy and have strong immunity. For, it is a well-known fact that persons with NCDs are among those more likely to get a severe bout of Covid-19. Nor can the NCD crisis, which is by itself a major worry, be ignored. According to a report, NCDs have contributed to a staggering 64.9 percent of total deaths in India. India is sitting on the time bomb of NCDs which can explode at any time. It is said that by 2045, India is likely to become the ‘Diabetes and obesity Capital’ of the world. Increasing consumption of ultra-processed and packaged or junk food is a major risk factor for all NCDs.
While every year an increasing number of countries are willingly implementing FoPL, India’s food regulatory body, Food Safety and Standards of India (FSSAI), for the last eight years, is still deliberating the matter even as many people, particularly children, are pushed into the trap of unhealthy eating habits.
Various studies have shown that the rate of sales growth of ultra-processed food and beverages has increased over the years, particularly in lower and middle-income regions of Asia including India as compared to the rest of the world.
Food giants are deliberately ignoring the health threat looming large over the nation. Currently, nutrition information is available on packaged foods and beverages on the back of the product. Moreover, the format is not easily understood while many consumers don’t have the time to read the fine print when shopping. Implementation of FOPL has shown that it can be a win-win for industry and public health in the long run.
If the Government is really serious about the health of its citizens particularly youth and kids, it should take immediate measures to improve nutritional labelling and make FoPL mandatory, and it would be a cost-effective strategy to promote healthy diet and prevent food-induced disease.
Take the case of Chile, which in 2012 adopted the warning label system of FoPL and have succeeded in reducing consumption of the unhealthiest ultra-processed foods and beverages while encouraging its population to eat healthy food. The country is already reaping benefits as the NCD rate is in a declining mode.
Yet another example which is closer to home, is the introduction of mandatory pictorial warnings on tobacco products in India. We know that such a move was strongly resisted by the industry initially. But, it has educated consumers about the health risks of tobacco usage and changed people’s perceptions.
There are reports that the FSSAI is mulling over introducing Health Star Rating (HSR) Label. But this is not going to be quite helpful in a country like India which has a huge number of poor and vulnerable populations. It has not been effective in Australia and New Zealand too which have introduced HSR star ratings. There was no demonstrable public health impact. HSR allows the food industry to tweak the rating as per their comfort. As a result of which unhealthy products can get away with a better health rating.
In comparison warning label style FOPL is better for a country like India with such diverse literacy levels.
The need of the hour is that all stakeholders like parents, medical fraternity, voluntary organizations and the food regulatory body join hands to push the food industry to introduce mandatory FoPL.
Efforts should also be made to catch the children young and make them aware about the harmful effects of the junk food.
Being from the medical fraternity, I feel, doctors too should emphasise how critical it is that we fix our food system for the sake of building a healthier nation.
We should make impressionable minds aware about healthy and unhealthy foods. In fact, the merits of having healthy foods and the demerits of gulping down unhealthy junk foods should be part of the school curriculum. It’s time amidst Covid-19 pandemic, we seriously thought about where we are heading for.