A packet of Frito Lays’ potato chips might soon have a “junk food” label on it as the country’s food regulator wants to make clear distinction between healthy food and unhealthy food.
“We are trying to define junk food based on proportion of salt, sugar and fat content… The calculations are based on the Indian diet chart and recommended diet as well as international standards,” Pawan Kumar Agarwal, CEO of Foods Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), told HT.
India will be one of the few countries that has decided go ahead with labelling packaged food as junk, if it contains high levels of fat, salt and sugar, beyond a level. “There has been experience of imposing labels on junk food in some countries… part of one of the recommendation on the food,” said the FSSAI chief.
The FSSAI came into prominence after the Nestle Maggi fiasco, soon after which Agarwal joined as its CEO. An officer with the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Agarwal, sees a huge requirement to make people aware and educate them about food, and help them follow a healthy diet.
In the past, he has brought large temples and mosques under the regulator’s surveillance. Shree Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai, Sri Venkateswara Swamy temple in Tirupati and Sai Baba temple in Shirdi, follow safety standards for the Prasad or bhog that they offer to its devotees.
The regulator’s move to introduce junk food label comes at a time when India is going through an era of higher degree of urbanisation. A large number of small towns and cities are being exposed to the American burgers and Italian pastas, and millions of kids are acquiring new tastes. This has led to a debate on introducing a ‘fat tax’ on junk food.
There is a larger problem – obesity. India ranks third after the US and China, with 41 million obese people, according to Global Burden of Disease Study.
To control the growing problem, FSSAI had set up a committee to prepare guidelines on “healthy diet for Indians”. The committee has made eight recommendations in the report, and a lot of it is about public education, Agarwal added.
So will there be a special label for junk food? Agarwal said it is under consideration and a final decision will be taken soon.
FSSAI’s bigger problem will be to regulate local shops selling Indian fried snacks such as samosa and cutlets. “That is the challenge… There are practical difficulties in the Indian context for street food. You can do it in potato chips, but if someone sells a samosa on the street, it is difficult,” Agarwal said.
However, Agarwal is not giving up yet. Based on the committee report, he has chaired multiple discussions to see how street food vendors can be regulated. “We are applying our mind because there is a lot of public interest… Large, vocal and articulate consumer organisations say that something should be done, but the practical problems have to be taken into consideration,” Agarwal said.