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Junk on our tables

health-and-fitness Updated: Aug 21, 2010 21:45 IST
Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Advait Meghrajani, 7, tugs at his mother’s sleeve: “Please, please, please.” His mother, Neha, 34, closes her eyes and counts to ten. “I want it, I want it, I want it,” says Advait before she can answer.

Tired at the end of the day, Neha has to quickly decide whether to give in to her son’s demand for burgers and fries for the fourth time that week or say ‘no’ and deal with a tantrum.

“I’ll get it for you for the last time this week,” says Neha, opening her eyes.

Such scenes are being played out in homes across India. (See panel on the right, ‘India’s struggle with junk’). More than two-thirds of parents interviewed in a survey conducted last month by C fore for Hindustan Times said their children ate junk food more than twice a week and one-third said they ate it at least once a day. (See the survey on top for details.)

Parents face two major obstacles in their struggle to keep junk food off their children’s plates: a lack of information and relentless advertising and marketing by companies.

Take note: nearly half the parents in the survey said they did not know what constituted junk food. “I can’t exactly define what it is,” admitted Anushka Basantani, 34, a Mumbai-based mother.

The confusion is evident from parents’ answers to another survey question about specific food items. Asked whether they thought ice-cream, biscuits and bread qualified as junk food, two-thirds said ice-cream did, less than half said biscuits did and only one-third said bread did.

What’s junk, what’s not

Parents are confused partly because nutritionists themselves can’t agree on one watertight definition. (See box on the left, ‘Shades of junk’).

At one end are natural hygienists such as Anju Venkat. She says all three items in the survey are junk because they are processed or contain ingredients that are processed, such as refined flour and refined sugar. Natural hygienists argue that only natural foods, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts and sprouts, minimally cooked, are healthy.

Much more liberal are nutritionists such as V. Sudharshan Rao, a scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, who would not dismiss all biscuits and bread as junk.

He says that a food item that has a high calorie content, sugar and sodium and lacks essential minerals and vitamins is certainly junk, but biscuits and bread, whether packaged or otherwise, are not if they contain no preservatives and sugar.

But even by Rao’s definition, almost all mainstream packaged foods would count as junk, even those items that are marketed as “health” foods, such as some soups and cereals.

This means that parents are actually feeding their children more junk than they think they are. Basantani, for instance, offers her children instant soups and noodles as an alternative to chips and cola.

“But I’m not entirely sure how healthy they are,” she says.

Not very, it seems. The Consumer Education and Research Centre, an Ahmedabad-based non-profit group, found that Nestlé Maggi’s Homestyle Healthy Soups’ ‘Rich Tomato’ soup contained 4.78 grams of salt for every 100 grams of soup.

It found that Hindustan Unilever’s Knorr ‘Tomato Chatpata’ soup contained 5.194 grams of salt for every 100 grams soup. India’s Food Standards and Safety Authority of India, a statutory body set up in 2006 to regulate food manufacturers, does not yet specify safety standards. But the UK’s Food Safety Agency says that more than 600 milligrams of sodium, or salt, in 100 grams of the item is dangerous.

This means that the Maggi soup has nearly eight times and the Knorr soup more than eight times the ‘dangerous’ level.

In an email response to our query about this finding, Nestlé India’s spokesperson said the sodium levels in soups “need to be looked at on a per serving basis and are acceptable”. But he did not quantify what this was. Hindustan Unilever claimed all its soups contained less than 360 milligrams per 100 grams of soup.

That might seem like one person’s word against another, but as nutritionists point out, there are many other problems with packaged food (See the panel on the left, ‘Shades of Junk’.)

The Centre also found that most breakfast cereals had much more than the acceptable levels of sugar (See box at the bottom right, ‘Cereal trouble.’)

Confusion about food labels compounds the fundamental problem of deciding what junk is. “Most food labels are obscure,” says Preeti Shah, senior director at the consumer group. “We should adopt a simpler symbolic

system like the traffic light: packaged food with high levels of harmful ingredients should carry a red symbol, those with medium levels a yellow one and those with none a green one.” (See box below,‘How to judge a food by its label’.)

For the minds of babes

Even if a parent has a clear idea of what junk food is and can read labels like a pro, they can’t stop their kids from asking for it, so relentless is the advertising and marketing targeted at children. “I just don’t know how to battle the marketing blitzkrieg,” said Mumbai’s Neha Meghrajani.

Children’s television channels aired 44,887 processed food advertisements in April, according to What’s On India, a television channel. Children watching shows during prime time, i.e. between 4 pm and 6 pm, end up watching 21 ads for processed foods, it further found. (HT checked this data with Television Audience Measurement.)

In 2008, the Consumers Association of India, a Chennai-based non-profit group, started a campaign called the Lunchbox Challenge in 60 Chennai schools. As part of this, its members laid out a combination of junk and healthy food items on lunch tables and asked students to pick what they wanted. About 80 per cent picked junk food. “This proves the impact of advertising on children’s choices,” says Nirmala Desikan, the group’s chief executive.

Given the environment, some parents feel they cannot eliminate junk food, only limit it.

Meghrajani has come to a deal with her son Advait: If he eats healthily through the week, he can have junk food on weekends. “You cannot get rid of the problem, you have to work around it,” she says.

Shades of junk

Nutritionists’ definitions of junk food vary, but they also share core principles.

It’s not natural

Anju Venkat runs The Health Awareness Centre, Mumbai

Healthy food must satisfy four conditions: it should give nutrients, take the least time to digest, leave an alkaline residue in the blood stream and not leave a toxic residue. By these criteria, only fruit, vegetables, nuts and sprouts are healthy. We should ask ourselves whether we are eating out of hunger or for the taste: only healthy foods will satisfy hunger.

If the body craves fried food, it lacks fatty acids. Give it raw nuts, not fries.

If the body craves salty food, it lacks minerals. Give it vegetables, not chips.

If the body craves sweets, it lacks glucose. Give it fruit, not chocolates.

Refined, processed, packaged

Meher Panjwani, consulting dietician, Unique Hospital, Mumbai

Junk food is anything that contains high levels of sugar, sodium or hydrogenated fats; that has additives and preservatives, which are chemicals and may lead to genetic mutations that cause disease in the long run; that is exposed to high temperatures, which might increase the item’s shelf life but kills its nutrients; that is low on vital vitamins and minerals.

By this definition, junk food includes fast food such as pizzas and burgers, packaged foods such as chips and street food such as pakodas.

High on calories

V Sudharshan Rao, scientist, National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad

Junk food is anything that has a lot of calories, sugar, sodium and saturated fats, but lacks vitamins and minerals. Junk includes street food such as bhel puri and samosas; ready-to-eat foods such as biscuits; fast food such as burgers and pizzas; processed foods such as wafers; and packaged food such as biryanis and dals. Fruit juices that contain no preservatives and sugar are fine but colas that have empty calories, aren’t. — Dhamini Ratnam

Munching mantras

Harvard School of Public Health: Eat a plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; choose healthy fats, such as olive and canola oil; eat red meat and unhealthy fats, such as saturated and trans fats, sparingly; keep calories in check.

Michael Pollan, activist and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma wants people to differentiate between “food” and “edible food-like substances.” Don’t eat anything that contains ingredients you would not stock in your kitchen, such as calcium propionate, he says. His mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.