After cracking down on smoking, the Union health ministry is talking tough on food safety. In fact, it is close to introducing a comprehensive food labelling law that will make it mandatory for all packaged foods to carry nutrition information.
But do we really need it? Union health minister Dr Anbumani Ramadoss is convinced that giving consumers information about what they eat will help them make a healthy choice. “Eating fresh food is usually the most healthy thing to do, but urban diets are increasingly relying heavily on packaged food. Even people who are conscious about what they eat do not realise how high the amounts of fats, sugar, salt and calories are in processed foods as compared to freshly-prepared food,” says Ramadoss.
Nutrition labels, he says, will also help people keep track of whether they are having enough essential vitamins and minerals.
With most diet plans focusing more on avoiding harmful foods than eating what is good for you, there is an over-emphasis on choosing foods that are sugar free, low cal, low fat, low cholesterol, low starch, etc. “Fats, cholesterol and sugar have become dirty words in popular perception and people think they are eating healthy as long as they avoid these. So, anything that is sugar-free and low-cal have become acceptable, even if it means having something with no nutritive value,” says nutrititionist Ishi Khosla, director, WholeFoods.
The health ministry proposal covers all aspects of processed food labelling, including packaged water and GM labelling (foods containing genetically-modified organisms), which, doomsayers say, are increasingly being dumped in India by developed countries.
“Once implemented, all processed foods manufactured and sold in India — including imported products — will have to carry weight and nutritional information, including energy value, amounts of protein, carbohydrate, fat, information on vitamins and mineral, and amounts and types of fats, especially harmful trans fatty acids (trans fats) that raise cholesterol,” says health minister Ramadoss. Artery-clogging trans fats are used extensively in processed foods as it extends the shelf life of the product and helps to preserve its flavour.
Detailed labelling will help consumers know what exactly they are buying. “In the absence of proper labelling, products identified as sugar may be just free of table sugar (sucrose) but may have other natural sweeteners (fructose, dextrose, dextrine and high fructose corn syrup) that are equally harmful, just as cholesterol-free oils may have other fats that block up arteries as efficiently as cholesterol does. Proper labelling will help us get around that,” says Khosla.