Sweet talk

In an unregulated sector, food companies are making health claims for products that experts say are highly misleading. Many ‘nutritious’ processed items have high levels of sugar. But who is looking out for the consumers? Radhika Raj writes. See graphic | Eyeing profits | Who’s batting for the consumer? | What a consumer can do

india Updated: Feb 05, 2012 01:59 IST
Radhika Raj
Radhika Raj
Hindustan Times

Two months ago, at a four-star hotel in Mumbai, Britannia Industries, launched biscuits called Multigrain Thins. “We have a snack here that won’t do your body any harm,” announced Anuradha Narasimhan, who heads the company’s health and wellness division. Britannia is among many companies that have launched processed food products over the past year that they claim are good for our health. But many of these claims are misleading as they are imprecise and leave out crucial information, say experts (see five examples above).

This is happening because we have no independent authority vetting their claims. India’s food sector is supposed to be regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and state-level food authorities such as Maharashtra’s Food and Drug Administration. But the latter mainly check for adulteration; it is the central body that is meant to investigate misleading claims made by food manufacturers. Although it began functioning on paper in August 2011, the authority is yet to start verifying claims made by food manufacturers. Given that processed foods have still not penetrated India the way they have in the US, the market can grow considerably if companies are able to convince consumers that their products are healthy. This has given rise to a category of products known as “functional” foods. In an environment of aggressive marketing but no stringent independent regulation, consumers are easily misled, say activists and independent nutrition experts (see on the right ‘Who is batting for the consumer?’).

“The European Union is insisting on scientific substantiation and that’s slowing processed food companies in Europe,” said Marion Nestle professor of nutrition at New York University and author of Food Politics, a book that talks about how processed food is marketed and sold and how it affects people’s health in the US, in an email interview. “Health claims sell products and the only reason for inventing these foods is to be able to make health claims for them. If they can’t make claims, they can’t sell products. Companies claim health benefits on rather flimsy science.”

Says Kelly Brownell, professor, department of psychology at Yale University and director of its Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity: “The food industry has shown that it considers the front of packages to be extremely valuable real estate and uses it to their benefit to make foods appear healthy even in cases where there might be scant reason to do so.”

See graphic | Eyeing profits | Who’s batting for the consumer? | What a consumer can do

First Published: Feb 04, 2012 22:24 IST