India is staring at a public health crisis due to ultra-processed food products
Most of us are unaware that a big chunk of readymade food products, commonly projected as healthier products, that we buy and eat is unhealthy. Food can be either healthy or unhealthy, depending on the way it is processed, labelled or marketed. Further, the amount of salt, sugar or bad fat in it determines its unhealthy nature.
Commonly available and consumed foods such as biscuits, cakes, chocolates, or noodles offer unhealthy levels of fats/salt or sugar and are ultra-processed. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are usually made of more than one ingredient, and contain ingredients that we normally don’t use in domestic kitchens — such as emulsifiers, humectants, dyes, additives, preservatives and stabilisers.
UPFs are formulated to be addictive, with minimal nutrient value and are manufactured to have a long shelf life. These are extensively marketed with use of false health claims and celebrity endorsements through television and other mass/social media.
There is ample evidence that UPFs are inherently harmful to human health. When you eat UPFs, it drives you to eat more and leads to obesity. Consumption of these foods is found to be associated with increasing type-2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, cardiac disease, depression as well as frailty in the elderly population.
India is sitting on a ticking time-bomb of non-communicable diseases if you believe the findings from the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey. The survey revealed that 56% of children between five to 19 years of age had cardio-metabolic risk factors (meaning their blood tests show risk factors).
According to Euromonitor data, the sale of UPFs in India has increased from two kg per capita in 2005 to six kg in 2019, and is expected to grow to eight kg by 2024. Similarly, the sale of beverages has gone up from less than two litres in 2005 to about eight litres in 2019, and is expected to grow to 10 litres by 2024. Allowing increased consumption of such foods can only be detrimental to the health of our population.
How can India regulate UPFs?
One, fix the cut-offs. The World Health Organization (WHO), with extensive global scientific evidence, has recommended “cut-offs” for nutrient profiling to come up with easily understandable front-of-pack labelling (FOPL) for packaged food with high fat, sugar, and/or salt (HFSS) content and regulate marketing accordingly.
Two, mandate FOPL. This means that information is located on the main display panel of the food product and it is true, clear and simple. Displaying that a particular nutrient is in excess of the cut-off point can be helpful to the consumer. Three, end the marketing of unhealthy food products especially targeted at children.
The Supreme Court has upheld consumer rights in a judgment on October 22, 2013, saying, “We may emphasise that any food article, which is hazardous or injurious to public health, is a potential danger to the fundamental right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. A paramount duty is cast on the States and its authorities to achieve an appropriate level of protection to human life and health which is a fundamental right guaranteed to the citizens under Article 21 read with Article 47 of the Constitution of India.” (In Centre for Public Interest Litigation Vs Union of India and Ors, (Writ petition (civil) No 681 of 2004).
The food industry usually puts the onus on consumers for their “food preferences” for the increasing consumption of unhealthy foods, but refuses to provide correct information of the content of unhealthy ingredients in their products. It is time that we assert our consumer rights. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India is, therefore, obliged to keep public health interest as a top priority in making strong mandatory regulations. Lawmakers, the ministry of health, the parliamentary standing committee on health, and the Prime Minister’s Office must be actively involved for an informed debate and guidance to the existing process. Lives are at stake.
Arun Gupta is a senior pediatrician, convener of the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest, and a former member of PM’s Council on India’s Nutrition ChallengesThe views expressed are personal