Why are food labels critical to healthy diets?


India has been dragging its feet over regulating packaged and processed food, despite growing addiction to junk food and a related rise in conditions such as diabetes and cardiac arrest. Will a soon-to-be released draft regulation make any difference? Mint explores:

Do front-of-pack labels matter?

Consumer spending on ultra-processed junk food and sweetened drinks shot up more than six-fold between 2009 and 2019, according to data from Euromonitor International. People seldom read nutritional information printed on the back of the pack while buying packaged food. Those are difficult to comprehend and cloud choices. A pack of fruit juice, which is considered healthy, typically has more sugar (up to 37 teaspoons in a litre) than even carbonated drinks. Front-of-pack labels (FoPL) can warn consumers of unhealthy levels of sugar, salt, and fat in highly processed food items. An effective FoPL regime can help consumers.

What is the status of labelling regulations?

India has been reluctant to curtail junk food sales and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is dragging its feet for more than seven years on introducing FoPL. There is also unchecked promotion and marketing of junk food, even to children. But after multiple rounds of consultations with industry, consumer groups, and nutritionists over the past year, the FSSAI is soon going to place a draft regulation for public consultation. This follows a study commissioned to the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, to gauge effectiveness of different types of labels and recommendations from the FSSAI.

Junk food consumption

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Junk food consumption

What type of label did the IIM study recommend?

The study recommended health star rating or HSR labels over others like warning labels, nutriscore, and traffic lights. But during  a  stakeholder’s meeting in  February, consumer groups raised objections to HSR labels since instead of warning consumers these add a positive connotation to junk food, confusing buyers. The food industry, however, is happy to go with HSR label.

Which  is  more  effective, HSR or warning labels?

On 4 April, the Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest, a think-tank comprising independent experts, nutritionists, and epidemiologists, wrote a letter to the health minister citing global evidence that is tilted in favour of warning labels. High-in-sugar or high-in-salt labels clearly inform consumers about high levels of a nutrient of concern without going into quantitative details. They are also suited to India because of the use of colours and symbols which transcend literacy and language barriers.

What is the evidence from India?

Experts say the FSSAI is insisting on HSR, ignoring recent evidence. A study spanning six states (January-March 2022) by the International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, found that warning labels were most effective in reducing the intent to purchase unhealthy food. Another study by AIIMS, Rishikesh, (2022) arrived at similar conclusions. Yet the FSSAI is taking it easy and slow, handing the food industry a long rope: FoPL norms will likely come into effect around mid-2023, that too on a voluntary basis, and will become mandatory by mid-2027.


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