Doctors seek mandatory front-of-pack food labels

By Neetu Chandra Sharma
In India, the sale of ultra-processed food increased to 6kg per capita in 2019 from 2 kg in 2005, and is expected to grow to 8kg by 2024. (Photo: Bloomberg)

NEW DELHI: Doctors and public health experts have sent a set of recommendations to the Union health ministry, urging mandatory front-of-pack food labels (FOPL).

With 135 million people obese and deaths due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) on the rise, India has been facing the devastating impact of unhealthy diet. Packaged junk food, which is a major component of unhealthy diet, is responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other risk factor and a leading cause of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. 

Citing the exponential rise in market availability of ultra-processed foods containing high levels of sugars, sodium and saturated fats which are the key contributors to obesity and NCD prevalence, India’s top medical experts urged that adoption of an effective FOPL is the need of the hour.

They said that millions of lives will be saved if India establishes scientific cut-off limits for salt, sugar, saturated fats and mandates clear and simple warning label on packaged products as has been done in countries like Chile, Mexico and Brazil.

“A strong and effective FOPL is a public health priority for India," said Dr Ravi Kant, director, AIIMS Rishikesh said.

Nearly 5.8 million people or one in every four Indians risks dying from an NCD before the age of 70. India’s deadly second wave of covid-19 demonstrated that NCDs also compound the burden of infectious diseases on health systems, with hospitals ill-equipped to meet the sudden surge of demand for patient care. 

Poor diet, as a result of packaged and ultra processed food, is a leading cause for this gradual epidemiological shift in India’s disease burden. According to Dr. Suneela Garg, president, Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine (IAPSM), “All of these conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease or cancers are closely linked to excessive intake of energy-dense and nutrient poor foods and beverages. World over, countries are recognising that consumers have the right to accurate health information regarding these products as part of their right to health. Having incomprehensible or misleading information about a food product puts them at a higher risk of making uninformed choices that lead to overweight, obesity and other diet-related conditions."

Doctors said that front-of-package warning labelling is key  to promoting healthier lives, as it enables consumers to identify in a quick, clear and effective way products that are high in nutrients of concern associated with NCDs. 

As India observes the national nutrition month and leading up to the UN Food Summit, the spotlight has been on excessive intake of these “nutrients of concern." 

According to Euromonitor estimates, in India the sale of ultra-processed food increased to 6kg per capita in 2019 from 2 kg in 2005, and is expected to grow to 8kg by 2024. Similarly, beverage sales have gone up to about 8 L in 2019 from less than 2 L in 2005, and are expected to grow to 10 L in 2024.

"While an FOPL is indeed one of the most effective approaches to positively impact public health, it is also important to choose the correct format…Given the evidence, we should consider adopting these nutrient-based labels without further delay," Dr Sanjay Rai, president, Indian Public Health Association (IPHA) said.

In 2018, the Food Safety Standards Authority India (FSSAI) published draft regulation for FOPL which was subsequently withdrawn for more deliberation. In December 2019, FSSAI delinked FOPL from general labelling regulations and is currently seeking inputs from consumer rights organisations, industry and nutrition experts for a viable model for India.

 

 


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