What Does Junk Food Deserve? Stars, Or Warnings?

Context: A triple burden of malnutrition – undernutrition, micronutrient malnutrition, as well as overweight and obesity – is rising in India. More nourishing freshly cooked home-foods or more natural foods are being replaced by cheaper preprocessed packaged alternatives with high levels of salt, sugar and fat. These products fill the stomach, but do not nourish and in fact promote ill health and disease.

Poor dietary choices combined with sedentary lifestyles is leading to rise in obesity and chronic ailments like diabetes.

India is the diabetic capital of the world, with the highest concentration of diabetics in any single country.

Therefore, India must heed countries that have already experienced this disastrous nutrition transition and taken appropriate countermeasures.

Is the Govt taking steps to address the problem?

Front of Packet Labelling (FOPL) was introduced in The Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Draft Regulations in 2019.

Subsequently, many studies and expert committees were commissioned by FSSAI to determine specifics to enable implementation.

What are the issues involved?

The form FOPL should take: Summary scores, guideline daily amount, traffic light labels and nutrition warning systems have been used in different countries.

FSSAI is favouring Health Star Ratings (HSRs) based on summary scores

– Nutrition Warning Labels (WLs) are being demanded by civil society organisations and experts.

HSRs are summary indicators, indicating only the net result of various calculations.

They don’t allow consumers to distinguish the reason for a particular star rating (a food product high in salt might be star rated the same as one high in sugar, or as a relatively less processed food). This wouldn’t help a diabetic or hypertensive patient.

HSR would give stars from half to five for all foods alike: Even the unhealthiest food would get some golden star – a symbol of goodness, confusing the consumer.

WLs, in contrast, can point to higher than desirable levels of specific elements, each carrying its own pictorial warning.



Further, experts in countries using HSR for some years such as Australia warn of their ineffectiveness in influencing consumer behaviour.WLs, obviously, have a common-sense advantage over HSR and have significantly impacted consumer behaviour in countries like Chile.

Issue of thresholds: WHO has set certain standards to declare foods to be too high in sugar, salt and fat for different regions.

An FSSAI study found that 62.8 % of foods on shop shelves in India would fail for all three nutrients of concern, and 96% for one of WHO thresholds.

However, standards under consideration by FSSAI are 2-3 times higher for total sugar in foods and beverages and 1.8 times higher for salt, which is a basic flaw. Such dilution of standards would allow the majority of packaged food products to slip through the net.

Issues of making adoption of FOPL voluntary or mandatory: Countries like Australia follow the former, Chile the latter.

Most evidence points to industry failing to comply adequately with voluntary FOPL.

In Australia, only a quarter of products complied with HSR labelling many years after it was proposed.

India’s current plans seem to indicate that whatever form FOPL takes, it would become mandatory only by 2027, giving many years of leeway to the industry while NCD acceleration continues unabated.

Way forward

All evidence points to the need for mandatory FOPL warning systems without any dilution of WHO standard thresholds to raise consumer awareness and reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods.

In the face of what should be considered a public health emergency, this really needs to happen immediately and without any other consideration whatsoever.

Source: This post is based on the article “What Does Junk Food Deserve? Stars, Or Warnings?” published in The Times of India on 30th Apr 22.

Print Friendly and PDF