NEW DELHI — Leading doctors and global public health experts recently came together to emphasize the importance of consumer-friendly warning labels to address the rising burden of non-communicable diseases in India.
For the increasing burden of Non-Communicable Diseases, which are responsible for 71 percent of deaths across the globe, unhealthy diets have been recognized as the most significant modifiable risk factor.
As India prepares to adopt front of package labels for its rapidly growing packaged food and beverage industry, experts participating in the discussion highlighted how over 5.8 million Indians die every year from Non-Communicable Diseases (such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases) and how most of these deadly diseases, although hard to treat, can be prevented by modifying diets and transforming the food industry.
Applauding the Indian government and its apex food regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, for prioritizing the adoption of the front of package labels, Ashim Sanyal, Chief Operational Officer, Consumer Voice, to prioritize consumer rights organization, said that a consultative process had been initiated.
“The civil society and consumer rights organizations have been consulted by India’s Food Safety and Standards Authority,” he said.
“We have made a strong representation for an effective label design and a scientific nutrient profile model— the two elements of a strong and mandatory front of package labels system. The next few months are crucial for India, and we will continue to work in close collaboration with the government towards this historic paradigm shift in our food system.”
Front-of-package warning labeling is a vital component of a comprehensive strategy to promote healthier lives, as it enables consumers to identify in a quick, clear, and effective way products high in sugar, sodium, saturated fats, trans fats, and total fats, the critical nutrients associated with the burden of non-communicable diseases in India.
Research has revealed that countries such as Chile, which have adopted the warning label system of the front of package labels, have succeeded in reducing consumption of the unhealthiest ultra-processed foods and beverages.
With Brazil, Israel, Chile, and more recently Colombia adopting ‘high in’ warning labels on their food packets— considered a best practice approach— there is a global momentum to make packaged foods safer and healthier.
“Australia adopted the highly controversial Health Star Rating five years ago under significant industry pressure,” said Christina Pollard, Associate Professor, Curtin University, Perth, Australia, citing the Australian experience, a renowned global expert on food policy.
“A voluntary system, Health Star Rating has neither incentivized the food industry to reformulate nor has it had any impact on the health of Australian people or guided them to make healthier choices.”
Denouncing Health Star Rating, he said that it hinders more than it assists.
“Based on the evidence coming from Australia, I would not recommend that India experiment with this weak labeling system to improve its food supply and address its non-communicable diseases challenge,” said Pollard.
He said that the Health Star Rating system misrepresents the healthiness of unhealthy products and increases the likelihood of misleading consumers into thinking ultra-processed products are healthy.
“A packet of candy or a soft drink with added calcium or vitamins may rate itself higher as per the Health Star Rating system, not providing enough information to the consumer about whether the dangerous nutrient, whose consumption need to be reduced, is still present in excess or not,” said Pollard.
“If you are looking at altering the food system, which is dependant to a large extent on the food industry reformulating its products, then Health Star Rating falls short and only misleads the consumer.”
Food companies are most likely to change the number of harmful ingredients if “high in” warning labels are made mandatory, and they cannot confuse the thresholds for sugar, salt, and fat with irrelevant information.”
Simple measures, such as front-of-package labels (front of package labels), can allow for a paradigm shift in the food consumption pattern of the country and, as a result, avert an impending non-communicable disease crisis.
Madhukar Mittal, Additional Professor, Department of Endocrinology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Jodhpur, said that the evidence linking consumption of processed and packaged foods high in salt, sugar, and fats— otherwise known as nutrients of concern— to diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer is irrefutable.
“India is fast emerging as the diabetes capital of the world. Obesity is on the rise,” he said.
“The entire food system must act now to safeguard people’s health. The food industry tends to make its food products more palatable by adding excess sugar or salt. As a result, we are consuming unnatural levels of these harmful ingredients— far exceeding the recommended thresholds.”
Mittal said that interpretive warning labels that say clearly whether a food or drink has high amounts of salt, sugar, or fats would help consumers make a healthy, quick, and informed choice.”
“Warning labels are the need of the hour and can work wonders for our country where misinformation on food packets is overwhelming,” said Nancy Sahni, Clinical Nutritionist at Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research.
“There is enough evidence to show that all types of labels, including traffic lights, warning labels to move the dial on public health, and warning labels, are most likely. In a country like India, which is at a health flashpoint, strong front of package labels is the best ally of doctors and criticizing nutritionists.”
In 2018 the Food Safety Standards Authority India published a draft regulation for front of package labels, subsequently withdrawn for further deliberation.
In December 2019, Food Safety Standards Authority India delinked front of package labels from general labeling regulations and is currently seeking consultations with civil society, industry, and nutrition experts for a viable model for India.
Front of package labels works best when it is made mandatory and applies to all packaged products. The label is interpretative, simplistic, and readily visible, guided by a strong nutrient profile model.
(With inputs from ANI)
Edited by Saptak Datta and Ritaban Misra