Food labelling: What’s at the back, needs to be upfront

Food labelling: What’s at the back, needs to be upfront

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Natasha is a single mother to a 5-year-old. She leads a busy life juggling her work, home, ageing parents and a growing child and therefore looks for simpler and convenient solutions in most of her aspects of life. She prefers buying things from large format internet retailers.

Off late, she has realized that her 5 yo is distracted from his homework. He doesn’t want to play with his friends. She gives him milk, but he hates drinking it. She tries to make him eat vegetables, but he doesn’t eat that either.

How can she make him eat food which he enjoys and contains all the necessary nutrients? She started making an effort to read labels of biscuits and snacks which he enjoys. She wants him to eat products are ‘good for him’. But even as she buys the packaged foods, she cannot decipher the nutrition labels.

Complex words like sodium, saturated fats and serving size vis-à-vis recommended dietary allowance were difficult concepts to understand for her. She had a tough time calculating how much sugar and `fat does a child get on eating a bowl of cereal?

She realised that critical information was written on the back of the pack in cryptic language and beyond the comprehension of a regular consumer.

Not only does one need a n pair of magnifying glasses to read the super tiny text, but also grasp the complex terminologies. While the front of pack was full of colourful imagery, the crucial information was tucked away at the back.

A front of pack labelling system has long been considered as global best practice by World Health Organisation – wherein a simple graphic information is presented on the nutrient content of the product.

In India, the packaged food manufacturers have been slow to adopt the Front of pack labelling system as opposed to many of their international competitors.

For example, a pack of namkeen contains high quantities of salt – an ingredient if not moderated can cause hypertension.

In 2019, Environment Monitoring Laboratory department at CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) tested 33 popular packaged foods marketed by Indian and multinational companies. The report highlighted that most packaged foods and fast foods popular in the country contained dangerously high levels of salt and total fat – some were several times higher than the limits prescribed by FSSAI.

Subsequently, FSSAI commissioned The Nutrition Alchemy (TNA), a Mumbai based firm to analyse the nutritional composition of packaged foods. Upon analysing 1300 packaged foods, the report submitted to FSSAI concluded that only 4.4 percent of the products were well-within the FSSAI and WHO thresholds.

Biscuits and cookies had a threshold of 2.6 gms of saturated fat per 100 gms. It was revised this year to 9 gms per 100 gms, almost a 4 times increase in the threshold.

Fruit juices and vegetable juices, perceived to be healthy doubled its sugar limit from 6gms per 100 ml to 12 gms per 100 ml.

Studies say that these thresholds are the most relaxed in the world. The actual levels of the products tested were much lower than the thresholds, thereby making the brands perceived as healthy and within the set norms.

Developed countries have adopted consumer friendly indicators that summarise the health or nutrition quotient of the packaged goods on their front of packs. Countries like Australia and New Zeland have adopted the ‘Health Star’ rating system, whereas France and Belgium have the ‘Nutri-score’ system.

FSSAI has referenced these 2 models and proposed a development of Health Star, which apparently has been faced with some opposition from manufacturers.

Given that big players enjoying significant clout in the industry are known to wield decisions, it is time an independent system is used to guide mothers like Natasha, who have only the best interest of their children in mind.

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