By Ashim Sanyal
What was thought to be a game changer from public health perspective for controlling Non Communicable Diseases like Hypertension, Diabetes, Obesity etc which are silent killers, Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labelling is now posing a stumble block for consumers’ health with the release of the draft regulation by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) on September 20th. FSSAI has proposed Star Ratings based on nutritional values which is cleverly termed as ‘Indian Nutrition Rating’ (INR).
INR is a Star Rating FoPL model which rates the overall nutritional profile for packaged food by assigning ½ star (least healthy) to 5 stars (healthiest). More the stars more the healthier according to the new regulation which will be confusing the consumers. According to the regulation, more stars indicate that the food product is better positioned to provide for daily human need of nutrients So a “cola, biscuit, chocolate” laced with added fiber, vitamins etc will get a legalized high star rating whereas a simple Warning symbol would acted as avoidable symbol for India’s diverse population.
This move by the regulator which is based upon an IIM study by ignoring the studies done by IIPS and AIIMS, its own scientific panel and the global best practices where Warning Labels have been found very effective in modulating consumer purchase behavior, hardly holds any concrete scientific grounds. Through the INR label our regulators are trying to convey something which is not only beyond the understanding of a common consumer but also deprives the consumer from making a healthy food choice since it eludes his judgement on unhealthy foods laden with high salt, sugar and saturated fats.
This system of star rating is flawed at the very beginning. The rating is based on the overall nutritional value, and the inclusion of healthy ingredients i.e. fibre, protein and vitamins and thereby creating a ‘health halo’. The system does not effectively aid the vulnerable consumers like children, people with NCDs and senior citizens who need it the most as crucial information about unhealthy foods recognition is missing. In countries like Australia and New Zealand where star ratings have been implemented, the ‘health halo’ effect, has given a false perception that a particular food is good for you even when there is little evidence of it. Many unhealthy foods receive more stars purely because of addition of healthy nutrients ignoring the excessive use of critical nutrients of salt, sugar and fats.
In the backdrop of the rising concerns over obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular ailment in our country, it becomes imperative for the regulator to come up with the Right FOPL, an FOPL which is simple, interpretive and upfront like Warning Labels. A packet of chips or a box of sugar coated cookies may be simply labelled as “high in salt or high in sugar or high in both”, removing any ambiguity in the mind of the consumer. There are studies done by top institutes in India to back up its effectiveness. A study led by AIIMS Rishikesh and published in March this year revealed that 93% Indians prefer simple high-in warning label on packaged foods. Similarly, the IIPS (International Institute for Population Sciences) Mumbai study headed by Dr (Prof) SK Singh which was also released early this year, indicated that warning labels are best to help consumers identify unhealthy foods.
The food manufacturers tend to add extra sugar, salt and fats in their products for taste far above the recommended allowance. The nutrient thresholds provided in the regulation is not the best standard. FSSAI should use the thresholds for salt, sugar and fats established on the WHO SEARO’ nutrient profile model which defines the thresholds for sugar, sodium and fat, as it follows: Sodium 1 mg sodium:1 kcal energy; Total/Free Sugar: 10% of the total energy for foods and 5% for sugar-sweetened beverages; Saturated fats: 10% of total energy. Thresholds that do not appear to be based on evidence, would be a huge setback to India’s public health and nutrition policy goals.
The regulation is all the more contentious as it proposes making this voluntary for 4 years which will find few takers both in the large scale manufacturers and SMEs during this period and that industry will not further push it back. It has been seen time and again that voluntary regulations in India doesn’t work and with the rising cases of NCDs, the regulation will unwittingly add to the increasing number of NCDs in India. Extending the period of voluntary compliance for 48 months would affect consumers’ health as they would not have the information required to make healthier decisions for a long period of time. Mandatory public health measures are required to achieve real improvement on the food environments of India. Public health regulations should not be left to be adopted on a voluntary basis.
So what is a basic consumer right for choosing healthy foods is being shoved under the carpet with the release of the draft regulation which is nothing less than hara-kiri. It’s almost a regulation that legalizes unhealthy products as healthy and more than that gives no clue whatsoever about avoiding the three main culprits of NCDs, namely high salt, sugar and saturated fats. Definitely not a step forward. In fact many steps back if the mission is to control NCDs.
According to the new WHO report: ‘Invisible numbers – the true scale of non-communicable diseases’ 66% of total deaths in India were due to NCDs in 2019. Most of these diseases can be prevented by modifying diet and transforming the food industry through reformulations. Warning Labels serve the purpose.
(The author is COO, Consumer VOICE. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)