Experts hail simple and easy to understand Front-of-package label (FOPL) warnings on front of the pack in packaged food products towards addressing India’s burgeoning non-communicable diseases (NCDs) crisis.
This, according to experts, would be most suitable for the Indian population, regardless of their age, literacy proficiency or socio-economic strata.
FOPL warnings are a proven strategy for informing consumers of the hidden dangers in foods and beverages and every year an increasing number of countries are willingly implementing it. India too for the past couple of years has been seriously considering implementing mandatory FoPL and is conducting stakeholder consultations in this regard.
More importantly, it would efficiently guide consumers in making healthier choices and help them reduce their intake of fat, sugar or salt. With poor diets being increasingly associated as a major risk factor for India’s burgeoning NCD crisis, a decision on the right type of FoPL should not be delayed further, emphasised food policy experts and doctors at a virtual discussion organised by CUTS International recently.
Any such regulation will form a major stepping stone for the country to target packaged foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat (HFSS), which is the main cause for the increasing number of NCDs in the country. However, from various news reports it has come to light that FSSAI is showing a preference to opt for Health Star Rating (HSR) Label, which is a matter of concern given that the country has a huge number of poor, illiterate and vulnerable populations.
To help consumers make healthier choices, Australia and New Zealand had introduced the voluntary HSR system in 2014 that is quite similar to the energy rating label used on our electrical appliances. But recent studies shows that their system is highly flawed as unhealthy food products are still able to get a high score as the rating is based on the overall nutritional value, and any inclusion of healthy ingredients like fibre and protein to an otherwise unhealthy product could easily cancel out its unhealthy ingredients (i.e. sugar, saturated fats and salt).
According to Dr. Alexandra Jones, Research Fellow, Food Policy and Law, The George Institute for Global Health, Australia, “HSR allows industry to use it selectively. Hence it is used on products that are already healthier than others. Food products that have a high content of negative nutrients often do not display HSR which is a voluntary system in our country.”
Dr Jones also talked about consumer mistrust and instances of industry asserting influence by being present as stakeholders of the regulatory process.
More importantly, the system does not effectively assist the vulnerable consumers who need it the most. While HSR, including our own energy star label that was introduced in 2009, does help some middle- to high-income consumers, it does a poor job with respect to consumers of low socio-economic status. Only a fourth of Indian households are currently aware of BEE’s star labels, said George Cheriyan, Director, CUTS International in his opening address as the moderator.
“Quoting Grant Schofield, Chief Health and Nutrition Advisor to the Ministry of Education, New Zealand, ‘the Health Star rating is already dead in the water. The algorithm is flawed in the combination of fat, salt and sugar. The food industry brought this to us, we were suckered in. Perversely, very high sugar foods can get 4+ health stars,” he added further saying we should learn from the experiences of Australia and New Zealand and be cautious against adoption of HSR. It is important that Indian regulators choose a simple and interpretive label that aids consumers to choose between healthy and less healthy products.”
Amit Khurana, Director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi expressed that it was disheartening to see that even after eight years the country is still discussing FOPL. “A complicated FOPL will not work in India which is so linguistically diverse that every 100 kms the local language changes. Need of the hour is an easy-to-understand warning label.”
Dr. Pankaj Bhardwaj, Vice Dean, Research, AIIMS Jodhpur while highlighting the need for effective warning labels from a health perspective cautioned that people with comorbidity and pre-existing NCDs are more vulnerable and at higher risk of getting infected by the Covid 19 virus.
Saroja Sundaram, Executive Director, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), Chennai spoke about FOPL from a consumer perspective and reminded regulators how the existing detailed nutritional summary provided in the back of the product never served the purpose due to language barrier and consumer ignorance about its purpose. So she strongly advocated for a FOPL that is always simple and easily interpretable by a consumer thereby helping him to identify unhealthy products.
The virtual webinar was attended by around 60 delegates from across the country and abroad, including health experts, representatives from national and international organisations, industry representatives, various state Food Safety Commissionerate, AIIMS, Indian Medical Association, academic and research Institutions from more than 14 states.