Law on junk food ads? Delhi think tank says ‘misleading claims’ on packaged food hide health risks

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New Delhi: A first-of-its-kind report on the marketing of junk food in India, based on a detailed analysis of 43 prepackaged food items, says that all the products exceeded “nutrient-of-concern” thresholds, which means they had salt, sugar and fat at higher-than-recommended levels .

The report has been prepared by Delhi-based nutrition think tank Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), and was released Friday.

Most of the products analysed as part of the study are widely consumed brands mainly targeted at children — they included packaged products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) or ultra-processed foods (UPF), such as chips, cookies, sweets, soft beverages, instant noodles, sugary cereals, frozen meals, ice cream, bakery items, and chocolates.

According to the report, their advertisements were found to be in violation of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, with some of them even violating the Food Standard and Safety Act, 2006, as they hid crucial information related to nutrients of concern. 

The report, titled ‘THE JUNK PUSH: Rising Ultra-processed Food Consumption in India — Policy, Politics and Reality’, comes just two months after the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended stronger policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing. 

“The report provides evidence from 43 junk food advertisements, which is just the tip of the iceberg,” said the report, adding that these ads commonly relied on celebrity endorsements, emotional appeals, unsubstantiated health claims, and targeted children. 

“None of the advertisements provided the most important information as demanded by the Consumer Protection Act, 2019, for a food product, the amount of sugar, salt, or saturated fat in it. Therefore, NAPi believes these ads are misleading,” it said. 

Launching the report, NAPi convenor Dr Arun Gupta said the existing regulatory policies remain ineffective in controlling misleading ads for junk food.

“None of the legal frameworks or guidelines in India has the potential to stop most of the misleading advertisements of prepackaged junk or HFSS foods, or to ban misleading claims or warn people about the risks to health,” he said. “The intent that there shall be no ‘misleading advertisement’ needs a clearly worded law.”

Based on the findings, a number of nutritionists, public health experts and paediatricians have asked the Union ministries of health, and information & broadcasting, and law & justice — to come up with a bill for the “prevention of NCDs (non-communicable diseases) to halt the rise of diabetes and obesity in India”. 

This bill, they said in a statement issued by NAPi, should define healthy and junk food (UPF, HFSS), and impose reasonable restrictions on the marketing and advertising of junk food, especially to children up to 18 years. 

“Reasonable restrictions could include every medium of communication, sponsorship in schools or gifts for students,” said the statement by NAPi. “Television advertisements of junk foods may be prohibited from 6 am to 10 pm.”

“An inter-ministerial group may frame guideline to direct schools, hospitals, prisons, and other public service offices/areas not to serve HFSS/junk foods and engage in any kind of food industry sponsorship,” it added. 

The think tank has also said that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council may consider the highest tax slab for UPFs and other junk food, similar to the ‘sin tax’ for aerated drinks.

Also Read: Different kinds of labels on food packs affect your junk-food buying decisions, finds survey

UPF and health risks

According to a WHO India study last month, the retail sale of ultra-processed foods in the country grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.37 percent between 2011 and 2021.

A 2019 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism suggested that, by eating junk food, people consume nearly 500 excess calories per day, and gain weight by about 900 grams in 2 weeks. 

A 2o21 study on ultra-processed food consumption and adult diabetes, led by Iranian researchers, found that a 10 percent increase in consumption of UPFs could increase the risk of diabetes by 15 percent, and lead to higher premature mortality due to cardiovascular diseases.

A 2021 analysis by an Italian team looking to examine the effect of rising UPF consumption — when it comprises more than 10 percent of daily diet vs less than 4 percent — on human health, suggested that it has a devastating impact, with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, cerebrovascular disease, depression and all-cause mortality.

A study by the Indian Council of Medical Research, published in The Lancet earlier this year, showed that there are now 101 million cases of diabetes in the country, and 1 in every 4 individuals is either suffering from diabetes or is pre-diabetic or obese. 

Worrying findings

The researchers behind the NAPi study included Nupur Bidla, a social scientist, and Reema Dutta, a public health and nutrition professional, apart from Gupta. 

They selected 43 products that exceeded the cut-off limit — beyond which its consumption is not advised — of at least one nutrient of concern, based on the WHO-SEARO Nutrient Profile Model.

It was found that total sugars were high in 31 products, total fat was high in 29, and sodium in 19 products. Additionally, eight products exceeded the thresholds for all three nutrients of concern.

“Based on the list of ingredients and additives, we classified these 43 products as UPFs as per Nova classification (a widely-used system that rates food on the basis of degree of processing),” noted the researchers. “Various additives used in these included emulsifiers, preservatives, thickening agents, anticaking agents, inverted sugar syrup, raising agent, refined palm oil, natural identical flavouring substances, stabilisers, acidity regulators, artificial flavour, and colours, sweeteners, polydextrose, and maltodextrin,” they added.

A total of 25 products were endorsed by celebrities, while the ads for 12 featured children, the report said, adding that eight were found to make health claims, while 38 used emotional appeals as promotional strategies.

The researchers have said that the Union health ministry should urgently establish the thresholds of nutrients of concern such as sugars, salt and saturated fat in prepackaged foods. 

“This would be of immediate help to identify which foods can be advertised or have warning Front of Packet Labeling (FOPL) or deserve higher taxes,” they said.

In March last year, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India floated a draft proposal on FOPL to introduce health-star ratings for packaged food items. The FSSAI, seeking public feedback, had pitched it as a “progressive step” to help reduce India’s burden of obesity and non-communicable diseases. 

Several health and nutrition activists and groups, including NAPi and the ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition, however, had argued against health-star ratings, saying they would only confuse consumers. 

Instead, they called for a more “scientific and health-friendly” policy, arguing that a front-of-the-package pictorial warning would serve the purpose better.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Can’t stop munching your ‘healthy’ quinoa snacks or cornflakes? You better read this


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