The role of food labels in a healthy diet

India has been slow to regulate packaged and processed foods, despite a growing addiction to junk food and a related rise in diseases such as diabetes and cardiac arrest. Will a soon to be published draft regulation make any difference? Mint explores:

Do labels on the front of the package matter?

Consumer spending on ultra-processed junk food and sugary drinks more than sixfold between 2009 and 2019, according to data from Euromonitor International. People rarely read the nutritional information printed on the back of the package when buying packaged foods. Those are difficult to understand and cloud the options. A pack of fruit juice, which is considered healthy, generally has more sugar (up to 37 teaspoons in a liter) than even carbonated drinks. Front-of-package labels (FoPLs) can warn consumers about unhealthy levels of sugar, salt, and fat in highly processed foods. An effective FoPL regime can help consumers.

What is the status of labeling regulations?

India has been reluctant to cut sales of junk food and it has taken the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) more than seven years to introduce FoPL. There is also rampant promotion and marketing of junk food, including among children. But after multiple rounds of consultations with industry, consumer groups and nutritionists over the past year, the FSSAI will soon put up a draft regulation for public consultation. This follows a study commissioned from the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad, to measure the effectiveness of different types of FSSAI labels and recommendations.

junk food consumption

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junk food consumption

What type of label did the IIM study recommend?

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The study recommended health star ratings or HSR labels over others such as warning labels, nutriscore, and traffic lights. But during a stakeholder meeting in February, consumer groups raised objections to HSR labels as, rather than warning consumers, they add a positive connotation to junk food, misleading shoppers. The food industry, however, is happy to opt for the HSR label.

Which is more effective, HSR or warning labels?

On April 4, Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest, a think tank made up of independent experts, nutritionists and epidemiologists, wrote a letter to the health minister citing global evidence leaning in favor of warning labels. High-sugar or high-salt labels clearly inform consumers of high levels of a nutrient of concern without going into quantitative detail. They are also suitable for India due to the use of colors and symbols that transcend the barriers of literacy and language.

What is the evidence from India?

Experts say the FSSAI insists on HSR, ignoring recent evidence. A six-state study (January-March 2022) conducted by the International Institute of Population Sciences, Mumbai, found that warning labels were more effective in reducing the intention to purchase unhealthy foods. Another AIIMS study, Rishikesh, (2022) reached similar conclusions. However, the FSSAI is taking it easy and slow, giving the food industry a long rope: the FoPL rules will probably come into force in mid-2023, also on a voluntary basis, and will be mandatory in mid-2027.

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