Global supply: India’s current food labeling system makes it hard to decipher the facts
For Madhu Tyagi, it is always a herculean task to decipher the nutritional values or any other content-related information that is printed on food packaging. The gluten-intolerant mother of a two-year-old is particularly looking for products with allergy warnings.
“I don’t know how much sugar is in my brown rice flour or how much salt is in my salsa sauce,” the 30-year-old housewife says, adding, “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out the format or the style of text used; they are not clearly marked for our (consumer) understanding”.
Tyagi isn’t the only one complaining. Many consumers struggle to understand label terminology or the numbers written on food packaging. While warning or content labels are a simple and effective means of informing or alerting consumers, the current labeling system in India falls short of the criteria. Experts believe that adopting symbol-based, nutrient-specific warning labels is necessary to transcend literacy and language barriers.
The purpose of nutrition information labels on food is to help consumers determine whether the product is suitable/healthy or not. “Salt, sugar and fat levels enhance the taste and texture of foods. But their overconsumption is closely associated with obesity and related chronic disorders. And not everyone can understand information about preservatives and chemicals. So if people have allergies, it can be life-threatening in certain circumstances,” says Zainab Cutlerywala, a professor at the Institute of Nutrition and Fitness Sciences (INFS) in Pune, who imparts knowledge comprehensive and practical health and fitness.
According to Cutlerywala, other countries have opted for measures such as traffic light labeling for better consumer understanding and levying a tax on businesses for the high sugar content of products. This has forced companies to reduce the sugar content of food products. However, in India, simple transparency has not been achieved. “Providing a comprehensive, easy-to-understand label would benefit the customer, but not as much as the producer,” adds Cutlerywala.
Global Best Practices
Globally, the front-of-package labeling (FoPL) system has been considered the best practice for providing extensive information on food choices. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), FoPL is defined as “nutrition labeling systems that are featured on the front of food packages within the primary field of vision; and presenting simple, often graphic, information on the nutrient content or nutritional quality of products, to supplement the more detailed nutrition declarations provided on the back of food packages.
While some key considerations are taken into account in the development of a FoPL system in a country, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) has undertaken work on FoPL. Codex is a set of internationally recognized standards, codes of practice, guidelines and other recommendations published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) relating to food, food production , food labeling and food safety.
Countries like Brazil, Chile, and Israel have labeling laws that emphasize FoPL in the packaged food industry as a clue to tackling obesity and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). ) such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes. Countries are also reviewing the elements of existing systems that are considered more or less effective in helping consumers make informed food purchases and healthier food choices (using published evidence or primary consumer studies on the usefulness of elements of the FoPL system, including formats such as design and content). A global checklist for developing a new FoPL system includes interpretive systems such as the multiple traffic light labeling system (UK), the nutritional score system (France) and the Warning (Chile); non-interpretive systems such as percentage reference intakes (European Union); and hybrid systems such as the Health Star Rating (Australia and New Zealand).
India is moving towards labeling. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) will soon start labeling the front of packaged food products with Health Star Rating (HSR) based on a study conducted by IIM Ahmedabad which is easy to understand and induces changes in behavior among Indian consumers.
The FSSAI has also imposed labeling requirements that must be followed in accordance with labeling regulations. At the same time, advertisements and claims regulations are in place to ensure industry compliance. While the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) works on the identification, reporting and necessary action against incidents of misbranding and mislabeling, prosecution for violations is conducted in accordance with the provisions of the FSS Act. In addition, the FSSAI, from time to time, continues to advise the state food safety services to ensure regular checks on the market and take the necessary measures against violations committed, if any.
However, experts from Australia (using HSR) and Chile (using warning labels) believe these labels have a thorough impact assessment. Mark Lawrence, Professor of Public Health Nutrition at the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Australia, speaking at a recent webinar hosted by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) in association with Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest in India ( NAPi), highlighted the need to examine the science to guide the adoption of labels and thresholds so that they do not lead to unintended consequences.
According to Marcela Reyes Jedlicki, public health expert and assistant professor at the Center for Research on Food Environments and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases Associated with Nutrition (CIAPEC), Public Nutrition Unit, University of Chile, the Chilean law (published in 2012 ) had included the specification of warning labels after several years of discussion (the law was first introduced in 2007 with traffic light labels).
“During the discussion, qualitative data suggested that the population did not understand the idea of traffic lights applied to food: participants had problems interpreting when different colors were present (for example, a food with 1 red label + 1 green label vs a food with 1 orange label (label). Thus, the decision makers decided to simplify and use the warning labels. For such implementation, the health authorities must decide on the format and the text of the warning labels, but cannot change the nature of the warning labels,” she says.
There is a plethora of scientific evidence that clearly points to the use of warning labels on unhealthy high sugar/salt or high fat food products for a meaningful result. In a 2020 study published in the research journal PLOS, warning labels are estimated to have effectively reduced obesity and obesity-related costs after the implementation of warning labels in Mexico, tracking from Chile, Peru and Uruguay.
However, the decision to choose a label must be free from any commercial interest in order to avoid any conflict of interest. “The choice of label must be based on science and the public health interest must be at the center of the debate. Industry likes HSR because it doesn’t reflect nutrients of concern, misleads people into thinking food products are healthy because of stars and aggressive marketing tactics,” says Arun Gupta, BPNI Central Coordinator and Organizer from NAPi.
Packaged food items are generally projected as healthy using HSR because they are given ½ to 5 stars which makes them appear good and more stars means healthy which is misleading. In this way, the consumption of substantially unhealthy foods could increase and defeat the very purpose for which FoPL is designed. The HSR can be confusing to consumers if packaged food labels display a “health claim” using positive nutrients. “Warning labels are the need of the hour to curb the consumption of unhealthy and ultra-processed packaged foods. Children are falling prey to the demons of NCDs and this must stop,” says author-activist Vandana Shiva , director of Navdanya, an NGO that promotes biodiversity conservation, biodiversity, organic agriculture, farmers’ rights and the seed saving process.
Analysis using the Australian HSR Calculator reveals cookies or crisps of different brands with sugar levels ranging from 21 to 38 grams, energy levels ranging from 454 kcal to 513 kcal or sodium levels ranging 643 to 1080 mg per 100 grams (all more than the proposed FSSAI thresholds), and the product still scores 1, 2, or 1 and 1/2 stars without identifying the key nutrients of concern. “Where is the provision in the HSR to give a score of zero if any of the nutrients of concern exceed the threshold?” asks Professor HPS Sachdev, a leading epidemiologist and researcher, as he believes that the presence of protein or fiber in food does not remove the risk of high sugar/salt content or that the food is ultra-processed.
Common food allergens
Eggs: Egg allergy is the second most common cause of food allergy.
Nuts: A tree nut allergy is an allergy to certain tree nuts and seeds. People with nut allergies can sometimes also be allergic to food products made with these nuts, such as nut butters and oils. Nuts include:
- Cashew nut
- Macadamia nuts
- Pine nuts
Wheat: A wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to one of the proteins found in wheat. People with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity avoid wheat and other grains that contain protein gluten.
Soy: Soy allergies are triggered by soy protein or soy-containing products. Common food triggers for soy allergy include soy and soy products like soy milk or soy sauce.
Fish: Fish allergy can cause a serious and life-threatening allergic reaction. The main symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea, but in rare cases anaphylaxis may also occur.
Seafood: A shellfish allergy is caused by your body attacking proteins from the shellfish and shellfish families, also known as crustaceans. Some examples of seashells are
Some less common food allergies include
- Sesame seed
- The Peach
- Passion fruit
- Mustard seeds