At a webinar led by policy analysis and advocacy body Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), executives cautioned that exponential growth of junk or processed foods has left an indelible mark on the health of Indian consumers. Executives representing national think tank on nutrition Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest(NAPi), Epidemiological Foundation of India (EFI) and Pediatrics and Adolescent Nutrition Society (PAN), said it is critical to draw stringent guidelines about consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods.
“A strong nutrient profile model (NPM) that is able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods can guide all nutrition regulatory policies, specially those linked to correctly identifying foods with excessive sugar, fats and sodium,” BPNI convenor Dr Arun Gupta said. “The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated the debilitating role that comorbidities have played in Covid-19 fatalities,” he said.
According to industry data presented at the event, per capita sales of ultra-processed foods grew from about 2 kg in 2005, to about 6 kg in 2019 and is projected to grow to about 8 kg by 2024. Similarly, ultra-processed beverages are up from 2 litre in 2005 to about 6.5 litre in 2019 and projected to escalate to about 10 litre in 2024.
“Industry is used to making profits and will not comply unless our food and beverage regulators make these declarations mandatory,” Keshav Desiraju, former health secretary of India, said. “Regulators and policymakers need to identify mandatory thresholds which are within the limits as prescribed by WHO. As these will apply across the board, we can be sure that the entire market will adapt to, and meet the new standards,” he added.
Experts said that a nutrient profile model with single thresholds for two categories – food and beverages – would work best. The single threshold nutrient profile model has been the most effective solution for implementing and monitoring the front of package label policy. Countries such as Chile, Israel and Mexico with robust front of package labels policies have adapted models with a single nutrient threshold, they said.
Prof. H.P.S. Sachdev said information regarding high concentration of salt, sugar and fats in all packaged foods should be made available to consumers including children, and that a science-based nutrient profile model to simple warning labels should be immediate priority.
In year 2018, Food Safety Standards Authority India (FSSAI) published draft regulations for front of pack labelling which was subsequently withdrawn for further deliberation. In 2019 December, FSSAI delinked the front of pack labelling from general labelling regulations and is currently seeking consultations with stakeholders, industry and nutrition experts for a viable model for India.