Regulate sale of ultra-processed food; report urges government to take action

The group also wants the government to amend television advertising rules to stop promoting unhealthy food.
Image used for representational purpose only.
Image used for representational purpose only.

NEW DELHI: A leading group representing epidemiologists, paediatricians, nutritionists and other health experts wants the government to bring legislation to prevent non-communicable diseases and regulate sales of ultra-processed food.

The group also wants the government to amend television advertising rules to stop promoting unhealthy food.

They also urged the government to check the soaring consumption of high-fat sugar or Salt (HFSS) foods or ultra-processed foods (UPF), popularly called junk food.

Many other recommendations are part of the latest report, "The Junk Push: Rising Consumption of Ultra-processed foods in India- Policy, Politics and Reality", on the rising ultra-processed food consumption in India, jointly brought by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network (BPNI) and Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi).

"Food companies or their front organisations or individuals supporting them should not be part of the decision-making to develop a policy to reduce exposure of harmful marketing and consumption of the UPFs or other junk," said the report in its recommendations.

The report also said that the Ministry of Health and Family may adopt an interpretive warning label for all junk foods, which includes pre-packaged sugary beverages, juices, bakery products, cookies, chocolates, confectionary, health drinks, chips, ice-creams and pizza.

Among the other suggested measures are prohibiting schools, hospitals, prisons and other public service offices from serving ultra-processed food and imposing high GST on products similar to the "sin" tax on colas.

The report said that non-communicable diseases are increasing rapidly in children and adults - one in four suffers from diabetes and obesity.

"Growing body of scientific evidence indicates that increased consumption of junk foods is linked to higher risk of diabetes, cancers, heart diseases, high blood pressure, mental health issues and premature deaths," said the report.

It also pointed out that qualitative analysis of 43 advertisements of pre-packaged food products and their composition revealed that they were high on one or more nutrients of concern, such as sugars, salt and saturated fat.

"The ultra-processed food industry grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13.37% between 2011 and 2021, with projections that by 2024, the combined sales volume of UPFs in middle-income countries will reach high-income countries," said the report.

“Existing regulatory policies remain ineffective to minimise any advertisements of junk foods, which are mostly misleading and especially directed at children and adolescents,” said Dr Arun Gupta, Convenor of NAPi, the national think tank on nutrition policy.

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

Nupur Bidla, a social scientist and member of NAPi says, “You pick up any advertised pre-packaged food product, invariably you will find it HFSS and ultra-processed in nature, containing all kinds of additives, colours, flavours and emulsifiers.”

As per an unpublished WHO India study, more than 200,000 such advertisements are flashed each month just on 10 select channels, she added.

“These advertisements target children, seek parental approval, use celebrities, and project junk foods as healthy. It is because of such pervasive and aggressive marketing techniques, we call it “The Junk Push,” she added.

According to Dr K Srinath Reddy, Distinguished Professor at PHFI, “Junk Foods offer a very poor balance of the nutrients which the body needs for growth, health and wellbeing while loading us with high levels of salt, sugar, unhealthy fats and chemical additives.”

“While science is clear on why these foods should be excluded from our regular diets, their consumption is rising to alarming levels because of commercial drivers. Knowledge about the harm caused by these foods is inadequate in the public domain while misleading claims and high-pitched advertising are driving increasing addiction to these products. This Junk Push needs to be countered by sharing factual information on health harms and creating public demand for strong regulatory measures,” he added.

Prof. HPS Sachdev, a renowned epidemiologist and researcher said, “Policymaking on Front of Pack labelling (FOPL) has not been free from food industry involvement, which led to a flawed policy of “health star rating” on junk foods.”

According to a WHO India study, the retail sale of ultra-processed foods in India grew at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.37% between 2011 and 2021. Quite evident that the market has penetrated the poor sections of society in India.

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