Ultra-processed food packs should have front-of-pack health warning labels: ICMR study

Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Nutrition said that most participants claimed to read food label information, but they often check only the manufacturing and expiry dates.

Published: 05th February 2023 10:45 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th February 2023 10:45 PM   |  A+A-


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Express News Service

NEW DELHI: Ultra-processed foods whose basic edible and nutrient portions are significantly altered and those having artificial ingredients may have clear health warning labels on the front-of-the packs to promote informed food choices, a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has said. 

The study also recommended that any Front-of-Pack Nutrition Labelling (FOPNL) format, once introduced, can be successful only if nutrition literacy and label education are taken up across the country. 

It said that most participants claimed to read food label information, but they often check only the manufacturing and expiry dates. It was also observed that even though the percentage of participants reading nutrition information always or sometimes is low, the participants checking the veg/non-veg symbols and quality symbols was higher. 

“Therefore, FOPNL on pre-packaged processed foods are likely to have good uptake among the Indian population as they are symbol-based,” said.

For the study a total of 3231 people, including adolescents between the age of 10-18, were included in the study, covering five regions of India - North (Delhi); East (Kolkata); West (Pune); South (Hyderabad) and Northeast (Jorhat, Assam). 

The study tested the consumer on five FOPNL formats - Nutri-Score (NS), Health Star Rating (HSR), currently vogue in Europe and Australia Warning Labels (WL), Multiple Traffic Lights (MTL) and Nutri-Star Rating (NSR).

“Among the labels studied, WL and NSR had a more significant impact in altering the health perception of the food products, as the presence of even one octagon or absence of stars prompted more cautious behaviours in choosing the foods,” the study said. 

However, among the summary indicators, even the presence of 2 stars (in HSR) or Code D (orange shades in NS) prompted higher choice of the same variants of food and lesser willingness to opt for others, it added. 

In short, to identify the healthiest or unhealthiest variants, any format of FOPNL can work, it said, adding that, however, for promoting more nutritious food choices among the available variants, summary indicators (NS and HSR) seem to work better and to deter consumption of even moderately unhealthy foods, WL (NSR or WL) appear to be a better option.

“It would be appropriate to opt for a format that makes the validation/verification easier,” it recommended.

Dr Arun Gupta, convener of Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest-India (NAPi), a national think-tank of independent medical experts, paediatricians and nutritionists, said the study on FOPL is promising and matched global evidence in favour of warning labels. 

“Rising obesity and non-communicable diseases like type -2 diabetes are like a ticking time bomb. It's high time the Indian government acted on one of the key policies to reduce consumption of unhealthy, ultra-processed food products (UPF), which are usually high in sugar or salt,” he told TNIE. 

“It is logical and scientific to warn people about the unhealthy nature or high sugar, or salt content of a food or drink product. Therefore, to recognise UPF and a warning label on the front of the pack is a necessary step to protect people's health,” Dr Gupta added.


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