No curb on misleading ads of unhealthy food products, shows study

The study showed that all the ads were not upfront about important nutritional details such as sugar, salt, and fat content.
Image used for representation only
Image used for representation only

NEW DELHI: Misleading advertisements for high-fat, sugar, or salt (HFSS) products are on the rise in India as a result of legal loopholes and inadequate monitoring, according to a study released on Friday.

The study highlighted that marketing for unhealthy food and drinks often utilizes emotional appeals, celebrity endorsements, and sensory triggers to portray these products as appealing choices.

In the process, they purposely conceal the list of ingredients used in these food and beverage products, which violates regulations, said the study, whose findings make it crucial for public health officials, policymakers, nutritionists, and concerned consumers.

The research report, ‘Fifty Shades of Food Advertising,’ carried out by the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), a national think tank of independent medical experts, paediatricians, and nutritionists, suggests the need for revisions in regulatory frameworks at various government ministries and a solid monitoring system at the state level.

The report underscores the need for a clear definition of misleading advertisements, as numerous companies exploit the lack of clarity in this area.

It also recommended that the Food Safety Regulatory Authority (FSSAI), India’s food regulator, include provisions in advertisements for disclosing nutrients of concern, such as sugar, salt, and fat, which the study said, is one the major underlying factors for the rise in obesity and diabetes.

The study examined 50 advertisements and revealed that nine products featured enticements such as cashback, vouchers, or discounts. Additionally, emotional appeals such as romance, passion, and a sense of belonging were prominent themes in 22 out of the 50 advertisements.

It turned out that all the ads were not upfront about important nutritional details such as sugar, salt, and fat content.

Also, it noted that almost half of these ads featured famous Bollywood celebrities like Katrina Kaif, MS Dhoni, Siddharth Malhotra, Kirara Advani, Kareena Kapoor, and others, thus making it enticing enough for the public to go and buy these products.

The study observed that most of the ads seemed to have violated the Consumer Protection Act 2019 by concealing important information regarding nutrients of concern.

“The pervasive and aggressive advertising and marketing of unhealthy HFSS food products, or ultra-processed food (UPF) products have made an entry into the diets of Indians, replacing their traditional diets,” noted Dr Arun Gupta, who is a paediatrician and convenor of NAPi.

He said India is facing a dubious distinction of persistent undernutrition among children under five, and a rising trend of obesity and diabetes among grown-ups.

The 2023 ICMR-INDIAB study shows there are 100 million cases of diabetes and 1 in every 4 individuals is either suffering from diabetes or is pre-diabetic or obese.

The more recent ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition (NIN’s) ‘Dietary Guidelines for Indians’ reveal that more than 10% of 5 to 19-year-olds are pre-diabetic.

The government had set a target to halt the rise of obesity and diabetes by 2025, under the National Multi-Sector Action Plan to Prevent and Control Non-Communicable Diseases (2017-2022), which seems nowhere in sight, he added.

Dr Gupta said the government should implement that each advertisement must disclose in bold letters the amount of nutrient of concern per 100 gram/ml.

“It would be in the best interest of the people’s health that a public health ‘Bill’ is proposed in the Parliament to halt obesity. If we fail to halt the rising trend, it will only result in increasing the disease and economic burden, year by year on the individual family and the health system as a whole,” he said.

Dr Nupur Bidla, a member of NAPi and a social scientist added, “Under the Right to Information, we have found that FSSAI takes 1-2 years to refer the matter of misleading advertisements to a committee, which keeps on clarifying from companies. But out of more than 100 cases, none has been fined as per rules even as the FSSAI committee found these to be misleading."

"This is a gross injustice to the consumers, people of India. Such a delay allows companies to enjoy the ‘freedom’ to advertise and make money while public health may suffer,” she added.

The study also said that promoting unhealthy food goes against advertising rules.

"The legal framework referring to' misleading advertising' does not objectively define its meaning when it comes to a food product and is left to be interpreted by a committee. It also leaves the consumers, their organizations, or public health experts in a dilemma," said the study.

"Moreover, the Consumer Protection Authority Guidelines for prevention of misleading advertisements, for example, can only prevent celebrity advertisements if there was a health law or warning about such food products," it added.

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