Food package labels warning on sugar, trans-fats may help fight obesity, diabetes

New Delhi, Mar 19 (Bureau) With more than 135 million Indians being obese and a sharp rise in childhood obesity, global and local experts have come together to urge for simple and effective front-of-package labels (FOPL) to address India’s crisis of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). High blood pressure, high fasting blood sugar levels and obesity, are the main drivers of this disease burden in India. All of these conditions are closely linked to unhealthy diets, and an excessive intake of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans-fats and sodium. Speaking at a virtual media roundtable on ` “Why is getting FOPL right critical for India’s obesity and diabetes epidemic?” here, the experts said FOPL works best when it is made mandatory and applies to all packaged products, the label is interpretative, simplistic and readily visible, guided by a strong nutrient profile model.

The roundtable was organized by Consumer Voice and Global Health Advocacy Incubator. Nearly 5.8 million people or 1 in 4 Indians are at a risk of dying from an NCD before they reach the age of 70. Disease burden of NCDs increased from 30% ‘disability-adjusted life years’ (DALYs) in 1990 to 55% in 2016, with deaths due to these conditions increasing from 37% in 1990 to 61% in 2016. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) accounts for at least 27% of NCD deaths. Untreated and uncontrolled hypertension contributes to an estimated 1.6 million deaths annually in India – 57% of these deaths related to stroke and 24% related to coronary heart disease. India is also fast becoming a diabetes and cancer hotspot. This crisis is being further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as persons living with NCDs face a greater risk of becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19. Excessive intake of thesenutrients of public health concern’ is largely driven by the widespread availability, affordability and promotion of processed and ultra-processed food products with unhealthy nutritional profiles.

Reports indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic generated a unique opportunity for the food and beverage industry to thrive in low- to middle-income countries and expand their market of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks. Front-of-package warning labelling represents a key component of a comprehensive strategy to promote healthier lives, as it enables consumers to identify in a quick, clear and effective way, products high in sugar, sodium, saturated fats, trans fats and total fats. In 2018 the Food Safety Standards Authority India (FSSAI) published draft regulation for FOPL which was subsequently withdrawn for further deliberation. In 2020 December, FSSAI restarted the process of developing FOPL and has been consultations with civil society, industry and nutrition experts for a viable model for India.

Dr Chandrakant Pandav, president, Indian Coalition for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD), warned that there is no time is to be lost. “It is clear as day that our food environment needs to change drastically if we are to reverse the health crisis and safe guard our future generations. Even as we move to fortify our food, it is equally critical to equip people with information regarding harmful nutrients in their food products including ie, high concentration of salt, sugar and fats, is an equally important strategy.”