A new study by the Centre for Science and Environment has exposed that levels of salt and fat in junk food is far higher than proposed thresholds in the country. The tests at the New Delhi based non-profit’s Environment Monitoring Laboratory indicate that food manufacturers sell packaged food and fast food products with unhealthy levels of nutrients.
The laboratory analysis of salt, fat, transfats and carbohydrates in 33 popular junk foods, which include 14 samples of chips, namkeen, instant noodles, instant soup and 19 samples of burgers, fries, fried chicken, pizza, sandwich and wraps was conducted. The tests were done using methods listed by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC), which are accepted internationally and by the apex food regulator of the country – the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
The samples collected from grocery stores and fast food outlets in Delhi had values of transfats as well as salt much above the thresholds proposed by the FSSAI, but not notified so far. Given the wide sale and consumption of such foods, the country needs a robust law on labelling and disclosure of nutritional information on food packs.
Regulation of junk food
CSE had earlier exposed pesticides in soft drinks, potassium bromate in bread, antibiotics in honey and chicken in food products consumed in India. The industry has however been opposed to the notification of draft regulation based on expert group recommendations. CSE is of the view that the draft regulation that materialized was severely diluted. Even then, this draft too is not being notified thus impairing public health. The study states that the nexus between the industry and regulating agencies backs this brazen act.
“We have found dangerously high levels of salt and fat in all the packaged food and fast food samples that we tested. We consumers have the right to know what is contained in the package. But our food regulator, the FSSAI, is dragging its feet and has not notified its own draft labelling regulation. This is clearly because of pressure from the powerful food industry. This is not acceptable. This is compromising our right to know and our right to health,” says CSE director general Sunita Narain releasing the study recently.
The preparation of the draft Food Safety Standards, (Labelling and Display) Regulations began in 2013 and the FSSAI has constituted committee after committee in the last six years. It came up with a ‘final’ draft of the Sesikeran committee report in 2019, which was put out for public comments. CSE found that the report prepared by the committee headed by B Sesikeran, former director of the National Institute of Nutrition is considerably compromised and diluted. Sesikaran is now a trustee of the global big food industry lobby group, International Life Sciences Institute. Even this report has not been made public by the FSSAI.
The laboratory study findings were further analysed by CSE to understand how much of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is used by eating these foods. RDA helps understand how much of any nutrient (salt, sugar, fat) should be consumed from different meals. Most packaged food falls into the ‘snack’ category and the RDA of this food is a proportion of our daily intake. The study found high salt in junk foods such as chips, namkeen, instant noodles, soups, burgers, pizzas and sandwiches.
As per the new regulations, food manufacturers will have to display nutritional data clearly on front of their product packs. This should clearly state the energy (in Kcal), carbohydrate with sugar, transfat, cholesterol, added sugar, protein, total fat, saturated fat and sodium chloride per 100 g or ml or per serve. The per serve contribution to RDA, considering 2000 Kcal, 67 g of fat, 22 g of saturated fat, 2 g of transfat, 50 g of added sugar and 2000 mg of sodium will also be declared. The food lobby was opposed to this notification as it entailed marking of foods as red if they had amounts of salts and fat above the permissible threshold.
This study highlights misleading labelling on certain food products such as transfats, which are known to be deadly and are responsible for heart diseases. The study also found under-reporting of the amount of transfats in their products.
“Are we really serious about limiting our burden of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases? The FSSAI’s attitude indicates otherwise. Junk foods and their consumption are the primary contributors to this huge burden of non-communicable lifestyle diseases that India is now struggling with. We cannot afford to ignore the warning that the CSE lab study has sounded,” says Amit Khurana, programme director, food safety and toxins team, CSE. The organisation has been running the campaign #Markitred to encourage people to push for labelling laws and red warning label on food that crosses the healthy threshold.
The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and FSSAI continue to be silent on which side to take - food industry or public health. In the meanwhile, the disease burden attributable to non-communicable diseases is on the rise. All this makes proper nutritional analysis of junk foods important to improve consumer awareness. Policy makers need to come up with appropriate interventions for regulating such foods.