New Delhi: Companies that advertise that their products can make children smarter or taller, help users lose (or gain) weight, and other such claims may soon have to obtain statutory approval prior to launching the product. Existing guidelines only require the company to guarantee that the product is safe for consumption.
A panel of experts comprising government and industry representatives is expected to meet on 16 May to finalize the guidelines. Increasing incomes and growing awareness about health and wellness have triggered demand for a variety of food products and experts say this may lead to exaggerated claims by firms of the health benefits of products.
“We have been looking at introducing some guidelines for a while. The intent is not really to penalize companies that don’t comply, but to get some valuable data and this could be useful to indirectly put pressure on companies,” said M.K. Bhan, secretary, department of biotechnology. “However, ultimately it is the FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) that will be the enforcer. We’re just helping out.”
The government originally wanted to test the waters for the new norms with probiotic food. It is now looking at extending them to the entire range of health foods. Scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research as well as the department of biotechnology are preparing the guidelines that companies must comply with before publicizing the perceived benefits of their edible products.
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Even with probiotic foods, a class of mainly yoghurt and milk products that contain specific kinds of bacteria that are believed to promote better digestion and nutrition, the guidelines were for discussion and are yet to be notified.
Once in place, the implementation of the new norms for all health foods, such as health drinks, packaged food products as well as nutraceuticals (mainly dietary supplements) will come under the purview of FSSAI.
Accordingly, companies that claim the presence of “good bacteria” and “good cholesterol” in their products will have to run their claims by the regulator, said experts involved with drafting the guidelines.
“If a company makes a claim about foods or substances that aren’t well-known to have beneficial effects, then they will have to explain their claims. But if, for instance, someone says, ‘calcium is good for your bones,’ that’s fine. Calcium’s impact on the bones is well documented,” said B. Sesikaran, director at National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, who heads the panel that will monitor labelling and advertising claims.
Leading brands such as Nestlé and Yakult that launched probiotic products in 2007 are compliant with the existing guidelines that merely require the product to be certified as safe for consumption.
“Take probiotics. Do consumers know how many bacteria are needed in a single serving of curd to benefit your intestine? Consumers have a right to know, especially if they are paying a premium,” said Sesikaran.
Experts also say that with living organisms, such as bacteria, being increasingly used in the food-processing industry, the guidelines will also include specifications that will prescribe tests to check the efficacy of genetically modified organisms (GMO) that are often added in processed foods as preservatives or for enhancing nutrition. Genetically modified crops aren’t allowed to be cultivated in India, but imported processed or packaged foods that contain GMOs are allowed to be sold in India, provided they are proven safe.
“There are GMOs as well as a host of life forms that are increasingly being added to food products. Till now, Indian regulators have focused on food adulteration and safety. I think now it’s time to go beyond that. Claims cannot be thrown loosely,” said Darshan Singh Chadha, a senior adviser to the Confederation of Indian Industry and member of the committee that will check advertiser claims.
Companies said that the guidelines would be welcome.
“Probiotic foods have come into India at a time when consumer interest in diet and health is at an all-time high,” Neerja Hajela, head (science) at Yakult Danone India Pvt. Ltd, said in an emailed statement. “The recently established Indian Council of Medical Research and department of biotechnology guidelines will go a long way in ensuring product safety, quality, reliability and level-playing for all companies introducing and producing probiotic products.”
The proposed guidelines will be a positive move, agreed Himanshu Manglik, senior manager (corporate communications) at Nestlé India Ltd. “Science-based nutrition benefits consumers and these guidelines should help in establishing benchmarks that will benefit the industry in the long-run as well. Nestlé has been supporting this for many years and has the largest R&D network in the global food industry to accelerate application of science and food technology to consumer products,” he said.