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Business News/ Science / Health/  How healthy is your favourite fruit drink?
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How healthy is your favourite fruit drink?

When the Indian summer sucks your energy, cool drinks and juices offer an oasis of relief. But many popular ones could breach your full-day sugar limit with a single pack, shows a Mint analysis.

Homemade drinks and whole fruits are any day better than packaged ones. But if you’re forced to head to the market, read the labels instead of opting for impulsive buys, and monitor your serving size, experts said (Photo:: Bloomberg)Premium
Homemade drinks and whole fruits are any day better than packaged ones. But if you’re forced to head to the market, read the labels instead of opting for impulsive buys, and monitor your serving size, experts said (Photo:: Bloomberg)

When the Indian summer sucks your energy, cool drinks and juices offer an oasis of relief. But many popular ones could breach your full-day sugar limit with a single pack, shows a Mint analysis.

From sugary delights such as fruit drinks and cold coffee to salty ones such as buttermilk and jaljeera, Indians have options aplenty to beat the heat in summers. But as you find ways to stay spirited in the sweltering heat, spare a moment to check the nutrition label of the next tetra pack or bottle you’re ready to gulp.

Several packaged beverages popular during summers have worrying sugar and salt levels, a Mint analysis of 27 products across seven categories found. Take orange drinks. Consuming a standard 200-ml pack could be akin to indulging in around 25 grams of sugar—meeting the daily healthy sugar limit with just one drink.

The analysis covered two to three common products in each of these segments: lemon drinks, buttermilk, orange drinks, mango drinks, lassi, cold coffee, fruity fizzy drinks, aerated drinks. Barring buttermilk, which didn’t have much sugar, most other items had over 15-20 g of sugar in a 200-ml pack. The sodium content ranged from 0.1 g to as high as 0.57 g (see graphic). The health ministry recommends sodium intake of up to 2 g (or 5 g salt) and sugar intake of up to 25 g per day.

Note that a single day of indulgence beyond these limits isn’t unhealthy, but repeated consumption can be. The Harvard School of Public Health says beverages with much more than 12 g sugar in a 12-ounce (340-g) serving should be consumed “sparingly".

TRICK OR TREAT?

Popular fruity drinks often advertise themselves as healthier, thanks to the “fruit". But there’s a catch. Health experts told Mint that several products do not explicitly mention the fruit content in the label, which can mislead consumers. Moreover, higher sugar levels make claims of boosting immunity counterintuitive. “The first thing a consumer would want to know from a company making mango beverages is how much actual mango pulp has been used," said Mehar Panjwani, a Mumbai-based clinical dietician. “Ideally the packaging should mention the percentage of fruit pulp added."

A former chief executive officer of a top player in the beverages segment acknowledged the problem. “The product may have just 10% juice content but ads show them as a pure fruit drink," he said on the condition of anonymity. However, he added that unit economics and the need to ensure affordability often trounces health considerations. “If you want to put more fruit content and lessen sugar content, the price increases, making it unaffordable for the lower rungs of the society," he said.

He said profit-driven manufacturers won’t change ways unless stricter regulations force them to. Experts said labelling mandates not only make manufacturers more accountable, but also consumers more aware.

Two companies responded to email questionnaires we sent last week to some top packaged drinks players in India. Both Nestlé India and Dabur said they were part of the government’s Eat Right India movement, which urges companies to cut sugar, salt and trans fats in packaged food. Dabur said it had already cut added sugar by 14.4% in its products between 2018 and 2022, ahead of its pledged timeline. The company said it had also reduced serve sizes to offer healthier choices. Nestlé India said it had achieved its commitments to reduce added sugar, salt and fat in relevant product categories.

SLUGGISH REGULATION

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in 2020 mandated nutritional information to be given on the back of the package. An earlier rule also sought clear disclaimers about adjectives such as ‘natural’, ‘fresh’, and ‘pure’ in brand names that may be untrue. But such crucial information is either provided in cryptic language or is difficult to notice. Phrases such as “zero added sugar" are also found in the label of popular beverages, which mask the use of other sweeteners (the World Health Organization cautioned against the use of artificial sweeteners last week).

“Manufacturers are exploiting the wordings of the regulations. Even when a drink has no added sugar, you should mention what is the total sugar or non-sugar sweetener in bold," said Arun Gupta, convenor at Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), a think-tank.

The FSSAI has long toyed with the idea of stronger labelling, but it wasn’t until September 2022 that it issued a draft notification on star ratings to indicate how healthy a pack is. Progress is slow—and remains mired in corporate lobbies even as health activists seek more stringency than mere star ratings.

Chart 3: Google Trends
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Chart 3: Google Trends

WHAT TO DO?

Dr. Jyoti Sharma, additional professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health, said parents should be educated about making healthy choices for children. Gupta urged consumers not to be swayed by advertisements claiming items to be ‘natural’. He said such drinks can be addictive, due to which people may overconsume, increasing risks of obesity and diabetes.

Homemade drinks and whole fruits are any day better than packaged ones. But if you’re forced to head to the market, read the labels instead of opting for impulsive buys, and monitor your serving size, experts said.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nandita Venkatesan
Nandita Venkatesan is a data journalist at Mint. She has a keen interest in simplifying public data sets to help drive sound discourse and policymaking. Her work experience spans across journalism and public health research. She was part of Time magazine's "Time100 Next Leaders" list for her work in making essential generic pharmaceutical drugs cheaper.
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Published: 23 May 2023, 10:35 PM IST
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