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MUMBAI: Majority of Indian consumers want identifiers on the front of a pack for ultra-processed foods, comprising high fat, sugar and salt, as per findings of a survey. This comes at a time when the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has invited comments from health experts and consumer organisations to address concerns about proper labelling of packaged foods.

According to a survey by LocalCircles, a community social media platform, more than a third, or 77%, of consumers prefer a front-of-the-pack red label on ultra-processed foods.

The subject of how HFSS (high fat, sugar and salt) foods should be labelled on the pack has been a subject of great interest to many Indian consumers.

In a survey in April last year, seven out of 10 consumers said they favoured a front-of-the-pack label in red, green or orange colours based on sugar, salt and fat content, while just two in 10 consumers favoured a star rating system. One in 10 surveyed did not want any labels.

The survey findings were escalated to the FSSAI and the ministry of health and family welfare for consideration and implementation in April and once again in November last year.

With the subject continuing to get feedback from consumers, especially discontent against the star rating system in the regulation draft issued by the FSSAI in September, LocalCircles conducted another survey focusing on ultra-processed foods and identifying them with a red front-of-the-pack label even if FSSAI were to implement its proposed star rating system.

The latest survey also asked consumers about how ultra-processed foods should be identified on e-commerce platforms where the packet isn’t in the hands of the consumer or fully visible to them.

The survey received over 19,000 responses from consumers located in 285 districts of India. About 64% of respondents were men while 36% of respondents were women. About 43% of respondents were from tier 1 cities, 31% were from tier 2, and 26% of respondents were from tier 3, 4 and rural districts.

The first question in the survey focused on how the identification of ultra-processed foods should be done on a package. It asked respondents, “Should ultra-processed foods be identified with a front-of-the-pack red label instead of the star rating system proposed by FSSAI?" to which 77% of the 9,880 respondents said, “Yes, absolutely". Only 5% of respondents indicated “No, it should be star rating only like other packaged food products", and another 5% felt “No, there should be no marking on such products". In addition, 13% gave no clear reply.

Also, 86% of consumers surveyed said they wanted e-commerce sites/apps selling grocery/packaged foods to help them identify ultra-processed foods with red-coloured labels/bars.

To ensure consumers are aware of what they order online, the next question in the survey asked all those who use e-commerce apps to order groceries, “Should e-commerce sites/apps that sell ultra-processed foods be required to identify such products with a red label also?" In response, a majority, 86%, said “Yes, absolutely". Of the nearly 10,000 respondents to this question, only 2% felt “No, it should be star rating only like other packaged food products", 7% indicated “No, there should be no marking on such products on e-commerce sites/ apps"; while 5% gave no clear response. From an implementation standpoint, respondents suggested that a red label or a rectangular bar next to the listing could be a way to identify such foods on e-commerce platforms.

The survey results confirm that seven in 10 respondents continue to believe that a front-of-the-pack label with a colour code is a more effective way than a star rating system to inform and make aware the Indian consumer about what they are consuming.

Even if FSSAI were to proceed with its star rating system the latest survey finds that seven in 10 consumers want at least the ultra-processed foods to carry a red label/bar on the front of the pack for easy identification.

Secondly, as a sizable consumer base of ultra-processed food at least in cities is using the e-commerce sites or apps to order groceries including processed foods without the benefit of full visibility to the package, over eight in 10 online shoppers of grocery believe that these ultra-processed foods must be identified with a red label or bar.

If these recommendations are implemented, they will go a long way in many becoming aware of ultra-processed foods and over time migrating to healthier alternatives.

In August 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken about the importance of children having a nutritious diet in his monthly programme Mann ki Baat. More than two years later, the FSSAI and a number of think tanks working with it are still to finalise the draft proposal on the star rating system planned to identify HFFS foods.

Last year in September, FSSAI proposed an Indian Nutrition Rating for front-of-pack labels to rate overall nutritional profile of the packaged foods and assign it a score ranging from half star to five stars.

A research article co-authored by Trish Cotter and published online in BMJ Case Reports suggests that a practical way to identify an ultra-processed product is to check if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the NOVA ultra-processed food group - either food substances never or rarely used in kitchens (such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated or interesterified oils, and hydrolysed proteins), or classes of additives designed to make the final product palatable or more appealing. This could include flavours, flavour enhancers, colours, emulsifiers, emulsifying salts, sweeteners, thickeners, anti-foaming, bulking, carbonating, foaming, gelling and glazing agents.

A research report, based on an analysis of more than 10,000 food and beverage products available in the Indian food market, had revealed in December 2021 that about 68% of them have excess amounts of at least one ingredient of concern while 32% are within the scientific thresholds recommended WHO regional standards. The study by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) had analysed 10,500 products that provided complete nutrition information in the nutrition facts panel.

Two studies published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and Neurology found that consumption of ultra-processed foods can be detrimental to health. The first study concluded that they can contribute to 10% of death among people aged 30-69 years, while the second study warned that a 10% increase in consumption of such foods can raise the risk of dementia.

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