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Inside the five-year battle food companies have fought to resist stricter labelling norms

The front-of-pack label, its advocates believe, would empower consumers in making informed choices and incentivise companies to innovate in food technology to bring down fat, salt and sugar levels. (Photo: Hindustan Times)Premium
The front-of-pack label, its advocates believe, would empower consumers in making informed choices and incentivise companies to innovate in food technology to bring down fat, salt and sugar levels. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

  • India’s processed foods rank poorly in global comparisons on healthiness. A proposed fix is mired in committees.
  • India’s progressive front-of-pack labelling regulation has been stuck for five years, following fierce opposition from industry. Experts are warning that public health fallouts will show up soon

NEW DELHI : The minute-long ad begins with the words “Virat caught cheating on his diet" flashing in capital letters as Virat Kohli is seen munching on a packet of chips. For the next 45 seconds, startled fans are shown complaining—shocked to see the captain of the Indian cricket team eating an “unhealthy" snack.

Then comes the big reveal: “These are not chips," Kohli says. What he is advertising is different. “These are Too Yumm! multigrain chips. Baked, not fried. Not just taste, it has got the power of seven grains."

When nutritionist Misbah Wasi saw her sister eating the same “healthy baked chips", she looked at the nutritional information. Compared with an offering of market leader Lays, the fat content in Too Yumm’s product was less, but to compensate, there was more sugar and salt.

“These ‘healthy’ claims are misleading," said Misbah, who previously worked as a technical officer with India’s food regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). “A snack cannot be called healthy if it is focused on reducing only one nutrient and increasing the other," she said. “If it is baked in a true sense, I will expect a reduction of more than 50% of total calories," she added.

Most Indians are not nutrition experts like Misbah. Yet, a growing number of Indians are interested in making healthier choices—an urge that has only been amplified by covid-19. In 2020, the sales of packaged food items skyrocketed. And, inevitably, a litany of health and immunity boosting claims got slapped on to exiting as well as new lines of consumer products.

It helps that most consumers don’t read labels. They are confusing and complicated, giving manufacturers an opportunity to claim whatever they want—“70% fat-free", “high fibre", “no sugar"—right in front of the pack. While there is an apparent new national focus on health, what seems like a free pass for food manufacturers is set to continue into the new decade.

However, it wouldn’t have, if proposed changes in India’s labelling rules had been converted into law. The idea is simple: if the content of fat, salt or sugar—the three nutrients of concern—exceed a specified quantity, the food packet would come with a front-of-pack warning label. An easily understandable red dot for each element that surpasses a defined threshold.

The front-of-pack label, its advocates believe, would empower consumers in making informed choices and incentivise companies to innovate in food technology to bring down fat, salt and sugar levels.

Had these rules been in place, the health claims on Too Yumm’s packet, for instance, would be placed along with two red dots: one for the high sodium (salt) levels (3.5 times higher than the permissible limit) and another for high saturated fat.

But India’s progressive front-of-pack labelling regulation is stuck, following fierce opposition from the industry. Interviews with scientists, government officials, independent experts and a review of documents obtained by Mint under the RTI Act—including meeting minutes of FSSAI panels and hundreds of comments submitted by the food industry on the draft law—show how debates between industry and government keep moving from one committee to another and the unresolved conflicts stay on the table. As a result, India’s attempt to regulate high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods is stuck for five years now. Now, experts are starting to warn that there would be public health fallouts if India doesn’t make up its mind soon.

The executives of the All India Food Processors Association, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and companies like Too Yumm did not respond to a request for comment.

Health warning

“We are passing through a public health emergency," said Dr K. Madhavan Nair, a former scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition and the chair of an expert group that will determine the future of labelling regulation, referring to the rising incidences of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Part of the problem is the composition of foods that Indians eat. “The earlier problem in India was undernutrition. We thought overnutrition won’t happen here. But it came so fast that we didn’t even have time to frame policy," Nair said.

“Fat, salt and sugar are the three critical nutrients that increase the risk of non-communicable diseases," he said. The latest official data from the National Family Health Survey released in December shows continued prevalence of diet-related NCDs like diabetes. Most states saw a sharp rise in obesity.

In 2011-12, the last nationwide consumption survey found that an average Indian consumed 10% of daily calories from processed food. For urban households in the highest income group, it accounted for roughly 30% of their daily food intake. Anecdotal evidence suggests the share of processed food has only increased since.

On its part, the processed food industry claims the proposed “red dot" rules are not backed by evidence, could lead to a decline in sales, and would create panic among Indian consumers as most products will carry a red dot.

“Nobody wants to put a red label," Nair said. “But that’s the only option to make the public aware about the danger and impact of HFSS foods."

India turned its attention to regulate HFSS foods only in the last decade. It all began in 2010 when Uday Foundation, a non-profit, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court flagging the easy availability of junk food and carbonated drinks to school children and sought a ban. The court asked FSSAI to look into the issue and frame guidelines. An expert group with public health advocates and industry representatives was set up in September 2013.

During these discussions, experts noted that there is no scientific definition of “junk food", but they are generally understood to be foods high in fat, salt and sugar and lacking in micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals). That’s how the regulatory focus shifted to HFSS foods.

The submission was made in March 2014 and the court accepted it in 2015. The court did not order an outright ban on junk food, though. Instead, it asked the regulator to restrict or limit the availability of the most common HFSS foods in schools and areas within 50 metres of schools. Strengthening labelling laws to make nutritional labels more informative and appropriate was also recommended.

In June 2015, FSSAI set up a new committee—an expert group on Fat, Sugar and Salt. It eventually led to the draft front-of-pack labelling regulations of 2018.

In its May 2017 report, the expert group found that an average Indian’s consumption of all the three ingredients is higher than the recommended threshold. They advocated for reformulation of products, an advertisement ban for foods high in FSS during children’s TV shows, and strengthening of the labelling system—only 52% of products displayed the nutrient information as per prevalent laws.

This is especially crucial for India. A 2019 study published in Obesity Reviews Journal analysed over 400,000 packaged food and beverages from 12 countries and found that Indian products ranked lowest in terms of “healthiness" across a range of health measures: they were most energy-dense and had the highest levels of saturated fat and total sugar.

The sticking points

There are four questions at the centre of the draft 2018 “red dot" policy’s design: Which nutrients should be highlighted on the front of the pack? How to define what is considered high? What should be the label’s design? What should be the timeline of implementation?

After considering various options, FSSAI proposed that packaged foods will carry a red dot—separate one for each category—if the amount of total calories, fats, sodium and sugar exceed the defined threshold, which were decided based on WHO’s nutrient profiling models.

The industry, expectedly, opposed it—especially the red colour of the warning label, which they said indicates danger and would discourage the sale of their products. It was hard to build consensus.

To address these concerns, a new three-member expert panel led by B Sesikeran, former director of the National Institute of Nutrition, was set up to propose revisions to the draft after consulting all stakeholders. The group met thrice between September and December 2018 and the changes they introduced included modifying the ingredients that would determine what is an HFSS food: in the new definition, high sugar would refer to ‘added sugar’, not ‘total sugar’; high fat would focus on ‘saturated fat’, not ‘total fat’; and salt was replaced with sodium. Limits were modified accordingly.

The committee proposed starting with a black coloured mark in the first year with a warning that “excessive intake may be harmful to health" and move to a red-colored label afterwards. The rollout, they said, should be gradual: deviations up to 30% from the prescribed limit will be allowed in the first year to avoid the warning label and 15% in the second year.

A new draft was floated in 2019 and placed in the public domain to invite comments. The regulator received hundreds of submissions, mostly from industry. Still doesn’t work, they said.

In a letter to FSSAI, the CII, an industry body, said the draft legislation is “non-implementable" in its current form. “The current definition of HFSS and definition of thresholds per 100 gm would result in a large percentage of processed foods becoming labelled red," they wrote. “The threshold values are extremely impractical and even the three-year roadmap to achieve thresholds would really not be implementable."

The data CII submitted to the FSSAI, obtained via RTI, is instructive and shows what’s at stake. What is high fat? It depends on the type of food of course. CII data show 100gm of ketchup in the Indian market contain 25-75gm fat—the threshold is just 12gm. For snacks—like potato chips—FSSAI set 8gm as the upper limit. The industry benchmark is 30-36gm for total fat. “No technology is available to reduce the level to 8% fat in fried foods," CII said in its submission.

Similar arguments were made by all major manufacturers and the FSSAI decided to reconsider. “The industry associations raised concerns on the specified thresholds and requested to contextualize thresholds based on ‘Indian scenario’," FSSAI CEO Arun Singhal said in an emailed interview. The request also came from the ministry of food processing industries, Singhal said.

And so, in October 2019—one year after the Sesikeran committee proposed changes after hearing industry’s concerns—another committee chaired by Dr Madhavan Nair was set up. The panel met in November 2019 and asked the FSSAI to initiate a nutrient threshold study to assess the current Indian market scenario and generate baseline data for nutrient levels across all food categories.

This new baseline data will be crucial in determining thresholds. Seema Puri, a member in the Nair committee, explained why. “Take biscuits. Currently, in most products, 20% of the energy comes from sugar, which is double the threshold value. When you get detailed data like this for the current market profile, you can study how much it deviates from existing thresholds and get to a middle ground," she said. In other words, one can expect a relaxation in the existing thresholds.

Some will see it as a compromise: high or low should be based on science, the argument goes, and not on existing market practises—the fact that most Indian food products have fat, salt and sugar exceeding permissible quantities is the reason the regulation is being introduced.

Others term them pragmatic changes. “Regulation needs to be evidence-based and take along its implementers," Puri said. “If you take it too far, there will be violations. Based on the thresholds which may be arrived at, we are hoping industry should be positive," he added.

By now, 14 months have passed since the Nair committee commissioned the nutrient threshold study. Deliberations are still on. Its decision will determine the quality of packaged food in retail stores and, ultimately, the health of Indians.

In conclusion

There are essentially two world views in conflict here. Activists often point fingers at Big Food: cravings are artificially induced by engineering food in chemistry labs to make consumers eat more. Dubious claims pushed through misleading ads only make it harder for people to understand what they are actually eating.

The other view—widely promoted by the industry—puts the onus on individual behaviour: it’s about sedentary lifestyles, overall eating habits (not just what you buy in the supermarket) and preference (less demand for healthy products as consumers put taste over nutrition).

The reality most probably lies somewhere in between. And that zone, which prioritizes public health over all else, is probably what India should seek.

At a CUTS International event in August 2018, Pawan Agarwal, the former FSSAI CEO, had said it is high time to finalize the labelling rules as delays are holding up other regulations, including regulation on food allowed at school campuses—where the story began in 2010. The regulator will move ahead, he had said, as already “three years have passed discussing the theme."

Yet, in February 2021—two-and-a-half years later—it is still not clear when the draft will turn into policy and in what form. India, meanwhile, desires good health while doing little.

Samarth Bansal is a freelance journalist who writes about technology and policy

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