Home / Politics / Policy /  The trouble with star ratings of packaged food

If India’s top food safety regulator has its way, you may soon be watching out for “star ratings" on the packets of chips or chocolate when you step into the market. The more the stars, the healthier the product, says the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). But can a simple star rating ever be enough to kill your craving for junk food? Unlikely, say experts.

To understand the nuance, a good place to start is so-called healthy food products. As Indians begin to see the disturbing consequences of unhealthy eating, health awareness is also on the rise. India’s “healthy foods" market is projected to reach $30 billion by 2026, expanding at 20% per year, a March 2022 report by Avendus Capital said. Top food brands, and many new ones, are tripping over each other to sell ‘healthier’ foods. From a ‘diet chivda’ to ‘high-protein biscuit’ and ‘no-added sugar juices’, nutrition now seems to be overflowing from many packaged food items.

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But the devil lies in the details. Claims of ‘no added sugar’, low cholesterol, and low salt may be true, but hide more than they reveal. For example, less sugar and fat kills the taste, and may force a company to use unhealthy substitutes that it won’t readily reveal. Nutritionists and food experts Mint spoke to said that anything processed won’t necessarily be healthy even if it’s rated five on five. That’s why ‘healthiness’ cannot be easily captured in a star label, they fear.

Chinks in the armour

How the star rating will be assigned
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How the star rating will be assigned

First, the basics. The FSSAI in September released draft rules on how the ratings would work, and sought comments from the public. Simply put, the food item loses points as the energy, sodium, saturated fat, and total sugar content goes up. It gains points if it has more of the good stuff—fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, millets, fibre, and proteins. The total score is converted into the star rating (see chart).

But a company can’t take the score all the way up to five stars just by stacking up a lot of both good and bad. The positive points stop coming the moment the item crosses a harmful threshold of the bad content. But this cap may not be enough.

Rating food items isn’t as simple as rating electrical appliances for efficiency. Healthy ingredients do not imply the absence of unhealthy ones that a rating system may miss. Some additives to enhance texture, taste, colour, visual appeal or shelf life may have harmful effects, and star ratings won’t be able to capture the balance of acceptable and harmful levels of nutrients in a food item, said K. Srinath Reddy, distinguished professor of public health at the Public Health Foundation of India.

“A few fragments of nuts will not balance high levels of sugar, salt or unhealthy fats," Reddy said. “As movie audiences are discovering now, having one superstar does not compensate for a bad script or poor casting."

Even items often claimed to be healthier than traditional options—such as jaggery over sugar—may not be completely healthy, say experts. Besides, one person’s one-star may not be another person’s one-star, said Krish Ashok, a food author. Mehar Panjwani, a clinical dietician, said, “We all have a different biochemical profile. Something that may be okay with my health may not suit someone else. For example, a high-protein drink may be absorbed by my kidney beautifully, but it may end up loading someone else’s kidney."

Will it work?

Indian packed food very unhealthy by global standards
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Indian packed food very unhealthy by global standards

Indians are too used to junk food. To take their hands off these packets will require bigger changes, uninfluenced by the industry’s business interests. A 2019 study by the George Institute for Global Health found Indian packaged food to be least healthy globally. India’s packaged food was the most energy-dense and had the second-highest average sugar levels after China. It is no surprise, then, that non-communicable diseases arising out unhealthy eating habits contribute to over 60% of deaths in the country. Even though so-called healthy snacking is picking up in metro cities, junk food in India remains massive.

Perhaps that’s why food advocacy groups say the proven best practice for such front-of-pack labelling is ‘warning’ labels, as adopted in Chile and Israel. Such labels tell a consumer to stop picking an unhealthy item, and that negative messaging has helped bring down junk food consumption, research shows. But a star rating as proposed in India would have a positive messaging instead: an item rated 1.5 may be seen as healthier than an item rated 0.5, even though both can do you harm. It also fails to educate people about harmful levels of key constituents, Reddy said.

Panjwani said star ratings would be misleading and the FSSAI should have nutrition experts and food technologists monitoring recipes at the factory level. Despite his misgivings, Ashok said it was a step in the right direction. He said it needs to be supplemented with better disclosure and labelling rules. “For example, have a rule that you can’t have different names for sugar/fat, it has to be clearly mentioned as ‘sugar/fat’ in a pack," he said. “Don’t allow companies to confuse consumers by using complex terminology."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nandita Venkatesan

Nandita Venkatesan is a data journalist at Mint, and has a keen interest in understanding the usefulness of data in driving sound public discourse and informing policymaking. She has over four years of experience across journalism and health research. She previously worked with the Economic Times, Mumbai, and the Vaccine Confidence Project in the UK. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Nandita also pursued a masters’ in public policy from University of Oxford as Chevening-Weidenfeld Hoffmann scholar.
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