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Junk food villains

There are no bad foods, only bad diets. So say many nutritionists. What make junk foods so unhealthy are the high-levels of fats, salt, sugar and carbohydrates in them. This nutrition profile adds to obesity and our increasing non-communicable diseases (NCD) burden. The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a non-profit in Delhi, finds that NCDs were responsible for more than half of all deaths in 2005 and by 2030 will be the reason behind two-thirds of all Indian deaths. The latest National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2005-06, shows at least one in every eight people is overweight or obese. In urban India at least one in every five people is obese. Obesity in women has increased by more than four per cent between 1998 and 2005. It is a salt, sugar and fat problem.

junk foodSalt: Current global salt consumption in diets is 9-12 grams per person per day. WHO wants this halved, which will bring down coronary heart disease and stroke by 18-25 per cent respectively. In India, consumption of salt ranges between five and 30 gm. But the challenge of hypertension is growing. Bad food is adding to this. Just consider: one packet of chips has 2 grams of salt: one-third of your daily quota.

Bad fats: It is agreed that 15 to 30 per cent of our daily calories should be from fats, with not more than 10 per cent from saturated fats; trans fats should contribute at one or 2 per cent. India is already known as the diabetes capital of the world; it is home to one-fifth of the world’s type-2 diabetes load. So fat is bad. But a KFC chicken combo-meal, sold so lovingly to people, exceeds their daily fat and trans fats quota. But they are not told.

Carbs and sugar: Bad, we know. But do we know that while the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) recommends 20 grams of added sugar in Indian diets, one 300 ml bottle of Pepsi or Coca-Cola has 42 gm of added sugar. You have just blown up your daily sugar quota two times over.

Governments are waking up to this fat-salt-sugar-problem. Several countries, including Ireland, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, and several US and Canadian states, have banned sale of junk foods in and around schools. In 2008 the UK banned junk food advertisements during television programmes aimed at children under 16 years. In March this year, Scotland proposed to ban junk food ads in TV shows aired before 9 pm. Denmark and Hungary imposed a fat tax on junk food last year. The surcharge is levied on food items like butter, milk, cheese, pizza, meat, bacon, ice-cream and processed food if they contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. In Canada, a food product can be labelled as “free of energy” if it provides less than 5 kilo calories per serving of stated size.

Still, all is not well in this fat world.

What India needs to do

  • One, junk food industry targets children as present and future consumers. It is, therefore, important to ban junk foods from schools and places where children can have easy access to these foods.
  • Two, to prevent children from junk foods, the Advertising Standards Council of India has guidelines in place. For example, it says, “Caution and care should be observed in advertising of food and beverages especially ones containing relatively high levels of sugar, salt and fat” during television shows directed at children. Yet, there is hardly any restraint on advertisements. FSSAI should mandate advertising guidelines for these foods, including the time for airing of these advertisements (after 9 pm).
  • Three, FSSAI should come out with regulations to reduce salt, sugar and fats in junk foods. It should also follow the examples of Hungary and Denmark and impose “fat tax” on high-fat processed foods, making them expensive. This would dissuade consumers from such food.
  • Four, knowing the truth will help. The government should introduce mandatory labelling, at least for serving size, trans fats, saturated fats, sugar and salt, along with already mandatory nutritional information for all processed foods. This would help people make an informed choice. This should also be applicable to takeaway foods like pizzas and burgers. They should be asked to provide easy access to information on the wrappers/ boxes.

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