An analysis of more than 10,000 food and beverage products currently available in the Indian market, by researchers associated with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences [AIIMS] and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [UNC], has revealed that about 68% of these products have excess amounts of at least one ingredient of concern, whereas 32% are within the scientific thresholds recommended as World Health Organization [WHO] regional standards.

The findings support the Food Safety Standards Authority of India [FSSAI]’s plans to adopt a front-of-the-pack food label [FOPL], since the study shows that the nutrient profile model [NPM] from the WHO Southeast Asian Regional Office [SEARO] is appropriate and practicable for the Indian ultra-processed food market and may encourage the industry to embrace science and evidence-based cut-offs on salt, sugar and saturated fat.

AIIMS and UNC researchers used data from the Mintel Global New Product Database, which includes all major products of the Indian food market and includes 35,142 products. The researchers were able to analyse 10,500 products that had provided complete nutrition information in the nutrition facts panel.

“Our study finds that applying the SEARO NPM cut-off points would result in 68% of products in the market requiring at least one warning label. This is in stark contrast to an earlier study undertaken by Nutrition Alchemy, utilising a small dataset of 1,300, which found that 96% of products would require a label. This creates an erroneous impression that FOPL based on the SEARO NPM is not practicable and based on ground reality. A team of researchers and nutritionists from UNC who have done similar analyses across countries [the US, Mexico, Chile, Peru and South Africa and assisted the UK Dept of Health] and are experts in understanding nutrition information and food labels came together for this important study which can aid the FOPL process in India,” says Dr. Chandrakant S. Pandav, co-author of the paper.

The apex food safety regulator of the country is keen to bring about the much-awaited regulation on FOPL. It has already held several rounds of consultations with industry, civil society and consumer groups since the beginning of 2021 and has also constituted a working group. “Decisions based on this new report, which relies on a much larger sample, will bring reassurance to the industry,” says Shim Sanyal, COO, consumer voice and erstwhile member of the consultative committee constituted by FSSAI.

The NPM is a scientific method to categorise food and beverages items according to their nutritional composition, with the aim of identifying and differentiating foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fats. Based on the “cut off” established by the NPM, the front-of-pack label informs consumers whether a product contains excessive sugar, sodium and saturated fat, helping them make healthier choices. The WHO SEARO NPM model was developed based on research and field-level studies in consultation with member countries of the South-East Asia region, and is therefore considered best aligned to the Indian food system.

India faces a rapidly escalating burden of non-communicable diseases [NCDs], particularly the rising incidence of nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes and obesity among adults, as well as an alarming increase in childhood obesity. The simultaneous and exponential growth of the ultra-processed food industry has raised concern about the food choices available in the market. India clocks the highest growth rate for ultra-processed food and beverages — items high in added sugar, salt and additives, besides being ultra-processed.

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