As much as 68 per cent of food and beverage products currently available in the Indian food market have excess amounts of at least one ingredient of concern, namely salt, sugar, and saturated fats, according to a study. Researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) analysed 10,500 products that had provided complete nutrition information in the nutrition facts panel. They found only 32 per cent are within the scientific thresholds recommended by the World Health Organisation's regional standards.
The finding demonstrates 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.
NPM is a scientific method to categorise food and beverage items according to their nutritional composition with the ultimate aim of identifying and differentiating foods that are unhealthily high in salt, sugar, and saturated fats.
"Our study finds that applying the SEARO NPM cut-off points would result in 68 per cent 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 per cent of products would require a label. This creates an erroneous impression that FOPL based on the SEARO NPM is not practicable and based on the ground reality," said co-author Dr Chandrakant S. Pandav, Professor and Head of the Department - Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS.
Based on the "cut off" established by the NPM, the front-of-the-pack food label (FOPL) informs consumers in a fast and straightforward way whether a product contains excessive sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, helping them make a healthier choice.
India faces a rapidly escalating burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), particularly the rising incidence of nutrition related diseases such as diabetes, obesity among adults as well as an alarming increase in childhood obesity.
The country also clocks the highest growth rate for ultra-processed food and beverages items high in added sugar, salt and additives, besides being ultra-processed.
Over the past year, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India has been preparing to introduce a mandatory front-of-the-pack food label (FOPL) on all packaged foods which will require the food industry to ensure that ingredients of concern are within a certain threshold and also guide consumers towards making healthy choices.