In the words of celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar, "jitna packet khulta hai, utna pet foolta hai". She claims that under the garb of selling products as ‘healthy’ based on one ingredient, we consumers tend to ignore all other ingredients that make the product unfit to consume.
As a part of her RD Fitness Project 2019, she revealed many hidden junk foods or junk foods camouflaged as health foods that you and your kids are eating every day. A classic example is the current trend of switching to fibre and digestive biscuits with a thought that they are healthier counterparts. These biscuits promise to be made of healthy ingredients like oats, ragi, whole wheat flour etc. But the truth is that these biscuits have so much added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients to make them tasty that the point is completely lost. In fact, Rujuta Diwekar’s nutrition mantra is as simple as "Ad hai to bad hai". She swears by all kinds of locally produced food and we certainly know why.
“Junk food” is essentially any food that is highly processed, high in calories and low in nutrients. Junk food is also usually high in added sugars, salt and saturated or trans fats. Some evidence points to junk foods as being as addictive as alcohol and drugs.
Another term that is often used in proximity to it is “Fast food”, wherein the food is prepared quickly and is eaten quickly or taken out. Although there are a growing number of healthier fast food options, most fast food can still be classified as junk food.
Even after knowing these damaging constituents; the tempting packaging, mouth-watering taste and irresistible marketing, lure even the most strong-willed. Aside from unethical marketing, online food delivery platforms have also contributed to the obesity scandal by enabling deeply discounted junk food available at everyone’s fingertips.
It is absolutely essential that we start identifying the sources where people are able to easily access these junk foods to help guide them towards healthier alternatives.
And as you might expect, frequency matters when it comes to the impact of junk food on your health. Regular overconsumption of junk food and drinks high in calories, sugar and fat is one of the key factors leading to weight gain and, over time, obesity. Eating a poor-quality diet high in junk food is linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and early death. We make numerous decisions about the food we eat, and every day we are presented with encouragement and opportunity to eat the least healthy foods.
The fact that obesity itself is a disease should not be ignored either. As per the National Family Health Survey - 4 (NFHS-4)- 4% of all adults in India between the ages of 15-49 are obese and 20% are overweight. As for children, 1.25% are obese and 3.75% are overweight. Over 25% of the urban population was found to be either overweight or obese.
The healthcare industry does not financially benefit from treating obesity through nutritional advice. In fact, they make significantly more through the lifestyle diseases that plague those with long-term obesity. If we are truly interested in reducing the prevalence of lifestyle diseases in our population, we will need to find ways to motivate people away from junk foods that cause obesity and associated diseases.
With the increased momentum in the direction of ‘Fit India Movement’ that is focused on making 1.3 crore Indians fit and healthy, we believe that the government should to take additional steps for eradication of obesity among Indians in the below mentioned ways-
• Imposition of heavy taxes on junk food to discourage unhealthy eating habits. Kerala Govt imposed junk food tax in 2016. 79% of people are in favour of a “sin tax” on foods high in fat, sugar and salt found an online survey conducted by Local Circles in 2017.
• Introduce a blanket ban on HFSS food advertising. There should be a ban on advertisements for junk food on television, especially kids’ channels. Walt Disney has already taken a lead and stopped advertisements on junk food on their channels as a part of self-regulation. 88% want junk-food advertising banned on children’s channels on television, found an online survey.
• The Government should promote healthy eating and propagate no food wastage in schools.
• Misleading food labels should be looked into and the clear marking of Sugar, Saturated Fats and other unhealthy ingredients should be highlighted in bold.
• Recognition of obesity as a disease. Instruct insurance providers to add obesity to the list of diseases covered under insurance products.
In a major development, the Delhi High Court has ruled in Uday Foundation for Congenital Defect and rare Blood Groups vs. Union of India that junk food – high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) – must be restricted in schools and a 50-meter radius. Guidelines for the same have been framed by the Central Advisory Committee formed under the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act.
Another regulatory facet is Food Labeling. It serves as a primary link of communication between the manufacturer and packer of food on the one hand and distributor, seller, and user or consumer on the other hand. As per FSS (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020; the consumers will now also know the content of salt and other nutrients in each serve as the serving size would be provided on the package.
Declaration of added sugar has also been made mandatory. This will help consumers understand the nature and quantity of sugar in the product and they can differentiate between added and natural sugars. These are all steps in the right direction.
In the era of cut-throat competition, an advertisement is a major tool through which brands create a consumer niche for themselves. However, in doing so, they often resort to practices like puffery, deception which leads to a misleading advertisement by the manufactures of food and health products. These malpractices call for urgent regulatory intervention.
Junk food is not alone present in the Indian market but also in the Indian kitchen. For India, it’s a matter of grave concern as India is the diabetic capital of the world and Indian traditional food is free from all health hazards but has failed to catch up in terms of presence in the Indian mindset.
In the present scenario, how we look at laws relating to the junk food companies is important not only from the perspective of health hazard but also for understanding properly what is the standard of food being served to us, to make an informed choice for our health.
Mr Vishal Gondal is Founder and CEO of GOQii