India has the second highest number of obese children (14.4 million). And with the ultra-processed foods’ market and sugary beverages industry swelling by the year, this number is expected to rise to 17 million by 2025.
Healthcare experts opine that the only way to avoid this is for F&B companies to put up warning labels and limits on sugar, salt and fat. An urgent policy action to establish clear ingredient limits and front of pack labels (FOPL) on packaged products can help check rising obesity, they say.
“The changing dietary preferences and increased consumption of ultra-processed food is the main reason for obesity in children. The risk has increased manifold in the pandemic as children hardly have any physical activity,” says Dietician Dr Sheenu Sanjeev.
The fact that the MNCs continue to promote their packaged foods and drinks with the Government being a mute spectator isn’t helping either.
Speaking at a webinar held on Childhood Obesity, Dr Rekha Harish, Chairperson, Indian Academy of Paediatrics, Non Communicable Diseases (NCD) Prevention said, “Studies have shown that 75-80 per cent of severely obese children will remain obese as adults and will face a heightened risk of various NCDs. We need a strong policy regulating harmful ingredients in ultra-processed and packaged foods, including food labels that can help parents make an informed choice.”
Obesity leads to many life-threatening diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, among others. “Strong regulations to cap salt, sugar and other ingredients of concern and simple to understand FOPL on the food are critical to help consumers and parents understand how much empty calories and harmful nutrients are being consumed by children,” says Dr Ravi Kant, Director and CEO, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, speaking at the session.
Agrees Internist Dr Ajay Gupta, “Food labels should provide clear information in simple-to-understand language on not just the nutritional content, but also WHO prescribed cut-off limit of sugar, salt and fat. This will deter many people from consuming it, and in the long run help turn the tide.”
Cautioning that the food industry won’t take it kindly, Dr Gupta says. “The government nevertheless has to be strict on this, and make the required policy changes.”
Parents cannot agree more. “Often the nutritional information given on the packs is convoluted. When even educated people cannot understand it, what do you expect from others?” asks Shakti Chhibber, mother of two teenagers.
“When I tell my children these are not good, they have many hows and whys. It would be much better if the warning labels are put up just like you have on a cigarette pack,” she says.
“Adolescents associate ‘junk food’ with independence and convenience, and consider health food options odd. Whatever we advise is a ‘lecture’ to them. So, it would greatly help if the products come with the written information,” says Sushma Kalra, a government school teacher.