Scientific Evidence Piles Up Favouring ‘Warning Labels’ On Packaged Food

A recent study by Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and (National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) study shows that warning labels deter more people from choosing moderately unhealthy or unhealthy variants

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With India on the verge of adopting historic food labelling norms that could be a game changer for public health, research and studies from a number of esteemed scientific and medical institutions are corroborating that warning labels work best for people. To support FSSAI in making the right choice, doctors and scientists are furnishing scientific and technical evidence to reiterate this unanimous choice.

A recent study by Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and (National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) study shows that warning labels deter more people from choosing moderately unhealthy or unhealthy variants. Warning labels, provide information about potential hazards associated with a product as they take into consideration nutrients of concern such as sugars, fats and salt.

The primary purpose of FOPL is to inform consumers in an easy-to-understand manner about high levels of salt, sugar and fats and as Dr Umesh Kapil, President of the Epidemiological Foundation of India said,  “A number of studies have now revealed that people find simple ‘warning labels’ easiest to read and understand. We should choose a label design that is scientific and there is enough research now to back warning labels as the best for Indian people."

He further said that FSSAI should not ignore the writing on the wall since the decision on label design will impact India’s disease burden in the coming years. "Information on negative nutrients and a warning is what we need to be displayed prominently. Additional information about the positive value of a product in the form of stars will only confuse people,” he added.

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. Researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) recently conducted an analysis of more than 10,000 food and beverage products currently available in the Indian food market. 

Their research revealed that about 68 per cent of these products have excess amounts of at least one ingredient of concern whereas 32 per cent are within the scientific thresholds recommended WHO regional standards. 

In the words of Padma Shri (Dr) Chandrakant Pandav, co-author of the paper who is popularly known as the Iodine Man of India, “The whole world is watching as India takes a decision on FOPL. In the year of our G-20 presidency, we should adopt the gold standard in warning labels and set a global benchmark. Mixed messaging with the adoption of both warning and stars has no scientific basis. It will do more harm than good.”

There is evidence from other countries too that FSSAI would have to consider. Studies show within 18 months of the Chilean government implementing warning label law, there was a 24 per cent decrease in purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages and a 27-37 per cent of calories, sugar, and sodium from unhealthy foods and beverages. Whereas even after four years of implementation of Health Star Rating in Australia, studies show that there has been a minimal impact on purchase and consumption of unhealthy foods.

Emphasizing on the importance of getting it right the first time, Mr Ashim Sanyal, Chief Executive Officer, Consumer Voice and erstwhile member of the Central Advisory Committee, FSSAI said, “India must adopt warning label style FOPL, which is universally acknowledged and scientifically proven as the most efficacious. We can’t afford to get this wrong, not when over 60 lakh Indians are dying every year due to cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It is a well-known fact that Health Star Rating (HSR) misinforms consumers and does not compel industry to make their food products healthier, whereas a warning label provides instant recognition of unhealthy foods.”

In September, FSSAI issued a draft regulation which proposes a star rating based labelling system. The draft was opened for public comments until November and the new regulation is keenly awaited. In 2018 the Food Safety Standards Authority India (FSSAI) published draft regulation for FOPL which was subsequently withdrawn for further deliberation. In 2019 December, FSSAI delinked FOPL from general labelling regulations. Since 2021, FSSAI and has sought consultations with civil society, industry and nutrition experts for a viable model for India.

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