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Leading doctors from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Rishikesh and Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar have called for mandatory front-of-package labels on packaged food products to stem the rising burden of cardiovascular disease and stroke in India.
The experts participated in a national session ‘Addressing Cardiovascular Diseases through Front of Package Labelling in India’ and emphasised u need for simple measures such as front-of-package labels (FOPL) that can make a paradigm shift in the food consumption pattern of the country and as a result, avert an impending Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) crisis.
Participants included Prof Samia Rashid, Principal, Government Medical College, Srinagar and Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Allied Medical Sciences, University of Kashmir; Dr Rubeena Shahen, Ex-Technical Director, FSSAI; Dr Khalid Mohiuddin, Associate Professor and Head, Superspeciality Hospital, GMC, Srinagar; Dr Pradeep Aggarwal, Associate Professor, Dept. of Community and Family Medicine, AIIMS, Rishikesh and Dr Salim Khan, Professor and Head, Dept of Community Medicine, Government Medical College, Srinagar.
There has been a significant increase in deaths due to cardiovascular diseases in India in the last two decades. A large percentage of these deaths and cardiovascular incidences are linked to dietary risk factors indicating a clear correlation with excessive intake of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats and sodium.
Cardiovascular disease has emerged as a deadly killer and Dr Salim Khan cautioned that nearly 5.8 million people or 1 in 4 Indians are at risk of dying from an NCD before they reach the age of 70.
“Of these, more than 28 per cent deaths are related to heart attack and stroke – a number that has gone up 2-3 times in the last two decades. Processed and packaged foods are a direct risk factor for obesity, heart, and circulatory diseases. We are up against a multi-billion-dollar food industry and unless the Government takes urgent steps to enable consumers to make informed choices and packaged foods healthier, we will end up with a growing unhealthy population, at risk of dying or experiencing cardiac and circulatory issues at a much younger age,” he said.
“People need to understand clearly and simply what is in the food that they are buying. Food labels have to interpret the nutrition information for consumers across age, income and literacy levels,” he added.
Calling attention to the fact that 56 per cent of cardiovascular deaths in men and 48 per cent in women are due to dietary factors, Dr Khalid Mohiuddin said, “There is a spiralling rise in the consumption of these nutrients of public health concern, largely driven by the plethora of choices of processed and ultra-processed food products with unhealthy nutritional profiles available in the market. These have poor nutritional value and are full of anti- or negative nutrients.”
Reports also indicate that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the food and beverage industry thrived in low- to middle-income countries, including India, and expanded its market of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks, according to Dr Khalid.
“Children have developed unhealthy eating habits and the junk food industry did nothing to safeguard their health. It is time now for stringent measures and we want to call for urgent adoption of strong warning labels on the front of every food packet,” he added.
Dr Rubeena Shahen talked about the proactive steps taken by the apex regulator of India.
“Our food environment needs to change drastically if we are to reverse the health crisis and safeguard our future generations. The Indian Government is committed to decisive steps in that direction. Since the introduction of the Food Safety regulations in 2011, FSSAI has issued several regulations to make food safer and more nutritious,” she said.
Recognising the importance of strong front-of-package labels as one of the most efficient tools of influencing consumer behaviour to alter dietary choices and reduce their vulnerability to NCDs, FSSAI is in the advanced stages of finalising a draft labelling regulation.
“Currently an FSSAI Working Group is determining thresholds for nutrients of concern (sugar, salt, and fats), in consultation with civil society groups, industry and nutrition experts. They are working towards a viable model for India,” Dr Rubeena said.
Dr Pradeep Aggarwal, who is leading the project Healthy Food for All, suggested that the entire medical community should step in to address this impending health crisis.
“As doctors, we understand and are witnessing the health damage caused by consumption of unhealthy foods. Consumption of processed food in young adults and kids in India is a growing concern which is evidently leading to a higher risk of NCDs. A major reason behind the increasing number of obesities, diabetes and other NCDs in kids is linked to consumption of unhealthy food with preservatives,” he said.
A strong front of packaging policy is the need of the hour, and it is time now to ensure that consumers can make healthier choices and are informed of what is in their food through a clear and simple FOPL. That will be the starting point in reversing the obesity and NCD crisis, according to Dr Pradeep.
According to a release, as more and more countries adopt mandatory and strong FOPLs, India can join the growing list of countries that are realising the potential of urgent policy steps to safeguard the lives of people. FOPL works best when it is made mandatory, applies to all packaged products, the label is interpretative, simplistic, and readily visible, guided by a scientific nutrient profile model, it said.