Can FSSAI’s new bold labels transform India’s eating habits?

Experts demanded more definitive warning systems to make people aware of the contents of packaged food items.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jul 07, 2024 | 11:15 AM Updated Jul 07, 2024 | 1:47 PM

FSSAI labels

As a small step towards empowering consumers and combating Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), on Saturday, 6 July, approved a proposal to display nutritional information, including total sugar, salt and saturated fat content, in bold letters on the labels of packaged foods.

The regulatory body approved amendments to the Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020, during its 44th meeting chaired by FSSAI Chairman Apurva Chandra.

However, experts are concerned whether this move would be enough to make people aware of the contents of packaged food items and demanded more definitive warning systems.

Also Read: FSSAI issues strict warning against commercial sale of human breast milk

Current practices and global standards

While there has been continuous demand by several food scientists, experts and doctors to bring in Front-of-Pack Labelling (FOPL), a global practice proven to reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods, the FSSAI has not approved the same.

The demands were made by people including National Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi) — a think-tank on nutrition— Convenor Dr Arun Gupta, NAPi Member Dr Nupur Bidla and social media influencer Revant Himatsingka aka Foodpharmer.

At present, Indian food companies are mandated to print basic nutrient information on the back of packaging. Globally, many countries require FOPL.

However, Nupur Bidla called this a “stop-gap arrangement” and told South First, that it was high time FSSAI brought the FOPL regulation which has been due for more than a year.

“Making the critical nutrients in bold at the back of the pack is a stop-gap arrangement which does not address the root cause of facilitating informed choice by consumers. As a food regulator they must create thresholds and facilitate informed choice through comprehensive warning labels,” she said.

She added that it would be difficult for people to comprehend the bold nutritional information unless they knew what is high sugar, sodium and fat.

She also pointed out another important issue, the lack of English education prevalent in India.

She said, “Only the educated can read (the labels) and even for them without thresholds, it does not make sense. A comprehensive warning-based FOPL will only help in reducing the consumption,” she added.

Key changes and public health impact

The approved amendment to the Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, 2020, will now include:

Nutritional information in bold letters.

  • Increased font size for total sugar, salt, and saturated fat content.
  • Information on the per-serve percentage contribution to Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs).

According to an FSSAI statement, “The amendment aims to empower consumers to better understand the nutritional value of the product they are consuming and make healthier decisions. This change is also expected to contribute significantly towards combating the rise of NCDs and promoting public health and well-being.”

However, doctors opined that labels should be clear and comprehensible for the public.

“Clear and distinguishable labelling is crucial in the global effort to combat NCDs. This initiative by FSSAI is a positive move, but there’s still a long way to go,” Dr KN Manohar, an endocrinologist from Bengaluru told South First.

Also Read: What is the ‘Label Padhega India’ challenge?

The way forward

The draft notification for the amendment will be put in the public domain to invite suggestions and objections. This is a critical phase where public and expert feedback will shape the final implementation of the regulations.

With the introduction of bold nutritional labels, India is poised to make significant strides in public health, aligning with global standards and promoting healthier dietary choices among its citizens.

It can be noted that Revant Himatsingka had recently launched a campaign asking the people of India to read the labels on the back of every packed food product.

The campaign called ‘Label Padega India’ (India will read labels) has been a huge success with numerous people posting about reading the labels before buying/eating the packaged food on various social media platforms.

Reacting to the decision, Himatsingka told South First that the move was a step in the right direction.

“I think this is a great move. Any step in the right direction should be praised and I completely support FSSAI and appreciate the decision,” he said.

“Of course, there are many things that need to be done together. But we have to take one step at a time. This move should help people make a slightly better choice,” he added.

In line with the existing demands, several food advocacy groups recently released a report stressing the loopholes in at least half a dozen Indian laws and regulations which allow food firms to push misleading advertisements promoting unhealthy food and get away with any punitive action from the food regulators.

They also demanded that labelling of High Fat Sugar and Salt (HFSS) content in packaged food items be made mandatory.

Dr Manohar added that HFSS foods increase the risk of compromising metabolic health and leading to non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart-related ailments, hypertension, obesity etc.

Food advocacy groups also insisted that the regulations on paper must be implemented on the ground.

“The ICMR guidelines were released recently and that has to be put into the laws and regulations for actions on the ground,” Dr Gupta said.

Food advocacy groups and campaigners have been seeking modifications to six laws and regulations for effective control of junk food advertisements.

(Edited by Muhammed Fazil)

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