NAPi report links rise in obesity, diabetes to aggressive, misleading food ads; calls for amending regulations

Consequences of such advertising include increased intake of unhealthy food products associated with obesity and diabetes, said the national think tank on nutrition.

BySumit Jha

Published Jul 06, 2024 | 4:21 PM Updated Jul 06, 2024 | 4:21 PM

NAPi report links rise in obesity, diabetes to aggressive, misleading food ads; calls for amending regulations

Food advertisers use positive emotional values such as happiness, joy, and contentment to influence mindsets, which are often hard to change. This way, food industry ads seduce people into sticking to those brands and buying their products without really knowing the true nature of the food.

Consequences of such advertising include increased intake of unhealthy food products associated with obesity and diabetes, said Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), a national think tank on nutrition.

NAPi released a new report, “50 Shades of Food Advertising,” exposing how seductive, luring, manipulative, or deceptive these advertisements can be. India faces a dubious distinction of persistent undernutrition among children under five and a rising trend of obesity and diabetes among adults, it said.

This is not something India can be proud of when it is aspiring to be a $5 trillion economy and a world leader in almost every field. These conditions can only create a population of less productive adults who will perform below par.

The 2023 ICMR-INDIAB study showed that there are 100 million cases of diabetes, and 1 in every 4 individuals is either suffering from diabetes, pre-diabetic, or obese. The more recent ICMR-NIN’s “Dietary Guidelines for Indians” revealed that more than 10 percent of 5–19-year-olds are pre-diabetic.

The Union government had set a target to halt the rise of obesity and diabetes by 2025 under the National Multi-Sector Action Plan to Prevent and Control NCDs (2017-2022), but this goal seems nowhere in sight.

One of the major underlying factors for the rise in obesity and diabetes is the increasing consumption of unhealthy diets triggered by pervasive and aggressive advertising and marketing of unhealthy high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt (HFSS) food products, or ultra-processed food (UPF) products.

These are making their way into the diets of Indians, replacing traditional diets. These products are usually high in sugars, salt, and fats, better described as “Nutrients of Concern.”

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Indian scenario of ultra processed foods

According to a study conducted by the WHO India office, the retail sale of ultra-processed food products in India has been growing at a compounded annual growth rate of 13.3 percent between 2011 and 2021.

Kantar’s FMCG Pulse report revealed that 50 percent of the Indian households consumed bottled soft drinks in the 12 months ending March 2024, marking a 19 percent increase from previous years.

An unpublished report from WHO-India indicated that approximately 200,000 advertisements for HFSS products are broadcast every month across select TV, print, and digital mediums.

The report “50 Shades of Food Advertising” provides compelling evidence of how food and drink products are marketed using various appeals, such as evoking emotional responses, using expert endorsements, claiming health benefits akin to real fruits, and employing celebrity endorsements, despite falling under the category of unhealthy HFSS or UPFs.

The report also identified gaps in existing legislation, including the FSS Act 2006, the Cable TV Networks Regulation Act 1994 and Rules, the Consumer Protection Act 2019, and the Norms of Journalistic Conduct 2022, and proposed measures to address these gaps.

NAPi has submitted proposed amendments to the Press Council of India, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and Ministry of Consumer Affairs.

The report highlighted how these advertisements often mislead consumers by omitting crucial information about “Nutrients of Concern,” as mandated by the Consumer Protection Act 2019.

The Advertisement Code of the Cable TV Regulation Act 1994 stipulates that “No advertisement which endangers the safety of children or promotes unhealthy practices shall be carried on cable services,” indicating that many food advertisements could encourage unhealthy practices.

Therefore, NAPi recommended halting advertisements for HFSS and UPF food products and proposed amendments to explicitly define HFSS and prohibit advertisements exceeding thresholds in the aforementioned regulations.

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Calls for robust regulation of food advertising

NAPi emphasised that food product advertisements warrant special treatment, distinct from other consumer goods.

The Lancet, in February 2024, published expert views concluding, “…A robust regulatory framework is needed to protect children from HFSS food marketing, not just those ‘directed’ at them, with clear evidence-based food classification criteria.”

Dr Arun Gupta, a pediatrician and convenor of NAPi, stated, “This is the minimum the Government of India can do as part of its plan to curb the rising consumption of unhealthy diets, thereby addressing obesity and diabetes.”

He further suggested that while amendments may take time, the government could mandate that each advertisement prominently disclose the amount of nutrients of concern per 100 grams/ml.

“Proposing a public health bill in Parliament to combat obesity would be in the best interest of public health. Failing to halt this trend will only increase the burden of disease and economic costs on families and the healthcare system,” he added.

“Under the Right to Information, we’ve found that FSSAI takes 1-2 years to refer misleading advertisements to a committee, which then seeks clarification from companies. Despite identifying over 100 cases of misleading ads, none have been fined as per rules, which is a grave injustice to Indian consumers,” Dr Nupur Bidla, a social scientist and NAPi member, stated.

She emphasised the need for an objective method outlined in the report to swiftly identify misleading food advertisements and take immediate action.

Dr Bidla also recommended its adoption by authorities for making prompt decisions and enforcement.

In 2022, the World Health Organization published a report on food marketing, noting, “It confirms that marketing of foods contributing to unhealthy diets remains pervasive and persuasive, providing evidence to support stringent policies to protect children from harmful marketing.”

Subsequently, in 2023, WHO recommended robust policies to shield children from detrimental marketing practices.

Dr Vandana Prasad, a community pediatrician and NAPi member, pointed out, “The WHO Southeast Asia Regional Office provided a nutrient profile model and thresholds for sugar, sodium, and fats across 18 food categories, beyond which marketing should be prohibited.”

“Given the ICMR-NIN guidelines on sugar, high fat, and sodium thresholds in both solid and liquid foods, these should form the basis for regulations and an official definition of HFSS, ” she said.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)

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