The fault in the stars: Why experts are trashing the FSSAI food rating proposal

Rujuta Diwekar says children are growing obese, labels on food packs should tell them clearly this is junk food and not confuse them with stars.

ByChetana Belagere | Sumit Jha

Published Nov 11, 2022 | 12:09 AM Updated Nov 13, 2022 | 9:10 AM

Representational pic of boy shopping

India’s food safety watchdog has proposed a “star rating” system for processed food, and doctors and nutritionists are appalled. Their view: The move promotes industry, and not people’s health.

The draft regulations proposed a five-star rating system to help guide consumers on the nutritional profile of the packaged food products and make better choices.

But critics of the proposal have asked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which proposed the rating system, to introduce warning labels instead.

The Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), a national think tank on nutrition consisting of independent medical experts, nutritionists and paediatricians, also took to twitter to urge consumers to write to FSSAI to press for such labels.

“The warning label on food products is very important,” says Dr Arun Gupta, central coordinator for NAPi.

“There is scientific evidence that shows that UPF (ultra-processed foods) consumption is associated with high risks of non-communicable diseases,” he told South First, referring to diseases such as cardiovascular ailments, diabetes, and several types of cancer.

Plus, these experts believe, the FSSAI’s draft proposals leave enough lacunae for processed food marketers to exploit, and pass off junk food as healthy products.

“Companies can easily manipulate the system,” Dr Gupta said.

Thursday, 10 November, was the last day for submitting concerns and recommendations on the proposals to the FSSAI.

What is health star rating?

On 20 September, the FSSAI released a draft of proposed regulations on nutritional labelling for packaged food.

The five-star ratings it suggested range from 0.5 to 5.0 stars, the general idea being, the higher the star rating, the healthier is the food.

Labelling of products

Representational picture of how a Health Star Rating is displayed on a product. (Wikimedia Commons)

The FSSAI has clarified that the ratings would prioritise negative attributes in a product.

The recommendations follow deliberations on which label to adopt for the country — the health star rating used by Australia, or the warning labels used by Chile.

In the end, the FSSAI opted for the health star rating system; apparently, the focus was on providing information on harmful nutrients — primarily fat, salt and sugar — to help consumers make informed choices.

Not everyone is convinced by the star rating system though, one being Dr Subbarao M Gavarvarapu, nutritional scientist at ICMR-NNI (National Institute of Nutrition), Hyderabad.

“Companies can put it in many positive ingredients and nutrients like fruit, fibre, protein content and only one negative one, but what if that one negative attribute impacts people’s health?” he argued.

Echoing his scepticism of the star rating system is NAPi’s Dr Gupta. “It will benefit the food manufacturing industry and mislead consumers,” he told South First.

“It is a license to glorify junk foods.”

Celeb expert tweets misgivings

Another critic of the star rating system is celebrated nutrition and exercise science expert Rujuta Diwekar, who voiced her opposition in a series of tweets on Thursday, 10 November.

Her view: The “stars” would entice children, as they wouldn’t know the implications of a lower star rating.

“The proposed system of giving stars to ultra-processed food products (UPFs) or junk food is confusing for the kids,” she said in one tweet.

“It gives junk food a health halo and makes it difficult for parents to stand up to pester-power.”

In another tweet the same day, Diwekar took a dig at food processing companies: “Food industry knows that you can get more stars by adding some nuts or fruits or vegetable extract to junk food or simply by reformulating a bit of trans fat & sugar. This is health washing, good for profits, not for people. We still get fat & sick eating these UPFs.”

This is not the first time Diwekar has had her guns trained on food companies. Way back in May 2021, she tweeted: “When you don’t sound like a spokesperson of the food industry, it ruffles many feathers.”

This time, Diwekar urged consumers to write to the FSSAI to press for health warnings instead of introducing star ratings.

“Our kids are getting fatter by the day, most of them eat junk food on their way back from school,” she warned.

“Will-power & parental intervention is not enough, it requires a solid policy. One that protects children with a clear warning on the pack. I am writing to @fssaiindia, you can too.”

How ‘star’ rating can mislead

Dr Gupta felt even parents would not be able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food if the star rating is adopted, because for many consumers, stars will have a positive connotation.

“How do you explain (to the less educated) that one star is actually unhealthy?” he argued. “They will see a star and think there must be something good about this product that it has got one star.”

Representational pic of food products

Representational image of food products. (Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, like other critics of the star rating proposal, he called for warning labels in plain language, and even with regional language translations, if a product could cause obesity.

“Then will people understand better,” Dr Gupta argued.

In the star system, hypothetically, chikkis, made with peanuts, may get only 2.5 stars because of “sugar” in form of jaggery; at the same time a cola, if promoted as “sugar-less”, could conceivably get a five-star rating.

Companies can easily manipulate the system as food products high in sugar or fat that deserve a low rating (one star), could get a moderate rating (3 or 4 stars) only because they contain some positive nutrients like fruit or nuts in it, explained Dr Arun Gupta.

Worse, said Bengaluru-based paediatrician and nutrition expert Dr Sanjay G, ultra-processed toddler foods have now flooded the market and are sold as healthy products.

“They contain ingredients like fruit purees, vegetable powders, fruit concentrates that sound healthy but are very different from the whole food,” he said.

“Consumers see the images of fruits and vegetables. But with the amount of fruit concentrates that are added, and all the fibre removed, they are just sugar and should be labelled as ‘high sugar’ so that people know what they are buying.”

The “stars” only mislead the buyer, he told South First.

There is another problem, said Hyderabad’s Dr Gavarvarapu: the proposal exempts certain packed foods, including the nutritionally-high wholemeal wheat flour, known as atta in India. This has opened the way for companies to market suspect products as atta, he said.

In this connection, Dr Gavarvarapu mentioned Maggi, the instant noodle brand that has in the past earned a government ban for lead and monosodium glutamate content beyond the permissible limit, ie, to harmful levels.

‘Halo effect’ of star rating?

Dr Gavarvarapu, like the other critics of the health star rating system, believes a “star” from the food standards controller will send the wrong message.

And he has a name for the impact the star symbol will have on the customer: the “halo effect”; if a product has a “star”, it must be good.

At least this is what has come out in a year-long study that the organisation he works for — the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad — carried out to gauge the star labelling system’s efficacy in India. It used products with mock star-rating to ascertain the choices made by participants.

Chile way of labeling

Representational picture of the Chile way of labeling on it’s food products. The warning labels indicate if the food has high Sodium, Saturated fats, Total sugars. (Wikimedia Commons)

The study results, expected to be published over the next few weeks, shows that, as in Australia, people readily buy products with one star or one-and-half star ratings despite knowing that they are not very healthy.

“This study has shown that a halo impact will prompt the consumer to buy the products even if they are not four- or five-star rated, which is the healthiest product,” Dr Gavarvarapu explained.

In contrast, how effective will the warning label be? In Chile, consumption of sugary beverages decreased by 24 percent after the introduction of its warning label policy and related marketing restrictions, explained Dr Gupta.

“After labelling products clearly, they brought in a law banning sale of such items near schools and colleges, and banned television ads promoting them. All this reduced their consumption.”

Why India needs warning labels

Critics of the health star rating are especially concerned over what they see as a weak move to protect consumers given the link between unhealthy foods, obesity and diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

“There has been a 25 percent increase in obesity in India in the last five years,” said Dr Gupta.

“Several diseases like diabetes and heart problems have gone up. Children are the most affected as they happen to be the largest consumers.”

And, in his view, this is where the warning labelling system becomes important, and the consumer cautioned, if a product is high on salt, sugar or fat — ie, organic compounds and nutrients associated with obesity if consumed excessively.

“If the government is serious about the epidemic of obesity and other non-communicable diseases, it has to act now,” he said.