Celebrities endorsing unhealthy products face the ire of parents, docs and even brand gurus

Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest has demanded a legislation to stop the promotion of unhealthy foods/drinks targeting children.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Jan 06, 2023 | 3:38 PM Updated Jan 06, 2023 | 6:35 PM

Hamburger and fries unhealthy

Nine-year-old Dhruv’s mother Greeshma Naidu is justifiably peeved at Amitabh Bachchan.

Ever since Dhruv saw the Bollywood actor endorsing a biscuit on television, he prefers that cookie to breakfast, which Naidu whips up in a hurry before the boy leaves for school.

The mother’s pleas often fall on deaf ears. “Amitabh Bachchan uncle is my favourite. He has so much knowledge about everything. If he says that this biscuit is an alternative to breakfast, I will have three of them before school,” was Dhruv’s refrain, Naidu told South First.

Naidu is not the only one who is irritated with such advertisements. Paediatricians, nutritionists and independent medical experts, too, are upset with celebrities endorsing junk food and beverages. And even brand gurus.

Recently, the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest-India (NAPi), a national think-tank on nutrition, wrote to Bollywood icon Bachchan against promoting the biscuit brand which, it claimed, is unhealthy.

According to AdEx India, a division of TAM Media Research, celebrity endorsements on television rose 44 percent year-on-year in 2021. The food and beverages sector ranked first in such endorsements with a 26 percent share of the total ad volumes.

Health experts cry foul

Former cricketer Virendra Sehwag promotes a burger from a popular fast-food chain. South Indian actor Rashmika Mandanna, too, endorses the same brand.

A common factor in all these ads is that the products endorsed have high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) content, which the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) has recommended to avoid.

The World Health Organisation has categorised junk food as HFSS food — with little or no nutritional value.

Young children like Dhruv, captivated by the celebrity, insist on having such food instead of a healthy one.

Dr Arun Gupta, a paediatrician and member of NAPi, tried to draw Bachchan’s attention to the danger he has been promoting.

Taking to Twitter, the doctor linked a series of research articles providing proof that eating biscuits the actor was endorsing — which had artificial flavour milk, sugar, and inverted sugar syrup —would cause damage to a child’s health.

Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), an organisation promoting breastfeeding, also expressed unhappiness over the advertisement.

It warned that aggressive marketing of HFSS products by food majors, especially those targeting children, should stop since it could lead to non-communicable diseases in future.

NAPi also lodged a formal complaint with the Jago Grahak Jago helpline set up by the central food department, seeking action against the company and actor.

Sehwag endorsing an HFSS food baffled Twitterati. Condemning the endorsement, they wondered how a cricketer like him could endorse a junk food brand.

Incidentally, several members of the internet community expressed a wish to visit the food store or order the food Mandanna has been promoting, since “she told them to do so”.  However, a few criticised her for endorsing junk food.

One such tweet read:

Meanwhile, it is not just products for children that are being promoted. On Wednesday, 4 January, former Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli shared an ad in which he endorsed a herbal nutrition product.

Several doctors, and even the cricketer’s fans, objected to the endorsement. They pointed out to the explosive batter that his hard work — and not the nutrient — had propelled him to the top.

Dr Varun C suggested Kohli google for the harmful effects of the product he was promoting.

Dr Kaiser Raja, liver disease specialist at Aster Hospital in Bengaluru said a variety of nutrition supplements, high dose vitamins, probiotics, and herbal products claim to have health benefits without the support of any scientific study.

“Most of them claim to have no harmful effects and are aggressively advertised on the internet and sometimes even endorsed by celebrities. Therefore, we tend to try them,” Dr Raja, who is also associated with King’s College Hospital in London, told South First.

“I have often seen patients with liver and kidney problems who used one or more of these supplements for a long time. I also find it ironical that the sale of most of these products is very lightly regulated by the agencies concerned,” he added.

Also read: Why experts are trashing the FSSAI food rating proposal?

NIN condemns HFSS food ads

Condemning the mass advertisements of junk food, NAPi said in a statement that the trend has been continuing unabated despite NIN, a division of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), urging all to “avoid HFSS foods”. The council has also issued healthy dietary guidelines.

“HFSS foods are sold in pre-packaged and are usually ultra-processed food products (UPFs), What drives the intake of such products is no rocket science. Aggressive marketing of such products seems to be the main driver,” NAPi noted.

“NAPi has been monitoring the advertisements and found promotion of UPFs on TV, social media and newspapers is rampant. Despite attempts to restrict such misleading marketing, it has not stopped,” Dr Arun Gupta, paediatrician and convener of NAPi, told South First.

The pro-nutrition body also called for legislation to stop the marketing of unhealthy foods/drinks targeting children and adolescents. “There should be a public campaign by the government on safe and unsafe foods,” NAPi recommended in a statement.

Also read: Kerala set to wage war on lifestyle diseases with diet plan

Processed food and health

Dr Gupta explained that besides making the user addicted to them, research has proved that such foods promoted overconsumption of UPFs such as biscuits, burgers, etc., leading to obesity, diabetes type 2, heart diseases, various cancers, and depression, often leading to fatalities.

He explained that non-communicable diseases are now widely seen among rural populations in many states.

“Promoting these foods and encouraging their marketing will add to the list of diseases,” Dr Gupta warned.

Meanwhile, responding to actors endorsing such unhealthy products, Dr Veena Shatrugna, former deputy director at NIN said the celebrities are misusing the trust and love showered on them for their film roles.

“The food and beverages sector is using celebrities to sell products harmful to kids and adults. There is a large number of Polycystic Ovarian Disorder (PCOD) cases among girls, and obesity due to high sugar, fats and sodium content in processed foods. Celebrities must show that they care by refusing such ad offers,” she opined.

Tough task for parents 

Parents who South First spoke to, expressed concern over such advertisements and said it has become a hard task for them to explain to children that their favourite actor, actress, cricketer, cartoon character, et al., is lying.

“I find it unfortunate that on the one hand, I am telling my son to become like Virendra Sehwag and have ethics like Amitabh Bachchan, whom my son loves through the popular quiz show. On the other, I am telling him to not trust these people when they are saying that biscuits and burgers have strength, energy and taste,” Poojitha Ramprasad, a software developer in Bengaluru, said.

A government school teacher in Hubballi, Rakesh Srirangan, said the actors have hugely influenced the children.

“Children not only want to imitate them but also want to eat what they eat, dress like they dress and think that if they are endorsing a food product, it must be consumed daily,” he said.

The teacher requested the actors to think twice before endorsing any product.

“Mr Bachchan must realise that he is not only promoting processed food but is also lying to children and misleading parents to make them believe that this biscuit pack is a healthy alternative to roti he/she eats,” he added.

“What about those mothers in rural areas? We are trying to convince them to give at least ragi (finger millet) malt instead of instant food for breakfast — and here’s an ad that says biscuit is an alternative to breakfast,” Srirangan lamented.

Celebrities and responsibilities

Bengaluru-based brand guru Harish Bijoor, too, condemned such endorsements.

“A brand celebrity is reasonably an important entity that a brand uses to create popularity for itself. However, the important thing is that there are items which you sell to children and there are products which you sell to adults,” he told South First.

“One should be careful when the product is for children. The child audience is an innocent one. It is easy to fool that innocent audience. Therefore marketing responsibility is huge. Companies should decide that they will not use a celebrity or cartoon character to promote products among children. Children are much impressed by cartoon characters,” he explained.

Bijoor added that the responsibility lies with brand marketers. Stars should be more responsible than they are now.

“These stars earned respect and status due to their work. Their work is largely noble and good. Using that hero status should not be misused to promote a product. I would like to tell them not to misuse the status they enjoy by endorsing something that is not healthy or as healthy as it should be. They should take a call,” Bijoor explained.

Expressing similar views Nimika Ratnakar, a sandalwood actor who played the heroine in Mr Bachelor, released on Friday, 9 January, told South First: “Generally, people watch and try to follow celebrities/public figures. Hence, I always ensure that I thoroughly understood the product before endorsing it,” she said.

Ratnakar said she won’t take up an ad offer if she is unsure about the food product.

“This is why I have never done an ad for a food product. I have endorsed a mixer grinder, which is related to food and something widely used in kitchens. But I am bothered about the safety and quality aspects and hence I enquire about the safety and quality certifications before saying accepting the offer,” she added.