Few takers for FSSAI’s health rating for packaged food

| | New Delhi
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Few takers for FSSAI’s health rating for packaged food

Wednesday, 23 March 2022 | PNS | New Delhi

The Food Safety and Standard Authority of India’s (FSSAI) proposed plan to introduce Health Star Rating (HSR) for packaged food products as recommended by the private institution, IIM Ahmedabad has not gone down well with the consumer organisations and doctors who strongly felt that such “a system can be easily manipulated by the industry”.

As per the 'Health Star' rating system, packaged foods will display the number of stars on the front of the pack, indicating how healthy or unhealthy it is depending upon the amount of salt, sugar and fat it has. These are on the lines of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) star rating for the electrical appliances.

“This is where the problem lies. Industry can easily manipulate the system as food products high in sugar or fat that deserve a low rating (1 star) could get a moderate rating (3 or even 4 stars) only because they contain some positive nutrients (for example, fruit and nut chocolates),” explained Dr Arun Gupta, from Nutrition Advocacy for Public Interest (NAPi) and central coordinator of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India.

NAPi , representing the consumers’ organizations seeking mandatory pictorial warning labels on all processed food high in salt, sugar and fats, has now sought the Niti Aayog intervention in the matter.

In fact, the IIM report too talks about our point of view that “There is scientific evidence which proves that warning labels deter people from picking up unhealthy packaged food,” said Dr Gupta. Yet, the HSR system has been favoured to please the industry at the cost of the health of the consumers, he added.

“What is the purpose of having such a system if it is not able to help people, particularly parents, to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy food for their child.  The FSSAI must understand that packaged foods that are high in salt, sugar, fat (HFSS), are the main cause for the increasing number of non communicable diseases such as diabetes and stroke. Only a simple warning FOPL can check as has been happening in Chile,” Dr Gupta said matter-of-factly.

 The consumer activists have also pointed out that in the backdrop of a recent study conducted by the AIIMS, Rishikesh which has stated that a majority of consumers prefer simple labeling, the FSSAI should call for a wider consultation before introducing (HSR) system.

Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS), Jaipur, Consumer Voice, New Delhi, and Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), Chennai too have questioned the decision of  FSSAI in going ahead with the HSR label without proper consultation with the stakeholders and that too when processes are in the initial stages.

The activists felt that FSSAI needs to give equal or even more importance to the recent findings of the medical fraternity of AIIMS institutions which suggests that warning labels are most suitable for the Indian context as it deters consumers from consuming packaged food that is HFSS.

 “Consumers, especially from the districts, rarely look for star labels on products,” said Saroja Sundaram, Executive Director, CAG, a member of the Council of Consumers International.

George Cheriyan from CUTS International, Asim Sanyal from Consumer Voice and Amit Khurana, CSE too opposed the HSR Model for India due to the reasons that health star ratings are taken with a positive connotation and do not meet the intention of FOPL regarding warning for negative nutrients, which may be overwhelmed by positive nutrients in the algorithm design for HSR.

To help consumers make healthier choices, Australia and New Zealand had introduced the voluntary HSR system in 2014 that is quite similar to the energy rating label used on our electrical appliances.

But recent studies have shown that their system is highly flawed as unhealthy food products are still able to get a high score as the rating is based on the overall nutritional value, and any inclusion of healthy ingredients like fibre and protein to an otherwise unhealthy product could easily cancel out its unhealthy ingredients (i.e. sugar, saturated fats and salt), according to the activists.

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