We look at the history of food labelling–which has now become a way for companies to sell their products–often with wildly misleading information. That’s a real problem because most of the food on the Indian market is way more unhealthy than other parts of the world. This is the first instalment of our two-part series on food labelling.
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Researched by: Rachel John & Nirmal Bhansali
A quick history of food labelling
The origin of food labelling dates back to the rise of packaged foods in the early 20th century. Until then, food was sold in bulk—and a buyer could see what they were getting. But all that changed when food was bundled into boxes, packets and cans.
- The US Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was aimed primarily at preventing adulteration—example, swapping out sugar for sand.
- Then came the menace of “short weight packaging”—where companies undercut competitors by selling a product at a lower price, but secretly put less food inside the package.
- The US soon became the first country to enact mandatory food labelling in 1913—but the focus was still on the quantity of ingredients.
- Regulators began focusing on nutrients only in the 1970s. This is when labelling became about giving consumers information they need to make healthy choices.
- The Nutrition Fact panel—that is now standard in all packaged foods around the world—first began appearing on packages in 1994.
As for India: The history of labelling followed a similar curve. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA), 1954 was—as the name suggests—primarily focused on adulteration. Over the decades, other laws were passed to regulate specific products—like edible oil, milk products etc. In 2006, all of them were replaced in one fell swoop by the Food Safety and Standards Act. In 2008, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was established as the apex body to regulate all matters related to food safety—including labelling.
Where we are now: Food labelling today is no longer just about regulatory compliance. It is a powerful form of marketing—aimed at persuading consumers by making all sorts of claims. With the all-consuming focus on health, brands are eager to tell you what is not in their products—and hide what is actually in them. As Brandon R McFadden notes, so-called ‘absence labels’ (like “does not contain”) are now found on products that could not possibly have that ingredient in the first place. Example: gluten-free water!
Also this: It doesn’t help that laws governing the use of these labels are all over the place. For example, this is the situation in the US:
Some labels, such as “organic,” follow strict federal guidelines, while others aren’t regulated, such as “natural.” Eggs might come from chickens that are “cage-free” (which isn’t regulated) or “free range” (which is), while your milk could come from cows that are “grass-fed” (no standard) or “hormone-free” (requires verification).
Ok, but what’s happening in India?
Food processing accounts for 32% of the entire food market in India. Most of the people who eat processed foods live in Tier II and Tier III towns—and 79% of the industry is driven by small or medium-sized businesses.
A nation of addicts: Indians are addicted to packaged food—especially of the junk variety. A 2021 survey found that 87% of kids in rural India ate chips or namkeen at least once a week—and 50% ate some kind of sweet and 40% consumed instant noodles. Nearly half of all men and women eat some form of fried food at least once a week.
The even worse news: Processed food in India is among the most unhealthy in the world. A 2019 study looked at 400,000 packaged food and beverages from 12 countries—and found that Indian products had the highest levels of saturated fat and total sugar. A 2020 analysis looked at 1,456 Indian products by 16 manufacturers—who accounted for 31% of the market. Only 16% were rated as healthy.
Shameful point to note: Numerous studies have found that packaged food sold in India by multinational corporations often has higher amounts of salt and sugar than products sold in other countries.
But is our food labelling any good?
No, of course not. The claims on the packaging are often all-out whoppers—because legislation to curb them is in limbo (more on that in part 2).
The ‘sugar-free’ scam: Top brands are hustling to sell you healthy versions of your favourite food—‘diet chivda’ to ‘high-protein biscuit’ and ‘no-added sugar juices’. But they often use artificial substitutes to compensate for the loss of taste. This hidden sugar is hiding in 74% of packaged foods—it just shows up as one of its long list of alternative names—”such as sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as barley malt, dextrose, maltose and rice syrup, among others.”
As Samarth Bansal points out, these substitutes are often worse for you:
The problem with maltodextrin is its high glycemic index, ranging from 106 to 136. Table sugar’s GI value is 65. What does this mean? Maltodextrin’s glucose response and insulin spike are worse than table sugar.
Also this: A new study found that erythritol—sold as “perfect and healthy substitute for sugar and artificial sweeteners” to people with diabetes—significantly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Location, location, location: Nutritional information is not just hard to understand, it is also hard to find. It is often tucked away at the back of the package in very small print. This is also why Indian companies are fiercely resisting front of the package labelling—because they use that precious real estate to make their tallest claims:
It helps that most consumers don’t read labels. They are confusing and complicated, giving manufacturers an opportunity to claim whatever they want—“70% fat-free", “high fibre", “no sugar"—right in front of the pack.
The hidden trade-off: A product that says it has less of one ‘bad’ ingredient—say, salt—often doubles down on the others. For example, TagZ chips—which featured on ‘Shark Tank’—boasts it has 50% less fat than rivals like Lay’s. But Bansal’s analysis found its sugar and salt content was significantly higher than the Lay’s version:
In an alternative universe where TagZ was the dominant food brand and Lay’s was the startup pitching to sharks, Lay’s would have entered the tank to shout out loud: “75% less sugar”, “30% less salt”. In other words, to compensate for what the TagZ chips lost after removing fat — flavour, texture, taste — the company simply increased sugar and salt (sodium source) and a whole bunch of additives to retain the allure.
This isn’t a new trick. Too Yumm—the ‘healthy baked chips’ marketed by Virat Kohli—also dials down the fat, but ups the salt and sugar.
The Parle-G shame: When it comes to biscuits, Parle G is king—selling two-rupee packs to millions of poor Indians—who have made it a $2 billion-in-revenues company. Parle owns a staggering 85% of the market in the basic glucose biscuit category. Most of its customers live in rural India—and have blind faith in its long-standing claim that it’s a “tasty healthy food.” And it is ruining the lives of their children.
A 2020 study found that two-third of babies in rural Bihar aged between six months to 11 months are consuming biscuits at least once a day. It has become the go-to ‘first food’ for infants—in a state that has alarming rates of malnutrition:
The commercial advertisements and campaigns have also confused many parents, specifically in rural Bihar, who feel biscuits are healthy and nutritious. When a poor parent is providing their child a packet of biscuit they must be rationing on some other items, most often fresh fruits, vegetables or eggs, which can be bought at a similar price.
Key nutrition data to note: The Parle G biscuit does not contain any glucose—despite the misleading ‘G’. It is instead loaded with 18.2 gm of sugar in a single 70 gm pack. It is also made of refined wheat—which removes most of the nutrients, dietary fibre and protein—which messes up a child’s digestive system.
As for upmarket biscuits: A lab analysis of 10 popular brands of cream biscuits found unacceptable amounts of fat and sugar. And with the more expensive brands, the listed amounts of fat and sugar were often inaccurate. So price is no guarantee of truth in advertising.
The bottomline: So why hasn’t the government taken steps to get the food industry in line? Where are the stricter guidelines? Also: What would ‘good’ food labelling look like? We look at all those questions in part two.
Samarth Bansal has done the best reporting and analysis in this area—see his deep dive republished on our website and this older report for Mint. The Conversation flags just how absurd food labelling has become in the food industry today. Outlook has an eye-opening column on the alarming use of Parle G as a source of nutrition for babies in Bihar. Mint has a gushing story on how Parle G has leveraged the poorest Indians into corporate gold. The Print explains why the two favourite kinds of packaged food—biscuits and instant noodles—are terrible for you. Maggi is the only company to run into serious trouble over its labelling in India. Fortune has a deep dive on the Maggi MSG scandal of 2015.