In part one of this series, we looked at the many clever ways that companies find to mislead customers about what’s inside their product. But arriving at a consensus on how to label food is a herculean task—and it’s not just because companies don’t want to play ball.
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Researched by: Rachel John & Nirmal Bhansali
Wtf is up with our food labelling laws?
On the face of it, food labelling is based on a simple idea. Three nutrients matter the most in a product: fat, salt and sugar. Any product that exceeds the recommended daily limits on these three are termed HFSS foods (High Fat, Sugar and Salt). And yet, our food labelling guidelines have been trapped in limbo for the past 13 years.
Say hello to committee #1: It all started in 2010 when an NGO petitioned the Delhi High Court for a ban on the sale of junk food in and around schools. The court asked the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)—the apex regulatory body—to frame and issue new guidelines around junk food. Of course, since this is India, it took the agency three years to set up a committee, which in 2014 called for clear labelling of HFSS content and calories in front of the packaged product.
Say hello to committee #2: After the first committee made its recommendations, FSSAI set up a second committee in 2015—an expert group on HFSS products:
In its May 2017 report, the expert group found that an average Indian’s consumption of all the three ingredients is higher than the recommended threshold. They advocated for the reformulation of products, an advertisement ban for foods high in FSS during children’s TV shows, and strengthening of the labelling system—only 52% of products displayed the nutrient information as per prevalent laws.
Based on these conclusions, the FSSAI issued draft guidelines in 2018.
The 2018 draft guidelines: were the first to recommend front-of-the-package labelling in India. The package would carry a red dot for every key ingredient—fat, sugar or salt—that exceeded FSSAI thresholds. Unsurprisingly, the food industry was distraught at the thought of stamping giant stop signs across their products. Also: red is the universal colour signifying danger. Not exactly a great look for a packet of chips or instant noodles.
Here comes committee #3: Red dots were cast aside—and a new three-member panel was set up to “look into the issue of labelling once again." Some reports claim that its chair—B Sesikeran—was associated with groups lobbying for the food industry in the US. In any case, new draft guidelines were issued in 2019, which made some key changes to soothe an agitated food industry. The package had to declare the amount of ‘sodium’ not salt; ‘added sugar’ not total sugar; and only ‘saturated fats’ instead of total fat content.
Sorry, no can do: And yet companies were upset. The reason: the panel proposed “a black coloured mark in the first year with a warning that ‘excessive intake may be harmful to health’ and move to a red coloured label afterwards.” They argued that given FSSAI standards, most Indian packaged foods would be marked hazardous: “The threshold values are extremely impractical and even the three-year roadmap to achieve thresholds would really not be implementable.”
Time for committee #4: This time the committee was asked to take a second look at recommended thresholds for nutrients—and “contextualise” them based on the “Indian scenario.” Around this time, a study commissioned by FSSAI found that only 4.4% of products were below the recommended thresholds in fat, sugar and salt. At least one of the three exceeded the daily limit in almost every product.
The revised proposal: At the end of 2021, the committee recommended new and greatly relaxed thresholds for HFSS products. For example:
[I]n chocolates, sugar thresholds were increased by about six times — from 6 gm to 35 gm per 100 gm. This means even if more than one-third of a chocolate is sugar, it will not be considered unhealthy. In addition, chocolates got over six times relaxation for saturated fat limits.
Consumer groups claimed these thresholds were among the most lenient in the world.
Enter, the star system: In September 2022, having given up on committees, the FSSAI finally issued a draft notification—laying out a new front-of-the-packaging labelling system. Based on a single IIM-Ahmedabad study, this is a positive rating system—healthier the ingredients, higher the stars:
Simply put, the food item loses points as the energy, sodium, saturated fat, and total sugar content goes up. It gains points if it has more of the good stuff—fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, millets, fibre, and proteins. The total score is converted into the star rating.
So you can opt for a product with higher stars—and avoid those with lower rankings. Kinda like the movies.
Sounds good except: consumer and health groups universally hate it. One reason: the “health halo” effect:
Health star rating creates a health halo around unhealthy products. It minimises the unhealthy nature of the product. As a consumer I feel that even if it has one star, it’s less healthy, but it’s healthy. That’s the basic flaw with this.
And it may fool you into opting for something with two stars over a one-star product—since you’d assume it was healthier—when in fact both are bad for you.
More importantly: The system also creates a giant loophole for companies—since a product that has unhealthy ingredients can earn stars by adding some of the healthy kind:
For example, most biscuits sold in India have three major components. Refined flour or Maida, sugar and palm oil. Ideally, these biscuits must not get a single star because they can cause diabetes and heart diseases. But what if some nuts like cashews or almonds are added to these biscuits?
Moreover, other studies clearly show that Indian consumers prefer upfront warning labels. And the star system has failed to reduce consumption of unhealthy food in countries where it has been implemented.
Ok, so what would ‘good’ labelling look like?
No one can agree on an effective system of food labelling—but most of them involve warning labels—similar to cigarettes.
The traffic light system: consists of three colours. Green is healthy, yellow is middling—and red is just plain bad for you. Most consumers and health groups love this solution—it is simple and easy to understand. In one study, it helped cut the consumption of red food products by 20% and red-coded beverages by 39%. But there is no large-scale data.
The case of Chile: In 2016, the country introduced a modified traffic light system with a single colour. It is now mandatory for products to display a “black, octagon-shaped ‘stop’ signs’ on foods that exceed limits for sugar, sodium (salt), saturated fat and energy.” The measure was a frantic attempt to curb skyrocketing levels of obesity. There are some studies indicating it works—but obesity levels in school kids continue to inch upwards seven years later.
The case of restaurant labels: In the US, there has been a serious push to force restaurants to list the calorie count of a dish on the menu. But it has not been very effective in nudging people to eat better:
Study after study shows that labels have failed to promote even modest dietary improvements. Perhaps most surprising is the failure of calorie labelling. When fast food chains were ordered to post calorie counts, everyone expected a drop in calories consumed and in serving sizes. But no! Research found almost no significant change.
The problem, some experts argue, is that people already know what is unhealthy for them. Labels aren’t going to make them put down that double cheeseburger.
Also, any label may be bad: Nutrition experts in the US argue that simple labels are reductive—and good nutrition is far more complicated:
For example, white bread (which wouldn’t be considered healthy under the new definition) could be part of a balanced meal if it’s paired with a variety of nutritious sandwich fillings like turkey, cheese, avocado, and tomatoes. On the flip side, if someone eats just plain yogurt (considered healthy) as a meal, they’re not getting the same variety of nutrients.
And these labels can easily turn into a form of food-shaming—which has already proved to be lucrative business for brands:
Perhaps the clearest proof that the way we talk about food is saturated with moralism is the ubiquity of the term “guilt”. Marketing departments have seen the power of this and promoted “guilt-free” snacks and treats. This promises an escape from self-recrimination but simply reinforces it by suggesting that eating the “wrong” kinds of foods does and should make you feel guilty.
Meanwhile, in India: The primary resistance comes from industry leaders. And their main arguments are as follows.
One: Front-of-the-package labelling poses a great danger to traditional Indian snacks and those who make and sell them:
FOPNL will lead to ethnic Indian foods being classified as unhealthy, cause severe loss of business to MSME packaged food manufacturers and sellers and open the floodgates for western packaged food to capture the Indian market
It is easier for bigger brands to alter ingredients in their product than a small company that sells packaged bhujia. Data point to note: almost 79% of the market is dominated by MSME players.
Two: A strict labelling system is simply impractical—since most Indian packaged foods would end up with some kind of dot:
In a letter to FSSAI, the CII, an industry body, said the draft legislation is “non-implementable" in its current form. “The current definition of HFSS and definition of thresholds per 100 gm would result in a large percentage of processed foods becoming labelled red," they wrote.
And some experts agree: “Regulation needs to be evidence-based and take along its implementers. If you take it too far, there will be violations.” Translation: get too strict, and everyone will find a way to cheat.
The bottomline: We love to claim an ‘India exception’ when it suits us. But if we can tweak a McDonald’s burger to suit our palate, we can surely do the same with food labels.
- Down To Earth has a great three part series on why India still doesn’t have front-of-pack labelling—and focusing on the influence of business lobbies attempting to block or change regulations.
- The Print and Down To Earth have good pieces on the star-rating system.
- Mint has more on the pushback from the industry.
- On the traffic stop system, read The Conversation and this study published in Science Daily.
- Forbes, Self and The Guardian offer thought-provoking critiques of any system of ‘healthy’ labelling.
- Also in The Conversation: a critique of ‘exercise labels’ that show you what you need to do to work off a particular product.