More to junk food than meets the eye

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

junk foodJunk food is junk by its very definition. But how bad is it and what is it that companies do not tell people about this food? This is what the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) laboratory checked. The results were both predictable and alarming. What was equally predictable was the response of big food companies and their spokespersons—denials and dismissals. But they are missing the point.

First the study: CSE tested all that is readily available in fast food outlets or as branded and packaged items in shops across the country. These ranged from instant noodles, chips and Indian bhujia to the ubiquitous colas, chicken fries and burgers.

As I said, the results were partly predictable. Junk food is defined as food with empty calories—it provides fat, sugar and salt, without nutrition. The CSE study reconfirmed this but with a difference. Labels on packages do not explain just how much of our daily salt, sugar or fat quota this “fun” food is taking up. We are not told that one packet of chips, devoured easily, supplies half of what we should take daily in terms of fat and salt; one bottle of cola has twice the daily added sugar allowance of adults and children. It is not in the interest of food companies to advertise this. It is in our interest to know.

The study also found that companies were not just irresponsible through omission, but also through deliberate misrepresentation of facts about the quantity of trans fatty acids—trans fats in short—in their products. Trans fats, formed during hydrogenation of oil, are linked to serious health problems. But the Indian law does not require companies to declare the quantity of trans fat in their products. However, it does say that a company can make a “health” claim that its food item is trans fat-free, provided that each serving has less than 0.2 gm of it.

There are many operative misses in this regulation. Companies can determine their own size of serving and they do. Indian food giant Haldiram’s, for instance, takes 10 gm, which is less than a mouthful, as the serving size. That’s how it claims to be trans fat-free. Haldiram’s bhujia, Pepsi Lays’ chips and ITC’s Bingo chips had trans fat when they claimed otherwise. The rest of the junk food, which was not even pretending to be trans fat-free, was equally bad or worse. Companies can get away with this because nobody is checking.

Take the case of Pepsi. It went on an advertising spree, saying its potato chips were healthy because they did not have trans fat and were cooked in rice bran oil. Filmstar Saif Ali Khan was its brand ambassador, urging children and adults to eat without guilt and care. The chips were branded “snack-smart”, implying good. Then Pepsi decided that these chips were heavy on its pocket. So it changed the medium of cooking and removed the snack-smart logo and the declaration of zero-trans fat from the packets. But this time it did not launch an advertising campaign. Why should it?

The CSE study found the company was adding insult to injury. First, even what was claimed to be trans fat-free had 0.9 gm per 100 gm. Secondly, packets of chips manufactured in February 2012 had dangerously high trans fat levels of 3.7 gm per 100 gm—much more than what is allowed in daily diet. But under the weak Indian food regulations they did not have to tell people what was in the packet. It is no surprise then that Pepsi, in its official rebuttal to the CSE study, said, “All products are fully compliant with regulations, including those on labeling.” Clearly, food companies are not in the business of food, but in the business of profit.

Following the CSE tests two questions were raised. One, why should one test junk food when it is already known to be bad? Two, why test only packaged food when all Indian snacks are said to be equally bad?

First, as the study shows, we do not know just how bad this food really is. We should know more because it is critical we take informed decisions about our health. Non-communicable diseases, from hypertension to cancer, are a global epidemic. Bad food and bad lifestyle are major causes of these diseases. Indians are especially vulnerable when it comes to diabetes; as compared to Caucasians, they are genetically disposed to have more fat than muscle and have a greater propensity to put fat around the abdomen. They are also too poor to cope with the horrendous health costs of debilitating diseases like diabetes. Therefore, Indian food regulations have to be even more stringent in limiting quantities of salt, sugar and fat in food.

Secondly, regarding food other than junk it must be made clear that traditional and local diets are built on the principle of moderation and balance. Indian diet, with its diversity of regional cuisines, celebrates good food. Problem arises when one adds “new” food and makes it universal—“McDonalise” it or “supersize” it. Therefore, the right thing to do is not to pit junk food against Indian snacks but to consider how much and what you eat. The choice is yours to make. So eat at your own risk.

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  • Finally, an article that will

    Finally, an article that will get the point across through the thick skulls of the indifferent parents and youth. The culture of celebrating through food is pervasive across all countries. When you couple this with the culture of consumption, where we feel satisfied only after buying a trolley-load of packaged and processed items and down tub-sized ice-creams and chips, it just spells doom for us. Up till the late 80s, Indian snacks were suffice for a party or get-together, now no birthday is complete for a child without a mandatory bash at McD's or Pizza Hut. Don't parents care about how the child will grow up and what values of consumption he / she will pass on to their kids? This whole posturing about feeding kids chocolates and chips because 'oh, they are small, let them enjoy' needs to be snipped from the bud. One in four of Americans are obese and Indians are right on track to beat that record!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita Narainji, while we

    Sunita Narainji, while we appreciate your attempts to highlight numerous issues which affect our daily lives, I am happy to learn, if any of your efforts so far has borne any result ? Which Govt agency has paid heed to your organisation's advice ?
    "Therefore, Indian food regulations have to be even more stringent in limiting quantities of salt, sugar and fat in food." How on earth do you expect the govt to listen to you ?
    Look at any corner and will find every minister is busy hiding his billions and DrPM Singh, supposedly an economist, does not know what his govt is doing. We do not see much hope, unless we find Gangaputra or Gangapavitra kind of people's representatives, thank you

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Good article. Is it possible

    Good article. Is it possible to publish the analysis data in the form of a table that we can use as a ready reckoner?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Is there any I.S. Code or any

    Is there any I.S. Code or any prescribed code in India that controls, mandates info and monitors quality of food products?

    If the answer is yes!
    What are they doing?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Madam, I do value the hard

    I do value the hard facts you have presented about the covert presence of transfats in a number of popular prepackaged processed food products sold in the market. By doing so, you have educated a lot of people of the falacies embedded in the so-called statutory compliance of food safety standards by manufacturers. However, I find your approach rather lop-sided, as I do not find you equally concerned about potential health hazards of the 'tiffin', roadside food and sweets commonly eaten by hundreds of millions of Indians - from puri-kachori, to vada-pao, gulab jamun, etc. All of these are cooked in hydrogenated vegetable oil. Since these are not packaged food products and produced and sold by the unorganised industry, do not come under the purview of the food safety regulations cited by you. Are the health and safety concerns of only those who can afford to buy Lay's or McDonald's, important to the regulators as well as to Down to Earth?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Let me first thank you for

    Let me first thank you for this excellent finding . Forget the loose government, but people should be assured that atlease we have some research companies like CSE, which are still alive in its true sense. I was really surprised to see such backstabbing done on the trust of the consumers by Big Brands like Pepsi, Haldiram, which surprisingly are the brands at the mercy of these consumer' trust and the so called quality they deliver as compared to the non brands. Its strange and annoying to realise the fact that now even there is no authnticity left for " Standards". Guess its the time now to set new STANDARD for a standard. The road side junk food and the laarri walaas too are considered to be junk, but then they atleast do not claim to be clean. They know, that they exist along with the fact that people know its a JUNK street side food, so we can never think to sue them for a food poisoning or for the health hazards. But to sell Anti health food under the TAG of healthy, is a CRIME and they must be really banned for the misinformation they are portraying.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita Narayan

    Dear Sunita Narayan Mam
    Greeting from CEPHED, Nepal

    Thank you very much for bringing this issues of Junk Food where every kids and parent are opting for it without thinking its ingredients and excess of salt, fat and so on.

    Hope this article will open the eyes of the regulators and standards making bodies to regulate and monitor the junk food.

    Similar and even worse situation with the product quality and its ingredients is here in Nepalese market is available which goes without even notice and companies are making their business at the cost of our children and family health. It should be stopped and well regulated.

    Moreover it is up to us as a consumer to make healthier choice will be the strongest driving force behind all these miss happening to protect ourselves.

    With best regard

    Ram Charitra Sah
    Executive Director
    Kathmandu, Nepal
    Tel/Fax 00977-1-5201786

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Madam, I appreciate

    Dear Madam,
    I appreciate the efforts that you are taking in making us aware about the modern food habits and their pitfalls.
    I am a teacher who runs a science club. I am also very worried about the present trend among youngsters. As such it will be of great help if you can send me some of the tests that we can perform before the children.
    In anticipation of a positive response at the earliest.

    Thank you.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Good article! really eye

    Good article! really eye opener.. But do we have an alternative? its all over the market, shops & stores. Chips for example are consumed as mandatory snacks, bhujia & peanuts also. people and children living in their homes with their family can keep a check but what about people living outside & alone, these snacks and chips have become their staple diet. fast food joints are big hit among youth n children.. what can we do to avoid it?!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I think that more than

    I think that more than anything else - this is an extension of western culture when our kids frequent Macdonald, KFC etc. And the doting parents instead of talking them out of it - merrily tag along and themselves become addicts. I really do not believe that people are completely unaware of the pitfalls of eating junk food.The results are quickly visible. One of the solutions is that schools should have a subject on Nutrition - this could be combined with Sports and this must be made mandatory. But of course, this is easier said then done

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you for a very timely

    Thank you for a very timely piece. I have been having frequent tummy upsets recently and have tried to determine what could be the problem. I finally decided that it could be a food item (pretty cardboard box and polythene wrap) I purchased at the supermarket. Just a couple of hours ago, I telephoned a reputable testing agency and asked if they could give me their verdict. They said they could but it would cost me over 10,000 Sri Lankan rupees (depending on how many parameters I wanted tested). How many people can routinely pay these kinds of charges? I will just discard what remains in my larder and switch to another brand. The company concerned will continue on its merry way.

    Another point. I was on a group outing a little while ago. When the bus stopped, some of the group wanted to buy some food being fried by a roadside vendor. One of the group said it looked unclean but was told that it was safe 'because it was being cooked'. Even educated people sometimes think that cooking make food clean.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • An eye opening study.let us

    An eye opening study.let us bring this to the notice of public & government.

    PC Gupta

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • it is rewarding to have such

    it is rewarding to have such an article. i believe we even have to go a step further, in legal regulation of these products. some suggestions might be penalize them heavily, cancel their licenses, pay hefty compensation, etc. only then will a deterrent be set.
    further we need to educate our children about the harms of junk food and to completely shun it.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The sentence below in your

    The sentence below in your report is enough to explain the behaviour of the companies producing and marketing the Junk food:

    "Clearly, food companies are not in the business of food, but in the business of profit."

    They can make profit even by selling poison.

    I must congratulate you for the good work CSE is doing. With time more people will become conscious and things will improve.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Narain, I wish to

    Dear Ms. Narain,
    I wish to congratulate you on a very well written and most timely article. Please see the article on this link which may be of interest.
    Keep up the good work.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Parents do not have

    Parents do not have information on how harmful junk food is. Unlike in the US, most Indians still east home cooked food like dal and chapatti. I can't see junk food completely replacing our traditional food. However, the information on the dangers due to junk food are getting across.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Very intresting article,

    Very intresting article, thank you for bringing this up.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply