Eat at your own risk

Junk food is bad for health. Its definition tells its inner story—food that is high on calories and saturated fat but low on nutrition. 

Published: Sunday 15 April 2012

Eat at your own risk

Junk food is all about pleasure and empty calories. So, the world is worried. It is now linked to the growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases—the ‘fat’ problem. Every ailment from heart diseases to hypertension and diabetes is linked to how one eats and how one exercises. Junk food has become the world’s biggest health headache. And some governments are taking action—banning junk food advertising in children’s programmes, removing it from schools and even imposing a fat tax. Sugar, salt and fat are items that need to be regulated. This means governments have to step in to control the powerful processed food industry. But this is not happening in India. It believes food industry has full privilege to sell anything—and kill people slowly and sweetly. So, the Pollution Monitoring Laboratory of the Centre for Science and Environment, a non-profit in Delhi, decided to investigate the food people love to eat—everything from chips to bhujia and instant noodles to burgers. All the food that is sold to us through persuasive and glamorous advertisements; all the food that our film and cricket stars tell us to eat. The laboratory checked for fats, carbs, salt and trans fats. The results are deadly and damning. Eat at your own risk, is the message.


Fat of the matter
CHIPSIt has around 33% fats. This means if one munches a standard-sized packet of chips (65-75gm), he or she consumes about half of the daily fats quota. Unlike in a balanced diet, where a maximum of 30% of calories should come from fats, 50-60% of calories come from fats in chips
aloo bhujiaFats and carbohydrates combined, 100 gm of Kurkure has enough calories to satisfy one-fourth of one’s daily recommended quota. If you are fond of aloo bhujia with tea, you get high doses of salt and trans fats, along with a high amount of calories
Maggie NoodlesThe “tasty and healthy” meal comes with high salt, empty calories. A packet of noodle has around 3 gm of salt; recommended intake is 6 gm/day. Addition of vitamins, as claimed by Maggie Noodles, doesn’t make it a healthy food as it has negligible fibres; 70% of it is just carbohydrates
POTATO FRIESFries that one eats with burger and soft drink are laden with fats: 20% of its weight is fats, 1.6% of its weight is trans fats. By eating a large serving (220 gm), one exceeds the safe limit for trans fats. Additional trans fats come from accompanying burger too
BURGERKFC’s Chicken Zinger has 16.9% fats. McAloo has 8.3% fats. How unbalanced diets are they is gauged from the fact that 35% of calories in a veg burger come from fats. In non-veg burgers 47% calories are from fats
cold drinksThe 300 ml serving that one drinks with all kinds of junk food has enough sugar (over 40 gm) to exceed one’s daily sugar quota of 20 gm. After this, forget the cup of tea, one should not even eat fruits. Any additional sugar will make one fat
KFCRegular consumption of this product is likely to make one obese. A two-piece fried chicken of KFC (about 250gm) has nearly 60 gm of fats, which is recommended for the whole day
pizzaBy far, pizzas were found to be healthy compared to the other junk foods tested. They have low levels of salt and fats; levels of trans fats were also low. CSE tested only the basic pizza. Those with extra cheese are more popular and might not be very safe



Consumers duped

There is no proper definition for junk food. According to the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006, foods like burgers, pizzas and chips fall under the category of “propriety or novel” food, for which standards have not been specified but they are not unsafe. So this category of foods declare their composition only broadly. Fast food giants take advantage of this provision to dupe consumers. Even though Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) mandates food companies to declare the information of the total energy, carbohydrates and sugars, proteins, fats and transfats on the product label, the study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reveals that the consumer has no way of knowing what he or she is eating.

Flouting norms: Haldiram Aloo Bhujia and Top Ramen instant noodles claim to be trans fats-free. But CSE study found they are not. As per FSSAI rules, a product can claim to be trans fats free if it contains less than 0.2 gm of trans fats per serving. As per the CSE study, a packet of Top Ramen instant noodles has 0.6 gm of trans fats; 100 gm of Haldiram Aloo Bhujia has 2.5 gm of trans fats. Though Haldiram claims its serving size is 10 gm, it is nothing but a gimmick. Consumption habit of people exceed this serving size and they end up consuming more trans fats.

Misleading claims: Many brands put misleading information about their trans fats content on the label. Products like Lay’s American Style Cream & Onion claim that they have “zero” trans fats in 100 grams of their products. However, CSE study found 0.9 gm trans fats in 100 gm of the product. Similarly brands like Haldiram Aloo Bhujia, Bingo Oye Pudina chips, Top Ramen noodles claim they have “zero trans fats” per 100 gm of product. But CSE results show otherwise.

No standardisation: Lay’s American Style Cream & Onion chips carries the nutritional information for both the serving size of 14 gm and 100 gm on its label. But Uncle Chipps Spicy Treat does not mention the nutritional information for a serving size. It just provides the nutritional data for 100 gm. Lack of nutritional information for a serving size leaves one with no scope for knowing how much calories he or she consumes.

Nutrition jugglery in claims: Till February this year, Frito Lay’s products claimed to be “smart snacks” because they used a healthy oil. At that time, the labels clearly mentioned that the products were trans fats-free. But from March onwards, the product ceased to be “trans fats free”. But this shift was never mentioned in advertising blitzs. When CSE tested Lay's American Style Cream & Onion chips, it found that 100 gm of the chips contained 0.9 gm of trans fats. With the shift to palm oil, it is difficult to know the level of trans fats in the chips currently available in the country.

No claims: The non-packaged junk foods in India give nutrition information on their websites, but there seems to be a double standard in the play. McDonalds, for instance, gives information on 22 nutritional attributes on its US website. This includes information on different types of fats and even information on the levels of trans fats in the product. On the other hand, McDonald’s website for India provides information only on six nutritional attributes. Most importantly, it fails to provide any information on trans fats. But the company at least provides information on portion sizes in India. Other companies do not even do that. Pizza Hut’s website for India is a case in point. The company’s website in the US provides 12 nutritional attributes of the product, including the serving size, and even trans fats. Its website for India provides only six attributes in the dining menu; it does not mention trans fats. Its delivery menu does not provide any nutritional information. KFC’s website in US also provides the information on 12 nutritional attributes including the serving size, types of fats, including transfats, and fibres. But its Indian website gives only four nutritional information.

Junk food villains

There are no bad foods, only bad diets. So say many nutritionists. What make junk foods so unhealthy are the high-levels of fats, salt, sugar and carbohydrates in them. This nutrition profile adds to obesity and our increasing non-communicable diseases (NCD) burden. The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a non-profit in Delhi, finds that NCDs were responsible for more than half of all deaths in 2005 and by 2030 will be the reason behind two-thirds of all Indian deaths. The latest National Family Health Survey, conducted in 2005-06, shows at least one in every eight people is overweight or obese. In urban India at least one in every five people is obese. Obesity in women has increased by more than four per cent between 1998 and 2005. It is a salt, sugar and fat problem.

junk foodSalt: Current global salt consumption in diets is 9-12 grams per person per day. WHO wants this halved, which will bring down coronary heart disease and stroke by 18-25 per cent respectively. In India, consumption of salt ranges between five and 30 gm. But the challenge of hypertension is growing. Bad food is adding to this. Just consider: one packet of chips has 2 grams of salt: one-third of your daily quota.

Bad fats: It is agreed that 15 to 30 per cent of our daily calories should be from fats, with not more than 10 per cent from saturated fats; trans fats should contribute at one or 2 per cent. India is already known as the diabetes capital of the world; it is home to one-fifth of the world’s type-2 diabetes load. So fat is bad. But a KFC chicken combo-meal, sold so lovingly to people, exceeds their daily fat and trans fats quota. But they are not told.

Carbs and sugar: Bad, we know. But do we know that while the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) recommends 20 grams of added sugar in Indian diets, one 300 ml bottle of Pepsi or Coca-Cola has 42 gm of added sugar. You have just blown up your daily sugar quota two times over.

Governments are waking up to this fat-salt-sugar-problem. Several countries, including Ireland, Mexico, United Arab Emirates, and several US and Canadian states, have banned sale of junk foods in and around schools. In 2008 the UK banned junk food advertisements during television programmes aimed at children under 16 years. In March this year, Scotland proposed to ban junk food ads in TV shows aired before 9 pm. Denmark and Hungary imposed a fat tax on junk food last year. The surcharge is levied on food items like butter, milk, cheese, pizza, meat, bacon, ice-cream and processed food if they contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat. In Canada, a food product can be labelled as “free of energy” if it provides less than 5 kilo calories per serving of stated size.

Still, all is not well in this fat world.

What India needs to do 

  • One, junk food industry targets children as present and future consumers. It is, therefore, important to ban junk foods from schools and places where children can have easy access to these foods.
  • Two, to prevent children from junk foods, the Advertising Standards Council of India has guidelines in place. For example, it says, “Caution and care should be observed in advertising of food and beverages especially ones containing relatively high levels of sugar, salt and fat” during television shows directed at children. Yet, there is hardly any restraint on advertisements. FSSAI should mandate advertising guidelines for these foods, including the time for airing of these advertisements (after 9 pm).
  • Three, FSSAI should come out with regulations to reduce salt, sugar and fats in junk foods. It should also follow the examples of Hungary and Denmark and impose “fat tax” on high-fat processed foods, making them expensive. This would dissuade consumers from such food.
  • Four, knowing the truth will help. The government should introduce mandatory labelling, at least for serving size, trans fats, saturated fats, sugar and salt, along with already mandatory nutritional information for all processed foods. This would help people make an informed choice. This should also be applicable to takeaway foods like pizzas and burgers. They should be asked to provide easy access to information on the wrappers/ boxes.

Then, may be, all will be well.

Lab studies by Sapna Johnson, Ramakant Sahu and Poornima Saxena

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