What’s in your food? Bournvita row rekindles front-of-package labelling discourse

Nutrition fat labelling is difficult to understand and allows companies to hide facts, says CSE expert

By Taran Deol
Published: Monday 01 May 2023
Changes in the front-of-package labelling has been in the making for nearly a decade in India but is yet to see the light of day. Photo: iStock
Changes in the front-of-package labelling has been in the making for nearly a decade in India but is yet to see the light of day. Photo: iStock Changes in the front-of-package labelling has been in the making for nearly a decade in India but is yet to see the light of day. Photo: iStock

Bournvita, the ‘health drink’ part of many childhoods, is currently facing the ire of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). The product allegedly has an absurdly high sugar content, which remains hidden or missing in its advertising, packaging and labelling.

The issue came to the attention of the apex child rights body when a social media influencer flagged it on his Instagram account a month ago, on April 1, 2023. 

Revant Himatsingka, on the social media platform with the handle @foodpharmer with 135,000 followers, has since received a legal notice from Mondelez India — the company that owns Bournvita.

Read more: India's food labelling, promotion laws need to be strengthened: experts

Following the notice, Himatsingka took down his video, citing insufficient financial resources to fight the giant in a legal battle. But for now, it seems some damage was done, given the discourse it has sparked.

The ongoing row brings to the fore the front-of-package labelling debate, a change which has been in the making for nearly a decade in India but is yet to see the light of day. Its need stems from what the current system lacks. 

The nutrition fat labelling is difficult to understand and often in one language. It allows companies to hide facts, said Amit Khurana, programme director of food safety and toxins at the New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, told Down To Earth (DTE). 

“The front-of-pack labelling is a simple and effective way to inform the consumer so they can choose well,” Khurana said

This change in labelling is critical since it specifically addresses foods with high quantities of salt, sugar and fat. Controlling the consumption of such items is vital in addressing the shift in the disease burden of India. 

Read more: Food fudge: What India can do to make its front-of-pack labelling robust

In a Lok Sabha answer from December 2021, the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare illustrated how the proportion of deaths due to non-communicable diseases (NCD) among all deaths rose from 37 per cent in 1990 to 61 per cent in 2016, indicating an “epidemiological transition with a shift in disease burden to NCDs.” 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines front-of-package labels as “nutrition labelling systems that are presented on the front of food packages in the principal field of vision; and present simple, often graphic information on the nutrient content or nutritional quality of products, to complement the more detailed nutrient declarations provided on the back of food packages.” 

In September 2022, the statutory body Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) issued a draft notification on front-of-package labelling that proposed the “Indian Nutrition Rating”.

A health star-rating system was proposed where the degree went from least to most healthy based on the ingredients used and the extent of processing. However, this seems like a cop-out.

“Using stars and having a comparative scale in place will, at best, help the consumer choose the least unhealthy option among a host of unhealthy options. It won’t warn the consumer point blank that a food item is unhealthy, which is the point of the front of the package labelling system,” Khurana explained. 

The front-of-package labelling system is characterised by symbols and is not number heavy, so it is comprehensible. There is a good amount of evidence from countries across the world in favour of how useful the warning labels have been in affecting consumer behaviour, Khurana said.

Read more: FSSAI’s draft labelling regulation has major gaps, weak on regulating GM food: CSE

The health star system, which is being proposed in India, has been rejected by most other countries for being industry-friendly and is currently only being used in New Zealand and Australia.

The regulatory body suggesting this method is not entirely surprising. The industry has often had a very dominant presence in stakeholder meetings by sheer virtue of headcount.

Simpler alternatives like designating colours like green, amber and red to healthy, relatively healthy, and unhealthy foods is a more suitable solution to caution consumers effectively. 

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