Warning labels should be made mandatory in India: Experts

Union Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswn had said last week that his ministry would concur with health ministry on the matter

By Ananya Tewari
Published: Monday 28 March 2016
Credit: Flickr

Experts feel that “warning labels”- that warn consumers, make them aware and encourage them to make healthier food choices should be made mandatory on processed and packaged foods in India.

“Warning labels should become mandatory on processed and packaged foods. Such labels should be highlighted with a distinct colour to immediately catch the consumer’s attention and should be easily interpreted by illiterate people,” says Ananth Sayanam, Coordinator, Safe Food Alliance, Tamil Nadu. He also added that current food labels should be revised to enhance better understanding among consumers as these are not legible and provide selective information about foods.

Sayanam’s exhortation follows in the wake of Union Minister of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, Ram Vilas Paswan stating last week that his department would write to the Union Ministry of Health on whether junk foods could be labeled as “healthy” or “unhealthy”. He reiterated about the suggestions that he had received on having warning labels on junk foods, similar to those present on cigarette packs. He also stated that the current food labels should be improved to have bigger font size for better understanding amongst consumers.

There is no provision for warning labels in current Indian regulations. Warning labels typically declare high content of certain nutrients (mostly salt, sugar, fat and may also be about allergens). These labels are mostly provided to discourage consumption of foods high in salt, sugar, fat and calories among populations due to their linkages with Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) and obesity risks.

Other countries

Several countries have adopted mandatory warning labels on packaged as well as non-packaged foods as a key public health intervention to warn consumers and enable them to make informed dietary decisions. Chile has warning labels that declare high salt, sugar, fat and calorie content on packaged foods. Finland has similar labels for packaged foods declaring high salt content. Another variant of these labels has been adopted by France which flashes “For your health, do not eat foods that contain too much fat, too much sugar or salt; Eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day; Avoid eating snacks; Do physical exercise regularly” on TV commercials of “high in category” foods. Recently in the UK, the Royal Society of Public Health has recommended that along with calorie labeling, foods should also have figures in terms of health and exercise required to burn the calories consumed from them. For example, a label declaring that a 330 ml can of sugary soft drink contains 138 calories should also mention that 13 minutes of running is required to burn these calories off. Such "activity equivalent calorie labelling” can help people make healthier choices and exercise more.

Apart from having warning labels on packaged foods, such labels are also gaining momentum for fresh foods such as those prepared in restaurants. A new regulation in New York City, USA has made mandatory labeling of sodium icons on menu cards of chain restaurants for foods high in sodium content. Warning labels are a negative form of front of pack labelling (FoP) which highlights the negative aspects of a particular food. FoP labels were developed for easier understanding amongst consumers. Many countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Ecuador and Nordic nations have positive FoP labels which provide an easy way to compare similar packaged foods and make healthier choices.

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