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

The product allegedly has an absurdly high sugar content, which remains hidden or missing in its advertising, packaging and labelling

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 02 May 2023

Bournvita has been part of many childhoods. The malted milk drink had crawled into our morning routine about 75 years ago. But today, the popular “Health drink” is 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 first came to the attention of the apex child rights body when Revant Himatsingka, a social media influencer, flagged it on his Instagram account a month ago.

Revant has since received a legal notice from Mondelez India — the company that owns Bournvita and was forced to take the video down. But for now, it seems to have sparked the front-of-package labelling debate.

So what is front-of-package labelling? 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 put it simply, it is a simple and effective way to inform the consumer so they can choose well. But today’s nutrition fat labelling is difficult to understand and often in one language.

This allows companies to hide facts, says Amit Khurana, programme director of food safety and toxins at the New Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment. 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.

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.”

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 also 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 as a star system will only help the consumer choose the least unhealthy option among a host of unhealthy options at best. This system has also been rejected by most other countries for being industry-friendly.

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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