Front of package labeling: Why is the ‘health-star rating’ bad for food safety in India?

Nutrition experts and civil society organizations campaigning for good food are unhappy about FSSAI’s health star rating

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 19 August 2022

In February 2022, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) adopted a new form of food labeling system called the health star rating.

This rating is purported to inform consumers whether a packaged food product is healthy or not. What it does is give food products stars based on their nutrition profile with the healthiest being able to take home five stars.

The unhealthiest will get half a star. This is FSSAI’s version of what is known as Front of the Pack Labeling or FOPL and is supposed to help consumers make an informed choice on what they are eating.

But will this really help consumers? Is this the right way to label packets? Let us first understand what FOPL is all about? As the name suggests Front of the Pack Labeling or FOPL is an easy-to-understand nutritional information system which tells whether a particular packaged food product is high in sugar, salt and fat.

It basically uses illustrative images or symbols so that consumers can easily understand these food products have ingredients consuming high amounts of which are bad for health.

Currently what is practiced in India and most other countries is nutrition information labelling which is on the back of food packets. This is presented in a tabular form which is only in English and is often very difficult to understand.

Studies have shown that consumers seldom spend more than a few seconds reading nutrition labels. Therefore the world over there is a push towards easily understandable FOPL labels, that quickly informs a person what is healthy vs what is unhealthy.

Till mid 2022, 15 countries have mandatory FOPL while the policy has been formulated and announced in 17 other countries.

FSSAI’s decision to implement Health Star Rating comes out of an IIM Ahmedabad study.

However, nutrition experts and civil society organizations campaigning for good food are unhappy about FSSAI’s plan to introduce the health star rating.

Under this new labelling regime, an Artificial Intelligence or AI-based algorithm will decide on how many stars a food product will get depending on the ingredients.

A food product containing positive components like fruits, nuts, fiber, legumes etc. will be given a higher number of stars than a product containing just sugars, fats and sodium which is a part of salt. But here is the big problem.

While a food product may have high amounts of negative ingredients, adding one or two positive components will not make it any healthier but will get a higher number of stars. For example, most biscuits sold in India have three major components.

Refined flour or Maida, sugar and palm oil. Ideally, these biscuits must not get a single star because they can cause diabetes and heart diseases. But what if some nuts like cashews or almonds are added to these biscuits? The number of stars may go up because nuts are positive ingredients, and consumers may identify them as a healthier option even though they are equally bad.

Similar examples may be found with pulp or fibre added to fruit juices and nuts and seeds added to confectionary. The whole point about informing the consumer about high salt, sugar or fat is completely missing from FSSAI’s new labelling plan.

So what are the best examples of front-of-pack labelling that India could have adopted? The two best examples come from Chile and Israel. Chile shows the dangers of these unhealthy ingredients in black octagonal boxes: High in trans fats, High in Sugar, High in Salts and High in Calories.

Similarly, Israel has these illustrative graphics (Salt, Sugar and Fat). These warning signs clearly warn consumers to stay away from these foods containing high Fat, Sodium or salt and Sugar.

There are also other reasons for India to junk the health star rating in favor of symbol or picture-based FOPL. Foremost is the fact that nutritional labelling on the back of packets is in English, whereas there are 22 recognized languages in India. Symbols and pictures become a universal way of communicating to most of the population.

The other reason is that FSSAI already uses symbols on food packets like the coloured dots to differentiate between vegetarian and non-vegetarian products; the green tick for organic or Jaivik food and the F with a plus for fortified foods.

It was in 2013 when for the first time a committee set up by the FSSAI advocated front-of-pack labeling . But 10 years on, after numerous committees and recommendations, the FSSAI has still not been able to come up with a proper safety warning for junk foods in India.

At least 21 civil society organization including the Centre for Science and Environment, Consumer Voice, Cuts International, the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, and the Public Health Foundation of India has written to the FSSAI opposing this labelling regime.

But is FSSAI listening? If FSSAI goes ahead with this labelling regime, it will be like selling the health of the country to the food industry.

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