Bournvita row | FSSAI needs an energy shot to regulate processed food

Even as the social media influencer who drew people’s attention to the sugar content of Bournvita faces legal ramifications, a think-tank comes to his rescue

Updated - April 28, 2023 01:49 pm IST

Published - April 19, 2023 09:45 pm IST - New Delhi

FSSAI has been discussing the possibility of front-of-pack labelling. According to this, brands would need to put a notification indicating if a food product was high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). Image for representational purpose only.

FSSAI has been discussing the possibility of front-of-pack labelling. According to this, brands would need to put a notification indicating if a food product was high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). Image for representational purpose only. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The social media influencer drawn into the Cadbury Bournvita controversy, has a supporter. The Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest — India (NAPi), a think tank working on nutrition policy, has issued a statement saying they stand by him.

Revant Himatsingka, who calls himself @foodpharmer on social media, with 1,35,000 followers on Instagram, drew the ire of Mondelez India, the company that owns Bournvita, with his April 1 video in which he had flagged the product’s high sugar content. He, however, deleted the video following a legal notice from the company on April 13. He has also apologised on his Instagram handle, while his Twitter handle has been suspended.

Bournvita, the 75-year-old brand, calls itself a “chocolate health drink” on its Instagram page with 4,43,000.

In January, NAPi had said that a Bournvita advertisement and product packaging was misleading and did not disclose the sugar content. The organisation has filed a formal complaint with the Department of Consumers Affairs, working under the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution. It alleges the ads violate the provision of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.

However, this has brought to a boil the real issue at hand — the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) dragging its feet over implementing its own guidelines to regulate packaged and processed food.

Food regulations

FSSAI has been discussing the possibility of front-of-pack labelling. According to this, brands would need to put a notification indicating if a food product was high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS). The labelling would allow consumers to make informed choices.

In September 2022, the statutory body had issued a draft notification on front-of-package labelling that proposed “Indian Nutrition Rating”. The health star-rating system for packaged foods will assign 1/2 a star (least healthy) to five stars (healthiest) depending on the ingredients and the degree of processing.

This, despite massive opposition from doctors and the government’s own bodies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research and National Institute of Nutrition. “Often ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are made to look healthy by adding some vitamins and minerals. That doesn’t really work well for human health,’’ said an expert, adding that the negatives of UPFs could outweigh the positives from the added vitamins and minerals.

Dr. Arun Gupta, paediatrician and NAPi convener, said the FSSAI has not been at the forefront of implementing its own regulations. “Stars are a method to reward, and they should not be used. An upfront warning that a product is high in sugar content is required,” he said.

In the past, easier ways of identifying healthy, relatively healthy, and unhealthy foods have been under consideration. One was the green-amber-red way, which was easy for even a young child to understand.

Recommended quantity

While ingredients in Bournvita can be found mentioned on the back of the product, the company, in a statement, said Bournvita is best consumed with a glass of 200 ml of hot or cold milk as highlighted on the pack.

“Every serving of 20 gm of Bournvita has 7.5 gm of added sugar, which is approximately one-and-a-half teaspoons. This is much less than the daily recommended intake limits of sugar for children,” said Mondelez India.

The World Health Organization in its nutrient profile model for the Southeast Asia region recommends prohibition of marketing in the category of milk and dairy-based drinks if the total sugar content of the product exceeds 7 gm per 100 gm.

According to FSSAI’s Advertising and Claims Regulations, 2018, any product which has 5 gm of sugar per 100 gm can be categorised as “low sugar”.

FSSAI tweaks

In 2020, FSSAI had looked into 1,306 product samples across 30 food companies, including dairy, confectionery, sweets, snacks and more. None complied with its threshold for sugar to avoid warning labels — 6 gm per 100 gm. A panel then proposed increasing the threshold arbitrarily by six times. Despite that, only 20% of products were found to be meeting the new threshold — 36 gm of sugar per 100 gm. The rest had over 36 gm of sugar, a source in the technical expert committee constituted by FSSAI told The Hindu.

“The panel was then dissolved and another committee formed to propose whether warning labels or health star ratings should be given in front-of-the-pack labelling,” the source said.

Dr. Gupta says that FSSAI has not been at the forefront of implementing its own regulation. “It works on a system of complaints and at times hearings drag on for years,” he said.

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