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Doctors call for front of pack labels on packaged foods to prevent and reduce heart disease and stroke in India

eat right. Image credit: Shanti Hesse / 123rf
Ease of access to sugary drinks and food has had a detrimental effect on India’s dietary health. Image credit: Shanti Hesse / 123rf
  • 56% of CVD deaths in men and 48% in women are due to dietary factors and high cholesterol levels 
  • Multifold increase in consumption of unhealthy, processed food in India 

New Delhi, 8 July 2021:  Leading doctors called for mandatory front of package labels on packaged food products to stem the rising burden of cardiovascular disease and stroke in India. The experts participating in a national session conducted by AIIMS Rishikesh and GMC College, Srinagar on “Addressing Cardiovascular Diseases through Front of Package Labelling in India” urged the need for simple measures such as front-of-package labels (FOPL) that can make a paradigm shift in the food consumption pattern of the country and as a result, avert an impending NCD crisis. Participants included Prof Samia Rashid, Principal, Government Medical College, Srinagar and Dean, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Allied Medical Sciences, University of Kashmir; Dr Rubeena Shahen, Ex-Technical Director, FSSAI; Dr Khalid Mohiuddin, Associate Professor and Head, Superspeciality Hospital, GMC, Srinagar; Dr Pradeep Aggarwal, Associate Professor, Dept. of Community and Family Medicine, AIIMS, Rishikesh and Dr Salim Khan, Professor and Head, Dept of Community Medicine, Government Medical College, Srinagar.

There has been a significant increase in deaths due to cardiovascular diseases in India in the last two decades. A large percentage of these deaths and cardiovascular incidences are linked to dietary risk factors indicating a clear correlation with excessive intake of sugars, total fats, saturated fats, trans fats and sodium. 

Dr Salim Khan, HOD, Community Medicine, Government Medical College, Srinagar cautioned that, “cardiovascular disease has emerged as a deadly killer, and nearly 5.8 million people or 1 in 4 Indians are at a risk of dying from an NCD before they reach the age of 70. Of these, more than 28% deaths are related to heart attack and stroke – a number that has gone up 2-3 times in the last two decades. Processed and packaged foods are a direct risk factor for obesity, heart, and circulatory diseases. We are up against a multi-billion-dollar food industry and unless the Government takes urgent steps to enable consumers to make informed choices and packaged foods healthier, we will end up with a growing unhealthy population, at risk of dying or experiencing cardiac and circulatory issues at a much younger age. People need to understand clearly and simply what is in the food that they are buying. Food labels have to interpret the nutrition information for consumers across age, income and literacy levels.” 

Calling attention to the fact that 56% of cardiovascular deaths in men and 48% in women are due to dietary factors, Dr Khalid Mohiuddin, Associate Professor and Head, Superspeciality Hospital, GMC, Srinagar, said, There is a spiraling rise in the consumption of these nutrients of public health concern, largely driven by the plethora of choices of processed and ultra-processed food products with unhealthy nutritional profiles available in the market. These have poor nutritional value and are full of anti- or negative nutrients. Reports indicate that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the food and beverage industry thrived in low- to middle-income countries, including India, and expanded its market of unhealthy, ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks. Children have developed unhealthy eating habits and the junk food industry did nothing to safeguard their health. It is time now for stringent measures and we want to call for an urgent adoption of strong warning labels on the front of every food packet.”

Talking about the proactive steps taken by the apex regulator of India, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, Dr Rubeena Shahen, Ex Technical Director, FSSAI said, Our food environment needs to change drastically if we are to reverse the health crisis and safeguard our future generations. The Indian Government is committed to decisive steps in that direction. Since the introduction of the Food Safety regulations in 2011, FSSAI has issued several regulations to make food safer and more nutritious. Recognising the importance of strong front-of-package labels as one of the most efficient tools of influencing consumer behaviour, to alter dietary choices and reduce their vulnerability to NCDs, FSSAI is in advanced stages of finalising a draft labelling regulation. Currently an FSSAI Working Group is determining thresholds for nutrients of concern (sugar, salt, and fats), in consultation with civil society groups, industry and nutrition experts. They are working towards a viable model for India.”

Dr Pradeep Aggarwal, Associate Professor of AIIMS, Rishikesh and leading the project Healthy Food for All, said, “The entire medical community should step in to address this impending health crisis. As doctors we understand and are witnessing the health damage caused by consumption of unhealthy foods. Consumption of processed food in young adults and kids in India is a growing concern which is evidently leading to higher risk of NCD’s. A major reason behind increasing number of obesities, diabetes and other NCD’s in kids is linked to consumption of unhealthy food with preservatives. A strong front of packaging policy is the need of the hour, and it is time now to ensure that consumers can make healthier choices and are informed what is in their food through a clear and simple FOPL. That will be the starting point in reversing the obesity and NCD crisis.

As more and more countries adopt mandatory and strong FOPLs, India can join the growing list of countries that are realising the potential of urgent policy steps to safeguard the lives of people. FOPL works best when it is made mandatory, applies to all packaged products, the label is interpretative, simplistic, and readily visible, guided by a scientific nutrient profile model. \

The opinions expressed in this press release do not necessarily reflect those of the Health Issues India editorial board, nor its publisher.

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