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38% Indians consume fried snacks and processed foods, only 28% consume healthy food – Down To Earth Magazine

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A new global report has raised concerns about dietary habits in India, highlighting a significant increase in the consumption of unhealthy foods compared to nutritious options. More people in India consume unhealthy foods such as salty or fried snacks, compared to those consuming vegetables, fruits and other micronutrient-rich-foods, the paper said.

Global food policy report 2024: Food systems for healthy diets and nutrition was released by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on May 29.

As a result of poor diet, 16.6 per cent of the country’s population suffers from malnutrition, the report found.

Share of population consuming all five recommended food groups, salty or fried snacks, and no vegetables or fruits, 2021–2022

Source: 2024 Global Food Policy Report

At least 38 per cent of the Indian population ate unhealthy foods, while only 28 per cent ate all five recommended food groups, which include at least one starchy staple food, one vegetable, one fruit, one pulse, nut or seed and one animal-source food.

Emerging trends in Indian diets

The consumption of such calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods was not only high but was also increasing, while the consumption of vegetables and other micronutrient-rich foods was low, the paper found.

In India and other South Asian countries, consumption of processed foods (chocolates and sugar confectioneries, salty snacks, beverages, ready-made and convenience foods, and breakfast cereals) is on the rise. After cereals and milk, snacks and prepared foods accounted for the majority of Indian food budgets.  

In India, the proportion of the population suffering from malnutrition increased from 15.4% in 2011 to 16.6% by 2021. This means that nearly 17% of the Indian population’s regular food consumption was insufficient to provide the dietary energy levels needed to live an active and healthy life. 

The prevalence of overweight in adults increased from 12.9% in 2006 to 16.4% in 2016. 

According to the report’s analysis of data from a large nationally representative panel of households, India’s total annual household expenditure on paid meals consumed away from home increased from Rs 619 billion ($8.8 billion) in 2015 to Rs 820 billion ($11.6 billion) in 2019, a real-term increase of approximately $3 billion.

Similarly, the share of packaged (highly processed and calorie-dense) foods in household food budgets nearly doubled during this period, to 12 per cent from 6.5 per cent. 

Wealthier households spent a greater share of their food budgets on processed foods. It was unclear, however, whether increased spending on prepared and ultra-processed foods is crowding out the consumption of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables. 

Share of urban household food budgets spent on processed foods and purchased meals, by per capita consumption expenditure, India

Source: 2024 Global Food Policy Report

Many countries were facing a double burden of malnutrition, the report underlined. This means that undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies coexist with overweight and obesity, or diet-related noncommunicable diseases (NCD), within individuals, households, and communities and across the life course. 

More than two billion people, many of them in Africa and South Asia, cannot afford a healthy diet, the research estimated. According to Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than half of children under the age of five and two-thirds of adult women were affected by micronutrient deficiencies. 

As a result, high levels of undernutrition (stunting and wasting) and micronutrient deficiencies have increased, even as the prevalence of overweight, obesity, and related NCDs has risen in South Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. 

Calorie-dense foods cheaper

In the South Asian region, the report highlighted that micronutrient-rich foods were expensive, whereas cereals, fats and oils, sugar, and sugary and salty snacks were relatively inexpensive. 

South Asia had the highest cost premium — that is, the additional cost for the least-cost nutrient-adequate diet over the lowest-cost source of calorie adequacy. 

For example, dark green leafy vegetables and vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables cost 22 times more per calorie than starchy staples and twice as much per calorie as sugary and salty snacks. In addition, calories from fats and oils and sugar cost even less than those from staples in India and other South Asian countries.

Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) recently released dietary guidelines warning that the information presented on packaged food can be misleading. 

Among the 17 dietary guidelines, ICMR asked consumers to read information on food labels to make informed and healthy food choices. It also suggested minimising the consumption of high fat, sugar, salt and ultra-processed foods.

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Cereal-centric agriculture and food policies

Agriculture and food policies in South Asia, like in many other developing countries, continue to prioritise the affordability of starchy staples over the diverse diets required for long-term health. Rice, wheat, and sugarcane growers, for example, are eligible for price guarantees in India. Similarly, rice farmers in Sri Lanka have preferential access to subsidised fertiliser. 

“This bias also extends to public investments in agricultural research and development, which have prioritised enhancing the productivity of rice and wheat, while neglecting coarse grains and pulses,” it said. 

Co-authored by 41 researchers representing IFPRI and several partner organisations, the report called for urgent and concerted efforts to transform global food systems to ensure equitable access to sustainable, healthy diets for everyone. 

“The 2024 GFPR serves as a clarion call for prioritising sustainable, healthy diets as a cornerstone of public health and sustainable development,” said Johan Swinnen, director general, IFPRI and managing director, systems transformation for global agricultural innovation network CGIAR.

Experts stressed the importance of prioritising improving diets as a critical entry point for addressing all forms of malnutrition and diet-related NCDs. 

“Evidence suggests that poor quality diets are the leading cause of disease worldwide and that one in five lives could be saved by improving diets,” said Deanna Olney, director of IFPRI’s nutrition, diets, and health unit and the lead author of the report.

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