Food labels misleading, India’s new dietary guidelines warn – Down To Earth Magazine

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Advisory cautions against ‘sugar-free’ foods, protein powder; urges consumers to read detailed information on packaging

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

“Health claims on packaged food are designed to catch the consumer’s attention and convince them that the product is healthy,” the guidelines drafted with the help of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) informed.

A notable example in the advisory was ‘sugar-free foods’ associated with low calories, preferred by diabetics or people watching their weight. The document titled Dietary Guidelines for India 2024 released May 8, 2024 warned:

Sugar-free foods may be loaded with fats, refined cereals (white flour, starch) and even hidden sugars (maltitol, fructose, corn syrup, molasses). These would imply high glycaemic index and high calories in the food item.

Food products often loosely state they are “all-natural”, the health research organisations stressed. On the contrary, they could have added flavours or substances, with minimal processing, they added. Manufacturers can see through this and identify a few natural ingredients when they see this displayed on the label, the authors of the document explained. 

Another popular claim, they observed, was on the proportion of the nutrient offered in a single serving of a product marketed as a “good source of protein, vitamin D or other nutrients’’. To make an accurate judgment, the doctors suggested that people should read about the quantity of these nutrients with reference to daily requirements.

Further, not all organic food claims should be believed, the guidelines reminded. “When a food label states ‘organic’, it may simply mean that it is free of all artificial preservatives, flavours and colours, and that the food ingredients are free from pesticides and chemical fertilisers. If both the above are met, then the label can state 100 per cent organic and have the ‘Jaivik Bharat’ logo approved by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI),” the authors noted.

Any food item, including fruit juices containing only 10 or less per cent of fruit, is allowed to display that the product is made with real fruit pulp or juice, according to FSSAI. “But the product claiming to have real fruit may have added sugar and other additives with only 10 per cent actual fruit pulp,” the researchers added. 

All oils are 100 per cent fat and, therefore, should be consumed in moderate quantities. Still certain oils claim to have no cholesterol or are heart friendly on the label, the document warns.  

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.

The World Health Organization is considering revising its recommendation and reducing calories from sugar to less than five per cent kilocalories a day, according to ICMR. “If possible, added sugar may be completely eliminated from one’s diet as it adds no nutritive value other than calories. Calories are healthy only when accompanied by vitamins, minerals and fibres,” the scientists stressed.

R Hemalatha, director of NIN told Down to Earth (DTE), “If you consume sugar, at least try to restrict it to around 30 grams a day. If you don’t take sugar, it’s good for health. As much as possible, avoid sugar, especially for children younger than two,” she said. “Totally avoid sugar and make recipes without sugar if possible.”

If consumed long-term, ICMR-NIN authors said, sugar substitutes such as sweetening agents like aspartame, and saccharin, can lead to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other non-communicable diseases. “Sugar substitutes can be harmful to your body if it is consumed regularly in high quantities,” Hemalatha told DTE.

ICMR also said that fortification of ultra-processed food cannot make them wholesome or healthy, which is a technique used to add certain nutrients to unhealthy food. 

“High fat foods and high sugar foods are energy dense (high calorie foods and poor in vitamins, minerals & fibre). Regular consumption of these foods not only causes overweight and obesity but also deprives one from taking healthy foods that provide essential macronutrients (amino acids and fats), fibre and micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, bio-active substances,” the research body said.

Around 56 per cent of India’s total disease burden is due to unhealthy diets, studies showed. Healthy diets and physical activity can reduce a substantial proportion of coronary heart disease and hypertension and prevent upto 80 per cent of type 2 diabetes, ICMR highlighted. 

The scientists who drew up the dietary guidelines also advised against consuming high quantities of protein, especially in the form of protein supplement powders, as commonly practiced by athletes. “Protein requirement is based on your body weight. It is neither gender-specific nor physical activity-specific. Going overboard on protein is not right. I mean it is not going to help your muscle building at all. You have to be physically active instead.” Hemalatha said.

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