New Delhi, Sept. 10: Consumers may soon be able to track their intake of fats and calories as they shop for packaged and processed food.
The health ministry plans to issue a notification to make it mandatory for the food industry to introduce labels displaying the nutritional value of processed food, health minister Anbumani Ramadoss said today.
Under the new rules, manufacturers would have to specify the quantitative and nutritional content by listing the amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates and other nutrients in their packaged products.
“Consumers in India should know what they are eating,” Ramadoss said. The health ministry expects to issue the notification in two months, officials said.
Medical experts have long demanded food labelling, arguing it would allow consumers to make informed choices on what they eat. It would also allow patients of diabetes, blood pressure or other risk factors to avoid wrong food.
Experts said that given India’s education levels, the notification would need to be complemented by public education. “People should also be given health literacy,” said Dr K.S. Reddy, head of cardiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
Under existing rules, manufacturers have to list the main ingredients. However, many foreign and local manufacturers of products such as breakfast cereals have been labelling products voluntarily.
A typical label would list total calories per serving, the protein, carbohydrate and fat contents, the proportion of saturated fats and transfats 'the worst type of fats ' as well as sodium in the food product.
A high level of sodium ' or salt ' is a risk factor for high blood pressure. A health ministry official said manufacturers would also need to mention the presence of potential allergens in their products.
Some experts said it is unlikely the entire food industry is ready to label their products. “Some local companies may not even be ready with information on food content,” said Anoop Misra, professor of internal medicine at AIIMS.
Additional data about fibre content, calcium levels and vitamins would also help consumers with choice, he said.
A national consultation on diet and physical activity earlier this year had recommended labelling of foods as one of many steps India needs to take to prevent an anticipated rise in cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Doctors have been concerned that wrong food habits are likely to increase the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke among Indians. One study indicates India has 35 million patients with diabetes.
Another survey indicated that one in 10 people between 35 and 64 years living in urban India is a patient of a cardiovascular disease.
Studies have estimated that coronary heart disease currently kills about 4,300 people a day in India. Without rapid changes in diet and lifestyle, this figure is expected to rise to 5,300 deaths a day within the next five years.
With appropriate public education, as people begin to consume healthier food, the food manufacturing industry is also expected to shift towards what consumers prefer. “In the long-run, food labelling could thus mould the market,” Reddy said.
To address the nation’s low literacy levels, experts at the consultation had said colour codes could flag potentially harmful contents. Red, for instance, may be used to alert people about bad fats.
Studies in Australia, Canada and the US have shown that the economic costs of introducing food labels outweighs the health care costs averted by preventing such diseases.