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The problem with star ratings of packaged foods

To understand the nuance, a good place to start is the so-called healthy food products. As Indians begin to recognize the troubling consequences of unhealthy eating, health awareness is also on the rise. According to a March 2022 report by Avendus Capital, the “health food” market in India is expected to reach $30 billion by 2026, growing at a rate of 20% per annum. The top food brands, and many new ones, are tripping over each other to sell ‘healthier’ From a ‘diet cheesy’ to a ‘high protein cookie’ and ‘juices with no added sugar’, nutrition now seems to be overflowing with many packaged foods.

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But the devil is in the details. Claims about “no added sugar,” low cholesterol, and low salt may be true, but hide more than they reveal. Less sugar and fat, for example, kills taste and can force a company to use unhealthy substitutes that it won’t disclose anytime soon. Nutritionists and food experts Mint spoke to said anything processed isn’t necessarily healthy, even if it ranks five. That is why ‘health’ is not easy to summarize in a star label, they fear.

Cracks in the armor

How the star rating is assigned

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How the star rating is assigned

First the basics. The FSSAI released draft rules in September about how the ratings would work, and sought public comment. Simply put, the food item loses points as its energy, sodium, saturated fat, and total sugar content goes up. It earns points if it has more of the good stuff: fruits, veggies, nuts, legumes, millet, fiber, and protein. The total score is converted into the star rating (see graph).

But a company can’t push the score all the way up to five stars just by piling on a bunch of good and bad. The positives stop coming the moment the item crosses a harmful threshold of the bad content. But this cap may not be enough.

Judging food is not as simple as judging electrical appliances for efficiency. Healthy ingredients do not imply the absence of unhealthy ingredients that a rating system can miss. Some additives to improve texture, taste, color, visual appeal or shelf life can have harmful effects, and star ratings are unable to capture the balance between acceptable and harmful levels of nutrients in a food, said K. Srinath Reddy , Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the Public Health Foundation of India.

“A few pieces of nuts are out of balance with a high amount of sugar, salt or unhealthy fats,” Reddy said. “As moviegoers are now discovering, having one superstar doesn’t make up for a bad script or bad casting.”

Even items often claimed to be healthier than traditional options, such as jaggery over sugar, may not be entirely healthy, experts say. Besides, one person’s one star may not be another person’s one star, said Krish Ashok, a food author. Mehar Panjwani, a clinical dietician, said: “We all have a different biochemical profile. Something that might be OK with my health might not suit someone else. straining someone else’s kidney.”

Will it work?

Indian packaged food very unhealthy by global standards

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Indian packaged food very unhealthy by global standards

Indians are too used to junk food. Getting their hands off these packages will require bigger changes, unaffected by industry business interests. A 2019 study by the George Institute for Global Health found Indian packaged food the least healthy worldwide. India’s packaged foods were the most energy-dense and had the second highest average sugar content after China. It comes as no surprise, then, that non-communicable diseases stemming from unhealthy eating habits contribute to more than 60% of the country’s deaths. Although so-called healthy snacking is becoming more popular in metropolises, junk food remains massive in India.

Perhaps that’s why food advocate groups say the proven best practice for such front-of-pack labeling is “warning labels,” as adopted in Chile and Israel. Such labels tell a consumer to stop choosing an unhealthy item, and that negative messages have helped reduce junk food consumption, research shows. But a star rating as suggested in India would instead have a positive message: an item with a score of 1.5 can be considered healthier than one with a score of 0.5, even though both can harm you. It also fails to educate people about harmful levels of key constituents, Reddy said.

Panjwani said star ratings would be misleading and the FSSAI should have nutritionists and food technologists checking recipes at the factory level. Despite his doubts, Ashok said it was a step in the right direction. He said it needs to be supplemented with better disclosure and labeling rules. “For example, have a rule that you can’t have different names for sugar/fat, it should be clearly labeled as ‘sugar/fat’ in a package,” he said. “Don’t allow companies to confuse consumers by using complex terminology.”

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