Its time to change food labeling policy to tackle the obesity epidemic in the country

The Health Ministry has made it mandatory for some medicines to have a red vertical line on their strips to sensitize the public to the fact that these medicines are meant to be consumed only with the doctors prescription. Most notable of these ‘prescription-only’ drugs are antibiotics. This Red line campaign is intended to create public awareness about antibiotic resistance, which has emerged as a major public health problem.

It is also now mandatory to display pictorial health warnings covering 85% of the tobacco product packages as a means to discourage consumption of tobacco by the people.

There is an upsurge of obesity in India, which is rising at an alarming pace. India has the second highest number of obese children in the world after China. Normal weight obesity is the new epidemic of the society. A person could be obese even if his/her body weight was within the normal range. An extra inch of fat around the abdomen increases the chances of heart disease by 1.5 times.

Overweight and obesity are well recognized as predisposing to lifestyle disorders such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dyslipidemia, metabolic syndrome. Unhealthy diet comprising of foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt (junk food, processed food) along with a sedentary lifestyle are major contributors to overweight and obesity. Hence, there is an urgent need to prevent and control obesity.

Along the lines of the Medicines with red line campaign and pictorial health warnings on tobacco products, the Heart Care Foundation of India (HCFI) suggests that packages of all food products that contain high levels of sugar, calories, salt and saturated fats should carry a ‘red dot’ or a ‘red arrow pointing upwards” on the food label, which carries the nutritional content of that particular food product as a symbol warning the consumer that the food product contains unhealthy amounts of fats, sugar and salt.

Chile introduced a new food labeling system in 2016 to tackle obesity. Food packages that are high in sugar, calories, saturated fat, and salt now carry black, stop-sign warnings with the words “Alto en” or “high in.”  “Alto En Calorias” – high in calories, “Alto En Grasas saturadas” – high in saturated fats, “Alto En Sodio” – high in sodium and “Alto En Azucares” – high in sugar.

Such a change in the food labeling policy may discourage the public from choosing such foods products not only for themselves, but most importantly for their children.

Overweight and obesity in childhood also predispose children to lifestyle diseases later in life. Hence, it is important to encourage healthy eating habits early in life.

HCFI has also written to the health ministry for consideration of this suggestion.

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