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FSSAI proposed star-rating system misleading: Experts

The plan of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to introduce star ratings for packaged food has attracted sharp criticism from public health campaigners who dubbed the proposal as a flawed one that not only fails to convey the risk of consuming junk food but also misleads people to believe that even food items containing high fat, sugar and salt have benefits. Also, the draft regulation gave the food industry 48 months to switch without taking into account public harmful consequences of such a decision, allowing producers of common health drinks to escape regulation, a section of doctors and public health workers said.

The FSSAI in September came out with a draft notification on front-of-pack nutrition labelling for food products, arguing that such labels, once introduced, can aid consumers to determine if a particular food is healthy to eat. The draft notification came after a decade of deliberation on the pros and cons of such labelling.

Yet the FSSAI went ahead with an unscientific rating system in which a product is awarded stars on the basis of its ingredients. Junk foods like potato chips, colas and biscuits will get less number of stars, but their ratings would improve if they add fruits, nuts and vegetables to the final product. Such a rating system, experts say, is completely flawed.

“There is no scientific evidence that adding a positive factor or nutrient like vegetable/fruit/ nuts to an unhealthy food product would reduce risks of disease. Body metabolism does not function that way. Neither nuts/fruit/legumes can reduce the absorption of sugar/salt or fat in the unhealthy product nor its negative impact,” said Arun Gupta, convener of Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest, a think-tank on nutrition policy.

What such a rating system would convey to an ordinary consumer is that even a pack of potato chips or biscuits and a bottle of cola will have some health benefits as they would be given half a star or one star. The token addition of some positive nutrients like fruits, nuts and fibre could substantially increase their rating without in any way mitigating their adverse effect on health. And there is no provision for labelling any food item as unhealthy.

Swadeshi Jagran Manch also opposed such a rating system. The Star Rating could not give a clear and true alert to a consumer who would be influenced by health claims of the food industry via media promotion, SJM wrote to the FSSAI last week.

“The basic intent is to show all food products as healthy, instead of declaring warnings against foods that are clearly accepted as being unhealthy,” said Vandana Prasad, member of NAPI and a public health professional.

Critics pointed out that they were not against the front-of-pack-labelling, but wanted the regulator to make such labels correctly rather than succumbing to the industry pressure.

“Warning labels will also empower customers to make healthier choices and contribute to the prevention of the most concerning diet-related non-communicable diseases in India,” said AshimSanyal, chief operating officer, Consumer Voice.


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