Report on Food Labelling, Claims and Advertisements

January 01, 2016

Pullela Gopichand is a national hero, but not just because he has pains takingly coached two badminton Olympic medalists–first Saina Nehwal and now P V Sindhu. Gopichand is a national hero because he is the only Indian sports person who has publicly shunned endorsing soft drinks. He has made it clear that these drinks are not good for health and certainly not good for sports persons, so he will not promote the product, whatever the financial inducement. This is important because these drinks are indeed junk–empty calories, which provide sugar without nutrition–and are today indicted for obesity world over. But the rest of our sports and film icons, from Mahendra Singh Dhoni to Shah Rukh Khan, are happy to make money by promoting products that are bad for our health.

Should they be allowed to do so? The government is considering amending the Consumer Protection Act to provide for five-year jail term or a penalty of `50 lakh to hold celebrities responsible for false and misleading claims. But there is a catch.The same amendment provides that there will be no liability if precautions are taken and due diligence is done before deciding to endorse a product. In otherwords, this amendment really amounts to nothing. Even then brand ambassadors and their lackeys are busy opposing the very idea of being held accountable, though they are ready to take all the money. And the government, weak-kneed as it is before powerful brands, has decided to take a relook.

Frankly, I believe this amendment was a distraction and is meaningless. What we really need is clear regulations against celebrity endorsement of products that are known to be junk and harmful to health. Marion Nestle, who teaches at the New York University, has in her recent book, Soda Politics, described the influence of marketing through which products that are literally flavoured water with loads of sugar have been turned into symbols of fun, happiness and glamour.

The strategy is two fold. One, to manipulate policy so that the health issues related to colas are obfuscated. Two, to unleash celebrity promotion so that the product is made aspirational–not a drink but a lifestyle choice. In her thoroughly researched volume, Nestle explains that it was in 1942, when the US Council on Food and Nutrition noted that a 20 per cent rise in soft drink consumption since 1939 was showing up in ill-health and obesity. In 1977, its advice was followed up in the US government’s dietary goals that asked for a startling 45 per cent reduction in the intake of sugar to bring it down to 10 per cent or less of calories in people’s daily diet. This was to be done by eliminating soft drinks from diet, said US guidelines. But this advice was not adhered to. Instead, it was turned convoluted.

Straight forward words like “avoid drinking” became “choose and prepare”. Sugar as a problem disappeared in the dietary guidelines to become one with solid fats such as butter and animal fat. A new word called “SOFAS”–solid fat and sugar–was brought in. The advice was lost and the guidelines were diluted. It is interesting that the cola companies did the same in a recent Indian government committee (in which I was a member) by insisting that the word junk food be replaced by anacronym hfss–food high in fat, salt and sugar. Business must go on as usual.