Consumers will soon be able to figure out if a pack of biscuits, chips or juice is high in nutrients and low in fats. Labels of packaged foods must now compulsorily list nutritional facts per 100 gm or 100 ml or per serving.
This has been spelt out by the new Prevention of Food Adulteration (Fifth Amendment) Rules, 2008. The ministry of health and family welfare, which issued the notification on September 19, 2008, has given the industry six months to put the norms in place. So far, listing of nutritional profile on food product labels has been voluntary, although large manufacturers have been increasingly adopting the international practice.
Yet disturbingly, some popular products that have a presence in the developed world—where display of nutritional details on the package is a must—fail to do so in the Indian market. This should change by March 19, 2009.
The new rules stipulate that all ingredients in a packed product must be listed in a descending order in terms of both weight and volume. Significantly, the list must also include the nutritional profile of a product such as its energy value in kcal; the amount of protein, carbohydrates, including sugar, and fat in grams; and other vitamins and minerals in metric units.
The rules also lay down that a fruit juice, squash, beverage that does not contain a specified amount of fruit juice or pulp cannot be described as a fruit product. So, an item that is not a true fruit product can no longer pass off as one.
Consumer organisations welcome the much-awaited rules, with R Desikan of Chennai’s Concert saying they must be implemented without further delay. H Tripathi of Ahmedabad’s Consumer Education and Research Centre adds that nutritional labelling is important because it not just helps consumers calculate the nutrients present in a product, but also gives them an idea about what products to avoid.
Hypertension (blood pressure) sufferers, for instance, would now be able to avoid foods high in sodium. “Manufacturers are well aware about their products and the recipes and can easily mention the nutritive values,” insists Tripathi. Importantly, consumers would now be able to discern the presence, if any, of cholesterol and dangerous fatty acids such as transfat and saturated fats, which carry a heart risk. Transfat, as many are aware, is found in popular snack items made using hydrogenated oil. The unhealthy fat forms when liquid oils are converted into solid fats using hydrogen.
And a major source of transfat in our country is vanaspati. In an earlier discussion, Dr B Sesikeran, director at the Hyderabad-based National Institute of Nutrition, had said transfat damages the inner lining of blood vessels, thus causing inflammation. Once this happens, it increases the risk of clot formation.
The new rules mandate that foods using hydrogenated fats or bakery shortenings must specifically declare so on the label, and also mention that they contain transfat.
An official in the ministry of health says industry’s response to the notification has been largely positive. As Piruz Khambatta, CMD of Rasna International and chairman of the CII National Committee on Food Processing, says, “If I am diabetic, I must know how much sugar is there in a product… Industry must work (towards nutritional labelling) whole-heartedly. More than mandatory, it is consumer-friendly.”
Nutritional information, however, may not be necessary in raw agricultural commodities such as wheat, rice and spices; non-nutritive products such as soluble tea, coffee and packaged drinking water; fruits and vegetables; and single-ingredient products. As also, foods served for immediate consumption at hotels, hospitals and by vendors and halwais.