As schools in America gear up for a nutritional overhaul of their meals, thanks in part to a campaign by First Lady Michelle Obama, a new study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) is urging schools in India to ban junk food within their premises.
CSE, a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization, recently tested 16 major brands of foods — including some from leading multinationals like Nestle, PepsiCo, McDonald’s and KFC (firms that have also come under fire from U.S. groups working to curb childhood obesity and promote healthier diets.) The study, “Nutritional Analysis of Junk Food,” is aimed at making Indians aware of what popular food items really contain and how they impact one’s health.
According to CSE, most of the brands tested contain very high levels of trans fats, salt and sugar. The study points out that the levels are far higher than the recommended amounts. (The National Institute of Nutrition and the World Health Organization have set certain benchmarks of how much salt, sugar, carbohydrates and fats every individual can have on a daily basis to stay healthy.) The CSE study further notes that many companies resort to large-scale misbranding and misinformation.
For instance, while Indo Nissin’s Top Ramen Super Noodles (masala flavor) claim zero trans fats, the CSE study found the product had 0.7 grams of trans fats per 100 grams. The CSE study also reported that a 100-gram package of PepsiCo’s Lays potato chips contained 3.7 grams of trans fats, although the company says it contains none. An 80-gram package of Maggi noodles has over 3.5 grams of salt. This is more than 60% of the daily recommended amount, but salt does not feature at all in the product’s nutritional label.
Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of CSE, says that “the food-related laws in India are inadequate.” He notes that “while what the companies are doing may not be illegal, it is definitely unethical.” Bhushan adds that when PepsiCo began cooking some of its Lays products in rice bran oil, which is a healthier cooking medium, the firm heavily advertised the change, adding the “Snack Smart” label to those items. But when the firm recently switched over to palm oil, it quietly removed the label. “It amounts to misleading the consumers,” Bhushan states. (PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has recently faced some criticism over the flat earnings and waning customer interest that followed her efforts to introduce wholesome offerings into the company’s line of sugary beverages and snacks.)
The mismatches in nutritional information listed on products sold in India versus what is available elsewhere is yet another of CSE’s concerns. “We have very clear evidence that the nutritional information shared in India and the U.S. for unpackaged junk foods is very different,” Bhushan says. “McDonald’s, for instance, gives information on 22 nutritional attributes on its website [in the U.S., while its Indian counterpart provides information only on six nutritional attributes. Unlike in the U.S., it provides no information on the trans fats. KFC’s American website also provides information on 12 nutritional attributes, including the serving size, types of fats (including trans fats), and fibers. But its Indian website gives nutritional information on only four attributes."
According to Bhushan, the information provided by the companies in India is meaningless since they decide the serving size arbitrarily. He proposes mandatory labeling that also provides data for serving size, trans fats, saturated fats, sugar and salt.
Meanwhile, the companies studied in the CSE report have refuted the allegations. According to a PepsiCo India spokesperson, "[The CSE report] is contrary to the consistent test reports we have, which indicate the trans fats to be well within the regulatory norms for making a claim of ‘trans fat free.’” PepsiCo, in fact, goes as far as to say that “all food products manufactured by PepsiCo India are trans fat free.” According to the company’s official statement, “Trans fat is produced during the hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Since the launch of our business in India, we have not used hydrogenated vegetable oils to manufacture our food products, and therefore none of them contain trans fat.”
According to a spokesperson for Nestlé India spokesperson, “Nestlé packs in India carry the nutritional compass that helps consumers understand nutrition. Nestlé in India, as in other parts of the world, fully complies with legislation and regulations.”