Why there is a Dire Need for Labelling Allergen Foods in India?
It is no surprise that the production, sale, and consumption of pre-packaged foods have increased exponentially over the years, and so has the importance of food labels, one of the most powerful tools for nutritional communication.
The role of food labelling in food safety is indispensable. In addition to helping consumers make informed choices about the products they buy, these labels also guide them in safely using the food products. Largely considered to be a direct source of product information between the buyer and the seller, food labels help consumers make mindful, informed, and healthy food choices. While proper food labels benefit everyone, people with food allergies rely especially heavily on the clear and accurate labelling of their food products.
Many studies have been conducted to assess the current status of health in India, and the root causes of these issues as they pertain to diet and lifestyle choices.
A Disease Burden Study report, “India: Health of the Nation’s States” conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research revealed some shocking statistics. The report stated that “death due to non-communicable disease (NCD) has proportionally increased from 37.09% in 1990 to 61.8% in 2016”.
According to another National Family Health Survey conducted in the year 2015-2016, “11% of women (1 in 10) and 15% of men (1 in 7) age 15-49 are hypertensive, and about 60.4% of people screened have never had their blood pressure measured”.
This data indicates how one of India’s most significant risk factors for poor health in the year 2016 were the result of dietary choices, specifically, the consumption of a diet low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and one high in salt, sugar, and fat.
One of the most noteworthy measures introduced to mitigate these bleak trends is the Eat Right Movement, initiated on July 10th, 2018, focusing on spreading awareness among businesses and consumers and creating a “new food culture” that promoted the inclusion of healthy foods in our daily meals. Evidently, well-illustrated food labels grew in importance and began to help the consumer choose healthier alternatives.
Food labelling is of crucial importance in India, yet several small manufacturers leverage the lack of strict FSSAI regulations to mislead their consumers.
Hence, we must understand the extent to which accidental consumption of even a small number of allergens by an individual with a food allergy can pose life-threatening risks to their health.
Current FSSAI regulations require all product manufacturers and brands to follow a not-so-comprehensive set of guidelines that impose the following twelve primary labelling regulations for food packaging:
- Name of the food
- The list of ingredients
- Nutritional information
- Declaration if the food product is vegetarian or not
- Declaration of the food additives used
- Name and complete address of the manufacturer
- Customer care details
- Retail sale price
- FSSAI logo and license number
- Batch identification number, the date of marketing, country of origin
- Instructions for use
Most consumers with food allergies suffer due to the lack of information about potential allergens in the food items.
Finally responding to the advocacy of the informed consumers, several brands in India are working on making their product labels inclusive of the nutrients, allergen warning, and more.
How to read food labels in India
A 2017 study conducted by Robert, S.D., & Chandran, A highlighted that “even though a large chunk of consumers read all the information while purchasing a food product, they were unable to comprehend the information mentioned on it clearly”.
Some food labels can be highly misleading. The most common example of this are high-fibre biscuits, which boast a plethora of health benefits, but in fact, contain significant proportions of unhealthy fats and sugar.
Another 2017 study by Dutta S & Patel D drew a lot of attention towards the fact that aspects such as education level and gender difference were directly related to the perception and awareness of the necessity of food labelling in the country.
If you are someone who has been diagnosed with a food allergy, reading labels might seem incredibly daunting. Spending some time learning about your specific sensitivity and the many ways in which they may be listed on food products goes a long way.
When reading food labels in India, pay attention to the following:
- Serving Size
Always make to check the serving size to know how much you are consuming relative to the suggested quantity, as we often tend to consume more than one serving size.
- Nutritive Value
The nutritive value of a product includes metrics, such as calories, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and vitamins, as well as the presence of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, cholesterol, calcium, sodium, etc. Consume a product only if it suits your dietary requirements.
- Important Details
If you have a history of being allergic to a particular ingredient, look for its presence on the ingredients list so that you do not develop an allergic reaction upon consumption. Other important details such as the expiry date should not be ignored either.
- Colours and Preservatives
Don’t forget to check the label for any kind of preservatives, such as artificial food colouring, since they could trigger an allergic reaction in highly sensitive individuals.
Some other facts you should know:
- Calories are mentioned in terms of energy
- Check the micronutrients section for the presence of vitamins and minerals in the food product
- Nutrients such as carbs, proteins, and fats are listed in descending order on the food label
- Ingredients are also listed in descending order. This is where you are likely to find all the information regarding an allergen or additives as well.
Food Labels and Celiac Disease Patients
Thanks to people who have voiced their concerns regarding current manufacturer practices, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has finally decided to come up with labelling of allergens as well as gluten-free products.
An amendment of the FSSAI Regulations, released in 2016, incorrectly defined gluten-free food as food that “consists of or is made of one or more ingredients containing rice, millets, ragi, pulses or legumes”. Further, for any food item to be qualified and labelled as gluten-free, the gluten levels in the product needed to be less than 20 mg per kg.
Individuals with celiac disease must avoid gluten entirely, for even the slightest ingestion of gluten can elicit allergic symptoms. Thus, better labelling practices are of pressing urgency to prevent even more suffering of the Indian gluten-free community.