Mandatory salt-sugar-fat ‘cut offs’ if India to prevent NCD crisis

New Delhi, June 7: India’s crippling second wave of Covid-19 may be getting all of the attention now, but it is critical that we do not overlook the silent but deadly killer that has emerged as the leading cause of death over the last two decades.

More than 5.8 million Indians die every year from Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, uncontrolled hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.

Most of these deadly diseases, although hard to treat, can be prevented by modifying diets and supporting a healthier, sustainable food system. As is the case with other developing economies, there has been a significant boom in the consumption of packaged foods, usually high in sugar, salt and bad fats, even in the rural areas and across all socio-economic groups.

With this boom, it becomes critical to more strictly regulate the three harmful ingredients that are rampant in packaged foods and are fuelling the NCD crisis.

Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) along with the Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), Epidemiological Foundation of India (EFI) and Pediatrics and Adolescent Nutrition Society (PAN) organised a webinar to discuss the importance of a strong Nutrient Profile Model (NPM) to guide consumption of processed and ultra-processed food in India.

Leading global experts, doctors and senior scientists discussed the need for a consensus particularly in light of obstacles such as opposition from the food industry.

Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, by adopting scientific thresholds for these ingredients -salt, sugar and fats - have taken decisive steps to safeguard their population, especially children.

Nutrient profiling is a scientific method for categorizing food and beverage items according to their nutritional composition. It is developed with the key goals of reducing consumption of sodium, saturated fat and added sugar.

Nutrition profile models (NPM) translate these broad goals into specific food and beverage targets and helps us to identify and differentiate foods that are unhealthy (high in salt, sugar, and/or saturated fats). Based on the "cut off" established by the NPM, the front-of-pack label informs consumers in a fast and straightforward way whether a product contains excessive sugar, sodium and saturated fat, helping them make a healthier choice. At the same time NPM can guide ban on promotion and marketing, especially directed to children and adolescents.

Stressing on the importance of acting swiftly but not deviating from the science that informs the setting of these thresholds, global expert Professor Carlos A. Monteiro, Professor of Nutrition and Public Health at the School of Public Health, University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and who heads the Center for Epidemiological Studies in Health and Nutrition, said, "NPMs are frameworks developed after much research and field level studies by the WHO and experts from all over the world."

Prof Monteiro who was instrumental in developing the NOVA classification and the NPM model for Latin America, considered a best practice in grouping processed food, further added, "The WHO SEARO model was put together in consultation with member countries in the region and is perfectly aligned to the Codex Alimentarius or food code. Simply put, there has never been a better time for India to announce and mandate these limits in packaged foods and beverages. Concerned about the growing levels of obesity, Brazil imposed medically proven thresholds and mandated our food industry to comply. It is high time that India should do the same.

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