Junk food: Habits that harm our health

How much attention do we pay to labelling and claims on packaging, while buying processed food? Not much.  And even when we do bother to read it, the information is usually beyond our understanding and we then choose to consciously ignore the nutrient content of the food we are consuming.  Till recently, I followed a similar approach to the nutrient facts given in fine print on the back of packaged food items.

This changed on 16 December, 2016, when I attended Food Talk, a media briefing and public workshop in New Delhi organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE).  The main theme for this workshop was ‘Food Labelling, Claims and Advertisements’ and included talks by experts from diverse fields, including nutritionists, psychiatrists, paediatricians, corporate heads, marketing heads, FSSAI officials, senior journalists and professors.  The discussions highlighted trends in our purchasing habits and its impact on our health and environment.

Ladakh has changed drastically over the last two decades, especially in terms of eating habits and outlook.  The deployment of army personnel and boom in the tourism sector have influenced ideas in Ladakh about culture, especially dress, food, language and traditional practices, which are now being replaced by modern concepts.   International and Hindi film actors have emerged as role models for children and youth, while their elders are preoccupied by the rat-race to earn more money and success.  Televisions have replaced tales from grandparents, cell phones have eroded the joy of play grounds and junk food has became our best friends and the reason to eating healthier food as we often bribe children by saying things like “If you eat this food , I’ll buy you chips”.

The CSE workshop focussed on changing food habits, which is relevant to everyone across the world.  The increased intake of junk or processed food and its hazardous impact on our health is an important issue that concerns every person and medical practitioner today.  Even in a relatively small and remote place like Ladakh, there has been a perceptible increase in the intake of junk or packaged food over the last 10 to 15 years, especially amongst children.  Packaged food was initially introduced in Ladakh to service the tastes of army personnel and tourists.  Subsequently, as standards of living amongst Ladakhis improved and purchasing power increased, television started to influence people’s eating choices.  Television advertisements exposed people to different kinds of packaged foods in attractive ways and business-oriented individuals exploited it by stocking these products in the market.

During the discussion, Dr. Rajesh Sagar, Professor and Head of Department of Psychiatry at AIIMS, New Delhi mentioned that 65% of children’s food preferences are dependent on advertisement.  Children are one of the easiest groups to influence and future buyers as adults; and are an important target audience for advertisers.   He said that food is a form of emotional expression and children nowadays have high exposure to television, make independent decisions and have easy access to products-advertisements are thus successful in shaping their eating habits.

I have experienced this too.  My father expresses helplessness when he picks up my son from school and he starts yelling and crying loudly on the road while demanding Kinderjoy or Kurkure.  My father confesses that he feels embarrassed by this behaviour and is left with no choice but to give into my son’s demand for junk food.  It’s a cry of helplessness from a parent or grandparent every time they fall prey to such emotional blackmail by children.   Advertisers rely on a child’s ability to persuade adults by tapping their emotional psyche and blurring the distinction between reality and imagination.   Advertisements work on AIDAS model-Attention, Interest, Desire, Acquisition and Satisfaction.  It is important for parents to understand the strategy behind this model and counter it to maintain a healthy atmosphere in the house to ensure a bright future for our children.

“Financial and nutritional literacy are black holes in our education system”, emphasised Subba Rao M., Scientist at National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, while highlighting the importance of educating children about nutritional contents.  “Taste is king and nutrition is queen,” he quipped and added that food is subject to the politics of commerce.  He said that media can play a crucial role in creating new food cultures by educating people about their health impacts.  Endorsing this point, CSE Director General, Sunita Narain said that there is no provision for nutrition education in schools, which is critical for children to understand labelling on packaged food items.  She stressed on the need to have ‘traffic lights rule’ for food items in school canteens, where red signifies foods high in sodium, sugar and fat.  She added that every school must follow a green canteen policy focussing on traditional foods.

Most schools take limited responsibility for the food habits of their students.  They generally argue along the lines of “We have banned junk food on school premises, but we don’t have any control over its consumption outside.” CSE has been debating with the government over banning the sale of junk food within a certain radius of each school.  In this regard, we can be proactive and explore provisions by the Hill Councils in Ladakh to implement such regulation across both districts.

When a film star or sports person endorses a product in advertisements, they have a greater impact on the consumption behaviour of children, reported Dr.  Rajesh Sagar.  He added that children tend to imitate the general fashion and when a celebrity endorses a product it becomes more appealing with higher recall value.  There has been considerable public discussion in recent times over celebrities endorsing food products.  The general consensus amongst speakers at Food Talk was that celebrities should be banned from endorsing food items with a high content of salt, sugar and fats as well as non-dairy, non-fruit-based sugar-sweetened products such as soft drinks.  The expert committee on Consumer Protection Bill, 2015 has recommended a penalty of `10 lacs (`1 million) and imprisonment of up to two years, or both for a first offence by a celebrity responsible for false and misleading claims.  The penalty increases to `50 lacs (`5 million) and five years imprisonment for a second offence.  Amit Khurana, Programme Manager for Food Safety and Toxins team at CSE said, “There are two problems with this propos alone, manufacturers have not been held responsible and two, celebrities may not understand the science behind the claims.”

In addition to celebrities, I find that cartoon characters have a very important influence on food consumption by children from the age of two years as they are exposed to TV from a very early age when they have little understanding of celebrities and associate closely with their favourite cartoon character.

As a working parent, I find TV as a good way to keep my children busy and safe.  This is possibly true for every parent who is unable to spend quality time with their children.  I realised the impact of this habit when my four year- old son insisted on buying some packaged snacks that had a picture of, Doremon on the front and refused to go home till I gave into his demand.  I have seen other children demand junk food packets that catch their attention with the use of cartoon characters like Motu-Patlu, Pokemon, Ben-10, Chhota Bheem, Dora, etc on the packaging.  This speaks volumes about the serious influence of TV on children and how advertisers take advantage of it.

“Consumers are· to be blamed for tolerating brand endorsement and we need to look at brand mascots as a solution to it,” said Harish Bijoor, CEO, Harish Bijoor Consultants Inc.  We often blame children for watching too much of TV and unhealthy eating habits. However parents are responsible for children falling prey to TV advertisements.   Similarly, parents often use junk food to bribe their children to do different things and to reward them for specific behaviours.  Elders often buy chips, candies or chocolates for children, when they visit someone’s house.  I find this to be a very unhealthy practice and something we need to change for the sake of our children’s health.  Instead, we can encourage people to buy a pen, a pencil, colours, stickers, a ball or anything that will not harm the health of our children.

In my extended family, I’m regarded as a bad mother for not allowing my children to eat junk food.  My children often regard me as a villain as I do not allow our relatives to buy junk food.  In addition to the physical health impacts, unhealthy eating habits also have a psychological effect on children.  My son sees his classmates bring chips and candies to school and insists on taking similar food items in his lunchbox.  When I refuse, he starts comparing me with his friends’ parents and starts weighing my love to being allowed to eat junk food.  The “I hate you, you never buy me anything.” narrative develops over time and worsens with peer pressure.

Non Communicable Diseases (NCD) is responsible for the death of 38 million people around the world each year.  This includes diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular diseases, cancers and respiratory diseases.  The major risk factor includes tobacco consumption, unhealthy diet, inactivity and excessive drinking. In 2015, four million children under the age of five were suffering from childhood obesity.  Malnutrition under nutrition and over nutrition- is a major health concern in India, which has the highest consumption of sugar and a high incidence of childhood diabetes.  The solution lies in developing a stringent food law in India.

At the workshop, most speakers supported the point raised by CSE about Indian food and consumer laws being inadequate and the need to amend the Consumer Protection Act to rein in misleading and false endorsement by celebrities.

Food advertisements in India come under the purview of various government departments and agencies.  It is largely self-regulated through the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), which has no punitive powers.  The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 has provisions to prohibit misleading food advertisements but the act does not have any authority to approve or monitor food advertisements.  It has a memorandum of understanding with ASCI, which acts after a complaint is filed.  “There is a need to formulate detailed legal regulations on misleading advertisements and incorporate measures to protect children from promotion of unhealthy food and hold celebrities accountable for false advertisements,” according to Pushpa Girimaji, Senior Journalist and Author.  Sunita Narain also supported this point and added that food regulators must focus on health and the need to strengthen nutrition-labelling, symbolic warnings, guidelines for serving sizes with recommended daily allowances, front pack labelling, and ‘traffic light’ labels on food packages to ensure informed choices by consumers.

I now realise how deep an impact these matters have on our lives.  My mother and sister once scolded me for giving plain milk to my children, without adding Horlicks or Bournvita, which they believed enhances the nutritional value of milk.  I decided to ask a paediatrician about the nutritional value of such drinks.  He said that the declared health benefits are mere advertisement claims with no real nutritional or health benefits.

We thus need to understand and be better informed about false health claims and misleading advertisements that influence our food choices.  Food is part of our life style and our diet affects our health.  We may not be able to completely stop consuming junk food such as aerated drinks, but we can start changing our food habits and develop a taste for good, healthy food.  Children are the future and it’s our responsibility to shape their tomorrow.

7. Rinchen Dolma

Rinchen Dolma is a journalist based in Leh, Ladakh. She is a government employee working in District Information Centre, Leh. She is also the editor of the Ladakh council’s (LAHDC) District Newsletter. She has been writing on variety of issues related to development, food, environment, health, sports and gender equality for Stawa news magazine in Leh.

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