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Warning labels on junk food must to curb childhood obesity in India

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New Delhi, May 28 (IANS) Strong regulations to cap salt, sugar and other harmful ingredients and simple to understand front of package labelling (FOPL) on junk food packets can help curb the alarming rise in childhood obesity in India, say public health experts and doctors, in a webinar organised by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Rishikesh on Friday.

Warning labels are critical to help consumers and parents understand how much empty calories and harmful nutrients are being consumed by children.

“Food labels should provide clear guidance… Simple to understand labels with evidence based nutrition cut-off is a need of the hour and will go a long way to address the crisis of childhood obesity in the country,” said Umesh Kapil, Professor, Clinical Epidemiology, Indian Institute of Biliary Sciences.

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The experts also urged that India must rapidly adopt the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended limits and also introduce simple, smart and interpretative FOPL.

“There is enough scientific evidence and a globally agreed WHO SEARO framework for evidence-based cut-offs for anti-nutrients like sugar, salt and saturated fat present in packaged food,” Kapil added.

WHO has identified FOPL as “one of the policy tools that can support healthy diets, both in stimulating consumers to make informed healthier food choices and in driving manufacturers to reformulate products to avoid making unfavourable nutrient content disclosure.”

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With more than 14.4 million obese children, India has the second highest number of children with childhood obesity in the world. By 2025 this number is expected to reach a staggering 17 million. As is the trajectory in other developing nations, the proportion of packaged and ultra-processed foods is on the rise.

There is growing evidence that the Covid-19 pandemic could potentially increase the risk of children becoming obese. School closures and lockdowns have already deprived millions of children of nutritional school meals, sports and adequate physical exercise.

“Being overweight or obese is directly associated with life-threatening noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Obesity is a result of imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended,” said Rekha Harish, Chairperson, Indian Academy of Paediatrics, NCD Prevention.

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The only way to control this growing epidemic of obesity is by establishing scientific cut-off limits for harmful ingredients and FOPL on packaged products, the experts suggested.

“Children are particularly at risk. As doctors, we want to assert that the onus should not be on children or their families alone to prevent or fight this condition. It is the collective duty of policymakers, the food industry and us as doctors to safeguard children and enable a nutritious food system for them,” said Manoj Kumar Gupta, Dean, AIIMS Rishikesh.

–IANS

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