Packaged Goods: Do Labels Tell The Truth?

In the fast paced world we consume a wide range of packaged goods. Some brands we consume based on trust built on the brand rather than checking the labels. Even for being an “informed customer”, the labels don’t provide all the information including some of the basic information such as sugar, fat, nutritional value, freshness and purity, etc.

Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (the “Act”) which also establishes the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the chief regulatory authority for laying down scientific standards for articles of food and regulate manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import, to ensure availability of safe and wholesome food for human consumption.

Image Credit: alanrowe.com

Image Credit: alanrowe.com

Reading through the labels, it is hard to find any common style of presentation and in some cases the exact quantum of the contents. We just started reading through some ingredients:

Sugar:

Sugar is one such ingredient which has a lasting repercussion on our health and if not consumed in a regulated manner it may cause several health problems including diabetes, metabolic diseases, obesity, etc. Therefore, to be able to read sugar content in your product becomes all the more imperative.

Sugar free products have become quite popular these days and are preferred by many calorie conscious people. But simply knowing that a product is sugar free is not enough, because in place of naturally occurring sugar, several artificial sweeteners are added which are more harmful for the body. Regulation 3.1.3 of the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulations, 2011, specifies the name of artificial sweetener, article of food in which it can be used and a maximum limit of artificial sweetener allowed. (Source: x)

While we may read the first phrase “Contains Artificial Sweeteners” in certain cases, reading the rest of the details is also very crucial. Permitted artificial sweeteners under the above-mentioned Regulations include Saccharin Sodium, Aspartame (methylester), Acesulfame Potassium etc. which if not read and mentioned properly in the product might be harmful for children and fatal for Phenylketonurics patients, having a genetic disorder involving impaired metabolism of phenylalanine, one of the amino acids.

According to Regulation 2.4.5 of Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011, (“FSSPLR, 2011”) under the title “Specific Labeling Requirements for certain Additives used in foods”, it is mandatory for the manufacturers to mention all of these:

  • This contains …………….. (Name of the artificial sweeteners).
  • Not recommended for children.
  • (a) *Quantity of sugar added …………… gm/100 gm. (*mentioned if applicable)

(b) No sugar added in the product.

  • *Not for Phenylketonurics (if Aspertame is added)” (Emphasis provided)

However, the FSSPLR, 2011, does not mandate mentioning the prescribed maximum quantity of the artificial sweetener that may be used on the label and therefore, the consumers are at a loss when it comes to knowing whether the mentioned quantity is within the prescribed maximum limit or not.

Nutritional Information:

Rule 3 of Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labeling) Regulations, 2011 states that for every 100 gm or 100 ml or per serving of a product the following information have to be given:

“(i) energy value in kcal;

(ii) the amounts of protein, carbohydrate (specify quantity of sugar) and fat in gram (g) or ml;

(iii) the amount of any other nutrient for which a nutrition or health claim is made:

Provided that where a declaration is made on a label regarding the amount or type of fatty acids or the amount of cholesterol, the amount of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids in gram (g), cholesterol in milligram (mg) shall be declared, and the amount of trans fatty acid in gram (g) shall be declared in addition.” (Emphasis provided)

As per the above mentioned regulation, Food Business Operators (FBO) have been allowed to claim that their product is “trans fat free”, when trans-fat, is less than 0.2 gm per serving of food and, also that their product is ‘saturated fat free’, in cases where the saturated fat does not exceed 0.1 gm per 100 gm or 100 ml of food. Therefore, most of the times, information on trans fat and saturated fat is depicted to be “zero”. It is important for the consumers to know that this means the trans fat and saturated fat levels are below the above-mentioned limits and may not be zero in reality. As such, consumption in large quantities may prove to be harmful.

Further, a consumer needs to understand that daily requirement of a particular nutritive value is different for different group of consumers. Suggested trans fat for 18 plus years of an individual must not exceed 0.39 gram per serving and for children of 4-6 years, it must not exceed 0.23 gram per serving. So consumers, while buying products, need to be careful about the end consumers and their nutritional requirements. But how should the consumer know about these facts?

Purity and freshness:

With 2011 Regulations, FSSAI has tried to accommodate all the essential needs of a buyer in mind. One such need is that of “pure” and “fresh” consumer products. FSSPLR, 2011 states the conditions for using specific words or phrases as part of claims/brand or fancy name/ trademark. The regulation clarifies that the term “pure” shall only be used to describe a single ingredient food, to which nothing has been added and which is free from avoidable contamination. The levels of unavoidable contaminants need to be significantly below the levels, as mentioned in these Regulations on contaminants and toxins or Food Standards. For e.g- Milk sourced from single variety of milch cow/ buffalo can be called as pure, however, if the cheese that we consume is a by-product of both cow’s & buffalo’s milk, it cannot be said that the cheese so obtained is a “ pure milk cheese”. Similarly, item 3 of this Annexure speaks about using of the term “fresh” on the packaged food label. Under the law, the term “fresh” can only be used on products which have not been processed in any manner except, washed, peeled, chilled, trimmed or cut. The term “fresh” or “freshly” shall have no other connotation than the immediacy of the action being described. A food subjected to packaging, storing or any other supply chain processes that control freshness shall not be termed as “freshly stored”, “freshly packed” etc.

Imitations:

Further, FSSPLR, 2011 under the heading “Labelling of Fruits, Vegetables & their Products” states that labels on the food products cannot contain words or pictures that imply or give the wrong impression to the consumer that the product contains the specified amount of fruit. However, often we see a picture of lemon on our popular soda brand followed by the caption that the product contains no fruit and merely the fruit flavour. This is certainly as per the provisions of the Regulation which mandates clear mentioning on the label “Added (Name of the Fruit) Flavour” on the product or, else it will be seen as deceiving or misleading the consumer.

Even the milk consumed as cow milk, is not cow milk at all.

Similarly, if a fruit or vegetable product is fortified with Vitamin C then, it has to contain 40mgms of ascorbic acid per 100 gm (as per FSSPLR, 2011) of the product or it cannot be mentioned that it is fortified with Vitamin C. Therefore mere mention of Vitamin C is not enough on a product, till the time other distinguished information is not given.

Can we do anything before things go wrong?

With the recent debacle about the non complied lead and MSG level in a well known noodle brand, the debate regarding safety parameters of packaged foods have become a burning issue and it is high time that this issue is addressed with all the attention that it deserves. As an informed consumer, knowing about labels of the products, is important. But what should be done when we feel that something is wrong in a product. Do we wait for the government and its authorities to do something about it or can we take some action?

Under Section 40 of the Act, the purchaser after informing the FBO can give any product for product analysis to government assigned food analyst, by paying a nominal fee. After the analysis of that product, if non-compliance is discovered, then, the nominal fee will be refunded and a complaint will be filed by the Food Inspector against the manufacturer as per the Act. The entire procedure for addressing such applications submitted by the purchaser has been laid in the Food Safety and Standards Rules, 2011.

As a consumer:

Awareness and protection always go hand in hand. Consumer Protection Act, 1986 is one such law which not only protects the Indian consumer but also states about consumer awareness campaigns. Such consumer awareness/education programmes should be propagated amongst the common buyers through effective campaigning, advertisements and government initiatives which inform the consumers about correct information, their rights and remedies available to them. Furthermore, such awareness programmes should be incorporated as a part of school curriculum to educate the upcoming consumers and making them aware about the choices they make and the repercussions.

A very large part of India is still illiterate and no matter how elaborate the labels of products are, they are of no use to them. The regulations and laws made by the government should be drafted considering this big sect of consumers as well. One of the many possible solutions would be that of making more pictorial references on the products, this makes it easy for such consumers to understand. Statutory warnings which are mentioned on the products like that of cigarettes etc, should also be mentioned on the products which contain ingredients which might be harmful if there is prolonged usage of the product.

The information being presented to the consumers through advertisements also plays a pivotal role which needs to be properly regulated. Only research based information should be reflected and not mere hoax promises about the products. The consumers should be informed enough to take a wise decision by distinguishing the correct information about products.

Meanwhile, BUYER, BE AWARE!

Authors: Kanishka Bajpai, Associate and Sohini Mandal, Senior Associate.
With great inputs from Gaurav Maheshwari, Founder of WiseTummy.com

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