Marketing ultra-processed foods is deceptive, contributes to diabetes, obesity in India: Report

These tactics create a misleading allure that encourages individuals to purchase products that may contribute to health issues.

In recent years, the proliferation of advertisements promoting ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and high-salt, high-sugar (HFSS) products has raised significant concerns about their impact on public health. A comprehensive study titled “50 Shades of Food Advertising,” conducted by Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest (NAPi), has shed light on the deceptive tactics employed in these advertisements across various media channels in India.

Analyzing Deceptive Advertising Tactics of Ultra-Processed Foods

The study scrutinized 50 food advertisements appearing in popular English and Hindi newspapers in Delhi, alongside commercials aired during cricket matches and promotions on social media platforms. It uncovered a disturbing pattern where advertisers use emotional appeals, manipulate expert endorsements, and make unsubstantiated health claims to entice consumers. These tactics create a misleading allure that encourages individuals to purchase products that may contribute to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases.

ultra-processed foods

Regulatory Gaps and Consequences

A critical aspect highlighted by the report is the regulatory vacuum that allows misleading food advertisements to persist. Despite frameworks like the Food Safety and Standards (FSS) Act of 2006 and the Consumer Protection Act of 2019, there remains a lack of stringent enforcement mechanisms to curb deceptive practices effectively. This loophole not only compromises consumer well-being but also undermines public health efforts aimed at addressing the dual challenge of undernutrition and rising non-communicable diseases in India.

Public Health Impact Related to Ultra-Processed Foods

India faces a complex health landscape characterized by persistent undernutrition among children and a growing prevalence of obesity and diabetes among adults. According to recent dietary guidelines from the ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), more than 10% of adolescents aged 5-19 are pre-diabetic—a troubling statistic that underscores the urgency of addressing dietary habits influenced by misleading advertisements.

Dr. Arun Gupta, a prominent paediatrician and NAPi convenor, stresses the urgent need for regulatory action. He advocates for mandatory disclosure of detailed nutrient content per 100 grams/ml in all food advertisements. This transparency, he argues, is crucial for empowering consumers to make informed decisions about their dietary choices and mitigating the health risks associated with excessive consumption of UPFs and HFSS products.

Advocating for Regulatory Reform

NAPi’s recommendations extend beyond transparency requirements. The organization proposes the introduction of a comprehensive public health bill in Parliament aimed at tackling the obesity crisis and safeguarding consumer interests. Such legislation would not only strengthen existing regulatory frameworks but also introduce stringent penalties for advertisers found guilty of misleading practices. By aligning regulatory efforts with public health objectives, India can mitigate the adverse health impacts of ultra-processed foods and promote healthier dietary habits among its population.

Furthermore, NAPi emphasizes the need for an objective mechanism to swiftly identify and penalize deceptive food advertising. This proactive approach would empower regulatory bodies such as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to intervene promptly and decisively against misleading claims. Delaying action, as highlighted by NAPi, perpetuates a cycle where companies profit at the expense of public health—a trade-off that must be addressed urgently to protect consumer welfare.

In conclusion, the report by NAPi serves as a wake-up call regarding the deceptive practices prevalent in advertisements promoting ultra-processed foods and HFSS products in India. These advertisements not only exploit emotional triggers and misrepresent health benefits but also evade existing regulatory safeguards. Urgent regulatory reforms are necessary to mandate transparent disclosure of nutritional information, enforce stringent penalties for misleading advertising, and promote healthier dietary choices among consumers. By prioritizing public health in policy agendas and strengthening regulatory oversight, India can mitigate the adverse health impacts associated with ultra-processed foods and pave the way for a healthier future for its citizens.

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Dr. Shubhangi Jha

Avid reader, infrequent writer, evolving

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