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Poor, vulnerable battling hunger exposed to unhealthy ultra-processed food: Study

A recent study has revealed that India’s marginalised and economically weak are consuming high quantities of ultra-processed and packaged food.

The study – ‘Children Nutrition and Ultra-Processed Food’ done by Peoples’ Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and PIPAL has called for urgent policy measures to make healthier foods available in the market and introduce clear warnings on packaged food to guide people’s choices.

PIPAL (People’s Initiative for Participatory Action on Food Labeling) – a national grassroots initiative for a healthier food system, conducted this survey in two districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – Varanasi and Gaya.

More than 90 per cent of respondents who were queried on their consumption of ultra-processed and packaged food, have a daily earning of Rs 400 or less and about 40 per cent are from the marginalized Musahar community.

Majority of those surveyed are not literate. The survey found that Dalit families are spending 94 per cent of their income on food and about 10-15 per cent of that expenditure is towards ultra-processed and packaged foods such as chocolates, carbonated drinks, jellies, biscuits, and chips. Their spending on healthcare and education is a meagre 1.3 per cent and 0.5 per cent.

Releasing the survey here on Thursday, founder and CEO of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) and one of the authors, Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi, said: “Adverse impact of ultra-processed food and beverages is even more pronounced on children who are stunted or have received inadequate nutrition early in their life.”

“They are more susceptible to obesity and may have a higher risk of NCDs as adults. For a country that bears the double burden of malnutrition, the best policy solution to ensure a healthier tomorrow for our children would be to make clear warnings regarding high content of sugar, sodium and saturated fat, mandatory on the front of all packaged food,,” he said.

India has around 45 million children who are stunted and 15 million who are obese. It is also the epicentre of adult obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. With 65 per cent deaths every year due to NCDs, India is on the brink of a diet linked health catastrophe. Poor nutrition, as a result of growing consumption of ultra-processed foods containing high levels of sugar, sodium, and saturated fats, is considered by experts as a key risk factor.

Senior BJP leader and Rajya Sabha member Ashok Bajpai said: “Ultra-processed foods and drinks are relatively cheap and ready-to-eat, which saves cost and time for daily wage earners. This important study has revealed that Dalit families or those from backward classes who have a meagre income, are relying more and more on these easy to purchase food items, without realising the negative impact it has on their health.”

Congress Rajya Sabha member Imran Pratapgarhi said: ”A member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health should extend his all support for bringing the warning label for the betterment of Women and Child health.”

BJP MP from Machhlishahr BP Saroj observed that, “In UP, especially in Varanasi, ready to eat or ready to heat ultra-processed food, is fast becoming the food of choice for the migrant workforce who neither have time nor resource for cooked meals.”

A member of the Consultative Committee, Ministry of Food Processing Industries, Saroj further stated that it is the right time for a policy instrument that can empower people to make healthier choices and save lives.

Evidence from across the world and India has shown that a simple front-of-pack label that warns people about unhealthy ingredients will have the most impact. We provide our support to FSSAI and eagerly await an FOPL regulation that is good for the people of this country. It is the need of the hour, he said.

India is one of the global leaders in the food and beverage industry with a sales volume of 34 million tons. As per forecasts of the Euromonitor Data, India was set to emerge as the third largest market for packaged food in the world by 2020, after China and the United States.