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This Diabetes Day, think inside the box

November 14, World Diabetes Day, provides an opportunity to raise awareness on the metabolic disorder as a global public health issue. The focus of the campaign in 2023 is on delaying or preventing type 2 diabetes and diabetes related complications, with the slogan being “Know your risk, Know your response.”

So, do you know your risk in terms of what you’re consuming?

Due to fast moving lifestyles and the convenience, we demand, the conception of processed foods is higher than before. A WHO report says, the ultra-processed food market in India (including chocolate and sugar confectionary and salty snacks) grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13% in retail sales value between 2011 and 2021. Recent study shows that a 10% increase in daily consumption of ultra-processed food is associated with the 15% higher risk of type-2 diabetes among adults.

While most people are conscious of the need to eat balanced diets with high nutritional value, busy lifestyles now mean instead of choosing fresh ingredients, and preparing these as nutritious meals, one tends to look for processed foods with higher nutritional claims (labels such as ‘fat-free’, ‘enriched with vitamins’). The complexity of interpreting such tag lines or nutritional information’s provided on labels makes it difficult to understand what these actually mean. For example, A health drink with the tag ‘50% of daily Vitamin D’ is likely filled with sugar hidden under scientific names (maltodextrin and liquid glucose).

Another offender is the sports drink. Most carry tag lines of ‘instant energy’ but what they fail to mention is that it comes from the spike in blood glucose from the high sugars.

In India, 77 million people above the age of 18 years live with type-2 diabetes (estimated to increase to 134 million by 2045) and nearly 25 million are pre diabetics.

With such a large population with the metabolic condition, regulations need to attend to the needs of this population. Hidden sugars abound even in popular products deemed to be ‘healthy’ – for example, a branded malted drink mix said to contain 28g of total sugar for 100g serving in the nutrient’s list, does not mention sugar is not on the ingredient list. It is unclear whether 28 grams is normal sugar or artificial sweeteners. If a person living with diabetes was to consume this drink for its health benefits, their health is being compromised.

In 2022, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) had released the draft regulation on Front of pack labelling and proposed the Indian Nutrition Rating (INR) system, which provides processed with the star rating from half a star (least healthy) to five stars (healthiest).

The system, though, has flaws. One concern is that the positive nutrients present in the product such as proteins and minerals are considered while determining the star rating, thus making a less healthy food product appear to be healthier. Also, there is no “zero” category to term a food product to be unhealthy, which can be misleading. Consumers and consumer groups voiced their concerns to the FSSAI. There has however, been no further response or action from the FSSAI. Considering modern eating patterns, the availability and advertising of processed foods and the increase in the instances of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) such as diabetes, non-compromised front-of pack labelling regulations with clear warning labels on the front of processed food products are needed.

Afterall, it is well within consumers right to know what they are consuming.


This article was first published on The Times of India on November 14, 2023.

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