Health alert: Packaged foods' sugar levels in India lead to childhood obesity | Health - Hindustan Times
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Health alert: Packaged foods' sugar levels in India lead to childhood obesity

ByZarafshan Shiraz, New Delhi
May 16, 2024 05:05 PM IST

India's sugar dilemma: Discrepancies in packaged foods spark health concerns as hidden sugars lead to childhood obesity

In recent times, there has been a growing concern regarding the high sugar content found in packaged foods, particularly in the context of India and this issue has come to the forefront due to a stark contrast observed with similar products in Western countries, where the same products are sold with no added sugars. There are disparities, not just in sugar content but also in ingredient quality, labelling transparency and overall nutritional standards and this discrepancy can raise questions about whether there is a systemic bias or a lack of equal standards across global markets.

Health alert: Packaged foods' sugar levels in India lead to childhood obesity (Photo by Natashas Kitchen)
Health alert: Packaged foods' sugar levels in India lead to childhood obesity (Photo by Natashas Kitchen)

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr Aparna Govil Bhasker, Consultant Bariatric and Laparoscopic Surgeon at MetaHeal- Laparoscopy and Bariatric Surgery Center in Mumbai, Saifee and Apollo and Namaha Hospitals in Mumbai, shared, “Multinational corporations may prioritize higher-quality, healthier formulations for products sold in wealthier nations, assuming that consumers there are more aware and willing to pay a premium for better ingredients. On the other hand, products marketed in regions like India might be perceived as catering to a population that is less informed or has different expectations regarding food quality and nutritional standards. The underlying assumption is that consumers in these regions are less likely to scrutinise labels or demand healthier alternatives, creating a cycle where subpar products continue to dominate the market.”

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Of particular concern are products targeted towards babies and children. Dr Aparna Govil Bhasker revealed, “Often marketed under the guise of high-quality, healthy foods, these products are heavily promoted, leading parents to believe they are making beneficial choices for their children. However, the reality is often far from what is advertised. Many times, the labels on these products do not provide accurate information regarding their sugar or preservative content, leaving consumers in the dark about what they are actually feeding their families. The consequences of unchecked consumption of high-sugar products are dire.”

A meta-analysis of 21 studies from 2003–2023 found that the prevalence of childhood obesity in India is 8.4%, while the prevalence of overweight children is 12.4%. India ranks second globally in terms of the highest rate of childhood obesity in the world and this alarming trend is directly linked to dietary factors, including the consumption of sugary snacks and beverages targeted towards children.

Dr Aparna Govil Bhasker highlighted, “Childhood obesity not only has immediate health consequences but also significantly increases the risk of developing chronic conditions later in life, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even certain types of cancer. Moreover, the psychological impact of obesity, including low self-esteem and social stigmatisation, can have lasting effects on a child's mental well-being. In addition to the health implications, excessive sugar consumption can lead to a cycle of addiction, where individuals develop a dependence on sugary foods and beverages to satisfy cravings. This addiction can be particularly harmful during childhood, as it sets the stage for lifelong dietary habits and preferences.”

While regulatory measures are necessary, the power of awareness and education can drive the much-needed change. Dr Aparna Govil Bhasker asserted, “Empowered consumers with knowledge about the detrimental effects of excessive sugar consumption can be a potent tool in combating this issue. When individuals understand that certain products are not conducive to their well-being or that of their children, they are more likely to make informed choices and reject such offerings. Creating awareness does not require the resources of multinational corporations. It can start with grassroots initiatives, community education programs, and advocacy efforts. By leveraging the collective voice of concerned citizens, we can amplify the message and bring about meaningful change.”

She concluded, “The key lies in promoting education and fostering a culture of critical thinking among consumers. To counter marketing tactics that prioritize sales over health, we must encourage individuals to question labels, seek out transparent information and prioritise nutrition over convenience. In essence, the power of choice rests in the hands of the consumer. By arming ourselves with knowledge and awareness, we can challenge even the most formidable brands and demand products that truly prioritize our health and well-being. The journey towards a healthier future starts with each individual's conscious decisions and the collective effort to demand better from the food industry.”

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