The sweet business of children?s health

New Delhi, Delhi, India Nov 14, 2016, 12.45 PM(IST) Written By: Sonam Taneja

The biggest problem with our food choices is that junk food is everywhere Photograph:( Others )

As per an ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India) study conducted in public and private schools of 10 cities in India, 1 in 10 children between the age of 5 and 16 years is overweight and more prone to diabetes. The Global Diabetes Atlas, 2015 tells us that India has more than 69 million people living with diabetes and 1 in every 12 Indians is diabetic. 

These numbers are alarming to say the least. While adult diabetes already has, as per a WHO report, type 2 diabetes in children has the potential to become a global public health issue. While many of us focus largely on calories, the sad reality is that our children and adolescents are hooked to junk food. But what is junk food really? The National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad defines junk food as food that contains little or no protein, vitamin or minerals but is rich in salt, fat and energy. Junk food is commonly linked with diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.

While our lives are becoming faster, we have everything on our fingertips but our bodies seem to be slow and sluggish. The children are forgetting traditional and fresh foods, which have been replaced by packaged and processed foods. 

The biggest problem with our food choices is that junk food is everywhere, it’s easily available to order on our mobile phones, our favourite celebrities coax us into eating it and many schools have become marketing avenues for junk food.  

The Delhi High Court in the case of Uday Foundation for Congenital Defects and Rare Blood Groups v Union Of India directed that foods high in fat, salt and sugar such as chips, fried foods and sugar sweetened beverages should be restricted in schools and nearby areas and that advertisement and promotion of such foods targeted at children must be regulated. It ordered the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India to formulate and enforce guidelines on wholesome and nutritious foods in schools. While draft guidelines were formed with important suggestions to restrict availability of unhealthy food in and around schools more than a year back, they are yet to be implemented. 

The Central Board of Secondary Education, National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the Universities Grants Commission have taken steps to curb the availability of junk food in schools and universities. While education institutions are important avenues for learning good habits, these measures come as suggestions or directions and don’t address the complete problem.

Our organisation, the Centre for Science and Environment has been advocating strongly against the easy availability of junk foods to school children. We have been campaigning for declaration of complete information on the amount of fat, salt and sugar with reference to recommended daily allowed limits on labels of packaged food. Another important part of our campaign is against endorsement of junk food by celebrities. 

Junk food companies targets children by hiring role models as brand ambassadors, giving free gifts, toys etc. with food items and by projecting junk food as healthy food items. Research shows that children are more likely to want to experience what they see in advertisements. So, why can’t we ban celebrity endorsements of unhealthy foods? We could learn from countries like the UK and Ireland who have successfully implemented the ban. 

Another important policy measure is taxation of junk food to increase prices. Kerala has recently done it by levying 14.5 per cent tax on branded junk food. In January 2014, Mexico implemented a soda tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and as per a WHO report, an 11.6 per cent decrease has been observed in the consumption. It remains to be seen if the sales of junk food in Kerala drop and if other states follow suit.

While some efforts are being made, seeing the magnitude of the problem, the efforts seem far from enough. I feel that it is very important that on an individual level, we all know what we eat and how healthy it is. The Centre for Science and Environment has launched one such initiative and it’s called KNOW YOUR DIET. It is an online diet tool which asks the right questions on what we eat and how we perceive the food that we eat. The objective is to spread awareness about important principles of healthy eating and to understand what our country is eating.