Irony is perhaps what describes the DNA of India appropriately. On the one hand the country scores very poorly on the Global Hunger Index, and on the other it is increasingly witnessing a veritable ‘nutrition transition’ every day, with enhanced consumption of junk food, especially among school children.
Defined as those food items that are high in fats, sugar, and salt (HFSS), junk foods inherently contain no nutritionally redeemable qualities with little or zero minerals, proteins or vitamins. The etymology of the term ‘junk food’ takes us to Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who in 1972 was the one who first used the term ‘Junk Food’ and continues to advocate for healthy food. He was also behind the terming of Fettuccine Alfredo as a dish that was “heart attack on a plate!”
Lifestyle changes and growing commercialisation have ensured that junk food have found an increased acceptance among children, and this has prompted a Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) draft regulation banning the sale of junk food in and around school premises from December. This is a welcome move.
While many believe that the fast food and junk food culture is predominant only in urban centres, according to a recent study conducted by a team from the Department of Human Nutrition, AIIMS, in Himachal Pradesh, even rural areas are catching up fast. Similar studies in Baroda, Lucknow and Delhi also pin pointed the increased in-take of packaged junk foods, such as chocolates, soft drinks and bakery products. The results of these are for all to see: increased incidences of childhood obesity, which brings in its wake other medical problems such as respiratory illnesses and lifestyle diseases (diabetes, hypertension, etc).
According to a study, there are 135 million obese people in India; and, if corrective measures are not undertaken, children would form a large part of this. Figures from the World Obesity Federation cite that India will have around 27 million obese children by 2030. An interesting study, published in the online journal Obesity, by a research team in New York, outlines accessibility and proximity to junk food outlets as one of the reasons for growing incidence of obesity, especially in children.
The FSSAI regulation was drafted towards the end of ensuring healthy, safe and wholesome food for school children, with the core idea of drawing clear guidelines on what food is healthy for children and what is not. The draft regulation states that “foods which are referred to as foods high in fat, salt and sugar cannot be sold to school children in school canteens or mess premises or hostel kitchens or within 50 meters of the school campus.”
Further the draft states that the regulation aims to “encourage school authorities to promote consumption of a safe and balanced diet in the school as per the guidelines issued by the National Institute of Nutrition.” Under its ‘Eat Right’ project, the FSSAI plans to ban all such HFSS foods, in school canteens, hostel-mess and kitchens within a 50-metre radius of schools. The FSSAI also has plans afoot to limit the amount of trans fat content in vegetable oils and vegetable fats to 2 per cent from 5 per cent, and has set its sight on making India trans-fat-free by 2022. These are all laudable aspirations!
The FSSAI’s decision is welcome because schools can serve as a right platform to create awareness to inculcate the habit of healthy eating. While the fast food culture has set roots firmly in urban centres, schools would be the appropriate place to check this trend and cater to a fitting demographic profile.
The challenge will be in enforcing such a regulation. A befitting example would be the lackadaisical implementation of the rule which prohibits the sale of tobacco products within 100 yards of a school. A cursory check of schools around us will unfortunately show that this rule is not enforced in all its strictness.
While the prevention of sale of junk foods near schools can help curb the unhealthy snacking tendencies among school children, ensuring a control over the urge to consume junk food at home will require greater awareness drives where the government will have to focus on healthy eating. Thus, snacking at home also requires strict supervision by parents ensuring that children eat nutritious, unprocessed food, and also engage in outdoor and physical activities.Varsha Pillai is a communications professional interested in gender research. Twitter: @varshapillai. Views are personal.