Health warning: Sugar levels in packaged foods in India lead to childhood obesity | Health

In recent times, there has been a growing concern regarding the high sugar content found in packaged foods, particularly in relation to India, and this issue has come to the fore due to a sharp contrast observed with similar products in Western countries where the the same products are sold without added sugar. There are differences not only in sugar content, but also in ingredient quality, labeling transparency and overall nutritional standards, and this discrepancy can raise questions about whether there is a systemic bias or lack of equal standards across global markets.

Health warning: Sugar levels in packaged foods in India lead to childhood obesity (Photo by Natashas Kitchen)
Health warning: Sugar levels in packaged foods 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 companies can prioritize higher quality health formulations, for products , sold in wealthier countries, assuming consumers there are more aware and willing to pay a premium for better ingredients.On the other hand, products marketed in regions like India may be perceived as catering to a population that is less informed or have different expectations of food quality and nutritional standards. The underlying assumption is that consumers in these regions are less likely to examine labels or demand healthier alternatives, creating a cycle where inferior products continue to dominate the market.”

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

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 for 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 drinks targeted at 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 disease and even certain types of cancer. In addition, the psychological impact of obesity, including low self-esteem and social stigma, have lasting effects on a child’s mental well-being.In addition to the health consequences, excessive sugar consumption can lead to a cycle of addiction, where individuals develop a dependence on sugary foods and drinks to satisfy cravings. This addiction can be particularly harmful in childhood, as it sets the stage for lifelong dietary habits and preferences.”

While legislative action is necessary, the power of awareness and education can drive much-needed change. Dr. Aparna Govil Bhasker asserted, “Empowered consumers with knowledge of the harmful effects of excessive sugar consumption can be a potent tool to combat this problem. When individuals understand that certain products are not conducive to their or their children’s well-being, they are more likely to to make informed choices and reject such offers. Creating awareness does not require the resources of multinational corporations. It can start with grassroots initiatives and advocacy. By harnessing the collective voice of concerned citizens, we can amplify the message and create 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 transparent information and prioritize nutrition for convenience. Essentially, 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 conscious decisions of the individual and the collective effort to demand better from the food industry.”

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