Almost 3 out of 4 Indian packaged foods fail to display salt levels

Large numbers of packaged food products available in Indian stores fail to display nutritional data relating to the amount of sodium present thus preventing consumers from making informed food choices, reveals a survey conducted by The George Institute for Global Health India. The study is part of a larger project which is gathering the evidence to initiate a national salt reduction program in India.

The survey conducted on 7,124 products available for purchase in Indian supermarkets revealed that only 26 per cent of packaged food displayed sodium content on the label, ths non-compliant with the minimum labelling requirements of Codex – the international body governing food labelling.

"The preliminary findings of the study are a matter of great concern as consumers are eating progressively more processed foods generally containing higher levels of salt. This is not good for people in a country which is already projected to have an even larger NCD burden in the coming future," says Dr Vivekanand Jha Executive Director, The George Institute for Global Health, India.

The project assumes significance in the light of the fact that the World Action on Salt and Health (WASH) has dedicated World Salt Awareness Week for the year 2014 from March 10 to 16 to the need for better nutrition labelling in countries across the globe and has given the call for “Switch the Salt". With people in India likely to consume much more packaged food over the coming years, and with only 26 per cent labelling sodium, there is an urgent need for full and effective food labelling.

The ongoing project, being run by The George Institute for Global Health in collaboration with the Centre for Chronic Disease Control, will gather information on dietary salt intake levels among a sample of people in North and South India as well as collect nutrient information on packaged and outside food available for purchase.

In addition, the investigators will undertake a stakeholder survey with key representatives from the food industry and the central government as well as hold focus groups with consumers. The investigators aim to put together enough evidence to develop a national salt reduction program for India, tailored to the specific needs of the country.

The implementation of this programme will involve three main elements: working with the food industry to reformulate foods and meals, campaigns to change consumer behaviour and efforts to change the food environment working in settings such as schools, hospitals and the work place. The foods to focus on and population groups to be targeted will be informed by the evidence gathered in this study.

Welcoming the fact that the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has now put in place regulation defining minimum requirements for the labelling of the nutritional content of packaged foods, Dr Jha said “Comprehensive nutritional labelling on packaged foods is just one of the steps that needs to be taken in order to make progress towards lowering death and disability caused by high dietary salt intake. Other key areas are community awarenesss as well as building a strong national advisory committee to take the program forward."

For her part, Claire Johnson, Research Associate, The George Institute for Global Health, said: “The project aims to generate evidence to ensure that steps such as sodium content being displayed on packaged food products becomes legally enforceable and also to provide the evidence required to formulate a national salt reduction programme in collaboration with key stakeholders."

Based on the findings of this study, The George Institute for Global Health India argues that the achievement of sodium labelling in India will be an important part of the country’s efforts to address the burgeoning non-communicable disease burden.

“The enforcement of sodium regulations will help consumers by providing them with the tools to make better choices. In addition to delivering upon the base requirements of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and Codex requirements, the Government should also consider the merits of introducing a standard front-of-pack labelling system displaying sodium content," said Dr Jha.