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Exactly How Unhealthy Is the Food That We Consume?

Jun 5, 2021 2:55 PM 5 min read

Human beings as a species have come a long way in developing their food habits from the days of raw consumption to recycling protein supplements

But cultivating a superior and sensitive palate has come at the cost of giving up healthier options, sometimes by will and sometimes by persuasion, especially from those who would benefit from our unhealthy choices. 

The first such beneficiaries are food companies. A Financial Times report says that the world's largest food company, Nestle, recently admitted that over 60% of its products (excluding pet food and medical nutrition) were unhealthy. Not just that, but the company also says that some of its products will "never be healthy no matter how much we renovate"!

That's not reassuring, is it? It is one thing to admit negligence but another to dismiss remedial efforts altogether. 

But is remediation really achievable? Or has years of experimentation with consumer choices led them to design lines and lines of products which, if changed at the core now, would no longer satisfy consumers? Have we become habitually programmed to unhealthy food choices?! 

If not, then how far is an average consumer willing to compromise his tastes for the sake of his health?  

Let's find out! 


Nestle's Report Card

This isn't the first time Nestle has been flagged for its unhealthy products. In 2015, it recalled almost 38,000 tonnes of its popular Maggi Noodles from the Indian markets after reports surfaced that they had high amounts of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG) despite the labelling that it didn't. 

Two years before this, the company took off a bulk of beef pasta from the shelves in Europe after large quantities of "horse DNA" were recovered from them. 

An internal document of the company reveals that every 14-gram serving of a strawberry-flavoured Nesquik (flavoured powder designed to be mixed with milk) made by Nestle contains almost 14 grams of sugar (yes you read that right)! The label describes it as "perfect at breakfast to get kids ready for the day".  

Similarly, its popular Kit Kat chocolate (10 grams) wafer has 49 grams of sugar - double the daily recommended amount. The Maggi Masala contains 3.7 grams of salt which fills up almost 75% of the recommended daily salt intake quota. 

Only 37% of Nestle's food and beverages (by revenues) have achieved an acceptable health rating. This includes 70% of its food products, 96% of its beverages (excluding pure coffee) and a shocking 99% of the company's confectionary and ice-cream products. 

Unfortunately, the largest food company in the world has a large roster of unhealthy products in its portfolio. This is particularly alarming considering the company's recent endeavours to expand its healthier and organic product list, including from plant-based sustainable sources. 

"Health" Check-Up!

If a food company is able to market so many of its products which hardly qualify the regulatory protocols on health, it suggests one of two things. 

Either our so-called regulations have taken a hike and left us to serve as guinea pigs in an invisible system of corporate anarchy. Or we need to seriously reevaluate our definition of what constitutes "healthy". 

sWhat constitutes healthy and what doesn't is a question that is more subjective than Victorian poetry going by the variance of modern lifestyle choices. Let's stick to the guidelines issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). 

Normally, ingredients like salt, sugar and fat are the three primary indicators used by food regulators to judge the nutritional excesses beyond which a food can be branded unhealthy. For example, as a daily quota, anything beyond 5 grams of salt, 25 grams of sugar and 20-25 grams of fat is objectively "unhealthy" as per the FSSAI's determination. 

And then there are trans fats and cholesterol which are useful in trace amounts but harmful beyond. Even further, we have artificial agents like preservatives, colouring and flavouring agents etc. which do not add any nutritional value but add to the texture and edible matrix. 

The important thing to focus on is that despite considerable drawbacks of so many ingredients mentioned above, they aren't completely banned. The food industry and regulating authority seem to run on a system of acquired consent where any ingredient beyond a "reasonable daily intake" level can draw flak, but only on an individual and isolated basis. And not big enough to recommend an industry-wide ban on the ingredient.


The Macro Food Habits

Let's not isolate Nestle. Studies have shown that the top 943 products sold by the 11 largest Indian manufacturers (including Nestle) received a health star rating of only 1.8. In fact, more than half of their products received a rating of 1.5 or below which makes them decisively unhealthy. 

And yet, they are left exactly where they are on the shelves. 

This is particularly concerning when you think about the product portfolio for children. Products like treats, chocolates and desserts, mostly consumed by the kids are the ones which usually contain the highest amounts of sugar, salt and artificial agents which are designed to attract their attention. 

Childhood obesity in the West has largely been attributed to the consumption of these alluring yet unhealthy intakes in diet. One idea would be to decrease the regulatory limits on the use of these ingredients and increase enforcement standards. Oh and while we are at it, let's simplify the labels as well. In fact, put them on the front instead of the back!

But that will face the constitutional test of life, liberty and pursuit of libertarian goals, such as the right to consume anything as long as it's not imminently fatal (*speaks Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec*). 

Yet another constraint is consumer economics. Healthy options are costlier than the unhealthy junk ones. Even though we defeated hunger and famine back in the 1960s, true food security in India cannot be achieved unless healthier food becomes more accessible and affordable everywhere. 

The Indian food retail market is one of the fastest-growing in the world. It's only natural that we adopt higher benchmarking standards for multinational food companies like Nestle who wish to market themselves here. 

With rapid urbanisation, more Indian consumers are moving towards safer and healthier diets. So when Nestle admits with unapologetic glut that it "may not be able to reformularise all its products to make them healthier", we must understand that this is NOT due to the lack of consumer consensus in favour of healthier change. v


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