The Market for Junk

If food brands and retailers swear by clean, healthy eating, why does India have the highest consumption rate for junk food in the world?
By Sanjay Kumar

India clocks one of the highest growth rates for ultra-processed food and beverages – items high in added sugar, salt and additives. According to a recent study by All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), as much as 68 per cent of food and beverage products currently available in the Indian market have excess amounts of at least one ingredient of concern, namely salt, sugar, and saturated fats. The study found that only 32 per cent of food products are within the scientific thresholds recommended by the World Health Organization’s regional standards.

[Indian consumers will spend USD 6 trillion by 2030 on processed and branded food products. Euromonitor data shows that the retail value of packaged junk food and soft drinks in India grew 42X in just 13 years (2006-19).]

Stakeholders involved with India’s food industry have come forward to suggest remedial measures and an action-oriented agenda to prevent the problem from spiraling and blowing over. For one, India’s Food Regulator FSSAI is looking to prioritize the roll-out of Front-of-Pack Labeling (FOPL) on all packaged foods at the earliest.

While FSSAI has expressed a preference for ‘health stars rating’ which experts say would be misleading for consumers, doctors and scientific communities say that India should adopt ‘warning labels’ — the global best standard, not just for its staggering disease burden, but also to ensure its exponentially growing food market is ready for a healthier future.

A huge global market for traditional Indian snacks and confectionaries can open up if India sets thresholds for salt, sugar and fat. FOPL on all packaged foods can act as a major boost for exports of packaged food products, especially those produced by MSME units.

Studies have shown that reformulation to make foods healthier increases profit in the long run; and if we make our food and beverages healthier, it will change consumer preferences in the domestic market as well. It therefore makes all the more sense to support the idea of a strong FOPL, which will help consumers to quickly understand and identify healthy foods.

But, are Indian food brands, manufacturers and retailers willing to take up the “health warning” gauntlet and walk the talk? Are they genuinely invested in promoting healthy food consumption in India? Can they be convinced into making short-term sales and profit sacrifices for the cause of healthy food consumption?

What do you think about this issue? Join 150+ speakers in thought-provoking conversations at the 15th Edition of India Food Forum — India’s largest food B2B intelligence event — on Dec 7-8 in Mumbai, for some powerful insights on this and other key trends impacting India’s food & grocery retail businesses.