Junk food is defined as food with empty calories—it provides fat, sugar and salt, without nutrition. These ranged from instant noodles, chips and Indian bhujia to the ubiquitous colas, chicken fries and burgers.
Labels on packages do not explain just how much of our daily salt, sugar or fat quota this “fun” food is taking up. We are not told that one packet of chips, devoured easily, supplies half of what we should take daily in terms of fat and salt; one bottle of cola has twice the daily added sugar allowance of adults and children.
It is not in the interest of food companies to advertise this. It is in our interest to know.
The companies are not just irresponsible through omission, but also through deliberate misrepresentation of facts about the quantity of trans fatty acids—trans fats in short—in their products.
Trans fats, formed during hydrogenation of oil, are linked to serious health problems.
But the food-related laws in Pakistan do not require companies to declare the quantity of trans fat in their products.
Take the case of Pepsi. It went on an advertising spree, saying its potato chips were healthy because they did not have trans fat and were cooked in rice bran oil. Filmstar Saif Ali Khan was its brand ambassador in India, urging children and adults to eat without guilt and care. The chips were branded “snack-smart”, implying good. Then Pepsi decided that these chips were heavy on its pocket. So it changed the medium of cooking and removed the snack-smart logo and the declaration of zero-trans fat from the packets. But this time it did not launch an advertising campaign. Why should it?
The company added insult to injury. First, even what was claimed to be trans fat-free had 0.9 gm per 100 gm. Secondly, packets of chips manufactured in February 2012 had dangerously high trans fat levels of 3.7 gm per 100 gm—much more than what is allowed in daily diet. But under the weak food regulations they did not have to tell people what was in the packet. It is no surprise then that Pepsi, in its rebuttal said, “All products are fully compliant with regulations, including those on labeling.” Clearly, food companies are not in the business of food, but in the business of profit.
Question is why should one test junk food when it is already known to be bad? Two, why test only packaged food when all snacks are said to be equally bad?
Firstly, we do not know just how bad this food really is. We should know more because it is critical we take informed decisions about our health. Non-communicable diseases, from hypertension to cancer, are a global epidemic. Bad food and bad lifestyle are major causes of these diseases. Pakistanis are especially vulnerable when it comes to diabetes; as compared to Caucasians, they are genetically disposed to have more fat than muscle and have a greater propensity to put fat around the abdomen. They are also too poor to cope with the horrendous health costs of debilitating diseases like diabetes. Therefore, our food regulations have to be even more stringent in limiting quantities of salt, sugar and fat in food.
Secondly, regarding food other than junk it must be made clear that traditional and local diets are built on the principle of moderation and balance.