In India’s booming junk food market, there is little room for nutrition

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The world loves to eat ‘junk’; Indians are no different. We are obsessed with fast food, something that can be ‘grabbed’ easily without breaking any sweat because cooking is overrated in modern society. To keep up with this fast-paced life, many people rely on quick, easy to cook, instant options – packaged food.

Packaged food, distributed by multiple world food giants, are often criticised for their lack of nutritional content. Most of the packaged foods are either processed or ultra-possessed to meet the needs of the fast food market. These foods often fail to meet minimum nutritional standards due to the lack of important nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber or antioxidants. However, despite not meeting the desirable health standard, the market of fast and processed food is growing exponentially. Let’s take a critical look at instant noodles and biscuits, two of the most popular processed foods in India.

A recent report from Nestle, the largest food company in the world, revealed that more than 60 per cent of its food and beverage products are unhealthy. Nestle is the producer and distributor of instant noodles, chocolates, dairy, coffee, etc. Maggi, Nestle’s instant noodle, originated in Switzerland and was brought to India in 1983. Since then, Maggi has made its place in the heart of urban India due to the convenience in cooking it, and the variety of flavour. But Maggi isn’t the only instant noodles consumed by Indians. Top Ramen, Cup Noodles, Yippee and Wi-Wi are other popular brands.


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Health profile of instant noodles 

Instant noodles are pre-cooked, processed food sold either in packets or cups. These noodles are composed of refined flour, salt, and palm oil. The flavoured versions contain salt and a synthetic compound, monosodium glutamate (MSG). Being low in calories in general, instant noodles appear to be healthy to many. However, these noodles are also low in fiber and protein, two major nutrients that prevent overeating by keeping you full for a long time.

Instant noodles offer poor diet quality as reported by a comparative study between their consumers and non-consumers. This study found that the consumers of instant noodles had a lower intake of protein and crucial micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin C, iron, and vitamin A. They were also taking more sodium.

Frequent or long-term consumption of instant noodles increases the risk of developing metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and stroke. A study that assessed the diet of 10,700 women found elevated risk of heart diseases with consumption of instant noodles twice a week.

Processed noodles can lower your vitamin D level too. One study involving 3,450 young adults found an association between decreased level of vitamin D status and frequent consumption of instant noodles.


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Biscuits aren’t nutritionally sound either 

Biscuits are another common processed snack that are consumed in most Indian households. A hot beverage is incomplete without some biscuits or cookies. Children are fond of milk or chocolate biscuits too and drink their milk only when offered with some biscuits.

In recent times, digestive biscuits have become popular among people trying to lose weight or control blood glucose. However, the amount of fiber, which is the primary ingredient in these biscuits, is not significant to match the health claim.

Most packaged cookies and biscuits are not nutritionally sound due to their composition. They are loaded with refined sugar, refined wheat flour or all-purpose flour, trans fat, palm oil, added preservatives, etc.

Trans fat foods are among the most harmful with zero nutrition value. Multiple research has established the link between trans fatty acids and countless health hazards like heart disease, cancer, complicated pregnancy, childhood obesity, sugar addiction in children, nervous system dysfunction, vision disability in infants, etc.

India’s apex nutrition body, National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), under the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), recommends only 20 g/day visible fat intake in adults. However, a laboratory analysis of 10 popular brands of biscuits by Consumer Education and Research Centre (CERC) found 6 out of 10 most popular biscuits to contain more than 20 g visible fats in 100 g quantity. Britannia Bourbon ranked highest with 23.2 g fats/100 g. The report remarked, “100 g packet of Britannia Bourbon contains more fat than one should consume in a whole day.”

All 10 brands of biscuits were found to contain more than 25 g or equivalent to 6 teaspoons sugar in 100 g, which makes them non-compliant to the guideline of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s recommended daily allowance for sugar. Sunfeast Dark Fantasy had the highest sugar content — 39.6g/100g. All other brands had more than 30 g sugar/100 g.


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Growing demand 

The World Instant Noodles Association reported India as the fourth-largest market for instant noodles.  In 2017, Indians consumed 5.4 billion servings of instant noodles. This market is expected to grow by 5.6% until 2023. Nestle, whose 60 per cent products are “unhealthy”, holds the highest market share (60 per cent) of instant noodles. In fact, the company retained its popularity in Indian market even after its instant noodle Maggi was banned by the government in 2015 due to heavy lead content. On the other hand, the Market Outlook report says India’s biscuit market will grow by 11.27 per cent to increase the market value from $3.79 billion in 2016 to $7.25 billion by 2022. The major players promised to make their products more nutritionally sound, but they lack implementation.

What should you do? 

Processed foods can never replace whole foods. As a consumer, one should read nutrition labels thoroughly to understand the nutrition profile of any packaged food before buying it. Focus should be more on choosing healthy alternatives to fast foods. Roasted chana, nuts and seeds, baked khakhra, roasted mixed pulses are some nutritious tasty options with your tea. Instant noodles can be replaced with oats, broken wheat, sprouts, fruits, and salad. Become a smart eater today.

Dr Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist.Views are personal. 

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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