Levy Sin Tax On Biscuits To Instant Noodles, Says Nutrition Think Tank

Sugar, fat and sodium is high in ultra-processed foods advertised aggressively, says Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>(Photo: Mae Mu/Unsplash)</p><p></p></div>
(Photo: Mae Mu/Unsplash)

The GST Council must levy a higher tax—akin to sin tax on colas—on packaged biscuits and instant noodles to ice creams as these contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat, according to a think tank on nutrition.

"Ultra-processed food or junk food is advertised aggressively, and our qualitative analysis of 43 advertisements of pre-packaged food products and their composition revealed that they are no less than junk as they were high in one or more nutrients of concern, such as sugars, salt, and saturated fat," Nutrition Advocacy in Public Interest said in a report on Friday.

Pre-packaged sugary beverages, juices, bakery products, cookies, chocolates, confectionary, health drinks, chips, ice creams, instant noodles and pizzas were some of the categories that were analysed. Sugar was found high in 31 items, total fat was high in 29 items, and sodium was high in 19 items. At least eight products exceeded the threshold for all three, the report said.

To be sure, all carbonated drinks, irrespective of their nutrition content or sugar levels, are already placed in the category of sin goods, along with alcohol and tobacco, and attract the highest GST rate of 28% plus a 12% additional cess.

The sample of 43 products analysed is manufactured by top consumer goods companies including Dabur Ltd., ITC Ltd., Nestle India Ltd., Hershey India Pvt., Italy's Ferrero SpA, Mondelez India Foods Pvt Ltd., Patanjali Foods Ltd., Parle Products Pvt., Britannia Industries Ltd., Bonn Group of Industries, Tata Consumer Soulfull Pvt., Bikanervala Foods Pvt., Pepsico India, Bikaji Foods International Ltd., Parle Agro, and Coca-Cola India, according to the 116-page report called 'The Junk Push'.

Fats, Sugar, Salt 'Disguised'

These companies, according to the report, disguise salt, sugar, or saturated fat under various names to make the product appear "healthier" or hide the information. The think tank for nutrition said that these misleading ads are commonly relied on celebrity endorsements, emotional appeals, unsubstantiated health claims, and target children.

Section 2 (28) of the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 defines “misleading advertisement” in relation to any product or service to mean an advertisement that:

  • Falsely describes such a product or service;

  • Gives a false guarantee to, or is likely to mislead, the consumers as to the nature, substance, quantity, or quality of such a product or service;

  • Conveys, expresses, or implies representation that, if made by the manufacturer, seller, or service provider thereof, would constitute an unfair trade practice;

  • Deliberately conceals important information.

Many of these ads violate provisions of several guidelines issued by other regulatory bodies, too, such as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and the Central Consumer Protection Authority, the report said.

"Existing regulatory policies remain ineffective to minimise any advertisements of junk foods, which are mostly misleading,” said Arun Gupta, convenor of NAPi. The legal framework, too, doesn't have the potential to stop most of the misleading advertisements of pre-packaged junk or food and beverage products that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, or to ban misleading claims or warn people about the risks to health, he said.

The ultra-processed food industry is expanding fast. Between 2011 and 2021, it grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13.37% in terms of retail sales value, according to a recent WHO report. And it's expected to grow faster than staple foods.

The number of households purchasing beverages, including soft drinks, squashes, powdered mixes, and packaged juices, rose from 38% in 2019 to 47% in 2023, according to marketing data and analytics company Kantar.

The report also pointed out that FSSAI has been sitting on the draft notification on the front of pack labelling for almost a year, pending its finalisation.

Calling for a stronger regulatory framework to control pernicious marketing and advertising in a bid to check the rising consumption of junk and tackle diseases like obesity and diabetes, the national think tank offered 10 recommendations.

Food companies should not be a part of policy development decisions meant to reduce exposure to harmful marketing and consumption of ultra-processed foods or other junk foods, the report said.

It has also been recommended that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare urgently establish the thresholds of nutrients of concern — sugars, salt, and saturated fat— in pre-packaged foods.

A clear interpretation of what is the “most important information” about food products would be helpful. "A suggested definition may be included for quick decision-making on misleading advertisements."