Friday, September 30, 2016

Declaring added sugar on the food label-A measure with far reaching benefits to consumers

Who is the villain in most of the packed foods marketed to day across the world? Sugar or Fat? During the last 5 decades consumers were brain washed to believe that it is the fat, especially the saturated version, that contributes to obesity and other modern diseases while sugar always got away due to reasons not known till recently. Only when the truth about manipulated research in sixties funded by sugar industry came out the real fact emerged. Sugar is definitely the most causative component in all diets and most people consume levels of sugar much beyond what is recommended by the health experts and nutritionists. It is interesting to know that an average American, typical victim of rampaging obesity that is prevalent in that country, consumes a whopping 135 gm of sugar per day which is more than double of what others in this blessed planet consume. Viewed against the current standard for sugar consumption which is not more than 50 gm per capita a day, one can guess what damage high levels of sugar do to the health of a normal consumer. What is shocking is the ground reality that is obtaining in most of the wealthy countries where sugar is omnipotent in its presence in more than 90% of the commercial foods whether it is really needed or not! Food and beverage industry seems to believe that sugar is an addictive substance like opioids that can hook on the consumer permanently without bothering to think about the devastating effect sugar has on human health. It looks like a substantial segment of food industry in general does not want any declaration about added sugar on the label for fear of adverse reaction from the consumer and its economic consequences. Recent moves by the US government to make it mandatory to declare added sugar have become a controversial policy issue and here is a take on that development  

"The new label might not look all that different, but it most certainly is. Among the many changes, which include larger type for the number of calories and servings per container, is a new line located just beneath "total sugars."It tells consumers exactly how much of the sugar was added by the manufacturer and what percentage of the daily recommended intake that added sugar comprises. The change addresses some of the early arguments waged by the sugar industry, which argued that having a line that says "sugars" and another that says "added sugars" would be confusing, because it wouldn't make clear that the latter is part of the first. The FDA addressed that problem by changing "sugars" to "total sugars" and adding "includes" to the "added sugars" line.  Still, the industry argued that the label puts added sugar in an unfairly negative light, vilifying even small amounts. "The Sugar Association is disappointed by the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) ruling to require an 'added sugars' declaration and daily reference value (DRV) on the Nutrition Facts Label (NFL)," the association said in a statement Friday morning. "The extraordinary contradictions and irregularities, as well as the lack of scientific justification in this rulemaking process are unprecedented for the FDA." Not all food organizations, however, agreed. Mars and Nestle have supported the measure. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, a trade organization representing many large food and beverage companies, issued a statement calling the update "timely." Several health and nutrition groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest, have issued statements expressing their support for the new label (CSPI, for its part, has been lobbying for them for almost two decades), which they say help inform people about the alarming prevalence of sugar in the American diet. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and a longtime critic of the sugar industry, called the announcement an "extraordinary accomplishment" on her blog Food Politics and told The Washington Post that it "has to be scored as a huge win."

The new proposal for labeling added sugar serves two purpose. First the industry is likely to be more cautious in adding sugar in one and all products because sugar prices in the global market which is being manipulated to get at a ridiculously low price. It is a tragedy that sugar producing countries like Brazil, India and others export a great part of their production to countries like the US and depressed prices of sugar directly hits the livelihood of millions of farmers. Second by seeing the amount of sugar added in the serving size of the food product, consumers are likely to be more sensitive especially when they note how much is the recommended daily intake of sugar on the label. Earlier there was another controversy that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) was the culprit causing obesity and interestingly there was a sustained campaign a few years ago by this industry to brand HFCS as just corn sugar to mislead the consumer! Fortunately this did not succeed as the industry anticipated. Now that all added hexose sugars have been found to be harmful beyond 50 gm a day, it should not make any difference whether such sugars come from sugar cane, sugar beet or grains. India should emulate such good steps that can protect its citizens from the tragedy of being faced by people in wealthy countries. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Upgrading the capabilities of desi retailers-A laudable initiative by an MNC in India

There was a time in India back in sixties and seventies when the word multinational evoked strong adverse reactions among the people as well as the rulers in India. It was not long ago that some of the MNCs were hounded out of some states like kerala accusing them of sabotaging the health of the citizens through their unhealthy products and dangerous manufacturing practices. It was only a decade ago that foreign investments in India were welcomed with open hands in several sectors including retailing. Though many MNCs were skeptical about the change in policy there were some who took the bite and invested in the country to set up their shop. Now that a super friendly regime is in charge of the country, many MNCs are rushing in to invest heavily hoping for success with the support of industry friendly policies. How long this will last cannot be predicted as governments change in a democracy with different parties having their own policy and agenda. Why should a country should be antagonistic to MNCs? Probably root cause of such perceptions is the belief that they are here to exploit the country like the old East India Company which eventually annexed the country and made it a colony of Britishers. If the recent report that a company like Coca Cola, one of the major food and beverage companies in the world, is true, a distinct change seems to be taking place in the attitude of these foreign based companies which augurs well for the country as well as these companies. Here is a take on this development. 

"With over 12 million outlets, India's retail sector, worth $500 billion, and growing at 15 per cent every year, plays a crucial role in the nation's growth story. A major constituent of this burgeoning sector is the chain of 'kirana' shops (your friendly neighbourhood small grocery stores), which contributes almost 90 per cent to the retail sector. These players cater to the majority of the Indian population, and more importantly, are the primary channels for the sale of the popular beverage Coca-Cola.Recognising the need to build the capacity of 'kirana' retail owners in the country, the  country, the Coca-Cola University (CCU)launched a nation-wide programme called 'Parivartan' (change towards the better). The programme aims to spread knowledge of best practices and equip traditional retailers with the right skills, tools, and techniques necessary to make their business more profitable, as well as build business skills in the four key areas of shop management, stock management, customer management, and finance management.An extensive research was conducted to understand the developmental needs of such retailers, the findings of which were translated into the programme content. To ensure that Parivartan is accessible to the remotest retailer, including those based in rural India, CCU was introduced on wheels - a mobile training unit armed with state-of-the-art equipment. The two-and-a-half hour programme is delivered in vernacular languages with practical anecdotes for impactful communication. The CCU has also announced that it will train 3,50,000 people by December 2017 in the areas of grocery and convenience store retailing, and in food services. The training module will be a mix of classroom training and in the CCU bus called 'Coca-Cola University on Wheels'. While the CCU has been training 'kirana' retailers under its Parivartan programme for the past eight years, the module on quality and food services is being launched this year. Titled 'Parivartan E&D', the training module has been designed by the CCU based on two key insights as the most important parameters while choosing an eating-out option by customers who are on-the-go. These are lack of hygiene, and the importance of good customer service. The training module will focus on the owners and employers of 'dhabas' and other small food service outlets and street food vendors, mostly in the unorganised sector. The training and upskilling of 3,50,000 people by the CCU will aid the government's Skill India programme, which aims at capacity building for employability. Announcing this at the India Retail Forum 2016, held recently in Mumbai, Sameer Wadhawan, vice-president, HR and Services, Coca-Cola India and South West Asia, says, "The Coca-Cola system in India has already taken several steps towards skill enhancement, both in the social, as well as sporting arenas. Other than through Parivartan, we are also partners in programmes such as training People with Disabilities (PwDs), and farmers in sustainable and efficient agriculture practices. We share India's urgency on skill training and want to do more than our fair share towards this goal." CCU certified trainers will conduct three-hour long training sessions through presentations and live-examples, as well as through videos, in regional languages. They will focus upon food quality and hygiene, clean atmosphere, customer satisfaction, customisation of food, and customer interaction. Until now, more than three lakh retailers have been trained under the Parivartan programme. Training is offered in six regional languages through trainers certified by the CCU. Parivartan is open to all retailers, not just those who stock Coca-Cola products. The programme has reached out to retailers in more than 5,500 cities across India. More than 7,500 training sessions have been conducted till date. The brand also launched a first-of-its-kind training delivery innovation on Interactive Voice Response (IVR). Using this platform, any retailer could dial into a toll-free number to take Parivartan lessons from the comfort of his/her home."

A knee jerk reaction on the part of many skeptics could be that the latest effort is nothing but to expand their market reach through such trader friendly strategies. May be there is a point in this argument but at this stage there is nothing on the ground to substantiate such an allegation. It is true the market size of India is next only to China and there is space for every body to work and earn through fair means of business. Using wrong advertisement and promotional strategies may bring short time gains but eventually such players will face the consequences in the long run. The present attempt by Coca Cola company, prima facie, looks like a progressive effort with no apparent connection to expansion of market reach for their products. Though organized retailing became a reality about decade and a half ago, still its reach is confined to less than 10% of the volume of business in the retail sector.The role of the old "mom and pop" stores in the lives of people in India is under estimated and probably those in business in the organized retail sector must have realized this bringing about an attitudinal change that the unobtrusive street corner small shop fellow cannot be just wished away leading to the new philosophy of "live and let live". This may be the major reason for MNCs like Coca Cola to hitch hike their fortunes to these stores and what better method is there but to provide technical help to upgrade their capabilities through some non-profit programs like training and skill upgradation. What government should have done long ago under its skill development program, private sector is stepping in to further this cause and this must be applauded.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

USA leads in pushing the planet Earth into disaster-New dietary guidelines "misguiding" the consumers!

There are four stake holders who have to work together to ensure that food serves the essential purpose of providing a comfortable and healthy life for every denizen in this planet. These are the consumers, food industry, the government and the farmers. Each of these players cannot imagine independent existence without the others. Thus the farmer has to produce healthy crops, food industry must strive to preserve the nutrients to the maximum extent possible, government has the role of a watch dog to protect its citizens from unhealthy and dangerous foods and consumer has the unenviable role of influencing the processors to make the food tasty, harmless and most nutritious. Unfortunately all these players are found wanting in fulfilling their roles with the result that modern society is faced with an uncertain future due to rampant diseases and health disorders brought about because of shirking of their respective responsibilities. Who is to be blamed most? Probably government of the day has to bear the major responsibility because of its vulnerability to pressure tactics by the processing industry which invariably looks for maximizing its profits with very little concern for the well being of the consumer. At least that is the prevailing perception among the consumers. Specifically a country like the US provides a classical example of the "shirking syndrome' as manifested by the most recent edict on dietary guidelines put out by the food safety agency there. Here is a take on this unpalatable development. 

"Shocked. Disappointed. Disgusted. I'm still struggling to find the right words to describe my reaction to today's release of the new Dietary Guidelines for America. Not only do these new dietary guidelines fail to move us forward toward healthier and more sustainable food choices, I believe they actually take us a step backward. Kowtowing to extraordinary pressure from the meat and dairy industries, the USDA--and our own government--blatantly ignored the recommendations of its own panel of scientists and health professionals by removing language from the guidelines recommending what we all know is true: Americans should eat more plants and less meat. The final guidelines are nothing short of a steak knife to the heart of science-based food policy. I could list this document's many failures. How it urges Americans to focus more on healthy foods and less on nutrients--then proceeds to narrowly recommend reducing the consumption of things like saturated fats without actually naming any foods to avoid. How it was carefully scrubbed of most suggestions that meat consumption be reduced--even though Americans already eat around 40 percent more meat than is recommended under current guidelines, according to USDA data. How it even suggests that processed meats may be OK, mere weeks after the World Health Organization named these food products a probable carcinogen.
Perhaps most galling is the decision under an order of Congress to remove any language linking our dietary choices to environmental sustainability and food security. What a slap in the face. While many groups have already raised their voices to decry a policy that callously recommends Americans continue following a diet that is harmful to their health, I'd like to focus on this last point. The role of meat production in polluting our planet has been well-documented, yet unbelievably it still seems to be up for debate and not on most climate change agendas. It's been more than a decade since the United Nations declared that shifting the world to a plant-based diet would be critical if we are to avoid widespread hunger and prevent devastating climate change in the very near future. Producing meat clear-cuts our planet's forests; releases potent greenhouse gasses; causes species extinction; and pollutes our precious water resources. Congress ordered the USDA to base its guidelines only on nutrition, and to disregard any considerations outside of human health. But isn't fresh water, clean air, and our future food supply critical to the health of our children and our children's children? Rather than focus on what's wrong with these guidelines, I'd like to turn this into a call to action. We don't need Congress or the USDA to tell us what we already know: that "more plants, less meat" is the only way to ensure a healthy future not only for our own bodies, but for our planet. It's that simple. You can join me in leading our country by example. If you're still learning about healthy food choices, take responsibility for educating yourself--we already know the government isn't going to do that for us. If you still eat meat and dairy products, start cutting back (and reward yourself by trying something new that's delicious and plant-based!). If you already eat a plant-based diet, serve these foods proudly to your friends and family. Let's change the story of our government blatantly ignoring the advice of its own appointed science advisors and working against the common good. Let's take our power back from a government who no longer has our best interests at heart. Let's take back our health, our community's health, and our planet's health.
It's time to take back our plates."

It is appalling that the guidelines are designed not to displease the meat industry and the polluting industry. While it is globally recognized that meat consumption is linked to cancer, the guidelines do not recommend to cut down on meat consumption giving an impression to the consumers that meat is safe to be consumed day in and day out! Universally nutritionists agree that diets based predominantly on plant foods provide the best guarantee against most health disorders which are presently threatening the very existence humanity but American government does not seem to be subscribing to this scientific finding. Meat industry depending on stall feeding of meat animals and closed cage rearing of poultry birds is the biggest polluter on the earth contributing to global warming and consequent adverse weather changes. Just because Americans are rich enough to buy meat every day does not mean that they have the right to pollute the planet. It is sad that American government is shying away from its responsibility to guide its citizens properly due to the vice like grip the meat industry has on it. Probably citizens may have to fend for themselves in protecting their health by voluntarily giving up meat from their daily diet for their own good.