Noses would be entering marketing departments before the marketing teams, if the Pinocchio story were to apply to us. The lies we depict on our food and beverage packaging would possibly put even Pinocchio to shame.
How would you feel if you saw an ad for a mobile phone and decided to buy it, but when you receive it, it has none of the features that you thought you were getting? You wouldn't accept it in the first place, let alone consider using it.
Then, why would you make dietary choices any differently? Because that's what is up with our depiction of natural ingredients in the Indian packaged foods market.
The beverages aisle are the worst affected by this situation. Ideally, a fruit beverage which contains at least 10 per cent fruit juice and 10 per cent total soluble solids, besides about 0.3 per cent acidity regulators, qualifies as a ready-to-serve (RTS) fruit juice, if not diluted before use. Which to begin with, is a low bar.
Most Indian brands have a fruit concentration of eight per cent and below, and way higher composition of added colours and flavouring substances, along with water. Fruits, naturally come with a certain water and sugar content that is considered to be healthy. But anything beyond it not only disturbs the health benefits of the product, but also contributes in adding hollow calories.
Each of us is responsible
Everyone who works in the process of designing and promoting these foods and beverages, is responsible. Some more than others, perhaps. This involves everyone, right from the designers, to the writers, the agencies, the marketing, as well as legal teams. It may sound lofty, but it is unfair to have a certain standard for oneself and a different one for the bottom of the pyramid.
Celebrities and influencers also have a role to play here, when they feature in such campaigns and give a testimony that shows the product in a positive light. The target audience that already believes in them, is convinced the product claims are actually true. And, the big debate here is not about the verbal claims, but the visual ones.
We have often noticed the disparity in the lifestyle of these public figures from that of their portrayal on screen. You wouldn't find them consuming these products in their daily life because they are aware of the lack of health benefits that they claim to make. They maintain their physique under expert supervision and rigorous training, and then ad placements try to take credit for these visual results and further mislead the audience.
What needs to change?
If companies are not willing to put in natural ingredients into a product, then they shouldn't have the right to claim them on the packaging either.
Regulations need to be updated. If a carton of juice doesn't have the required concentration of fruit in its composition, then it shouldn't be called fruit juice at all in the first place. Neither should it bear the image of a fruit that it is claiming to substitute.
About 10 years ago, I came across a prediction, ‘In the future, the poor will eat processed foods, low on nourishment, and be fat, while the rich will eat nutritious organic foods, and be fit. ’That time seems to have arrived. And, hence, the need to take a closer look at mass nutrition as a national issue.
Diabetes and obesity are already on the rise in the country, with some estimates at over 100 million diabetics in India. While it may be an urban problem for now, it’s a matter of time before it breaks the rural threshold.
If you are reading this and wield any influence in this space, you should consider exercising your franchise in a way that we make packaged food and beverage marketing a little more accountable for the claims, verbal as well as visual.
There are many successful examples to reference across European nations where there are strict regulations about what you can and can’t depict on a pack basis the ingredients.
Perhaps, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) need to come together here. And, this is an endeavour that will not go unrewarded.
In a country where half the population is between the ages of 15 and 25, diabetes among the youth is a threat not to be taken lightly. Not only will we be looking after our children, we will also be protecting our much-celebrated demographic dividend. All it takes is a little truth in advertising.
The author is Keshav Naidu, co-founder of Naidu Panjabi.
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