CSE study finds alarming facts about snacks and junk food

The latest survey by Centre for Science and Environment has found that junk foods have enough trans fats, salt and sugar to lead us to an early onset of diseases in the young.

Neither the companies, nor the government is bothering to tell us what these foods contain, says a new Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) study which was released here today.

“We all know junk food is bad; we still eat it. But do we know how bad it is? Do we ever check what we are eating and whether what that packet of chips or Maggie has what it claims it has,” asks Sunita Narain, director general, CSE.

CSE claims this is the first comprehensive Indian study to have looked at nutritional claims made (or not made) by junk food makers and how they compare against our ‘allowed daily intake’.

“And the findings are pretty damning,” says Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director general, who also heads the Pollution Monitoring Lab which did the study.

The National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have set certain benchmarks of how much salt, sugar, carbohydrates and fats every individual can have on a daily basis to stay healthy. These benchmarks add up to what constitutes a balanced diet.

CSE’s study — which tested a host of samples of popular foods such as potato chips, snacks like aloo bhujia, noodles, soft drinks, burgers, French fries and fried chicken — shows that having just one serving of these foods completely overturns our daily diet chart.

For instance, the NIN benchmark for the maximum salt that one person should have in a day is 6 gram, while the WHO puts it at 5 gram. The normal 80-gram packet of Maggi noodles that many of us gobble up almost on a daily basis has over 3.5 gram of salt – enough to take care of over 60 per cent of our allowed daily salt intake.

Says Chandra Bhushan: “For the rest of the day, we will be restricted to have food which should contain less than 2 gram of salt.”

Salt, however, is not the real or only problem. The real problem is trans fats, or the ‘bad fats’, says CSE.

The WHO says that in a balanced diet, a maximum of 1 per cent of total energy should come from trans fats. Therefore, an adult male can have 2.6 gram of trans fats per day, while an adult female can have 2.1 gram and a child (10-12 years) can have 2.3 gram.

CSE points out that many junk foods claim they have ‘0’ trans fats; and some don’t even bother to mention how much trans fats they have.

A child who eats one of those immensely savoury MacDonald’s Happy Meals finishes up 90 per cent of all his daily requirement of trans fats, it points out.

Top Ramen Super Noodles (Masala) claims there is zero trans fats in every 100 gram – the CSE study found 0.7 gram per 100 gram. Similarly, Haldiram’s Aloo Bhujia says it has no trans fats, but the study found 2.5 gram per 100 gram, CSE said.

PepsiCo’s Lays (Snack Smart) was sold till February 2012 through huge advertisements to say that these chips are healthy because they have zero trans fats and are cooked in healthy oil – this claim was removed later.

When CSE checked, it found as much as 3.7 gram of trans fats per 100 gram of the product in March 2012 batch, the Delhi-based organization said.

So what does all this mean for our health?

Non-communicable diseases, such as obesity and diabetes accounted for more than 50 per cent of all deaths in India in 2005, by 2030, they will kill two-thirds of all Indians.

The latest National Family Health Survey (2005-06) says at least one in every eight Indian is overweight or obese. In our cities, the situation is worse: one in every five urban Indian is obese and prone to numerous health disorders that obesity generates.

The CSE study has a deadlier tale to tell. The researchers behind the study say that the heavy doses of trans fats, joined with that of salt – which comes from all the so called ‘fun foods’ — work together to trigger ill health which can lead to death.

Trans fats are notorious for clogging arteries: they deposit on the walls of the arteries and make them narrower. On top of that, when one has large amounts of salt, the blood pressure increases. The heart has to work overtime to push the blood around, which weakens it considerably, CSE said.

“We need stronger regulations that will reduce the quota of fats, sugar and salt in junk foods, and ones that will force companies to provide information to the public mandatorily,” says Narain.