Beyond fineprint: A need for clear food labels

Manisha Kapoor, CEO & Secretary General, ASCI discusses the accuracy in food ads, consumer expectations vs. compliance, regulation of ads for children, and combating misinformation.

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Food advertisements play a pivotal role in influencing consumer choices, but the claims they make must be scrutinised for accuracy and transparency. Claims in food ads can range from nutritional benefits to health endorsements, and they often shape consumer perceptions and purchase behaviours. 

Consumer expectation vs. Statutory compliance

A while back, ASCI reviewed a case where a prominent biscuit brand claimed that consuming four biscuits provided children with the same energy as a glass of milk. Technically, the claim was supported by calorie equivalence, which is the measure of energy. Despite being scientifically accurate in terms of calorie content, the claim failed to align with consumer expectations of what constitutes "energy" in nutritional terms. Consumers perceive energy not merely as calories but also as a measure of vitality, alertness, and overall health benefits. The Consumer Complaints Council (CCC), ASCI’s independent jury, recommended that the advertisement was misleading.

In another instance, a brand asserted its right to use the trademark "Wholewheat Marie" on biscuits made primarily from maida (refined wheat flour), arguing that trademark registration conferred this right. ASCI's CCC disagreed, deeming the practice misleading. 

While many companies may adhere to legal requirements, they sometimes fall short of meeting consumer expectations regarding clarity in food labelling and advertising. In any act of consumer protection, the evaluation of an advertising claim or labelling information must be made based on the perceptions of an ordinary consumer rather than those of scientific or legal experts. 

Days of generalised claims are numbered

This could be one reason that several brands, even when compliant with the law, are facing scrutiny and backlash from consumers. As consumers get more educated and aware, they need more specific and clear information from advertising and labels. And when it comes to health, they are demanding more information about what goes into their food, rather than generic claims of "healthy”. This is a trend that is seen not just in India, but across the world.

The dilemma in food purchases arises from the fact that very few foods are inherently harmful if consumed in small or moderate quantities. However, the criticism against the food industry is that, at a collective level, the encouragement to partake in packaged, ultra-processed food is creating a world in which healthy home-cooked food is not seen as exciting enough. No brand of chocolate, for instance, asks consumers to eat chocolate all day. However, seeing recurring chocolate or biscuit ads may inadvertently create an unhealthy consumption pattern. 

Regulating messaging for kids

In many parts of the world, there are regulatory restrictions on food advertising to children. Many companies proactively limit their targeting of kids, even where regulation may not require them to do so. 

In India, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) introduced ‘Guidelines for Prevention of Misleading Advertisements and Endorsements for Misleading Advertisements, 2022’. It forbids advertisements from exaggerating the features of a product or service that may lead children to have unrealistic expectations or from claiming health or nutritional benefits without being adequately and scientifically substantiated by a recognised body. The CCPA also has broadcasting guidelines that say “An advertisement for junk foods, including chips, carbonated beverages and such other snacks and drinks shall not be advertised during a programme meant for children or on a channel meant exclusively for children”. The ASCI Guidelines require ads not to “encourage over or excessive consumption or show inappropriate, large portions of any food or beverage, and for ads to reflect moderation in consumption and show portion sizes appropriate to the occasion or situation.” The ASCI guidelines also require ads not to undermine the role of parental guidance, or a healthy lifestyle. Last year, ASCI processed 712 ads in the F&B category for possible violations of the ASCI Code.

Two ends of the spectrum

While advertisers must evolve to meet growing consumer expectations, we must also be wary of those who thrive on sensationalism by creating misinformation. Declaring certain common ingredients as causing cancer or diabetes with no scientific evidence is as misleading as telling the world that high-priced probiotic drinks can solve all health problems. 

ASCI’s recent addendum to the influencer guidelines states that influencers making health claims must disclose their qualifications. Mindless fear-mongering is, unfortunately, being deployed as a strategy to gain followers and views, at the expense of consumer health. And that should be equally unacceptable. We have a robust food regulator with expertise in nutrition and health, and surely, they would only permit food that is safe for consumption to be sold and marketed.

As food technology and the health concerns of consumers evolve, there is a space for constructive dialogue between the two extreme ends of the misinformation spectrum. Various stakeholders with differing points of view need to engage to find a robust strategy that guides policy and action. 

Smarter and cleaner labels

Smart labelling technologies that allow consumers to seek more information, simplification of labelling information, and a clean label approach that does not obfuscate informed choice, and simplification of labelling information are just some of the ways in which consumers can be empowered. Bodies like ASCI and the various regulators must ensure that all kinds of misinformation on products and ingredients are regulated to provide consumers with the confidence to buy their food without apprehension.

This article is penned by Manisha Kapoor, CEO & Secretary General, ASCI. 

Disclaimer: The article features the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the stance of the publication.

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