Fast-food meals and snacks in India contain dangerous levels of trans-fats and salt, an analysis from the combative Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has found. A single packet of potato chips can meet half the daily requirement of fats in a person; a packet of instant noodles has half the salt a human body can absorb in a day.
The CSE blames weak food labelling laws for the low consumer awareness. “Sugar, salt and fat are items that need to be regulated. This means governments have to step in to control the powerful processed food industry. But this is not happening in India. It believes the food industry has full privilege to sell anything — and kill people slowly and sweetly,” said CSE in an analysis published in Down to Earth, its magazine, and released to the media.
In its two-month study, it analysed specific fast-food brands such as Pepsico’s Lays, McDonald’s Happy Meal, Haldiram’s Aloo Bhujiya, and KFC’s Fried Chicken. And, found just one packet or one serving of these contain harmful levels of trans-fats, salt and sugar. The companies in question have, however, strongly denied these claims, saying their process of preparation does not allow for trans-fats.
The CSE has two main findings against these brands. One, of misleading consumers by quoting small servings, much smaller than in a traditional pack, which fast food companies claim do not have harmful levels of trans-fats. This is not all. The second point CSE raised is that it found trans-fats in the standard-sized packs labelled zero trans-fats for, say, 100g servings. That is, even packs labelled zero trans-fats had it.
Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of CSE, said consumers do not notice the ludicrous part of the claims by fast-food companies — the size of the serving having zero trans-fat. “The serving could be as little as 10g in the case of bhujiyas and 14g (not more than four to five pieces) in the case of chips like Lay’s and its much advertised Be Dillogical brand. Does anyone eat just 10g of bhujiya?'' he asked. The CSE analysis said a pre-February packet of Lay’s potato chips claimingd zero grammes of trans-fat in 100g was wrong and misleading; it had 0.9g of trans-fat. Similarly, a packet of Haldiram’s aloo bhujiya which claimed zero gramme trans-fat in 100g was also misleading because it contained 2.5g of trans-fat.
The companies named were quick to defend their products. Pepsico India said all its products were fully compliant with regulations prescribed by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and reiterated its claims that its food brands were trans-fat free. Its spokesperson said trans-fat is produced during the hydrogenation of vegetable oils and the company does not use this process to make its products. “Since the launch of our business in India, we have not used hydrogenated vegetable oils to manufacture our food products and none of them, therefore, contain trans-fat. The range of oils currently used by us continues to be non-hydrogenated,” said the spokesperson, who declined to be named.
Haldiram’s said storage of packets could make a difference. “Trans-fatty acids are a result of degradation of poly-unsaturated oil exposed to severe heating conditions. This happens when the oil is heated repeatedly at high temperatures. We at Haldiram have automatic kettles wherein the oil temperature is maintained at a certain level,” said A K Yadav, vice-president of operations. “However, the status of trans-fat in these packs is subject to the environment and keeping condition at the retailer’s place. Sometimes, we see the pack is exposed to severe sunlight and could also be stored for many days, which may affect the trans-fat level of the food inside.”
Not healthy; denials
According to the CSE, the World Health Organisation recommends one per cent of total energy come from trans-fats in a balanced diet. An adult male can have 2.6g, an adult female 2.1g and a child of 10-12 years can have 2.3g of trans-fats per day. Salt intake should be limited to five to six grammes per individual per day. But when a child consumes a Happy Meal from McDonalds, he gets 90 per cent of the trans-fats requirement for the day. He would then be able to consume only 10 per cent more the entire day, said CSE’s Bhushan.
Rajesh Kumar Maini, general manager, corporate communications, McDonald’s India (North & East), said the CSE findings were surprising. “We use palm oil because trans-fats are so low as to be virtually undetectable. Therefore, these results are most unusual. We will certainly be examining them closely and comparing them with our own in-house testing.”
The chain said its food products did not fall under the category of packaged foods. “As per the Indian laws, there is no regulation that mandates nutritional information to be published for non-packaged food items. However, at McDonald’s we voluntarily share this information and the same is available across all our restaurants and at our website, too,'' said Maini.
Other companies whose products were named in the CSE report also denied its claim. “We are not aware of any such report. Nor has CSE contacted ITC for its views on the reported allegations. ITC markets its products completely in accordance with the laws of the country, including food safety laws. All declarations made on its food products packages, including its Bingo! packages, comply with the food safety norms prescribed under these laws. It would be unfortunate if indeed CSE has released such a report, since they should have verified the facts with us before maligning ITC and misleading consumers,” said Nazeeb Arif, vice-president of corporate communications at ITC.
The CSE report said a packet of ITC's Bingo potato chips contained 0.6g of trans-fats for a 100g serving, though the packet claimed zero trans-fat.