Friday, August 15, 2008


Inadequate understanding of the basic concepts of food and nutrition can be cited as one of the major reasons for many of the diseases and health disorders both amongst the poor as well as the rich. Food consumption habits which are formed early in life get ingrained into the life styles of people as they grow and it becomes impossible to change them unless forced due to unavoidable circumstances later in life. India has the typical example of how the population in the south was forced to shift to wheat slowly during sixties and seventies because of large scale shortage of rice which is the staple. The yeomen effort by GOI to make rice like products from tapioca and supplement the natural rice supply to cater to the palates of southern population had to be abandoned because of less than satisfactory consumer acceptability. It took more than two decades of promotion and easy supply to popularize wheat and to day wheat based products like chapathi and allied products and bread have become significant components of regular diet in majority of households in this region. However even to day the preferred choice for many, especially from earlier generation is rice given an option. Another example is that of South Korea which historically was a rice eating country with wheat practically not consumed before the Korean war and arrival of American troops in late forties. Exposed to the influence of the Americans and through a subtle campaign for promoting imported American wheat, that country imports large quantity of wheat from USA with very little local production. Thus critical importance of eating nutritionally balanced food early in life cannot be overstated

In India nutrition labeling is being made compulsory on all packed foods presumably to enable the consumer to understand the value of food purchased or to have multiple options in buying any food in the market. However what is not clear is how many consumers can understand the significance of nutrients like proteins, sodium, potassium, trans fats, dietary fiber or carbohydrates, all of which have important roles to play in maintaining good health. Some awareness seems to be existing regarding cholesterol though many have little clue regarding the exact implications of this component on human health. Many misapprehensions exist regarding bad effects of consuming oils like that from coconut and palm fruits, many falsely imagining they are rich sources of cholesterol. There are so many other misapprehensions and erroneous beliefs that will be difficult to erase unless nutrition education becomes an integral part of formal childhood education system. While positive aspects of nutrition is slowly gaining attention at some of the educational institutions, the importance of hygiene and sanitation also needs to stressed to prevent negative consequences of infection and infestation of foods.

Association of Food Scientists and Technologists(India), during their annual Convention in Hyderabad in 2006 made a beginning with assistance from UNICEF in experimenting with a model for educating children from rural areas regarding the concepts of nutrition and food but it was not pursued further to evolve a national consensus for organizing programs on a wider scale. Country is not short of experts and surely they will be willing to contribute intellectually to put in place a practical education program right from the first grade level. Education being a state subject, it is imperative that the program is made in consultation with the authorities there if to be implemented all over the country. NCERT also needs to be roped in as the educationists in this organization have lot of expertize and experience in the field.

Industry can work at a different level to educate the parents who after all have great influence on the behavior of their children. It may be too much to expect that industry would abandon their business for the sake of education but an enlightened parent is always a better client to appreciate the quality and safety of the foods the industry produces and markets. A simple way to spread nutrition information is to introduce slogans that will catch the notice of the consumers and remind them often, becoming a part of their day to day activities. How can this be done? Many foods are packed in cartons and the outside is invariably printed attractively carrying essential information on the contents. However inside of the carton presents a great opportunity for the industry to print information regarding nutrition and the design should be such that consumers will keep them at least for some time for the message to sink in. Or calendar type cards can be included in the pack containing such information. Industry can also create separate sections on nutrition in their web sites highlighting nutritional information. Same is true with commercial advertisements where at least one or two fundamental messages can be included. There are so many other ways of putting across messages targeting the consumers and over a period of time greater awareness is generated amongst the population.

Industry associations like AIFPA, PFNDAI, etc, food technology professionals in AFST(I), IDA, etc, nutritionists from organizations like Nutrition Society, Society of Biochemists, NIN etc, representatives from Health Ministry and Food Processing Ministry(MFPI) administrators can make the above possible if a concerted effort is made. Years ago when the MFPI was born, one of the priority areas was promotion of processed foods though nothing concrete has been done during the last two decades of its existence. It is better late than never and this is the time for earnest action to achieve universal nutritional literacy in the country.


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