Food manufacturers world over are increasingly adopting transparent marketing practices that enable consumers of processed packed foods to know what exactly they are buying. The labeling regulations in place make it mandatory to declare the nutritional profile of the products in side a food pack, the most important from the health angle being total calories, fat, salt and sugar. Those who have to watch out against putting on weight can use discretion in selecting foods that are low in calories and fat while others guarding against blood pressure and diabetes can avoid products rich in salt and sugar. In general even those who are healthy are better advised to exercise caution in binging on foods high in fat, sugar and salt to safeguard against developing some of the life style diseases like diabetes, atherosclerosis, blood pressure and others. Looking back, except for a few black sheep, food industry as a whole have lived up to the expectation of the consumers in bringing the much needed transparency in its activities, though much more can be done to increase the level of confidence by voluntary action.
Same cannot be said about the unorganized sector of food industry such as those existing in many developing countries. Strangely the obligation to be transparent applies only when the food is packed by the organized industry and those foods vended loosely can get way with many wrong doings about which the consumers and the enforcement agencies are aware of without being able to do any thing. Many small retailers make their own food products like snacks, savories, sweets, spice powders and similar items which are offered across the sales counter, packed loosely and consumers do recognize that such foods cannot be kept for long because of high potential to get spoiled. But absence of a system to compel such processors to at least display the nutritional profile of the products provided by them can be helpful to the consumer. Taking potato chips as an example, difference in the oil content between the branded and the loosely vended products can be as high as 50%, the latter being high in oil due to many reasons. How many consumers are aware of this?
Eateries or the restaurants are a class by them selves with their clients focusing more on taste rather than hygiene or cleanliness. With hundreds of products offered for consumption on the spot or as "take away" foods, it is any body's guess as to the calorie or fat or salt or the sugar content in them. There can be enormous variations in composition from one restaurant to another, confusing the customers further. With eating out still confined to smaller populations in urban regions and not as widespread as in western countries, the problem of restaurant foods causing health related damages is not so serious at present but it can assume alarming proportion if the current trend of growth of catering sector in the country is kept in view.
The safety of foods in public eateries including street vending comes under the purview of the civic bodies and public health officials are supposed to be concerned only about hygiene of the environment and wholesomeness of the products served so that incidence of food borne diseases is avoided. Regulation is done through control of licensing such eating joints. Neither the PFA authorities nor the civic bodies are aware of the anti-health potential of prepared foods because of high calories, fat, sugar and salt. This is where government intervention is called for in persuading all eating joints to display along the price list the calorie and fat content of each preparation offered by them. If implemented this is a good start to wards evolving a more transparent relationship between the customers and the caterers. There can be much reluctance and resistance from the catering industry because of apprehension about loss of business but unless this is done there will not be any incentive to bring about innovations in foods to make them more healthy without sacrificing the organoleptic quality.
There can be many problems in implementing a scheme like the one proposed above but over a period of time these can be overcome, given the cooperation between the government and the catering industry. Health of the population in a country cannot be left to the discretion of the catering industry and there must be some guidelines which, if not adopted voluntarily, must be enforced to make people choose wisely when ever they visit public eateries.