Friday, August 17, 2012


Food industry is supposed to be providing to the consumer foods that can satisfy both their nutritional as well as culinary satisfaction. Whether the current day food manufacturing sector has been able to satisfy both the above criteria is a subject matter of incessant controversy. A substantial segment of the consumers feel that this industry is more obsessed with protecting its economic interests rather than the interests of the consumer with the result that responsibility for most of the modern day health disorders has been laid at the door steps of the industry. Whether it is CVD, Diabetes, Blood pressure, Kidney disorders or Obesity a substantial segment of the society blames the industry for making and marketing unhealthy foods to the unsuspecting consumer. Though food industry will have to take a large part of the blame for this sorry situation, the government as well as the consumer also have contributed to this mess in their own way. While the regulatory agencies under the government control can be found guilty of not exercising its power of disciplining the industry, consumers must be faulted for not choosing the right food and not following an active life style required to maintain good health.

Sugar including HFCS, fat including the trans fats and salt are the common enemies targeted as villains of the peace when role of food on good health is considered. Why these three constituents in the food should become villains though they were part of the foods consumed for ages is mired in controversies defying a consensus among the pundits of health. It is true that HCFS and trans fats are human creation and therefore their exact role needs to be elucidated through critical and reliable human studies but organizing such studies is fraught with lot of logistical difficulties at the ground level. The empirical calculation that as long as the calorie intake is balanced with expenditure and a diet of varied components is consumed regularly, one need not fear about health deterioration may require a revisit if the large scale use of food additives used by the processors, contaminants that creep into the food during handling and processing, faulty design of products with low fiber and depleted nutrients and unsafe processing practices are taken into consideration. Modern day foods are largely based on too much sugar, refined grains devoid of almost all nutrients, high salt levels, high fat content, all necessary to increase palatability which happens to be the driving force for successful marketing. 

It was not long ago that the industry came up with food supplements and nutraceuticals to overwhelm the consumer who started to worry about the ill effects of over processed foods and success was almost instant. To day this specialized segment of the industry offers a wide range of products,  most of which are considered neither a food nor a pharmaceutical product and the new industry is worth about $ 200 billion world wide, according to one estimate! Ideally for business, food processing makes an easy choice but progressive tightening of safety regulations and increasing criticism from the consumers make it difficult to meet consumer aspirations. Here is where the food supplements and nutraceuticals fit the bill. This is also true for pharmaceutical industry which is a cost intensive sector besides being tightly controlled universally. Almost all products being churned out by this new avatar of the industry such as probiotics, antioxidants, etc are able to make claims on one count or the other regarding their effectiveness on improving health or some medical benefits or preventing many diseases. Unfortunately these foods have not been subjected to any meaningful clinical research for proving the claims. Many of these products are targeted at young or old people with claims of keeping one younger, fitter and slimmer, often offering quick-fix solutions to protecting health. In India there are a few products that blatantly boast of growing taller, sharper, smarter, more healthy, quick energy restoration etc though very little clinical evidence is offered in support. Enrolling some obscure "scientists", obviously mercenaries in nature, in visual promotions gives the claims some respectability. It is a tragedy that government of the day remains a mute spectator to this day light fraud!        

According to some observers the nutraceutical and health food industry is a "placebo" driven business with little margins and therefore it cannot invest too much on clinical research in supportv of its varied claims.  Consumers eager to buy products which are fortified with one or more nutrients or well being ingredients, enhanced and enriched and their ready willingness to buy them, provides the platform for the health food industry to exploit this weakness for enriching itself! There is a famous saying that multi vitamins only improve the "health" of the industry! Probably this may be the real truth in the case of health food industry also. It is the eternal hope of the consumers who are hooked on to these products by high pressure promotional efforts of the industry, that ensures phenomenal growth by many major players in this sector. This situation cannot be allowed to continue knowing well that consumers are being taken for a ride by this industry with no regulatory agencies doing any thing to curb their activities. Probably it is time consumer activists take up cudgels on behalf of millions of unsuspecting consumers and force the governments in different countries as well as international agencies involved in health related developments to bring in some sanity in the form of evolving a regulatory environment to protect the interest of the consumer. The fact that these products do not harm the consumer though the claims made are unsustainable, cannot be an excuse to delay action in this area any more.     


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