Junk advertising for junk food
On March 10, 2014, the District Food Officer of Barabanki collected some samples of Maggi Noodles and sent them for testing to the Government Regional Public Analyst Laboratory in Gorakhpur. Test results revealed stratospherically high levels of lead, as-well-as the presence of a notorious flavour enhancer, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Delhi, Kerala, Odisha, Haryana, Assam and Gujarat have followed suit and sent samples of Maggi Noodles for testing. The Kerala government has temporarily banned it and the Delhi government has found that the said products failed food safety tests. Further escalation of the issue happened with a Bihar court ordering an FIR against the Maggi Noodles brand ambassadors Amitabh Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta. What started as a routine food check by a District Food Officer from Barabanki has now steamrolled into a major controversy around food safety and advertising in India. Maggi has been a household name for the past two decades and it is one of India’s most trusted brands; therefore, its fall from grace has rightfully raised questions about whether any brand or advertising can be trusted? Are brand ambassadors legally or morally responsible for products they advertise? What regulation or pro-active measures are needed to ensure ‘honest’ advertising?
The case of Maggi Noodles is a perfect example of the absence of pro-active regulation to ensure food safety, as well as advertising standards. While Maggi may have made headlines after the tests by the District Food Officer in Barabanki, the health risks associated with the consumption of instant noodles have been the subject of much discussion in the past few years. MSG – whose damage to the nerve cells in the brain is well-documented - is known to be a common ingredient in an instant noodle. Similarly, a synthetic additive with toxic properties - TBHQ (Tertiary Butyl Hydro-Quinine) is commonly used as an additive in Instant Noodles across the world. Why does no regulatory mechanism exist to pro-actively initiate testing for these chemicals in food products? In 2014, the Journal of Nutrition published a study that showed how consumption of Instant Noodles increases the risk of <g data-gr-id="66">cardio-metabolic</g> syndrome, obesity and diabetes. Yet despite this available knowledge, Maggi Noodles was allowed to advertise itself as ‘tasty and healthy’.
Another product line that has already made headlines in medical journals, but continues its unhindered advertising and sales are carbonated drinks. With high sugar content, harmful artificial colours and flavouring, soft drinks are associated with multiple health risks such as acidity, obesity, diabetes, etc. Multiple studies have found that phosphoric acid – which gives colas its tangy flavour – is linked to lower bone density and osteoporosis. Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners have been linked to serious ailments including cancer. The presence of these chemicals in soft drinks is all the more worrying because of their increasing consumption in India. Two decades ago having a soft drink was a ‘treat’, often available to children only on parties and weddings. Now soft drinks are commonly found in refrigerators, dining tables and school and college canteens. Sales figures from 2013 tell us that Indians consumed 11,755 million litres of soft drinks in a single year!
Instant noodles and carbonated drinks are just two examples of a much larger phenomenon of increasing consumption of unhealthy food products in the country. And the credit for this increased consumption goes to high-end advertising campaigns. Some of India’s most popular film stars and <g data-gr-id="52">sports-persons</g> advertise these products. These often constitute a greater cost to the companies, than the actual manufacture of these products. Brand ambassadors give credibility to these products. Why consume Maggi? After all, Amitabh Bachchan’s family has it. Why drink Pepsi? It’s the ‘cool’ thing to do, as all iconic cricket players Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni drink it. This is the reason why citizens need to exert pressure on brand ambassadors. While they may not be legally liable for products they advertise, they need to be ethically and morally liable, as it is their credibility that assures consumers about the reliability of those products.
H.G. Wells has famously said, “Advertising is legalized lying”. In a competitive market economy, advertisements will tend to exaggerate and misrepresent facts which ultimately affect impressionable minds. The very nature of corporations is that they are entities that exist to maximize profits. Therefore, they are likely to continue advertising and selling these products irrespective of their possible damage to human <g data-gr-id="63">health,</g> until citizens and governments intervene to prevent this from happening. Citizens have to demand regulatory mechanisms for advertising, to ensure that they as consumers know all the information about a product before buying it. Would we be buying Coke Zero if we knew that there is a large volume of research that links artificial sweeteners like Aspartame to cancer? Would we let children regularly consume Pepsi if we were aware of the high risk of obesity and diabetes? As international experience has shown, raising awareness of health risks and advertising regulation has reduced cigarette consumption throughout the world.
(<g data-gr-id="51">Atishi</g> Marlena is a social activist and policy researcher, who has been with the Aam Aadmi Party for the past two years)