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The Role of the Food Industry in Obesity in India

7th January, 2022

It’s exam season, and just as you pull another all-nighter, you grab a snack to help you stay awake. Chances are, you’ve got a packet of biscuits in your hand. Maybe even chips. Or a bar of chocolate. And as you’re munching away, your eyes stray onto the “nutritional value” table on the packet. And before you know it, you’ve scanned it all; the carbohydrates, the cholesterol, added sugars, nutrients, ingredients, and preservatives. (Phew! So much print)

What are the snacks we savour, the food we eat - what are they really? Well, they’re the fine products of the food industry. Of course, most of us must know what the food industry is. The word "food industries" refers to a variety of industrial processes used in the preparation, preservation, and packaging of food. This industry includes both farmers and distributors of packaged foods. Those promoting food in all its forms for consumption are part of this vast network.

When we look at the food industry in India, we can see the “massive success” it has garnered in one particular way - how India has transitioned from a land infamous for malnutrition to a country now dealing with the obesity epidemic.

A person with obesity has an abnormally high body fat percentage, which raises their chance of developing health issues. When a person's body mass index is greater than or equal to 25, they are considered obese. More calories are consumed than are expended, which is one of the main causes of obesity. Obesity is a big health problem since it can eventually lead to chronic illnesses including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and several types of cancer.

How has the food industry played a role in the increase in obesity amongst Indians, you ask?

Take a look at your typical supermarket, which may stock up to 60,000 different products. Given the fierce rivalry, food marketers must pique consumers' interest so they choose their goods over those of rivals. Because of this, product packaging, one of the pivotal processes in the food industry, is crucial for its sales.

The industry employs a range of strategies, including as the use of vivid, strong colors and eye-catching images, to attempt and influence customers to purchase specific items.Additionally, they alter the scale of food pictures that are displayed on items, for instance, the size of the chip on the Doritos package or the size of the bread on a jar of peanut butter. According to studies, it can make the meal more appealing to customers since they assume the dish would taste better with a bigger picture, which improves their likelihood of buying the goods.

The theory behind this, known as mental imagery, contends that the way individuals perceive an item in their minds might lead them to believe it is superior, of greater quality, or, in our instance, tastier. This has effects on how people choose their meals. When considering the tastiest foods, junk foods like chips, popcorn, and sweets spring to mind. Large, exaggerated pictures of food are frequently found on the packaging of these items. No tax, ominous label, or below-eye-level display can override the very human tendency to gravitate towards food that is comforting, ready-to-eat / easy to prepare, cheap and convenient.

Apart from that, it is also very evident that Indians are fascinated and allured by the concept of the West, as we've seen countless fellow countrymen trying to imitate the Western trends, in the hopes of making ourselves look and feel “modern and up-to-date” and the same goes for food. A huge chain of McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King and Taco Bell - that wasn’t so common in the nation a decade ago, can be found around every nook and corner of the streets, from small sub-urban towns to the most urban and biggest of cosmopolitan cities.

Obesity and Industry

Let’s go back to the supermarket now. What did we see in aisle one? “Ever-lasting energy bars” for example, which are just injected with sugars and preservatives in the true sense. Now, let’s walk up to aisle two. Numerous rows of "healthy," low-fat, light, lean, diet, zero-calorie, low-carbohydrate, low-calorie, and sugar-free products are promoted to the same consumers who were made obese by the preceding aisle and are now frantic to lose weight. Although we often see dieting and obesity as being diametrically opposed, the two really have a close, mutually beneficial relationship.

The food business stood up and paid attention when obesity as a worldwide health concern first emerged on the scene. However, not quite in the manner you might anticipate. Some of the largest food companies in the world made the remarkable and startlingly clear decision to profit from obesity by investing in the diet sector.

The food industry's sole stated goal is to sell food, therefore one may assume that there could be an issue here. However, it squared a seemingly insurmountable circle by inventing the ultimate oxymoron of diet food—something you eat to lose weight. And we purchased it. The emergence of highly processed diet meals (often with more sugar than the originals) that advertise for weight reduction include the crucial excluding phrase, "as part of a calorie-controlled diet." If you like, you may even get a diet Black Coke in place of a usual Coke.

Combatting Obesity

The policies implemented around the world to combat obesity can be broadly categorized into two categories:

  1. Using market instruments like taxes and subsidies;

  2. Education and information dissemination to raise awareness about the harmful effects of obesity through product labeling, advertisements, etc.

When a decision-making individual doesn't cover all expenses, a negative externality increases. Obesity may have considerable social and economic external consequences in the form of increased medical bills and decreased labour productivity. In order to discourage the use of unhealthy items while accounting for their societal marginal costs, "fat taxes," were implemented in Kerala. Due to a levy on unhealthy meals, the Kerala government may have anticipated a move to healthier foods.

The structural makeup of the workforce in Kerala has shifted from the agricultural to the manufacturing and service sectors. In terms of agriculture, manufacturing, and services, it went from 31.6%, 28.8%, and 40.41% in 2004-05 to 25.5%, 31.8%, and 42.61% in 2011-2012, respectively. Compared to the agricultural industry, the manufacturing and service sector jobs (processing, IT-related occupations) need greater mental stress and less physical exertion. Therefore, decreased physical activity and increased stress are also factors in people's changing health situations.

The bigger issue of lifestyle illnesses, which is a result of several circumstances, cannot be resolved by a fat tax alone. Since good organic foods are so much more expensive than unhealthy and widely accessible meals, the obesity problem is more of a health concern than an economic one.

It takes the combined efforts of skilled nutritionists to develop guidelines for a healthy lifestyle and policymakers to control the marketing and advertising of junk food, the labelling of food products, the operation of accountability mechanisms against violations of the right to health, and the promotion of the production and consumption of healthy foods through tax breaks and subsidies for farmers and consumers.

If reducing the incidence of obesity is a goal for society, the policy of the fat tax has to be combined with complete health package policies addressing market failures stemming from information asymmetry and negative externalities. It could be a mistake to aim for the simultaneous decrease of the obese population and increased income collection from the fat tax.


Anusha Kamtikar

Journalist, Current Affairs

The Alpha Theory


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