Changing diet poses health risks in India
NEW DELHI : Big brands are fighting it out for a slice of India’s growing fast food market with advertisements filling television screens and billboards.
McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Pizza Hut, KFC, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are just some of the international food brands now aggressively touting their wares to the Indian public.
The stakes are high. Last month, for instance, Coca-Cola announced plans to invest US$5 billion (S$6.3 billion) over the next eight years to “further capture growth” in India’s ready-to-drink market.
Betting on the sweet tooth of India’s 1.2 billion population certainly makes good business sense. Economic reforms introduced two decades ago have seen the middle classes swell. As disposable incomes in the country grow, so the consumption patterns of millions are changing.
Sugary soft drinks and fast food chains are “all the rage now”, said Ms Shobha Shukla, a teacher and public health activist in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
Coca-Cola is a clear beneficiary of India’s dietary shift. Sales across its 1.5 million outlets nationwide have increased every quarter for the past six years. Its two best-selling drinks – Thums Up and Sprite – shot up by more than a quarter in the first three months of this year alone.
What is good for business, however, may not be best for India’s public health. Diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing. With more than 50 million sufferers, India has the largest diabetes population in the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, heart disease has also spiked, becoming the biggest single cause of death in both urban and rural areas, a recent study by the Indian Council of Medical Research shows.
Public health campaigners have been quick to make the link with India’s growing taste for high processed, high-calorie food and drinks.
“Excess consumption of these so-called ‘fast foods’, coupled with low levels of physical activity, can lead to obesity”, said Dr Anoop Misra, Chairman of India’s National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation.
Young people are especially vulnerable. A recent study by Dr Misra on adolescents in New Delhi found that the prevalence of obesity had increased from 16 per cent to 24 per cent between 2002 and 2007.
“These foods are available right in the school canteen and in the outside markets well within the reach of children,” he added.
Half of India’s population is under 25 years old. That holds out the possibility of “a massive public health burden for years to come”, said Mr Raj Patel, a writer and activist. “India’s public health officials need to do something about that now,” he added.
That is beginning to happen, albeit slowly. The state government of Uttar Pradesh has taken the lead. It recently banned the sale of fast food in or immediately around government-run schools. Delhi is due to follow suit.