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Beyond the news: The fall of ‘health drink’ label and Indian masalas under scrutiny

Samarth Bansal
5 min read • 
3 May 2024


Hi there, this is Samarth Bansal, the Editor of Truth Be Told, and I’m writing today’s newsletter to talk about food-related issues dominating the news.

It’s one of those rare moments when the food industry and our regulator come under the scanner, and people start asking questions because multiple news stories point out problems in our food environment.

And then, one is left wondering: How bad are things, really? Is anyone even doing anything at all, or are manufacturers getting a free run to do whatever?

But this is also a moment of reflection for us, consumers: given that we know the default state of the industry doesn’t inspire much confidence, what can we do?

Let me help—with some obvious reminders. I will talk about arbitrary categories and health claims (and how you should think about them) and an old government report that revealed glaring problems in India’s food safety apparatus. 

First: Ignore All Claims. (Seriously.)

Remember the big controversy around Bournvita’s sugar content last year? I wrote about it in the newsletter. (And hey, btw, Times of India republished our story last month.)

That whole drama has led to change. The Commerce Ministry has directed e-commerce platforms like Amazon and BigBasket to remove drinks like Bournvita, Horlicks, and Protinex from the “health drinks” category. 

Why? Because there is no definition of “health drink” under India’s food and safety standards laws, says the government. 

Following this, Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), the company behind popular beverages Horlicks and Boost, decided to revamp their labels: they are replacing the “health drink” label with a new category called “Functional and Nutritional drinks.”

Okay. This is good. There was celebration in the corner of the internet where I spend my time. (The Bournvita thing really triggered people, and so many felt cheated by their favourite drink.)

But…the thing I kept thinking: there are just so many more such labels that have no clear definition in the law and are plastered all over products in the grocery store. What about them?

As we wrote in our guide to reading food labels:

This green tea “helps with weight loss”. This bar contains turmeric which is “known for its anti-inflammatory properties”. This cookie is “diabetic-friendly”. That meal is ‘keto-friendly’. Bullshit. 

I’ve listed above the most common ways English phrases that mean nothing but absolve the claim maker from legal action are used. 

Because hey, I did pack two grams of protein into this cookie. So it’s packed. And these cornflakes have some iron, so they aren’t iron-poor. Right? And I only claimed that green tea would help with weight loss. And I’m sure it did. Can you prove otherwise?

See my point? 

Now, we don’t know if the government has any plans for issuing a larger audit taking cue from this one incident. Let’s assume it’s not happening.

But as we have covered in great detail in our guide, you don’t need anyone—an influencer, a consumer affairs activist, or the government—to help you, if, and only if, you train yourself to ignore all labels, all claims, all marketing slogans and only assess a product based on the nutritional table and the ingredients list. The truth is written out there. 

But that does need intentional choices from your end. Which starts by knowing what you need.

For example, you are looking for a snack option. Something to munch at your office, between lunch and dinner. You don’t feel like having fruit. You are looking for variety. And you also want it to be ‘healthy’. 

But what does ‘healthy’ even mean? You say, umm, maybe, more protein would be good. 

Fair. But how much protein? 2gms? 5gms? 10gms? 20gms? 

Because if you can’t answer this, companies can sell anything as protein-rich because – just like with ‘health drink’ labels — there is no definition of what’s protein-rich. 

So you may end up feeling great to have a ‘protein snack’ which really is just 2g protein and 10g of sugar. 

Objects in the hoarding are not what they appear. 

Or let’s talk about a snack for weight loss. So many products will say ‘helps with weight loss’ — but again, it means nothing. 

Because if you are trying to lose weight, what matters is the combined calorie and macronutrient count of everything you eat during the day. No one product leads to weight loss. If you eat more calories than you burn, you won’t be able to lose fat. 

So when you are making a choice, you need to figure how does any product you buy fit into your overall diet for the day. The marketer’s claim is useless. 

The list for these labels is long. But you get the drift. I am so glad to see there is a step forward to hold manufacturers accountable, but it’s a long fight. 

Until then, you can do a lot by yourself. By learning to read nutritional labels. 

🔎Nudge someone to start reading nutritional tables today.

Second: How Safe Is My Food?

Now on to the systemic problems, where you, as an individual, can’t do much—reading labels is not the solution here. But hey, change starts with awareness. 

So here’s what happened: overseas authorities are telling us that Indian spices have cancer-causing ingredients. (WTF?!)

Hong Kong was like: “Nope, not having it,” and kicked out three MDH powders—Madras Curry, Sambhar Masala Mixed Masala, and Curry Mixed Masala—plus Everest’s Curry Masala. 

The reason? They apparently contained a carcinogenic substance called ethylene oxide. 

And then Singapore was like, “We’re with you, Hong Kong,” and banned Everest fish curry masala. Same reason.

But wait, there’s more. 

The Indian Express dropped a truth bomb: 31% of all MDH masalas were given the thumbs down by US Customs in the past six months due to salmonella contamination. And get this—the rejection rate has doubled since October.

There’s even more. 

The Hong Kong findings sparked a Deccan Herald investigation that uncovered even more dirt. They dug into the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF)—basically a database of all the food products that got recalled. 

And what did they find? Between September 2020 and April 2024, European Union food safety regulators discovered ethylene oxide in 527 products linked to India. We’re talking nuts, sesame seeds, herbs, spices, dietetic foods—you name it. 

So, what’s the FSSAI—our food regulator—doing about all this? 

They say they’ve ordered quality checks on MDH and Everest. They’re checking if these products meet Indian standards. Let’s wait and watch what they come back with. 

Splainer has the best explainer on these events. Read their piece for more details. 

As a consumer, I am obviously concerned. And I am left asking: what more is going on that I don’t know? I can’t just stop buying stuff from the market, so which other products might not meet the standards of food safety?

Who knows. But this led me to think more about our regulator and reminded me of a 2017 performance audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) that pointed to glaring shortcomings in the system. 

Yes, it’s seven years old—so one can hope that some things might have become better—but given what has been revealed now, it seems clear that problems continue to exist. 

The CAG report is the most authoritative document I have found so far to start grasping the extent of the problem, so I am sharing three things that are relevant to the masala debacle. 

One, inadequate testing of food samples by ill-equipped labs

The CAG audit revealed that 65 out of 72 state food labs to which FSSAI and state food safety authorities sent food samples for testing do not possess NABL accreditation, which is crucial for ensuring the reliability and accuracy of test results. Meaning the quality of testing by these laboratories cannot be assured. 

Many labs failed to test food samples for essential parameters like microbiological safety, metal contaminants, and pesticide residues. 

For instance, the Central Food Lab in Kolkata failed to test for at least 137 out of 149 required pesticide residues. Why? Because they didn’t have the equipment and resources. 

“Consequently, food products with possibly harmful pesticide presence impacting food safety were declared safe for human consumption,” the CAG report notes. 

Not cool. (The audit report has more examples listed.)

Two, shortage of qualified personnel in food labs

Most state food labs faced shortages of 18-40% in technical staff, with 10 labs having over 40% vacancies. The Central Food Lab in Kolkata had only 29 technical staff against a sanctioned strength of 53. The lack of qualified Food Analysts severely impacted the functioning of several labs.

In 2015-16, out of the 16 notified food labs to which the officers in Delhi and Mumbai sent around 50,000 cases of imported food samples for testing, 15 did not have a food analyst qualified by FSSAI board.

So, with most labs not meeting quality standards and lacking qualified staff, the credibility of food testing comes into question. 

Third, irregular product approvals and failure to prevent unsafe products

In 54% of the test-checked product approval cases, FSSAI issued approvals without the required examination by Scientific Panels. 

And even after FSSAI withdrew approvals for products rejected by Scientific Panels, it did not cancel the corresponding licences in several cases, allowing unsafe products to remain in the market. 

Which means, according to CAG, the problems with the FSSAI’s approval process and lack of effective follow up on the cancellation of licences for rejected products has historically allowed the proliferation of potentially unsafe foods. 

These three points, backed by specific audit data, paint a picture of a food safety system that has been plagued by inadequate and unreliable testing, unqualified personnel, and poor gatekeeping against unsafe products. 

Issues with FSSAI’s approval process led to the spread of possibly unsafe foods.

Again, I must emphasise, this is a seven-year-old audit report and the latest data on what has improved or not is not available. But I shared this as context, to help us understand that the recent revelations are part of a long-standing pattern of systemic failures in ensuring food safety. 

For now, let’s wait to hear from FSSAI on the latest findings on the masalas—and hope for change.

🌶️Share with that friend who adds masala to all your stories.

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