Jump to Topics

Ultra-processed foods could be fueling diabetes surge in India: WHO

Ultra-processed foods could be fueling diabetes surge in India: WHO

The recently published report by the World Health Organization throws light on the trend of ultra-processed food consumption in the country from 2011 to 2021

Ultra processed food consumption is being cited as one of the main reasons for the increasing prevalence of diabetes in India

628 thousand tons! That’s the total weight of instant noodles Indians consumed in 2021. A total of Rs 2,535 billion was spent on ultra-processed food (UPF) that year, which is Rs 267 billion more than the amount spent in the previous year. There’s been a steep rise in UPF consumption in India over the last decade, which is being cited as one of the main reasons for the increasing prevalence of diabetes and cardiovascular conditions in the country.

“Consuming processed foods is one of the main factors responsible for multiple health conditions, mainly non-communicable complications like diabetes and cardiovascular conditions,” says Dr Pramod V Satya, consultant, internal medicine and diabetologist, Manipal Hospital, Miller’s Road, Bangalore.

A WHO-ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations) report published in August 2023 on the trend of UPF consumption in the country from 2011 to 2021 indicates that people have developed a strong craving for breakfast cereals, ready-to-eat foods and salty snacks, especially after the pandemic-induced lockdown in 2019.

The five pillars of the Indian UPF market

The report broadly divided the Indian UPF market into five main categories, with multiple foods listed under each of them:

1. Breakfast cereals

Sensing a steady increase in the sales of breakfast cereals in India, the WHO report has cautioned about the urgent requirement for healthier versions of the same, with less sugar and a low glycemic index. It has also linked the rising prevalence of diabetes in the country to excessive consumption of UPF.

“There has also been a steep rise in prediabetic cases among young children and adolescents in India. Therefore, there is a need for product reformulation, which is easy to do and will increase demand in the future,” the report states.

Among breakfast cereals, oats, porridge and muesli had the highest sales in 2021. Around 12,000 tons of corn flakes were sold in India in 2011, which went up to 40,000 tons (worth Rs 14,008 million) in 2021.

2. Ready-made and convenience food

The lockdown shot up the demand for ready-made and convenience foods in 2020, as most companies opted to work from home, states the report.

“It [UPF] is quick-to-eat food. But it is not at all healthy and also UPF has lots of refined sugar, carbohydrates and saturated fats, which are harmful for the body,” Dr Satya adds.

The report also states that this category of food often has high salt, sodium and fat content, especially trans fatty acids, making it a major health concern. In 2021, sauces, condiments and food dressing items emerged as the most sold food in this category with 814 thousand tons, followed by instant noodles and ready-to-eat cooking ingredients at 450 thousand tons.

3. Salty snacks

The pandemic also saw the rise of salty snacks, dislodging beverages in terms of total retail sales value in 2019. This category includes potato chips, tortilla chips, puffed snacks, popcorn, savory biscuits and other Indian salty snacks or namkeens (like bhujia and sev).

“The salt and fat content in many products are more than three times the WHO SEAR (South-East Asian Region) Nutrient Profile Model (NPM) norms. One of the core issues in getting the healthier variety to the market includes a lack of policy support for the healthier version,” the report states.

Speaking in Happiest Health’s video series ‘The Why Axis’, Dr Anura Kurpad, professor, department of physiology, St John’s Medical College Hospital, Bangalore, said, “While some people with diabetes avoid sugar, they turn to food items that are salty. If you are eating a lot of chips or salty snacks that are made from starch and thinking you are protecting yourself from diabetes, you are wrong.”

4. Chocolate and sugar confectionery

When it comes to chocolates and sugar confectionaries, sweet biscuits had the largest market shares, both in terms of retail sales value and volume. The report points out that sweet biscuits can harm your health, as they are often consumed as an impulse snack (especially by children) and have a long shelf life.

“It is important to focus on sweet biscuits subcategory for policymaking. This is because it is mostly consumed by children, is affordable and there has also been an increase in marketing of such food as being healthier products,” the report states. Ice cream and frozen desserts along with cakes and pastries had the most sales after sweet biscuits.

5. Beverages (with and without sugar)

According to the WHO report, carbonated beverages and colas experienced a massive dip in their market share, while flavored milk and juice products registered the highest market growth. Going by the retail volume in 2021 alone, squash concentrates dominated beverage sales, accounting for 77 percent of the market.

“Most of these foods contain chemical ingredients and preservatives, which can cause health concerns in the long run. They can also cause complications that could indirectly lead to cancer,” says Dr Sayan Paul, senior consultant, radiation oncology, Apollo Cancer Center, Kolkata.

The report also suggests that while the pandemic caused a shift from colas and carbonated drinks to juices and flavored milk, these products still contain large amounts of sugar and might not be a healthy option. The WHO also recently classified aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener used in sugar-free beverages, as a possible carcinogen.

Dr Banshi Saboo, diabetologist and chair-elect (South Asia), International Diabetes Federation (IDF), emphasizes the need for implementing strong regulatory measures, as UPF consumption (including sugar-rich beverages) is on the rise among people from all socio-economic backgrounds and age groups in the country. As of now, India has at least 101 million people with diabetes, with another 136 million estimated to be living with pre-diabetes.

Share Your Experience/Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *






Opt-in To Our Daily Newsletter

* Please check your Spam folder for the Opt-in confirmation mail

Opt-in To Our
Daily Newsletter

We use cookies to customize your user experience, view our policy here

Your feedback has been submitted successfully.

The Happiest Health team will reach out to you at the earliest