Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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The government has taken steps to rein in irresponsible food ads, but what about misleading media reports on nutrition? Do we need a law to regulate them?

By Usha Rani Das

Can we believe all that we are fed about food and nutrition through the media? Today health conscious consumers are literally bombarded with information through advertisements that hold out hope. And almost as if working in tandem, this is reinforced by health stories in the media quoting experts that seem to echo the same information disseminated through ads. But just when readers have settled in to accept food X is healthy, come counter reports from another set of experts suggesting that it may indeed be harmful. The result: consumers/readers are left confounded about the credentials of a particular food or health product.

A balanced diet that contains a bit of everything and reflects the environment we live in
A balanced diet that contains a bit of everything and reflects the environment we live in

While there are no specific rules laid down to check the flood of health/ nutrition information through editorial content, efforts are on in India to rein in misleading ads that provide inaccurate and even false information about the health advantages of food and food products. The recent signing of a MoU between the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Advertising Standard Council of India (ASCI) is one such step. Through it the FSSAI has given a suo motu monitoring mandate to ASCI to process complaints against misleading F&B (food and beverages) advertisements. The review will include violation of the FSS Act and Regulations related to advertisements making misleading, unsubstantiated or false claims. FSSAI will also redirect complaints against misleading F&B advertisements to ASCI, which will be reviewed using its code and guidelines.

According to Pawan Agarwal, chief executive chairman of FSSAI, the MoU with ASCI will provide a “paradigm shift” and will “bring transparency and accountability with stakeholders’ participation”. Benoy Roy­choudhry, ASCI chairman, added: “We are delighted that ASCI’s self-regulatory process on advertising content is getting recognition from various government bodies and the partnership with FSSAI will augment our efforts in curtailing misleading advertisements. F&B products are consumed on a daily basis impacting the health and well-being of millions of consumers. Reining in misleading advertisements for this important sector would be a key priority for ASCI.”


The move to keep a watch on ads is welcome. But what about controlling the media which allegedly provides much editorial space to vested interests and food lobbies? What about nutrition-related articles based on one-sided “scientific studies” often funded by food and beverage manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies? Any talk of regulation of the media would be seen as impinging on the sensitive issue of freedom of press. But media experts are of the view that some sort of diligence should be exercised. However, they stop short of recommending any self-regulation.

The move to keep a watch on ads is welcome. But what about controlling the media which allegedly provides much editorial space to vested interests and food lobbies? What about nutrition-related articles based on one-sided “scientific studies” often funded by food and beverage manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies?

Sevanti Ninan who heads media watchdog The Hoot told India Legal: “I don’t think this is a self-regulation issue. Nutrition research like any other kind of research will produce contradictory findings. It’s a paper’s job to report all studies. What can be done if the relevant desk is doing its job is to also carry links to a study saying the opposite. The paper’s own nutrition writers need to tackle contradictory findings by explaining them or joining issue with them. But that is not self-regulation. It is analytical reporting.”


But where do readers draw the line between what is accurate and what is false? India Legal spoke to doctors and health activists who underscored the fact that media reports often serve vested interests of the pharmaceutical and food industry.

According to a senior journalist who works for a leading daily which devotes regular space to health and nutrition, there is not only a nexus between those who write health columns promoting a particular food or supplement and the manufacturers but also between companies and the marketing department of publications. “An editorial endorsement can work wonders for a product, a vitamin or a health food drink. So there is some form of paid news which has come into play. Sometimes ads are booked in return for editorial support so the reporter or the columnist simply obliges,” she says. She notes that it is this trend that has contributed to misleading reports on health-related issues and feels that some guidelines must be formulated for reportage. “It is too much to say that there must be some authority monitoring editorial coverage. There will be very severe opposition to any such move. But editors could come up with some basic diligence that must be followed when reporting on nutrition which should be seen as something more than a lifestyle issue,” she says.


Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment which has done studies on colas and bottled water, speaks of the need for the media to check facts before committing something to print. He said: “Certain factors about studies should be checked before publishing articles. Like the category of people on whom the study was done and whether it has been conducted on any residents of a tropical country like India. Yes, sponsored studies are done, corporates fund universities to conduct such studies and publish the desired results.

A senior journalist said there is not only a nexus between health columnists and the product manufacturers but also between companies and the marketing department of publications.

“For the last 5-6 years, numerous studies have come out stating olive oil is the best oil and it is used widely for cooking. But different parts of India have different temperatures and weather conditions. What no one tells you is that it is not suitable for Indian cooking. What we get in India is the ‘pomace olive oil’ which does not have the properties of olive oil at all. It should be mentioned in the packaging of the product. Another such example is, for the past 25 years, we have been told that egg yolk contains saturated fat and then suddenly a study comes out stating that a certain amount of cholesterol is good for your health. This is hilarious.” Under these circumstances the public is not only confused, but may even feel misguided.


A study—The Quality of Nutrition Research Reporting by Leading Daily Newspapers in India —done by the  National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, found that almost one-fifth of the reports have no mention of the source, which denies reader access to the original report. Not just that, the report also speaks of the half-baked, sensational and hyped-up information that is disseminated for varied reasons.

To quote the report: “The use of exaggeration or slant (whereby some features are ignored and others are overemphasized) may be motivated by the conflicting expectations of readers and responsibilities of journalists. While the readers consider health and nutrition information that appears in daily newspapers authentic, reporters need to gain newspaper space (and ultimately an audience) for their topics, so they are prone to include sensationalistic, absolutist or, at least, dramatic statements. This drive conflicts with the norms of science journalism, which encourage cautious, detailed, balanced reporting…”


The report also notes that new findings are often reported “without clearly indicating their limitations or inconclusiveness, which may lead consumers to act on information that is proven by further research to be inaccurate. Such developments fuel public confusion and the perception that nutrition information is unreliable and ever-changing. Most reporters work hard to keep their stories accurate. However, the media is in the business to sell papers or attract viewers and listeners. To do so, they sometimes use headlines or story lead-ins with words such as ‘breakthrough’ and ‘cure’ to describe the findings of studies that may offer only preliminary results. In addition, some media reports are sensationalized. For instance, some special interest groups promote their agendas by citing statistics out of context or touting inaccurate and alarming data. The media presents this information because of its shock value and audience appeal.”


As the public’s thirst for information grows, reporting on evolving diet and related health science issues present a particular challenge for journalists. As Dr Amit Sengupta of Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan, a Delhi-based NGO, puts it:  “Every study is of one view. There shouldn’t be random use of individual studies. This shows the relative ignorance of people reporting on it and the lack of background research done by him/her. There is a gap in the sources that can be relied upon and the rules and regulations to do so.”

So some leading national newspapers refer to individual studies as “large studies” to highlight its significance. Then broad misleading statements like “this view confirms what health experts have said for decades” are made when the conclusions noted in a report may be that of a single nutritionist. Fruit juices are often promoted in editorial columns when any doctor will tell you that it is advisable to stay off them and eat the fruit instead.  Dr Samiran Nundy of Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi, said: “The authors, publishers and readers have to make up their own minds after sifting through the evidence. Is the methodology sound and the conclusions justified?”

The media focus on nutrition has two dimensions. One is that readers have become health conscious and wish to exercise nutritionally sound choices. At another level, there is the commercialization of the health food industry. There is big buck advertising involved to promote the wellness sector and the media would not like to miss out.

But in all this, it is the reader who is pounded with false and misleading information. Food is part of our culture. One should have a balanced diet which reflects our environment. As Dr Pushpinder Singh, a pediatrician who runs a clinic in south Delhi and is a part of an initiative that provides free treatment to poor, said: “We should apply our common sense. A balanced diet should include little bit of everything. Readers should not be so gullible.”

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