Junk food was recently in the news again, for all the wrong reasons as usual. The reported presence of trans-fatty acids in branded and packaged foods like snacks, chips and so on was testified. The detection of high levels of sodium is yet another harmful indicator that justifiably strengthens the case against their consumption.
Undoubtedly, effective regulation is needed to address the issue — developing standards and guidelines, monitoring manufacturers closely and taking strict action against non-adherence are all very necessary. But one is encouraged to ask a more basic question — Why do we have them in the first place?
Truth is that there is little motivation among children, adolescents and youth to develop healthy eating habits. The preferences of young people when it comes to snacking or appetizing are grossly tilted in the favour of fried foods. And why wouldn’t they?
Let’s look at this. These foods can be purchased at prices as low as Rupees 10 — say for a pack of chips; for which you also get to pick a flavour from among several choices — and rupees 25 — for a filling burger at a branded quick service restaurant (QSR). The vendors selling most such foods are ubiquitous nowadays whether it’s right outside – if not inside – schools, within office complexes, in neighbourhood markets, at train stations, bus stations, fairs, just about everywhere. More importantly, these eatables are very well advertised and the idea of junk food has been sold well to consuming groups that are impressionable.
Changing this ground reality may be possible if we find an alternative for junk food. And we needn’t look far.
Fruits and a select few vegetables – like carrots, cucumbers and tomatoes that can be eaten raw – do not lag behind in taste or the capacity to satiate hunger. Nature provides them seasonally in all varieties and colours; some of them even exotic. Their health benefits are tremendous, from providing instant refreshment to combating some of the most dangerous disorders and diseases.
But when you compare their benefits with the popularity of junk foods the problem becomes apparent. The latter are made to mean as if they are something but in reality they are hollow. On the contrary, fruits offer a lot but are belittled and humbled, swept aside by waves of rampant junk food advertising and reinforcement of the message in lifestyles. Moreover, they’re expensive and the cultivation process is constrained for a variety of reasons.
Plain supply-demand economics may help in changing the cultivation situation. Agricultural produce can be increased if land, necessary inputs and adequate support is provided. Political will to do the same will follow if the need for their consumption grows considerably. But then, how do you create the need?
In all homes, children can be taught and encouraged to take pride in eating these natural foods and parents would have to demonstrate by example. Using any kind of pressure tactic is potentially counter-productive. Subtle persuasion may be of greater help – how these foods are introduced in diet, prioritized, presented and portrayed are very important — also because the aim is habit formation. But then again, what would impact families enough to start behaving proactively?
One idea could be that their enormous benefits need to be emphasized and re-emphasized time and again. What they can do for your system can surely be expressed in new and creative ways. The government has a decent share in the media and communication space, especially broadcasting, and it has aired a few successful public service campaigns whenever the will is there.
Points-of-sale is another area that will require serious thinking. Successful business and marketing models can be devised by taking inspiration from local feats — popular juice corners, famous vendors in localities, etc. – and promoting them. The dream could be to get to a point where outlets selling natural eatables proliferate, such that they are well represented in all the locations that people approach for snacking.
All this may be labelled as far-fetched, wishful thinking, and totally hypothetical. But something as quietly lethal as junk food can be dealt with when many minds are challenged to think and act along these lines. To guard against salty, if not bitter, consequences, it appears to be a worthwhile thing to do.