Walk down the aisle of any supermarket in Kathmandu, and there they are arrayed along the shelves: tetrapacks of juice claiming to have the goodness of whole fruits, instant noodles promising to make you more intelligent, chips and cheese balls in flashy foil packing, and fizzy sugar drinks piled high.
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Supposedly fortified with iron, vitamins and vital minerals, the attractively packaged processed foods have become symbols of a modern ‘Western’ culture. Families are moving away from agriculture and nutritious traditional foods to an urban lifestyle with its quick on-the-go meals, setting off an alarming rise in chronic diseases.
“The majority of our medical problems these days are directly linked to poor diet and lack of information about nutritious food created by false advertising,” asserts public health specialist Aruna Uprety, and author of a recent book on nutrition. “There is a damaging notion that it is expensive to be healthy because packaged food in fancy wrappings are more nutritious. This is completely false.”
The figures say it all. The incidence of anemia among women increased from 36% in 2006 to 41% ten years later. Children with anemia rose from 48% in 2006 to 53% in 2016. Prevalence of hypertension has also increased from 13% of women and 18% men with high blood pressure in 2006 to 17% and 23% respectively ten years later.
Recent research has shown that 2.5 million Nepalis suffer from Type 2 diabetes, which is 8.1% of the population. However, the prevalence rate for diabetes in rural areas is only 1%, while it is as high as 14% in some cities where people lack exercise and have higher intakes of sugary sodas and processed foods.
Health experts say the line between good and bad food is getting blurred because of misleading advertising and promotion, influencing Nepalis subconsciously with claims that fast, junk foods are healthy.
The first challenge for regulators is to curb false advertising of junk food, and strictly implement a policy to reduce misinformation and unquestioned consumption. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is especially worried about the exposure to children of such targeted marketing.
In the absence of strict labelling criteria, nutritionally void products can claim to be enriched with vitamins, minerals, calcium and iron, while conveniently overlooking the fact they are laden with preservatives, emulsifiers, artificial colours and flavours, excess salt, sugar and unhealthy fats.
For decades, most industrialised countries have been cracking down on junk food manufacturers and fast food companies. Increased health consciousness in the public has also forced them to use more wholesome raw materials. However, self-regulation by the advertising industry is not working.
London is phasing out junk food ads from the city’s public transport network. Mexico, a country with the second highest rate of adult obesity in the world, saw consumption of fizzy drinks drop by 7.6% since a tax on soft drinks was imposed two years ago. Other countries are watching the Mexico experience closely to see the impact on Type 2 diabetes of taxing sugary drinks.
The UK has also banned advertisements of a health drink that claimed to make children ‘taller, stronger and sharper’. However, the same company continues to air TV commercials with similar content in South Asia, including Nepal.
Nepal has no strict policies or advertising standards to regulate outlandish health claims made by manufacturers of packaged foods, fizzy drinks and franchised fast food outlets. Public awareness of the health impact of sugar consumption is growing in the West with books like The Case Against Sugar, but there is no such campaign in Nepal.
Arjun M Bhattarai of the Advertising Association of Nepal says the government has no code of conduct governing marketing of harmful foodstuff, and the industry cannot act until there is. Nepal has followed the international trend in regulating cigarette advertising, but there have not been similar restrictions for alcohol and processed foods.
“Advertisements for junk foods should be strictly regulated just like ads for cigarettes,” says nutritionist Sophia Uprety. “Junk food tastes good only because it contains layers of addictive flavour enhancers, which are not good for our health. The traditional Nepali diet is a goldmine of nutrition, we do not need to look anywhere else. Let us not wait for the West to tell us what we already know.”
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Traditional Nepali whole foods like buckwheat, barley, corn, millet and a variety of legumes and spices such as turmeric are fresh, organic and wholesome, having medicinal properties. Ironically, however, consumers in Western societies now regard these foods Nepalis are discarding as superfoods, while Nepalis buy junk food that the West has rejected.
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Sunita Rimal of the Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre which conducts classes for mothers and children about how to make nutritious meals from available ingredients, says wholesome food need not be expensive.
“There is a notion now that supermarket food is better and more nutritious, that has to change,” Rimal says.
Health food practitioner Sharada Jnawali has sought to revive the popularity of fresh, healthy Nepali dishes with her book, Nepali Home Cooking for Healthy Living. She says: “Eating healthy is not complicated. We can even make common snack items like momos healthier by simply using unprocessed flour, reduce the excess spice in the meat. We can replace instant noodles in chatpate with bean sprouts and beaten rice. The little changes will make all the difference.”