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Why the fight against junk food is a losing battle in India

you may have been reading about the brouhaha created when the Kerala government slapped a 14.5 per cent ‘fat tax’ on Western fast food. Bihar too, has imposed a 13.5 per cent tax on desi junk food (read samosas, kachoris etc). This, we hear will fatten governments’ coffers while slimming down the general populace’s wallets by making them pay dearly for their sin of gluttony.
This might have recently raised eyebrows in India, but the ‘fat tax’ debate has been going on elsewhere for a while now. In the West, fat taxes have been imposed and in some cases, failed. Chile taxes junk food and carbonated beverages, while France’s tax on sugary drinks has reportedly slowed down sales of colas. UK has a new ‘sugar’ tax and British chef, Jamie Oliver pushes healthy eating for children whenever possible. In Norway, a McDonald’s burger is priced steeply to discourage children from overindulgence. Japan insists on annual waist measurements for those over 40 and penalises defaulters.
But do fat taxes really work? What about India, where our yummiest street food is not necessarily the healthiest? Sheela Krishnaswamy, national president, Indian Dietetic Association, has already aired her views – she hopes that by taxing sugar and fat-rich foods, illnesses and diseases will reduce due to wallet impact. However, she points out, the move to identify what’s healthy and what isn’t needs to be done scientifically and systematically. “In the UK, tax on high sugar foods has brought down consumption, but here taxes have been imposed on half a dozen foods without much thought – while this is a step in the right direction, more needs to be done.”
India’s biggest problem isn’t just its proclivity for unhealthy eating; it’s also the lack of regulatory clout. “The unorganised sector sells namkeen (salted snacks) without labels, so no one knows what trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils used for baked and deep fried foods which causes hardening of arteries) are in the foods we eat.” What about our yen for those crisp jalebis or melt-in-the-mouth rasgullas? “Sugar is one of the biggest culprits and high sugar foods should attract higher taxes. I say be conscious of impacts on your health if you must eat these.” She doesn’t think a ‘fat tax’ will be 100 per cent successful in reducing health problems but it will deter many from frequent junk food binges.
But chef Nimish Bhatia, whose Nimisserie offers such delicacies as biryani cooked sans trans fats, believes traditional snack foods are so culturally integrated in our lives that they are hard-to-shake-off habits. “Youngsters will continue eating burgers and pizzas, and samosas won’t disappear any time soon. People will continue to enjoy puris and aloos for breakfast, jalebis too – so an additional `3-4 won’t deter them. Also, you might tax samosas, what about 20 other equally unhealthy snacks out there?,” he said describing an addictive Old Delhi streetside specialty, patty chaat. “Ultimately it’s not about taxing a snack or two, it’s about people’s lifestyles and habits. These won’t change in a hurry.”
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-Ruma Singh

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