#FoodSafetyDay: Why the information on the labels of packaged food products makes me more anxious about what I eat

What’s healthy and what’s not is a tricky question to answer that leaves ample food for thought.

07 June, 2024
#FoodSafetyDay: Why the information on the labels of packaged food products makes me more anxious about what I eat

The weekend is here, which means it’s time to spend your Saturday morning shopping for your weekly groceries. You know exactly what you need, but a sense of anxiety creeps in as you check off each item on your checklist. As consumers become more aware of the ingredients in packaged products and their effects on the body, they are left with the question: “If everything is unsafe, what should I buy?” At the end of the day, our bodies need food and nourishment, so you will end up buying something. But do you know if that is the best option or merely the best that companies offer? And will that choice make you feel any better?

On the occasion of Food Safety Day, Cosmopolitan India speaks to Revant Himatsingka, better known as Foodpharmer on social media, who has gone the extra mile to raise awareness about reading food labels on packaged food, and Mehezabin Dordi, a clinical psychologist at Sir H N Reliance Foundation Hospital in Mumbai, about why too much information can lead to anxiety, how to deal with it and make better decisions about what they’re eating. Read on. 

The link between too much information and anxiety 

Too much of a good thing can be bad, and this holds true for content and information as well. In this context, the abundance of information on packaged food labels can increase consumer anxiety. “The heightened awareness that arises means I get worried with more information that comes my way. This is risky because the person gets overwhelmed and asks themselves, ‘What do I even choose now?’ It is especially true for those who are uncertain about making healthy choices or are just starting on their health journey,” says Dordi. 

Additionally, the fear of harming your body, according to Dordi, can be a significant source of anxiety. “There is also perfectionism and control. It can be very stressful for those who desire to eat perfectly. The constant scrutiny of food labels can lead to obsessive behaviour, causing anxiety levels to shoot up in the quest to make the right food choice.” It’s important to remember that many individuals are struggling with an eating disorder or could have a history of one. “Detailed food-content information can exasperate symptoms reinforcing restrictive eating patterns leading to increased anxiety and unhealthy behaviours around food.”

Choosing to not read the label and its effects

Ignorance is bliss for a lot of people. This is why they don’t pay attention to what’s written on the labels of the packaged food products they purchase. “One reason for this is habit and routine. You tend to eat what you've always been eating. This automatic behaviour bypasses the conscious decision-making process, which would involve you sitting down and going through the label. Some people might not be interested in reading (the label) and eat something only because it tastes good. The consumer develops trust in the brand and assumes that they will meet health and nutrition standards,” says Dordi. The most dangerous attitude is the ‘chalta hai’ or ‘What will happen to me?’ one, which is due to people succumbing to what one calls a health-optimism bias. “Some individuals are optimistic about their health and believe that their health is better than it actually is and their body can handle anything,” she adds. 

Who to believe and who not to? 

Information made by content creators is a dime a dozen. While we’re a click away from reading the next article on what to eat and what not to, the onus lies on the consumer to fact-check the source. This isn’t easy to do as Himatsingka talks about the grey area that exists in the food and nutrition space. “It’s a tricky area as people have different philosophies. Recently, there was a debate on the internet regarding whether oats are safe or not with two leading doctors having contrasting viewpoints. This is something I struggle with too.” 

What about those who can’t read at all? 

The country’s literacy rate stands at 76.32 per cent. However, reading the contents mentioned on the label is not the same as comprehending the information. “The country’s nutrition literacy is less than one per cent if one had to put a number. We are educated but we lack health literacy. Even the most literate people in the country won’t know the basics of nutrition. If they don’t know that, how can we expect the others to know,” Himatsingka shares. Speaking about the others, there’s a portion of them who don’t know what’s written on the labels because they can’t read the language. “Not everyone can read English and that’s the biggest challenge. So I’m developing an app that scans a product's barcode to translate its nutrition information into multiple languages.,” he adds.

Don’t expect too much to change

Compared to other things and products, say a car, electronic items, etc that have something for every demographic of economic strata, packaged food is something that sees both the rich and the poor consume the brand. And this issue—catering to such a vast population in one go, according to Himatsingka is the biggest obstacle. He hits the nail on the head by saying, “The price point is so low. If you’re selling something for ₹10, the cost price is ₹2. How can one expect the brand to make a good quality product with high-quality ingredients for that price?” 

There are many packaged food items that he doesn’t see changing anytime soon. “Biscuits in India are priced too low to change anything. I don’t blame them (the brands). The only change I can see is how they market themselves given that most of them refer to themselves as healthy. The product will never change as the crowd they’re catering to is a mass market.” 

So what does one do in such cases? Himatsingka draws an interesting analogy. “Think about it as an election where you have to select a candidate. If you don’t know who the best is, you choose the lesser of the two evils. That’s the same mantra with packaged food. You will just have to roll with it.” 

Lead image: Pexels

Also read: 7 healthy foods to try to beat sugar cravings

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