The launch of 'healthy,' 'pure' and 'natural' products by food and beverage companies in the market is never verified, as the government is yet to put in place a system to test and validate the claims made in ads and on product labels.
The recent launches have been of Tropicana 100 per cent (orange, apple and grape variants), Nimbooz by PepsiCo, Saint 100 per cent juice with orange, mixed fruit and grape by Parle Agro, and then LMN, and Be Sure Amla Juice by Genotex International (India).
India does have laws like the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act and the Fruit Products Order to ensure the safety of these products. All food products have to be registered with or have a licence from the health ministry (PFA division). The FPO is a mandatory requirement for all manufacturers of fruit and vegetable-based products.
The PFA cautions that '... a label shall not contain any statement, claim, design, device, fancy name or abbreviation, which is false or misleading in any particular concerning the food contained in the package, or concerning the quantity or the nutritive value or in relation to the place of origin of the said food."
No laboratory testing, however, is done to verify the claims that companies make. In the case of packaged mineral water, every six months two bottles from the plant are tested by the Bureau of Indian Standards. In case of fruit-based products, no pre- or post- testing takes place, unless someone makes a complaint.
S B Dongre, Director, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI, which issues the FPO licence), admitted: "No laboratory test report is required at the time of granting a licence. We don't conduct any test. If there's a complaint, it has to be taken with the company first through a consumer court."
The FSSAI is an autonomous statutory body set up under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, and administered by the ministry of health and family welfare.
Many food and beverage companies have their own R&D labs and say they ensure what is marked on the labels on their own ethical grounds. Nadia Chauhan, joint MD and CMO, Parle Agro Pvt Ltd, said: "We do testing and research in our own R&D labs located out of Mumbai. Most companies outsource the R&D work and choose what suits their requirements best."
A GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare spokesperson said: "Currently, there is no such certification body providing a certificate to a product being healthy or natural. In general, the product needs to deliver good level of key beneficial nutrients."
A PepsiCo India spokesperson concurred: "The 'healthy' claims, wherever made on PepsiCo products, are based on well-established and generally accepted sound scientific principles, as well as compliance to regulatory requirements provided in the PFA Act. The claims such as 'natural', where no specific regulation exists in India, are made only on those products, which pass stringent internal regulatory guard-rails, including due-diligence."
A Coca Cola India representative clarified: "We use none of these words (healthy, natural or pure) to market any of our products."
While the companies may be doing their bit to ensure what is advertised is true, a government-level certification of the claims would be more reliable, suggests Kushal PS Yadav, Coordinator, (food safety), CSE.
He said: "It would be better if the government certifies a product as healthy, natural etc. Companies will only speak the best of their products. Even where the government is working, it's not enough. It has been six years and the health ministry has not released a final report on setting standards on pesticide level."