Come on now, be honest.  Have you done this as a parent? You want your child to drink a glass of milk but they protest.  So you load it up with a couple of spoons of sugar or maybe, Bournvita in order to get them to drink the healthy “dhoodh” (milk) that gives them calcium for their bones.

Certainly, this is how I grew up.  Recently, Revant Himatsingka, a social media influencer called out Cadbury Bournvita, a “healthy drink” company on a viral video which showed how much sugar and preservatives the packet had.  In response, the company issued a legal notice.  The influencer took down his video and apologized. But his message stuck and made people look at packaged beverages in a new light.  “You can buy a Bournvita packet for Rs. 30 from any shop but after seeing the video, people in my area are returning to homemade sathu-maavu kanji (sprouted pulses mix),” said Geeta Kumaresh who works as a cook in Bangalore.

This chain of events underlines what all of us instinctively know: that packaged food, however well-packaged is bad for us.  Says Dr. Gayathri Vasant, a pediatrician at Shishu Clinic in Bangalore, “Inadvertently, the amount of sugar, salt and preservatives that comes into our diet through bread, biscuits and health drinks is enormous and not at all recommended.  Even if you as a parent try to be strict and not send these junk foods in your child’s lunch box, you will experience tremendous peer pressure because other children may bring chips, biscuits and snacks to school.  So your child will come home and demand the same. The problem is also that these packaged foods are tasty.  If you give your child some cash, do you think that they will go out and buy fruit or a packet of kurkure or biscuits– which are high in salt and sugar?”

As Vasant says, the killer combination (quite literally) of easy access, high calorific value and good taste makes it hard for parents and children to resist the temptation.  To that end, the Indian Academy of Pediatrics has issued what they call a “JUNCS” guidelines to help parents choose what is right for their children.  The foods that are not desirable include J: junk foods, U: ultraprocessed foods, N: nutritionally inappropriate foods, C: carbonated soft drinks and beverages, and S: sugar-sweetened foods and drinks.

As the paper says, the factors favouring the consumption of JUNCS include online deliveries that make it easy for kids to order what they like, double-income families that are both nuclear and busy, therefore nudging us to take nutritional shortcuts, and seductive advertisements that entice children and adults to buy a product.  

Says wellness coach and parent, Dr. Sujata Kelkar Shetty, “India has a young demographic which is attracted to the sugar and salt high that packaged foods provide.  So on the one hand, we are promoting millets and gluten-free foods but we are also ignoring the health crisis that is looming because of our dependence on packaged foods.”

Obesity is now a global pandemic. In the U.S. in particular, the medical establishment is going hammer and tongs at obesity and all its attendant problems.  Popular physician-podcasters such as the Huberman Lab, and Peter Attia talk about how a high-carb diet leads to insulin resistance.  Indians are among the most prone population to diabetes.  Today, nutritional companies here in India are attacking diabetes and weight loss by severe calorie restriction, micronutrient supplements, weight-training exercises, intermittant fasting and plant-based proteins.  But when it comes to children, most parents seem to be blind to the effects of packaged foods, thus inadvertently setting their kids on the road to obesity and its attendant illnesses including Type 2 diabetes.  Some part of it is because you assume that kids are so young that their bodies will self-regulate against the ill-effects of junk foods.  “After all, they are only kids.  If they cannot eat potato chips now, when can they enjoy these things?” is an oft-repeated statement.  

After the video, Bournvita issued a statement to reassure its consumers.  What is striking is that even the company confesses that each serving of Bournvita has 1.5 teaspoons of sugar, which seems pretty high to me.

So what is the way forward? Chennai-based endocrinologist and diabetologist, Dr. Krishna Seshadri recommends going back to our roots in terms of what we eat.  In several videos available on Youtube, Dr. Seshadri talks about how we have “tampered with nature” in our diets and lifestyles thus “inviting” diabetes into our lives.  

Says Dr. Seshadri, “These include eating more, more often, at wrong times and the wrong kind of food especially processed. Moving to more regulated timed less processed food aligned to your culture appears to be the least harmful.”

Perhaps the most succinct advise comes from bestselling author, Michael Pollan who says, “Eat food, not a lot, mostly plants.”

The same could apply to children– if we can pull it off.  Today, savvy Moms and Dads are working on keeping their children out of the clutches of packaged food companies.  It isn’t easy but it is certainly doable.  And guess what? Your children may curse you now but they will thank you later for it.

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