The Unhealthy Side of Health Drinks

The recent sensation caused by a viral video featuring an influencer discussing the excessive sugar content in a specific health beverage has stirred up significant controversy. Although the video garnered praise from experts, consumer advocates, and scientists, some influential figures within the industry expressed concerns, leading to the influencer eventually removing the video from their channel. However, the influencer’s message resonated powerfully: just how secure are these supposedly healthy beverages?

Nilanjana Bose

If you wish to see your child grow stronger, taller and wiser then you should rethink the health drink strategy. Yes, you have read it right. If you feel health drinks are the best supplements for your children, then it’s time to think again. 

Did you know that these malt-based health drinks are dangerously high in sugar and can lead to obesity and elevate risk of diabetes in children? As per UNICEF’s World Obesity Atlas for 2022, India is likely to be home to 27 million obese kids by 2030. Currently ranked 99 out of 183 countries in terms of handling the economic impact of obesity, one surely doesn’t want to add much to this unforgettable number. The latest ICMR study is also nothing to cheer for. India has more than 100 million people living with diabetes compared to 70 million people in 2019 according to the study published in Lancet recently. The study also revealed that 136 million people are prediabetic. The report also warns that ‘there are serious implications for the nation, warranting urgent state-specific policies and interventions to arrest the rapidly rising epidemic of metabolic NCDs in India.’ 

Lucrative Idea of Extra Nutrition

To attract both children and parents, most of the health drinks today are marketed to make children grow stronger and tougher. They are fortified with vitamins and minerals with claims of being the best for their children and families. It is not unnatural to find many parents including these health drinks in their daily routine in a bid to help them grow faster. But consumers need to understand that having anything extra doesn’t really take off the negative burden from the harmful nutrient content of the product. 

The World Health Organisation recommends that adults and children reduce their daily intake of “free sugars” to less than 10 per cent of their total energy intake. The term “free sugars” refers to all sugars added to food or drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.

In addition to the high sugar content, some health drinks also contain caffeine, which can cause headaches, and other side effects. Some also contain artificial sweeteners, which have been linked to a range of health problems including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. According to most experts, ideally these drinks should not be given on a daily basis to children as they are laden with sugar thereby making them addictive to it. These drinks have the potential to make children feel full making parents feel happy. But what parents miss out is the fact that these drinks even if they are fortified with vitamins and minerals have sugar which is extremely harmful for the growth and development of the children. Parents may think that they are providing their children with a healthy alternative to soft drinks, but in reality, they are often doing more harm than good.

Marketing Strategy

What sparkles is what sells – the mantra of todays’ marketing strategy. With attractive packaging and even better claims, they reach the hearts and minds of the consumers, parents in this case, who are always looking for ways and means for their children to grow faster and quicker. 

Most of these multinational companies play with the emotional angle of the parents and claim that if your child is not eating enough, he or she can get the deficient nutrition through these health drinks. Consumption of health drinks is not new in India. They existed even during the initial days of Independence when a certain drink almost captured the market. Then too, they used clever marketing strategies to lure the consumers. For decades, several brands have been selling these powdered drinks for children that are claimed to enhance healthy muscle growth and have body development properties with additional vitamins and minerals. Earning consumer trust and offering value many iconic brands have been around 75 years and more. They have centred their advertising around rebuilding energy, providing strength and helping in the overall growth of children. 

These sugar laden health drinks have slowly but steadily entered the homes of Indian parents without understanding the long-drawn repercussions of it. 

Why is too much sugar added in health drinks?

The reason why manufacturers add too much sugar to their products is because sugar has shown that it has addictive potential and acts specifically on certain brain pathways that provide a “reward effect” to consumers.

Advertisements and promotions change consumers’ perceptions and make them think that these sugary drinks are healthy thereby blinding them from fact-checking.

Role of the Government and other Stakeholders

What role should the government and other stakeholders assume in this situation? Numerous critics contend that the government’s current efforts are insufficient in safeguarding consumer rights against these detrimental products. Many advocate for more stringent regulations to ensure that companies are held responsible for the damage they inflict.

So, what can be done to protect consumers from these dangerous health drinks? The first step is for the government is to act as a watchdog and come up with strict safety standards. Until the government takes more decisive action, consumers will continue to be at risk from these dangerous “health drinks.”

The Solution – Front of Pack Labels

In September, FSSAI issued a draft regulation which proposes a star rating based labelling system. The draft was opened for public comments until November and the new regulation is keenly awaited. In 2018 the Food Safety Standards Authority India (FSSAI) published draft regulation for FOPL which was subsequently withdrawn for further deliberation. In 2019 December, FSSAI delinked FOPL from general labelling regulations. Since 2021, FSSAI and has sought consultations with civil society, industry and nutrition experts for a viable model for India. 

With India on the verge of adopting historic food labelling norms that could be a game changer for public health, research and studies from a number of esteemed scientific and medical institutions are corroborating that warning labels work best for people. To support FSSAI in making the right choice, doctors and scientists are furnishing scientific and technical evidence to reiterate this unanimous choice.

Health Star Ratings

Warning labels

0 to 5 ratings – An overall rating

Nutrient specific warnings like High in Fats, Sugar or Salt

Consumers especially those suffering from hypertension or diabetes will not understand if their product is high in fat, sugar or salt

Interpretive labelling and easy to understand

A recent study by Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) study shows that warning labels deter more people from choosing moderately unhealthy or unhealthy variants. Warning labels, provide information about potential hazards associated with a product as they take into consideration nutrients of concern such as sugars, fats and salt. 

Star Rating labels as suggested by FSSAI, could be detrimental in improving public health of the country and is no way connected with NCD control as it doesn’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods for consumers. Stars are attributed based on positive nutrients in unhealthy foods which is not desirable and also consumers are unable to understand clearly. Warning FOPL labels on the other hand gives points out to unhealthy foods which consumers can understand and make a choice.

Latest success report of warning labels


  • Warning labels have the potential to avert or delay 16% of the deaths caused by non-communicable diseases and save USD 732.8 million in Barbados. 
  • Implementation of Warning Labels in Chile lead to declines in purchased nutrients of concern. 
  • Israel implemented warning labels and many companies have started reformulating their products to a healthier one.

Though the regulation is a welcome move by the FSSAI, but it is based on a limited study done by the IIM ignoring the studies done by AIIMS and IIPS.  AIIMS Study & IIPS Study (both under MoH & FW) clearly stated that Warning Labels are best suited for diverse Indian population which is gradually adopting packaged foods.  Warning labels also do not risk creating a “health halo” around unhealthy products with positive labels, which could lead to over consumption of foods and drinks with higher-scoring labels. In the backdrop of a severe crisis of a sharply rising incidence of overweight and obesity, consequently increasing the risk of non-communicable diseases or NCDs in India, a wrong FOPL will be a disaster and will not be able to control Non-Communicable diseases, the very purpose of the Regulation.

One of the best ways to ensure that consumers make the right choice especially when it comes to nutrition for children is by having clear labels on packaged foods to allow consumers to make a quick and informed choice without the need to decipher complex nutritional information.

“FOPL is the most effective approach for preventing obesity and nutrition related NCDs like diabetes and hypertension. People need to understand clearly and simply what is in the food that they are buying. Food labels have to interpret the nutrition information for consumers across age, income and literacy levels.”

Dr. Barry Popkin

W.R. Kenan Junior, University of North Carolina

Gillings School of Global Public Health 

 “The ‘KAP study on FOPL in India’ by AIIMS had revealed that people find simple ‘warning labels’ easiest to read and understand. We should choose a label design that is scientific and there is enough research now to back warning labels as the best for Indian people.”

Dr Umesh Kapil, President of the Epidemiological Foundation of India 

“We can’t afford to get this wrong, not when over 60 lakh Indians are dying every year due to cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases (NCDs). It is a well-known fact that Health Star Rating (HSR) misinforms consumers and does not compel industry to make their food products healthier, whereas a warning label provides instant recognition of unhealthy foods.” 

Ashim Sanyal, CEO, Consumer VOICE

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