Food addictions

Ethics in business practices has never been a particular concern with multinational companies (MNCs), especially when it comes to selling their products in developing countries with large populations and hence huge markets

Food addictions

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Ethics in business practices has never been a particular concern with multinational companies (MNCs), especially when it comes to selling their products in developing countries with large populations and hence huge markets, which also have poor regulatory structures to control them. The profits or turnover of the MNCs often exceeds the GDP of the countries they operate in, and in their obsession with profits, they throw all pretence of ethics to the winds while governments look on helplessly.

A recent report revealed that Nestlé was adding sugars to their baby foods sold in low-income countries. We are all familiar with their popular baby food, Cerelac. Investigation by Public Eye, an independent Swiss-based organization, and International Baby Food Action Network, an international coalition of public interest groups, found that in Switzerland Cerelac has “no added sugar”, while in Senegal and South Africa and the Philippines, it has 6 grams and 7.3 grams of added sugar respectively per serving, which were almost equivalent to two teaspoons. The product is fed to babies 1-6 months old, and experts say that consumption of too much sugar at a young age can not only have long-term consequences like affecting the brain, but can be addictive as well, which assures a future market for MNCs.

In response, Nestlé made a vague statement on its website, “We have reduced the sugar in many of our infant cereals. While there are added sugars in some, we are making progress towards reducing this further, as well as providing more options without added sugar.” In 2021, newspapers exposed an internal document of the company which revealed that “60 per cent of its food and drinks portfolio, excluding pet food, baby formula, and coffee, failed to meet recognised health standards”, when it announced plans to update its nutrition and health strategy and review its entire product line-up.


It claimed to have reduced sugar content of its cereals by up to 30 per cent over the past five years, a claim that needed to be verified, but even then, it may be outside the limits of health and safety. International standards forbid added sugar in foods for infants under the age of three. The world is already facing a crisis of obesity; to tackle this, inculcating healthy eating habits since infancy is essential. Feeding sugary foods at infancy and childhood make a person dependent on sugar for the rest of his/her life, with the associated health problems. But why bother about the health of lesser humans when profits are ensured over their entire lifetime?

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has apparently launched an independent investigation, but in the past similar investigations had produced nothing, and the current investigation may meet the same fate too. In 2015, the Central government sought a compensation of Rs 285 crore and punitive damages of Rs 355 crore from Nestlé under the Consumer Protection Act when its popular product Maggi was found to contain a dangerous chemical, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and lead content exceeding Nestlé India’s claims by 1000 times. Maggi sales accounted for 25 per cent of Nestlé’s profit and Nestlé was forced to withdraw 38,000 tonnes of Maggi noodles from the market.

It fought the case, the first of its kind in India, before the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Commission (NCDRC) which dismissed the case in 2024. Developed countries with better regulation and public awareness are in a better position to control them. In the USA and Europe, Nestlé products were boycotted in 1977, when it was accused of promoting its baby food formula as a healthier option over breastfeeding despite lack of evidence, till the company agreed to follow WHO’s international marketing code in 1984. This kind of response is hardly likely in India. How many Indian consumers care to read or can understand the nutritional labels of food packages regarding calories, added sugar, total fat, trans fat, saturated fat, sodium, protein, etc.

Efforts on the part of the government to create food awareness are almost totally missing. Now a National Geographic article by Meryl Davids Landau has highlighted an even more disturbing finding about MNCs selling ultra-processed foods (UPF). UPFs are foods that use ingredients not found in a home kitchen. While processed foods mostly use salt as the major preservative, ultra-processed foods are often high in fat, sugar and sodium and enhanced with flavourings, dyes, artificial sweeteners and other additives, which act as sensory enhancers to make them irresistibly enticing to their consumers. They are increasingly being consumed by people, especially for their convenience to youth who face tremendous work pressures that leave them little time to cook their own meals.

The UPFs trigger cravings ~ a key feature of addiction, and food MNCs leverage it by applying the lessons learned from tobacco companies. Research in the USA in 2021 showed that 20 per cent of adults and 15 per cent of kids and adolescents showed signs of addiction to ultra-processed foods that lead to their compulsive consumption. They include ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, fast foods, mass-produced breads and desserts, processed non-vegetarian products like sausages, hot dogs, fish fingers, soft drinks, flavoured ice creams, candies and other packaged foods. They are estimated to account for 60 per cent of the total calories consumed in the USA.

The situation in countries like India is hardly likely to be much different. Addictive foods, like alcohol or tobacco, powerfully activate our brain’s reward system linked with neurochemicals like dopamine. Evolution has hardwired our brains to secrete feelgood chemicals like dopamine when we seek energy from fatty and sweet foods. Humans have evolved by seeking foods that are sweet, fatty, and high in calories to obtain and store energy in their bodies to survive in an uncertain environment. But in nature, foods are only modestly high in sugar as in fruits, or high in fat as in nuts, but never rich in both fat and sugar. That is a hallmark of UPFs.

Studies with rats during the 1980 showed that activity in the dopamine reward system in their brain increased substantially when they pressed a lever for a food reward. People with an addiction to UPFs have been found to have a microbial composition in their gut similar to people addicted to alcohol or drugs. They also exhibit withdrawal symptoms like headaches, fatigue and irritability when prevented from eating these foods like addicted people. These foods can also trigger compulsive behaviours – obese rats were found to ignore their standard food and risked electric shock to get to ultraprocessed cakes and chocolates. Humans do not have to suffer electric shocks to get the food they want.

Recently published research (24 February 2024) in BMJ, a peer-reviewed British medical journal, pointed to direct links between higher consumption of UPFs and a greater risk of heart disease-related deaths, type 2 diabetes, obesity, wheezing, anxiety, depression and sleep problems. These corroborate the results from earlier studies conducted in other countries as well. While the effect of eating too much salt, sugar, and/or saturated fat on blood pressure or blood sugar is well known, most are unaware about the risk that they pose for vascular dementia resulting from decreased blood flow to the brain. Additives like MSG also interfere with the production and release of brain chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which may ultimately lead to depression, anxiety, and dementia.

In the late 1980s, tobacco giant Phillip Morris acquired two food companies to form Kraft General Foods (now Kraft Heinz). Tobacco companies researched and used strategies targeting their products to minority groups and adolescents to make them addictive to tobacco. Their expertise was transferred to the food companies to process foods with complex tastes to make them more addictive. Children who consumed these foods were found to have higher levels of unhealthy cholesterol and glucose in their blood. They invariably lead to weight gain because the more you eat these, the more you want. When National Geographic reached out to major food companies Kraft Heinz, General Mills and Unilever for comments, they received a single response from their trade group, the Consumer Brands Association, saying:

“Demonizing shelf ready foods could limit access to and cause avoidance of nutritious foods. Empowering consumers with clear nutritional information and preserving consumer choice so they can make the right decisions for their personal health goals should be the priority in public health guidance.” Governments in developing countries can do precious little to regulate MNCs, partly because they need them to bring investments and employment. But MNCs need the developing countries more than the countries need them, because without the huge markets provided by the developing countries, MNCs would be nowhere. Yet it is unlikely that any government will take strong steps against MNCs, because of their vice-like grip on financial and other institutions and their lobbying power.

International joint action by governments is also unlikely – developed countries are unaffected. MNCs can stoop to any level for profiteering; when the mid-may meal programme was being launched, they had lobbied for their biscuits fortified with vitamins and proteins, instead of wholesome meals that the programme promised. To create awareness and promote healthy eating habits, the government much launch a blitzkrieg campaign similar to the one against smoking. We also need to involve families and communities to take back control of our diet from the MNCs

(The writer is a commentator, author and academic. Opinions expressed are personal)