Two-third of children aged between 6 months to 1 year are consuming biscuits at least once a day in rural Bihar. Unfortunately, most of the available and generally consumed biscuits in rural Bihar are not healthy and nutritious for children.
Packaged baby-food and biscuits are fast replacing traditional supplementary feed for infants (6 to 11 months) in rural India in the mistaken belief of parents that it would improve children’s health while satisfying their nutritive needs and hunger. Children are supposed to receive complementary food at this age along with continued breastfeeding. However, the overall complementary feeding rate in most parts in the country, particularly in Bihar, for children of this age group is abysmally low.
Multiple studies from rural Bihar have revealed that biscuits have become an easy option for supplementary food by parents, largely due to the overall socio-economic improvement and increased penetration of new-age media in rural heartland.
Some recent studies conducted by Project Concern International (PCI) India—a non-governmental organisation working in health and nutrition space—has revealed that in Bihar, around two-thirds (66%) of children between 6 to 11 months are consuming biscuit at least once a day. This data was collected from mothers of 3,460 children in the age group 6 to 11 months from 101 blocks of Bihar.
The malnutrition rate in Bihar is alarming. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) data shows that only 40% of children within 6-11 months of age in Bihar are receiving complementary feeding, while less than one-third of children (30%) of 6-23 months are fed the recommended minimum number of times per day and even fewer (18%) are fed the minimum requirement of nutritive food.
The result of this poor nutrition status is that around half the children in Bihar are stunted. While availability of food in many households remains a matter of concern, but even those households that do not suffer from abject poverty, are not feeding their child properly due to a host of factors, including lack of awareness and information.
The survey has revealed three major reasons why parents from rural and peri-urban poor families often provide biscuits to their children. These are: a large majority considers biscuits to be healthy and nutritious for the child, the infant’s liking for the taste of biscuits and the convenience factor for the guardians.
Various government departments—mainly the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) and Health, through their frontline workers (anganwadi workers and ASHAs) and JEEViKA (the State Rural Livelihood Mission in Bihar) through their self-help groups (SHGs)-based community platforms are working towards dissemination of knowledge about the importance of complementary feeding. With the renewed focus of the government through the POSHAN Abhiyan, multiple initiatives are being used for spreading awareness about the importance of complementary feeding in the overall growth, development and intelligence of the child. Several commercial enterprises are also taking full advantage of this new opportunity to promote their products as healthy and nutritious alternatives to some of the generally consumed biscuits in rural Bihar. and nutritious for children. Most favoured biscuits in rural areas are made of refined wheat flour (maida). The refining process of wheat removes not just the nutrients, but also the dietary fibre and proteins, which can mess up the digestive system of a child, leading to constipation.
Another disturbing factor about the biscuits is that most contain very high levels of sugar. Regular intake of products containing high levels of sugar can cause mild addiction known as “sugar rush”. This affinity for food with high sugar content can continue into adulthood. Research has shown that children fed with high sugar diet are prone to cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity. Eating too much sugar may also cause tooth decay among children.
Often, the sugar used in biscuits, known as ‘invert sugar’, is considerably sweeter than glucose. Invert sugar is sucrose (a di-saccharide of glucose and fructose) that has been broken into free glucose and free fructose. It is used in biscuits due to the small size of its crystals, allowing more uniform composition, and for its hygroscopic property, which prevents biscuits from drying up, while improving its shelf life. However, it can cause some major problems like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. Most biscuits available in rural Bihar also contain many potentially harmful contents like trans-fat, baking soda, salt, added flavouring agents, etc.
As any food with high sugar content gives an instant satisfaction to hunger, it is preferred by both children and parents. As the sugar gets absorbed soon, the child starts feeling hungry again very soon and the craving for biscuits persists. Thus, handing over a biscuit makes the child very happy. And, it also gives instant gratification to parents.
The commercial advertisements and campaigns have also confused many parents, specifically in rural Bihar, who feel biscuits are healthy and nutritious. When a poor parent is providing their child a packet of biscuit they must be rationing on some other items, most often fresh fruits, vegetables or eggs, which can be bought at a similar price.
The nutrition community and the government in their awareness campaign need to be more explicit about the harmful effects of biscuits and many other commercial packaged food that are quietly replacing nutrition-rich foods. In Bihar, this trend poses risk of further depriving infants of much-needed energy, protein and other micro-nutrients. This holds risk of making malnourishment more widespread in rural Bihar.
(The writer is chief of party & assistant country director, PCI)