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You’ve consumed this chemical cocktail

November 16, 2006

If you heat acetic acid with ethyl alcohol you get ethyl acetate. That’s serious. Because this isn’t some indeterminate chemical that we are talking about. It’s what goes into making a peach flavour and is used extensively by the food industry. Now let’s get a little more adventurous and take this peach flavour, add a dash of tartrazine to it (a yellow carcinogenic colour), then add about .25 per cent of mono-glycerides of fatty acids (an emulsifier) and .25 per cent of sodium alginate (a stablilizer). Now mix this chemical cocktail with 15 per cent of white refined sugar (sucrose), 10 per cent milk solids and then stir in plenty of air and water. What do you get? A helping of a popular brand of ice-cream!
Doesn’t sound too delicious, does it?

Another interesting recipe: Mix maida (refined white flour) with some fat (hydrogenated, which increases cholesterol), refined white sugar, starch, salt, cocoa, sodium bicarbonate, skimmed milk powder and to this add a dash of colour, emulsifier and preservative. Guess what you get? A wafer biscuit. Junk in the true sense of the word.

When we are confronted by a brightly coloured and attractive food item, it’s easy to kids-food_2_1.jpgignore the actual ingredients that go into the making of the product. Specially as Indian food laws do not make it mandatory for manufacturers to even name the colours they use! And ofcourse – it’s not mandatory for the manufacturers to list the chemicals that go into protex_1_1_1.jpgmaking additives like colours or flavours. We know the product is laden with chemicals ofcourse, and we also know that they are bad for us, but the attractive looking food tempts us to buy. What’s worse is that these foods are often targeted at children.
Daily dose
There are those who live on processed foods. They could begin their day with bread and butter, have colas, chocolates or ice-cream with lunch, or perhaps have instant noodles soup_1_1.jpgand soup in lieu of lunch. In the evening they could snack on ready-made foods like namkeens and deep-fried samosas. And dinner could well be at a restaurant (restaurants use colours and flavours lavishly.) People who eat like this will get into plenty of trouble after some years. Health trouble.
Take bread for instance. White bread, biscuits and cakes are made from refined flours – in other words, maida. Maida is whole wheat flour refined to such an extent that most of it’s vitamins, minerals and fiber are removed. Colas and chocolates not only are full of chemicals (it’s all there on the label) they contain caffeine as well. Caffeine is said to be mildly addictive. As for those ready-made fried snacks, one can only pray that they are manufactured hygienically and not kept on dirty paper/plastic or on poisonous (printing ink is the culprit) newsprint before packing. And even if they are all perfectly made and properly packed, deep fried food contains hydrogenated fat. Cholesterol raising stuff.
No such thing as safe limits
What are the authorities doing you ask. If processed food is harmful, what is it doing on the shelves? Well, the authorities assure us that chemicals are present in foods within ‘safe limits.’ That’s scary.
Who has decided these safe limits? Those who have conducted tests in laboratories? But laboratory testing of chemicals is usually done on animals other than human and the short life-span of the animals make it difficult to predict the long-term effects. Besides, even the authorities admit that the tested chemicals are safe only for ‘averagely healthy adults.’ What about those who are not average healthy, and what does the term mean anyway?
Even more frightening is that scientific testing of chemicals is usually done singly but the chemicals are consumed in combinations, at times in several combinations and several times a day, day after day! Has anyone ever tested that? The effect of this kind of consumption and that too on not so ‘average healthy’ adults? Any kid in school knows what happens when two chemicals mix…do we really need to have a fantastic imagination to imagine what’s happening to our bodies when we ingest such poisons?
While there is some justification for the use of preservatives and perhaps even stabilizers and emulsifying agents (they bind fat to water for the purpose of improving texture) in some foods, there is no justification for using colours and flavours in food. The colours and flavours are simply there to make food look delicious and taste good even if the real ingredients which it purports to use are not present.
Fooling consumers
The real reason why the colours and flavours are used is to give the give the psychological impression that certain ingredients are present in the food. For example when brown colour is used in bread the aim of the manufacturer is to give the impression that the bread is the whole-wheat loaf that it proclaims itself to be. Even if a ‘natural’ colour like caramel is used, the consumer is being misled into thinking that this is atta (whole-wheat) bread. A faint yellow colour is often added to cakes to give the impression that the cake has a sufficient quantity of eggs.


And ofcourse, pretty (and false) pictures of the product are given to lure customers.

Given below is a table with the list of colours that are banned in other countries. This table maybe some years old but the situation has gotten worse. The developed countries have added more colours to their banned list. And more countries have banned these colours. The Scandavanian countries are the most health-conscious and they are usually followed by the rest of Europe in whatever they do. The US is usually the last to fall in line. My research showed that in India there has been no change. We still permit most of these colours, and what is worse is that Indian laws do not make it mandatory for the manufacturer to give the name of the colour that is used.


The food industry wants to save on costs
Inspite of tremendous evidence that tells us that additives in food cause health problems, allergies, and hyperactivity and even mental disorders, the food industry defends their use, claiming that otherwise the consumer would have to do without the inexpensive convenience of long-lasting instant food which looks good and tastes fresh. Using these chemicals is far cheaper than going in for the real thing. Well, this is a cheap argument. If the foods weren’t there or weren’t affordable, then we would make them in our kitchen wouldn’t we? Just like we have done for the last hundreds of years?
Weak laws and weak consumers
Sure – there are laws that require ingredients to be clearly marked on the outside of the pack, but unfortunately in India few people read the listed ingredients. The consumer movement is not strong enough here and as a result awareness of how manufacturers fool customers is not as widespread as in the developed countries. In fact in India we are so tardy that we pick up expired items from shelves. Unlike in developed countries, in India shop-keepers keep expired items on shelves even if it is illegal. The food inspectors don’t come round to check with any regularity and as a result even large supermarkets often keep leaking and/or expired packs for sale.
In developed countries, not only are consumers savvy, the laws are strict. No supermarket will stock expired goods.
Consumers in the US are luckier in other ways too. Manufacturers have to print the exact quantities of the ingredients present in a food item on the label, along with nutritional information. This is not mandatory in India. Thus we have no way of knowing how much ‘milk’ there is in a so-called ‘milk’ biscuit, how much ‘atta’ there is in ‘atta’ noodles, or how much ‘fruit’ there is in a ‘fruit’ drink.
Being a smart consumer
biscuit_2_1.jpgThere is a way out of this. Simply check the list of ingredients listed on the pack. The ingredients are listed in descending order. Thus, the last ingredient listed is one which is present in the least quantity, and the first one listed is in the largest quantity. This can be useful if you buy a product which claims to contain ‘milk.’ The order of the listed ingredients will give a clue as to how much ‘milk’ is actually present. In the picture given above, the list of ingredients will show that ‘milk solids’ are the least in quantity amongst all the ingredients. The only ingredients which are lesser in quantity than the ‘milk solids’ are the chemicals like raising agents, salts etc.
It’s getting worse – for the developing world
In the 50’s there were fewer than 1000 processed foods in the world, but today there are tens of thousands. And the use of additives has increased more than ten-fold in the last 40 years. The rich countries which initiated this technological revolution have realised the dangers and there is high awareness amongst consumers there. In a survey conducted in the UK as far back as 1986, 80 per cent of women interviewed said the chemical additives were harmful and should be banned completely. And due to a strong consumer movement, the sale of additives plummeted buy 5-50 per cent and this trend (which started in the late eighties) gathered momentum in the nineties and today a lot of products are available in the west are those which are natural and organic.
Due to the demand, whole-wheat pastas and noodles are easily available in western countries. In India the mainstream supermarkets do not stock whole wheat pastas. A shop-keeper who had stocked these items regretted doing so as they ‘don’t sell.’ This is a pity because Indians are abandoning their traditional whole wheat products like rotis and increasing their consumption of unhealthy pastas and breads made from maida. Ironically, as developed countries study the traditional food habits of non-western societies, we, the developing countries, are turning to foods which the developed countries have realised are harmful for health!
The so-called natural colours
Let’s not be complacent about the so-called ‘natural’ colourings and flavourings that are added to food. The fact is that a colour once extracted is not natural, but man-made. It can be harmful. For example the red colour in a beetroot remain largely locked inside the plant cells when we eat the beetroot and is excreted, but once extracted it is no longer tightly bound and our body and our gut is exposed to it in a way that is neither ‘natural’ nor ‘safe.’ And Annato, a natural colour used commonly in yellow butter has been known to cause allergies. Annatto comes from the seed pods of the Biza tree, which would not normally be eaten by humans.
What’s the solution?
Okay, so processed food is here to stay. So are the additives. But Indian laws can surely keep up with the world when it comes to banning harmful additives?
Also, labeling laws need to be changed. The consumer needs to know what chemicals he is eating and at present food laws don’t make it mandatory for manufacturers to list them. Worse, in India a consumer will never know how much ‘milk’ his milk biscuit contains or how much ‘fruit’ his fruit drink has. It is not mandatory for manufacturers to list the quantities of ingredients. All very skewed in favour of the manufacturers, isn’t it?

(The above article was published in The Times of India, Bangalore)

Note: There is a food bill pending in parliament which says it will address some of these issues but until it comes out we can’t say whether it will.

The following note is based on some additional research done by me a few days ago:-

Medicines which are coated with poison
What’s shocking is the fact that medicines available in India even for people suffering from serious diseases are coated with bright, synthetic colours. Even the so-called ayurvedic medicines contain harmful colours. Some of these colours are banned in developed countries – colours like Tartrazine, Ponceau, Erythrosine. These colours and some flavours are used indiscriminately by the pharmaceutical industry just to make pills look colourful and syrups tasty!
Shell Cal, the calcium and vitamin D3 tablets manufactured by Elder Pharmaceuticals contain the Brilliant Blue FCF colour.
Sinarest syrup, a decongestant, manufactured by Centaur Pharmaceuticals contains the colour Ponceau 4 R.
worm_2_1.jpgZybend Tablets, marketed by Cadila Healthcare contain Sunset Yellow.
But hey, who is saying that these colours are not safe? Just the developed world. We in India are not saying it because all these colours are ‘approved’ and these companies are tartrazine_1_2_1.jpgnot breaking the law. And do remember these are just few examples I have given. Almost all medicines contain harmful colours and some contain flavours as well. Many companies do not bother to name them, as it is not required by law. Ironically, medicines which are taken to alleviate allergies often contain harmful colours which can cause allergies!
neem_1_1.jpgPudin Hara or some Dabur products for example just say they use ‘approved colours’ and these are the so-called ‘natural’ products.

Another example: Pfizer’s Becosules B – Complex Forte with Vitamin C says ‘Approved colours used in capsule shell.’

If the government is not looking out for us, we should look out for ourselves. One way out of this mess is to wash the tablet before swallowing it. It is only the colour which comes off, not the medicine. Where capsules are concerned, one can always snip off the top and swallow the powder. Bitter yes. But you will keep yourself safe. Long-term.

Read more: Some reasons why Indians have health problems
The poisons in food packaging
How unhealthy noodles are
The dangers of overcooking and fast food
How food can affect our brain and mood
Are we eating healthy food – food intake and exercise trends in India
Why oils can be bad for health
What’s in your biscuit?
Over-eating will kill us one day!

17 Comments leave one →
  1. padmini permalink
    November 23, 2006 5:26 am

    True that more stringent laws should replace the current ones that exist in the food industry. At the same time, the average consumer should be educated about what is harmful and to watch out for chemicals and other harmful substances that would adversely affect health.

  2. November 26, 2006 6:21 am

    This is a good post – missed reading in the ToI – somehow feels more credible here. This is something I have been trying to figure out for myself. Perhaps you can write how these additives/colours are manufactured. I read somewhere that E230, E440 etc. in biscuits could be prepared out of animal sources.

  3. November 26, 2006 6:43 am

    Thanks for the suggestion. Will look into it.

  4. Beena John permalink
    March 8, 2007 12:40 pm

    I love reading ur blog, make it a point to read it daily…i wish each and every person who has access to the net shud go thru ur blogs…

  5. March 8, 2007 5:53 pm

    Thanks Beena. Feedback like this motivates me to work harder at the blog.

  6. P.Monteiro permalink
    April 15, 2007 8:36 am

    Thanks for packing so much information neatly in your blogs.
    This topic in particular is required to be read by all and publicised too. But main stream media does not give importance to such issues. The women who read this blog can spread the message in their social circles. I for one am doing it all the time, subtly of course. No one wants to know that the foods they love are actually poison in the long run.

    Another thought crosses my mind now. Finally , our traditional eating habits were better and healthier,to the eater as well as the environment. Going back to good old home cooking is better than the fast food support for daily life. Somehow , the habit has to make a come back in a simpler version with time saving formula. Hope the younger generation will realise this soon.

  7. Seran permalink
    April 30, 2007 4:49 pm

    This is an interesting blog, which deals with many interesting social issues. I’m addicted to this blog 🙂

    This is an interesting article, which talks about unsafe ingredients in the so called processed food items. But there are even more dangerous things available in our market.

    For example, if you look at the grapes available in our market, they are full of white colour, which is nothing but pesticides. People wrongly thing that once they wash it, they will be removed and whatever they eat is the grape fruit, which is good for their health. But in reality, the pesticide doesn’t go that easily, and we end up in consuming the pesticized grape, which is more dangerous. The effect of which can be noticed only after few years. This information I got from my uncle, who does agriculture and has a grape field, who sprays these pesticides to prevent it from the pests, but in reality kills us.

  8. May 1, 2007 12:13 am

    The best way to go about solving this problem is to provide an alternate marketing channel for the farmers of India where they can sell organic food products without competing with the multi-billion dollar multinationals.
    Of course, for this alternate marketing effort to succeed, we need to create awareness among people about how harmful the processed food products actually are.
    One shop, called Magic Monkey, has started as an exclusive organic produt chain in Chennai. More and more enthusiastic efforts like these are required in the market, while more and more people like you are needed to eradicate the sickening ignorance of Indians regarding this matter.

  9. wishtobeanonymous permalink
    September 21, 2007 9:47 pm

    Here’s a link on organic farming being undertaken in Palakkad in Kerala:
    When one reads such news, one can’t help feeling a little optimistic.

    thanks. 🙂 will surely look that up – Nita.

  10. Taj permalink
    October 9, 2007 11:39 am

    Congratulations. Doing good work so formed good blog. It may give benefits to various viewers . thanks . sinc. taj

    Thanks Taj. 🙂 – Nita.

  11. November 5, 2007 11:38 pm

    Omg ,my daily diet consists of white bread(toast) daily diet coke as a snack,many times a day,and jelly tots and the odd time beans,no wonder i’m going round the twist?

  12. November 30, 2007 6:06 pm

    Thanks for this important information. So many folks just have no idea and go around with their heads in the sand – not believing, not wanting to believe and just trying to forget the sorts of things that they might come across – like this article.

    I’m glad to see in the comments the link to some organic farming going on in India and would love to see more of that sort of thing going on all over the world. Perhaps blogs like this are the thing that just might make a bit of difference in the world. I don’t know.

    Thanks Nita. Namaste all.

    Peace, love and understanding to all.

    ~ RubyShooZ ~

  13. prashant permalink
    May 6, 2009 8:02 pm

    i read a post from someone saying that grapes contain pesticide…well i would say thats true..but it seems to me that the farmer is more educated than you…pests cannot be killed by organic farming…..they have to be killed by pesticides…the point is that the farmer should use pesticides which are less toxic…organic farming was done 100 years back when the soils were fertile and free of various diseases…in todays world where there is shortage of fertile land the best way to stop these pests are by using pesticides….(cow dung) organic farming is definitely not the way to go….i think younger people should use common sense instead of getting information from people you have no idea about farming and chemistry and they should know how pivotal a role agrochemical plays in the agriculture industry in India…

  14. prashant permalink
    May 8, 2009 5:12 pm

    @all of you….especially NITA…you need to read this…you have lot of misconception regarding Agrochemicals… read it with your eyes wide open…

    The Hypocrisy of Organic Farmers

    Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, UCLA
    By Bob Goldberg

    Organic farmers are an important part of farming. However, they are like the fundamentalists — they ARE fundamentalists — who think that agriculture must be done in a specific way. The amount of acreage devoted to organic farming is small in the total scheme of things.

    Leaving their “fundamentalist” “ideology” aside, they are quite hypocritical.

    First, their consumer market share has gone up significantly in England, where the anti-genetic engineering campaign is the strongest. High-end organic markets like Wild Oats and Whole Earth Foods DEPEND upon organic foods for their economic viability. If they can “label” genetic engineering as BAD, consumers will perceive that organic foods are “healthier”, when, in fact, they are NOT. These high-end grocery stores cater to an affluent, upper middle-class consumer that can afford their $3/pound tomatoes. They are major contributors to Greenpeace, which has been running the anti-genetic engineering campaign. This is NOT about protecting the consumer or the health of the consumer, it’s about market share and economics. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. The more the “organic” crowd can scare the consumer about the dangers of genetic engineering, the greater their market share and profit.

    Second, there is not one piece of valid scientific data that can show that organic foods are healthier than foods made by conventional farming. As a BOTANIST I know that a plant, is a plant, is a plant. The structure, cell types, biochemistry, genetics, etc. of organically grown and conventionally grown crops are the SAME. There’s a perception that organic foods are healthier — the reality is that they are no more nutritious or healthier than foods produced by conventional farming. I wonder why organic foods are not labeled stating this FACT.

    Third, organic foods MAY be less safe for consumption than foods grown by conventional means. Because organic farmers use MANURE which can contain deadly strains of E. coli, salmonella, etc. there is a higher chance of picking up a bacterial infection from organically grown crops than from conventionally grown crops. The chance may be slight, but it IS higher than from food produced the conventional way. I wonder why organic food sellers don’t LABEL their foods to warn consumers of that fact that there may be a chance of getting a bacterial infection and to wash their organic food well. IF THEY ARE CONCERNED ABOUT HUMAN HEALTH, THIS SHOULD BE A NO-BRAINER.

    Fourth, there are STRICT regulations on the amount of “pesticides” that can be on conventional plants as residues. In fact, ALL PLANTS contain natural chemicals (secondary metabolites) that are more harmful (in high doses) to humans than any of the residual pesticides present on conventional crops. Bruce Ames, a well-known UC Berkeley geneticist who developed the standard toxicity test used today (the Ames test) published this in a landmark paper in 1990 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — and Bruce Ames is a critical, careful scientist with impeccable credentials for objectivity — he works with bacteria and has no hidden agenda in the plant world one way or the other. Conventional foods are safe…they have been eaten by BILLIONS of people. Organics, on the other hand, can pose a HIGHER risk.

    Fifth, organic farming takes up much more LAND than conventional farming. It is naive to think that organic farming can feed the “world.” Organic farming requires MANURE, which requires animals, which requires FORAGE LAND. Today there are 6.5 billion people on the face of the earth. By 2050, we may have 10 billion people. Because organic farming uses nitrogen in manure, they will have to produce significantly MORE manure to keep up with the demand to feed 3-4 billion more people. IT CANNOT BE DONE. In fact, all of the world’s cultivatable land has already been taken up. In order to increase food production the key is to INCREASE YIELD — grow more plants on the same or smaller space. Organic farming can use higher yielding varieties (developed by conventional breeding). However the demand for MANURE is too great. It has been estimated, that, at most, organic farming practices can feed 4 billion people. We have passed that already. Sixth, high-yielding farming cannot be done on a large scale using organic farming practices. There is no way that organic farmers can control pathogen infections (viruses, fungi, bacteria, insects) using natural biological controls. These require some utilization of chemicals. In addition, one of the reasons why agricultural productivity has increased 300% IN THE LAST CENTURY HAS BEEN FROM THE USE OF nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, greater-yielding varieties, agricultural practices and GENETIC ENGINEERING. This increase has been obtained on LESS LAND USAGE than a 100 years ago and with less people. For example, in 1875 ~50% of the labor in the US was devoted to farming. Today, less than 2% of labor is devoted to farming. Yet we produce 300% more crops on LESS land. That’s more land for forests, parks, open space, etc. that would not be there if it weren’t for modern agricultural practices

  15. Uma Shankari permalink
    August 6, 2010 4:16 pm

    I am really surprised at the determined advocacy of chemical industrial agriculture. i am not a botanist or a ‘scientist”, I am a farmer, everyone knows how chemical fertilizers and pesti/weedicides have destroyed the fertility of the land and how chemicals in agriculture and foof processing have accumulated to produce new diseases; man evolutionally is not programmed to deal with raw chemicals, whereas they are programmed to live with chemicals in other living organisms, against which he has a chance of defending himself. Of course he may lose the battle against his natural predators but that is life – afterall no living thing can and should live for ever. but to artificially prolong life with chemicals and have new diseases against which man’s bodies are defenseless – is it a better way of doing things, i wonder.


  1. The chemicals in our food. at Blogbharti
  2. Poor Standards of the Indian FDAs. « Tech and Trek

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