You’ve consumed this chemical cocktail
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 ignore 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 making 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.
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 and 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.
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
There 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.
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.
Zybend 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 not 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!
Pudin 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!