Traditionally, Indian families used to cook food at home with healthy ingredients and knew what went into the meal. In modern times, with rising incomes and affluence, more and more people are moving away to ready-made fast foods and eating regularly at restaurants. The food in many of these outlets is cooked with poor quality ingredients to attract and satisfy the palate rather than provide a wholesome nutritional meal. We now have a lot more varieties and choices available in the markets. But, some of us may not be aware of the fact that the food we consume may be adulterated. Surveys suggest that 25 to 30 percent of the food items in India are intentionally adulterated!
What is food adulteration?
Food adulteration is the addition or removal of any substances to or from food so that the natural composition and quality is affected. Adulterated food is impure, unsafe and not wholesome. Food can be adulterated intentionally and accidentally.
Unintentional adulteration is a result of ignorance or the lack of facilities to maintain food quality. This may be caused by spillover effect from pesticides and fertilizers. Inappropriate food handling and packaging methods can also result in adulteration.
Intentional food adulteration is usually done for financial gain. The most common form of intentional adulteration is color adulteration. Some examples of intentional adulteration are the addition of water to liquid milk, extraneous matter to ground spices, or the removal or substitution of milk solids from the natural product.
Natural adulteration occurs due to the presence of certain chemicals, organic compounds or radicals naturally occurring in foods which are injurious to health and are not added to the foods intentionally or unintentionally. Some of the examples are toxic varieties of pulses, mushrooms, green and other vegetables, fish and seafood. About 5,000 species of marine fish are known to be poisonous and many of these are among edible varieties.
Food adulteration- a rising problem in India
Food adulteration has become rampant in India. Fruits, vegetables might be contaminated, soft drinks and dairy products too and all this so that producers can save a few rupees.
In a recent report, the Public Health Foundation of India attributed 80 percent of all premature deaths in contaminated food and water. Food adulteration in India starts from the field itself where fertilizers and pesticides are overused. Therefore, one kind of contaminant that is present across all range of food is very high level of pesticide residues.
But pesticide residues are not the only problem. Many products used in everyday cooking, such as cottage cheese and clarified butter, are adulterated. Coloring agents in spices are also posting problems. The use of carbide to make fruit ripen faster has created a number of health hazards.
Young and old are the most affected
Children and elderly people are the most vulnerable to these toxins in food. Some people say that in a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, there should be less stress on adulterated food and more on the fact that people should have enough food to eat. However, the food should be safe, say activists.
Although there exist laws to control and monitor the food industry, until recently there were no uniform food regulations preventing the adulteration of food. We hope that the new food safety and standards act will bring some positive change and with the coming of this act a whole structure will be revamped, more awareness has been generated and people are realizing how important food safety is. But for the average mass, there is a question because the systems that have been put in place, the kind of certification introduced and required are all very expensive. A small scale street vendor will not be able to afford it.
High price of cheap food
Unfortunately, experts say, there is very little awareness among the Indian public. People are tempted to buy cheaper food and they are likely then to purchase adulterated food. Processed food is unsafe in India. Starting from potato chips to pre-cooked ready to eat food, I don’t think these are very safe. This is because the monitoring mechanism in our country is not that strong. Health practitioners are urging the government to do more to raise awareness about adulterated food among the Indian public.
Grave effects of adulteration food practices
- Mineral oil may be added to edible oil and fats and can cause cancers.
- Lead chromate added to turmeric powder and spices can cause anemia, paralysis, brain damage and abortions.
- Lead added to water, natural and processed food can lead to lead poisoning. Lead poisoning causes foot drop, insomnia, constipation, anemia, and mental retardation.
- Cobalt added to water and liquors and can cause cardiac damage. Copper, tin, and zinc can cause colic, vomiting and diarrhea.
- Mercury in mercury fungicide treated grains, or mercury-contaminated fish can cause brain damage, paralysis, and death.
- Non-permitted color or permitted food color like metal yellow, beyond the safe limit in colored food can cause allergies, hyperactivity, liver damage, infertility, anemia, cancer and birth defects.
The best way to avoid these health problems is prevention. There are many steps we can take to ensure this. We can begin by taking an interest in the place from where we buy our food ingredients, for example, is it from a reputed shop or retailer, we need to check out. We also need to check if these outlets are regularly checked by food inspectors and if the premises are kept clean with no infestations. We need to check if the packaging is intact, as also the expiry date and the source of the product. It is also necessary to talk regularly to the local community to check if people are falling sick after eating in a particular restaurant or food ingredients bought from a particular retailer. We should also create awareness in the local community on the ill effects of food adulteration so that when it happens the public knows when to seek help.
We need to remember that contamination could happen in very small amounts over a period of time and it might be impossible to detect or too late to intervene. So it is prudent that everyone of us takes a special interest in this subject and educates our families, friends, and colleagues about this menace.