Eating habits have been changing rapidly in modern India.
While 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 readymade 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 the choices are many. Though, some of us may not be aware of the fact that the food we consume may be adulterated, 25 to 30 per cent of the food items in India are intentionally adulterated.
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 spill over effect from pesticides and fertilisers. 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 colour adulteration. Some examples of intentional adulteration are 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 seafoods. About 5,000 species of marine fish are known to be poisonous and many of these are among edible varieties.
Beyond safety limit
Mineral oil may be added to edible oil and fats and can cause cancers. Lead chromate added to turmeric powder and spices can cause anaemia, 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, anaemia, and mental retardation. Cobalt added to water and liquors and can cause cardiac damage. Copper, tin and zinc can cause colic, vomiting and diarrhoea. Mercury in mercury fungicide treated grains or mercury contaminated fish can cause brain damage, paralysis and death. Non-permitted colour or permitted food colour like metanil yellow, beyond the safe limit in coloured food can cause allergies, hyperactivity, liver damage, infertility, anaemia, cancer and birth defects.
Adulteration In Food Stuff And Its Harmful Effects
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 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 every one of us takes special interest in this subject and educate our families, friends and colleagues about this menace.
(The author is a consultant colorectal surgeon at Apollo Hospitals, Chennai. He is the lead clinician in the department of colorectal surgery and super specialises in surgical management of the diseases of the colon, rectum and anus)