The recent controversy over Maggi has exposed the high vulnerability of consumers to hazardous but tasty and convenient foods which very quickly become a habit for millions of people (including children).
While the authorities should certainly take necessary action based on available facts and tests, in addition they should also plan for wider reforms in food processing keeping in view the needs of safety, health and nutrition.
Wendell Berry truly captured contradictions of the modern food system in one sentence when he said, "it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons."
If anyone thinks that this is an exaggeration, then let him or her see the 1986 report of the London Food Commission which said that at least 92 pesticides cleared for use in Britain have been linked with cancer, birth defects or genetic mutation in animal studies. Or the 1987 report of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, which said that pesticides in the food of US citizens may cause more than one million additional cases of cancer over their lifetime.
There has been a big increase in recent years in the number and quantity of additives used by the food processing industry, including flavours, colours, emulsifiers, preservatives and an amazing range of other additives. The London Food Commission noted in 1988 that about 3,800 additives were being used to perform about a hundred functions. Only about a tenth of the additives were subject to government control. The commission wrote "A single meal may contain a cocktail of 12 to 16 additives. The combinations of additives may react with each other and with foods to produce new chemical substances." A wide range of health hazards has been reported for an equally wide variety of food additives.
In recent decades important changes have taken place in the methods of food processing which have damaged the nutritional worth of staple foods. Instead of repairing this damage, today we appear to be well set on the path of adding more and more 'junk' foods - which appear to be attractive but have little nutrition value - to our diet.
Rice is without doubt the most important food in our country and unfortunately it is in the processing of rice that the maximum loss occurs due to polishing of the grain. According to expert L. Ramachandran, writing in his book Food Planning - some vital aspects, even in sheer quantitative terms the loss is very significant - in ordinary milling and polishing the quantitative loss ranges from 8 to 16 per cent and in excessive polishing it may go up to 27 per cent.
Similarly there is a big loss of grain and nutrients in the milling of wheat in modern roller mills, which through a complicated process of breaking the grain by stages, peel off the outer layers.
In present day processing in rice mills and flour mills the most nutrient-rich parts of grain are discarded and sent to cattle feed and poultry feed plants.
According to Ramachandran, the quantitative loss in the case of cereals by such wasteful refining may amount to not less than eight million tons in a year. However, the qualitative loss is even more staggering because the portions of the grain which are removed are rich in precisely those nutrients in which the average Indian diet is deficient. A poor country like India can hardly afford this loss.
In the words of Ramachandran, "The average Indian diet consists almost exclusively of cereals and what we lose from them on account of refinement is not made good from other sources as it happens in more developed countries….For similar reasons the poor people of this country, who form the vast majority suffer to a far greater extent than the wealthy minority who can afford a richer, more varied diet."
Another massive source of loss of nutrients is the hydrogenation of oils or the manufacture of the so-called vanaspati ghee. In recent decades vanaspati ghee has become a very widely used cooking medium in India. The natural oil is deodorized and decolourized by chemical processing. It is then hydrogenated in a process using a nickel catalyst. The hydrogenation changes most of the unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats into saturated fats. Saturated fats consumed in excess can be very harmful. Unsaturated fats, especially some of the polyunsaturated fats, are important in nutrition and play a protective role against the risk of cardiovascular disease and other ailments. Writes Ramachandran, "In hydrogenation, what is good and necessary is changed into what is not necessary and may be harmful. Thus, while it deprives us of what is necessary, it also saddles us with something which is unnecessary and harmful in the long run."
These are examples of harmful processing of staple foods, but in addition to this a whole range of new processed foods have also become a regular part of Indian diet, first in relatively well-to-do houses, and then, as these are considered signs of good living, also among the poorer families trying to imitate them. Many of these foods give low nutrition at a high price, something the poorer families can least afford, and also harm the health of those consuming them regularly, especially children in several ways. These food products include various confectionery items, canned products, chocolates, snacks, soft drinks, pretentious 'energy' foods and drinks, various baby foods and infant milk formulas.
Nutrition expert Thankamma Jacob says that more and more people are now set on this "suicidal dietary pattern." Children are the worst hit by this drastic change in diet from natural foods to highly refined, attractively coloured and flavoured foods.
"Several studies conducted in the developed west,"Thankamma Jacob writes, "have now confirmed the view that the western type of diet is partly or wholly responsible for a number of chronic degenerative diseases such as obesity, hypertension, heart disease, arthritis, piles, varicose veins, diabetes, constipation, diverticulosis, cancer and to crown it all allergic manifestation."
The need of the hour is a strong consumers' movement, or a 'healthy food' movement which can educate the public about the immense loss of nutrients and various health hazards to which they are exposed due to the present structure and methods of the food processing industry, and on this basis, also bring pressure on the government to introduce the necessary changes in the industry.