Healthy food move­ment is re­quire­ment of the hour


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 U.S. cit­i­zens may cause more than one mil­lion ad­di­tional cases of can­cer over their life­time.

Big In­crease of Ad­di­tives Uses

There has been a big in­crease in re­cent years in the num­ber and quan­tity of ad­di­tives used by the food pro­cess­ing in­dus­try, in­clud­ing fla­vors, colors, 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 per­cent and in ex­ces­sive pol­ish­ing it may go up to 27 per­cent.

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.

Most Nu­tri­ents Dis­carded

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 that 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.”

Vanas­pati Ghee

An­other mas­sive source of loss of nu­tri­ents is the hy­dro­gena­tion of oils or the man­u­fac­ture of the so­called vanas­pati ghee. In re­cent decades vanas­pati ghee has be­come a very widely used cooking medium in In­dia. The nat­u­ral oil is de­odor­ized and de­col­orized 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 that 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. The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who has been in­volved with sev­eral so­cial ini­tia­tives and move­ments.

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