What is food adulteration?
Motivated by economic profitability or malicious intent, adding or mixing substandard or harmful substances to food items that may have adverse effect on health is known as food adulteration. Most common of adulterated foods in India include:
- Milk – India is world’s largest producer and consumer of milk and related products. Unfortunately, it has become notoriously infamous for being the country to produce synthetic/artificial milk. Driven by increased urbanisation, high demand and unethical profit motives, adulteration and contamination of milk has become a serious problem. Contaminants range from water to chemicals such as caustic soda, white paint, refined oil, urea, starch, glucose and formalin. Detergent is often detected due to lack of hygiene in handling and packaging. Either way the health risks of the resulting mixture is very high. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently issued an advisory to the Government of India. It states that if milk and related products adulteration was not checked immediately, then by 2025, 87 per cent of its citizens may suffer from serious diseases like cancer.
- Milk products – Just as gloomy is the situation with milk products such as paneer, ghee, yoghurt, butter and cream. Paneer is a staple for vegetarians in the country. In the market, it is often replaced with synthetic paneer which is made from mixture of maida, palm oil, baking powder, detergent, bicarbonate soda, skimmed milk and sulphuric acid. Similarly, synthetic butter, yoghurt and cream replacements are manufactured from combination of chemical and oils. The ‘real’ ghee has been replaced by butter oil. A wide variety of Indian sweets available are made from adulterated milk and milk products posing risk human health.
- Tea/Coffee: Tea and coffee are the most consumed beverages in India. If your idea of a perfect evening is enjoying a hot cup of tea, then you need to know that adulteration of tea has taken place since the early 1800s. To enhance the aroma and taste, the tea leaves are mixed with artificial food colour, flavours and synthetic dye such as tartrazine, indigo, gypsum, graphite, Prussian blue. Coffee is ubiquitous food product of considerable economic value. It is often mixed with cheaper materials like clay powder, corn powder, chicory, woody tissues etc to increase profitability.
- Honey: In ancient times, honey was considered to be ‘elixir of life’. However, in 2020 this definition for commercially available honey does not hold much ground. In the year 2010 and 2016, CSE and Consumer Voice respectively conducted tests on popular honey brands available in India. On both instances, they detected rampant use of adulterants and antibiotics. Artificial honey is manufactured in illegal factories using sugar, corn or rice syrup to cater to rising demand. Artificial honey is devoid of trace minerals presents in natural honey and therefore does worse than good to human health. Additionally, at an alarming rate honeybees are being given antibiotics to keep them disease free. Besides, farmers often spray chemical pesticides on crops and flora in order to protect their yield. The Bees while foraging on nectar consume the deadly spray. Bee’s exposure to antibiotics and pesticides ultimately adulterates honey.
- ‘Masala’ Powders: Spices and herbs are labour-intensive to produce, which keeps their prices high compared to other crops. Indian kitchen uses a variety of spices such as cardamom, clove, nutmeg, peppercorns and cumin. Growing demand, production challenges and high prices make spices particularly tempting targets for food adulterators. To enhance the aroma, colour and texture of spices, different types of cheap chemicals are used. For instance, ‘Sudan 1’ a red dye also a known carcinogen, is used to cater red colour to chilli powders. Similarly, adulterant like lead chromate is used to impart bright yellow colour to turmeric. Also, to increase the weight of the spice packaging cheap fillers are used. For example, a packaged garam masala may contain saw dust or powdered bran while a pack of saffron may contain coloured maize thread.
With fair understanding about most common adulterated foods, in next blog, I will deep dive into various aspects of honey.