Food safety first

Food safety first

Good food is not only a means to a nutritionally-balanced diet, but also to wholesome health. And this is possible only when the food is safe and clean. For example, even though fruits are rich in vitamins and minerals, if they are cut, exposed and sold, they become unfit for consumption. So even while consuming healthy food, it is prudent to ensure that it is hygienic as well. Here are some types of food adulteration that you could avoid with some caution:

Addition of harmful substances

Natural colours like turmeric and caramel are safe to be used in foods. But synthetic colours are organic chemicals, only eight of which are permitted to be used within the prescribed limit. Cheap sweet drinks and ice candies sold on streets are possible suspects for unsafe colours. Cakes and other bakery products sometimes contain more than the permitted amount of synthetic colours. Meat kebabs and biryani also should not contain any synthetic colour. Synthetic colours used over a long period of time are suspected to be carcinogenic.

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) used in noodles, meats and soups should not be consumed by children under the age of one. As some studies have found, attempts at recreating natural products almost always produce less than desirable results. Studies have also found that around 15 minutes after the consumption of MSG, people experienced symptoms like a burning sensation in the mouth, head and neck, weakness in the arms or legs, headaches, facial pressure, nausea and chest pain – more so in people who are sensitive to such things.

Removal of nutrients
A common example is the adulteration of milk with water. The water that is used most of the time is unclean and contains harmful bacteria. To be on the safer side, milk should be bought from a place where it is standardised and pasteurised.

Deteriorating or stale food
Stale food leads to bacterial or fungal infections. One of the most common examples is bread that is allowed to go stale. Stale bread contains mycotoxins or fungal poisons, which are harmful to the body. Aflatoxin is one of the main fungal toxins found in groundnuts, which are not properly cleaned, roasted or boiled. Clostridium botulinum, a bacteria found in stale canned meat products causes dangerous bacterial infections if the products are not properly maintained and are allowed to go stale.

Foods prepared under unsanitary conditions
Foods not prepared under sanitary conditions can be quite harmful to health as they contain many impurities and unwanted bacteria, which are then transferred from to the food itself.

The importance of the personal hygiene of the cook cannot be underplayed. If the cook is hygienic, then the surroundings will be clean and the food will be free from impurities and vice-versa. Another fact to be considered is that all vegetables and fruits must be cleaned well to wash off any  contaminants, which may be present on the surface.

Misbranding of food items
Labels and caps should not mislead the consumer. Many food items are labelled with misleading captions, which trick consumers into thinking that those foods are good for health when actually, they are loaded with many substitutes in unhealthy amounts.

Cheaper items mixed with branded varieties
This is a very common problem nowadays. A cheaper variety of food is mixed with a costlier brand to trick consumers into thinking that they are getting a larger amount of food for a lesser price. The most common examples are adding colour to used tea powder to make it look brand new, mixing cheap oils with costly vegetable oils to increase the quantity and mixing vegetable fat with butter.

Substandard foods
This is usually detected in foods that are not cleaned properly. The common examples are pebbles and other foreign matter in rice and grains. Spices with less volatile oils, which are substandard, is also another common example of this practice.

Insect/rodent-infested foods
Insects and rodents carry around a lot of harmful bacteria, which can cause serious diseases. Food products, which are insect or rodent infested, cause unwanted bacteria to enter the food products. These foods are then consumed, transmitting the bacteria into the body of the consumer, causing diseases.

Excess residual insecticides
There is a limited amount specified for the use of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, other than fertilisers on the plants. A common mistake made by farmers is that they think that the more insecticide there is on the plant, the more immune the plant is to the insects and pests, and so they use excess of it. This not only poisons the plant, but also the produce.

Monitoring food in India
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is a regulatory body that deals with matters pertaining to food safety and hygiene in the country. It was established under the Food Safety and Standards Act of 2006. Under this Act, there are two more regulations of 2011:

Sale of certain admixtures prohibited, regulation of the use of food additives and the specification of the amount that can be added to certain foods in prescribed limits.
n For a quick test for common adulterants found in food, browse the site http://www.fssai.gov.in.

If any violations are observed, the public must feel free to lodge a complaint against the offenders with the local health authorities.

The need of the hour is to spread public awareness on food contaminants. This could prevent innumerable people from falling sick. While most of us are concerned about healthy eating, very few actually spare a thought about the safety of the food we consume.

(The author is retired senior chemist, Public Health Institute)

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