Have you ever looked at your plate and wondered what you are ‘really’ eating? What you believe to be nutritious can very well be harmful and cause diseases that have lasting side effects. Intentional, unintentional and incidental adulteration of food is a worldwide phenomenon that is emerging as a major threat to the health and well being of people. According to estimates of the World Health Organisation (WHO), unsafe food is linked to the deaths of around 2 million people annually - many of them children. Food containing dangerous adulterants, harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites or chemical substances is responsible for more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhoea to cancers. Some of the most common adulterated foods are milk and milk products, edible oils, cereals, wheat and gram flour, pulses, coffee, tea and other beverages. Adulterated food does not just take away the nutrition from your daily plate, it substitutes it with potentially lethal substances. “Food safety is a vital issue of serious concern in India. We do not know our source of food and the path it took before reaching our plates. Pesticide residues containing deadly arsenic, traces of petroleum oil, rodent droppings, dangerous disease-causing bacteria and traces of metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and aluminum have often been found in our food products. Health regulatory authorities have prescribed safe limits for such elements in different food items. However, the continuous consumption of food that is contaminated beyond safe limits may cause us serious damage,” says Dr Satish Koul, General Physician, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurgaon. These are the potentially dangerous consequences of some common adulterants:
Toxic Chemicals: Excess usage of pesticides on fruit and vegetable crops results in ‘residue’ on them. For example, arsenic traces can be found on apples that have been sprayed with lead arsenate. Lead-containing dust can get into crops or lead can enter food during its processing or through food containers. Lead chromate is often added to turmeric powder and spices. Fruit juices and drinks stored in cadmium-plated vessels may lead to the presence of cadmium traces, which can result in liver and kidney damage.
Deadly Micro-organisms: Sometimes food items are stored in dangerous conditions, like in places infested with rodents. There may be lack of hygiene during the processing and packaging of food. These conditions can cause dangerous disease-causing bacteria and viruses to thrive. The resulting food infection can have serious health consequences - from vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea to hepatitis.
Petroleum fractions: The edible oils we use might be contaminated with mineral oil such as white oil, or petroleum traces. When consumed over time, these can increase the risk of some cancer(s).
Other adulterants: Artificial coloured seeds are often added to mustard or cumin seeds, and this can cause glaucoma and cardiac arrest. Used tea leaves, iron filings or saw dust are often added to tea, which can have serious health consequences, including cancer.
So, how does one stay alert? While we cannot ensure that what we consume is 100 per cent safe unless we cultivate the food ourselves, we can certainly be more alert to minimising our exposure to harmful adulterants.
Follow these practices:
- Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, avoid consumption of raw food, cook the food well and keep it at safe temperatures.
- Always use purified water (drinking water) for cooking. Water from the supply lines may contain harmful chemicals such as lead and dangerous bacteria and viruses - some of which may not die even after cooking.
- Do not buy groceries and food ingredients from shops and outlets that are dirty and unhygienic. Also check if the outlet that you buy from is regularly checked by food inspectors.
- Pulses and cereals that are sold ‘open’ are most likely to be adulterated. Buy packaged produce, and make sure that the packaging is intact and the expiry date is a few months away.
- Keep yourself aware of the happenings in your community. In case you hear about people falling ill after eating from a particular place or from buying certain food items, report the matter to the health authorities.