How Safe Are Food Additives ?



The uproar over a popular instant food being unsafe is probably a much required wake up call to us Indians who are generally lax when it comes to food , hygiene and health.

So what was the controversy all about? The popular instant food contained six to seven times the “permissible levels” of lead, a heavy metal contaminant, and MSG (Mono sodium glutamate) which gives the special taste found only in Chinese foods. 

High levels of lead (or other heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel) can be very toxic to humans, and especially for children. Lead is a neurotoxin and can affect almost every organ in the body, leading to critical damage of organs such as kidney, liver and the brain. It can impact the cognitive and intellectual development in children, and can cause brittle and weak bones.

While MSG has been used for centuries in China and is present naturally in some foods, it is not as toxic as lead and many trials have proved it to be safe. But excessive MSG, and false claims on the label saying “no added MSG” are serious concerns indeed. But this instant food is not the only food that is guilty of label violations. In the absence of stringent requirements on the label, many food products indulge in misleading and false claims (high calcium, high fiber, or “lite” etc – which have no regulated basis whatsoever).

Lead is not new to us, or to our foods. A study done in heavily industrialized areas near Bangladesh and West Bengal have found high levels of lead in vegetables, particularly tomato and spinach. The study compared the lead levels in veggies being sold near highways and industrial areas, to those in non-polluted areas and found higher lead levels in the former category.

Which brings us to the question, how safe is any food in today’s highly polluted environment? The recent controversy seems to be only the tip of the iceberg, with many more untold horror stories as far as the contaminants in the foods we eat in India are concerned.

It is not entirely unknown that heavy metals which are released into the soil, air and water by the industries and the “leaded petrol” enter into every part of the food chain. Lead, in other words, is unavoidable! However, food safety regulations do stipulate a “permitted level” for these contaminants, and for lead, it is 2.5 ppm (parts per million) in India.

The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has revised its earlier safe lead limit of 0.5 ppm to 0.1 ppm to foods such as candies which are “likely to be eaten frequently by small children”. Should not the same logic apply to these instant foods as well as children are likely to eat them very frequently?.

And what about the other unexplored heavy metals , including arsenic (a poison), cadmium and nickel. Add to this, the growing pesticide menace and other “chemicals and preservatives” which have no strict label regulations,we have a monster of a problem as far as food safety is concerned,.

Some additives such as nitrites, benzoates, sulfites are known carcinogens and these are used in our everyday foods such as bread, frozen foods, instant foods and so on. Almost every food that is packaged contain these substances .

The point to be noted is that although class II preservatives are permitted for use in certain amounts in foods, the average amount of processed foods consumed by children and adults alike in a day far exceed the safety limits of the substances. Our typical days start with biscuits, breads, instant cereals, tetrapak juices, and the evenings are usually marked by namkeens, chips, cola, packaged soups etc. The cumulative effect of so much chemicals in a day is yet not studied, but we can rest assured it would not be all good news !

Until stricter regulations come into being ,you would be better off choosing fresh ingredients in as “unpolluted” an environment as possible. Grow your own veggies (at least those that you use very frequently), try certified organic products and stay away from anything packaged and processed !

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