Food adulteration becoming epidemic

Food adulteration is slowly becoming an epidemic, affecting human lives at large. The usage of colours, chemicals, pesticides and additives are becoming an acceptable but dangerous practice in India.

“It is often done for monetary gain without realising its long-term and disastrous impact on the health and the future of the country, both economically and ecologically,” said Neha Gupta, chief nutritionist, N-lite Nutrition and Health Consultancy Pvt Ltd.

“Now food adulteration is no longer restricted to local produce, but has made its way into packaged products also. The presence of starch in paneer to make it thicker, hydrogenated oils and vanaspati in ghee to lend it its rich yellow colour and powdered bricks in chilli powder raise questions about the quality of food that we eat,” she added.

“Adulteration is dangerous as it degenerates the quality of food, making it sub-standard for human consumption. The most commonly adulterated spices include coriander, dried ginger powder, dried red chilli, cardamom, cumin powder, pickle powder, garam masala, curd chilli, chilli powder, fennel seeds, Kashmiri chilli powder, rasam powder and curry powder. They contain pesticides that exceed the permitted limits prescribed by the European Union (EU),” she said, delving into adulteration in spices.

“In India, it is the agricultural sector which uses the maximum amount of pesticides, which eventually get absorbed in the air and consecutively water and spirals as a vicious cycle growing multifold,” Gupta said.

“Even while there are food testing laboratories across the country, it is still important for consumers to able to analyse food articles for contaminants at home. This is where access to food and nutritional consultants, besides awareness programmes, will enable educating the masses on simple home tests of spices,” she added.  

“Thus, it becomes imperative that we buy and consume spices that are safe, as adulterated spices can have many adverse affects on health like nausea, vomiting and blurred vision,” Gupta said.

“Most often spices like turmeric powder, chilli powder and other powdered spices have a high percentage of residual pesticides in them. These spices can be easily mixed with food colouring, added starch, coloured sawdust or even brick powder, which cuts cost for the sellers,” she added.

Sharing the details of simple tests that can be conducted at home to identify the presence of adulteration in spices, Gupta said that in the case of turmeric powder, a commonly-used adulterant is the addition of lead chromate, which gives it a bright yellow tinge and is insoluble in water. “To detect the presence of lead chromate, it can be mixed with water and placed in a beaker. If adulterated, it will immediately leak colour,” she added.

“Similarly, in the case of chilli powder, the most commonly used adulterants include sawdust and brick powder. If one adds a teaspoon of chilli powder in a glass of water and swirls it, it will dispel a red swirl of colour if adulterated,” she added.

“Starch, food colours, dust and horse dung are some of the commonly-used adulterants in powdered spices and can lead to serious health complications. Immersing powdered spices in water will ensure that the adulterants float on the surface of the water, while the remaining spices will settle at the bottom of the water surface,” Gupta said.

“Indian food is incomplete without the addition of masala powders and spices, but with the menace of contamination of spices, it can become a health hazard if consumed daily,” she added.

“The best way to avoid consuming spices which are adulterated is to buy them from a trusted source that packages them after being checked by food regulatory boards and carry either an ISI mark or a Agmark stamp,” Gupta stated.

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