Yet another fast or junk food is in the news for the wrong reasons with several States along with Assam banning the sale of Nestle’s popular instant noodle Maggi. Reportedly the Food Standard Authority under the Assam Health department found ucceptably high lead and mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) content in several Maggi samples collected from different parts of the State. The Meghalaya government too has issued ban order on Maggi, while other NE States are conducting tests. This outcry began after an Uttar Pradesh lab reported Maggi samples with high lead and MSG content. Nestle is also facing flak over its premium milk powder N Pro 3, after live larvae were found recently in a sample in Coimbatore. This is not the first time in recent memory when a fast food is giving customers the jitters. Back in 2003, worms were found in Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolates by consumers in Mumbai. The company’s sales and image took a big hit before it invested substantially on machinery to revamp its packaging. Then there were serious allegations of pesticides in Pepsi and Coke aerated drinks, reported by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). Coke had to introduce special seals in its bottles and both cola giants counter-attacked with major public relation campaigns to win back customers. How Nestle responds to this controversy will be interesting, with its ubiquitous Maggi brand so far accounting for one-fifth of its sales.
In an age in which long hours of mostly sedentary work and wrong food habits are taking their toll by bringing about various lifestyle diseases, such crises are but waiting to happen. The downside of cooking in ‘two minutes’ a supposedly tasty noodle dish as a substitute for a proper meal — is wolfing down high intake of carbohydrates and salts. Is it any surprise that obesity, hypertension and diabetes are beginning to prey upon even our schoolchildren? And now we also have to worry about excessive levels of lead and MSG in such fast food. Experts warn that a heavy metal like lead can damage the brain, digestive and nervous systems as well as bone marrow, causing drop in haemoglobin levels and aemia and other harmful effects. As for MSG which is added to make noodles highly palatable, it is believed it may affect the brain, cause cancer and trigger disorders like headaches, sweating and weakness. This is the ture of poisons we allow inside our bodies through junk foods, as we have come to believe the time, effort and care needed to cook a balanced, wholesome meal is a luxury in busy modern lifestyles. It is primarily children who pay for our ignorance and laziness in eating matters, as they get badly hooked to junk food at an early age. With celebrities pushing for such foods through catchy advertisements, it is hardly surprising children make wrong food choices when they are too young to know any better. The CSE has advocated a tough stand by Central and State governments on ‘nutrition fact labelling’, forcing foodstuff producers to clearly mention on the pack the quantity of each ingredient — along with the daily intake of that ingredient recommended.
Food is a vital issue of public health and public good, so food safety authorities cannot compromise with their work. Not just junk foods, important components of traditiol food are also being brazenly adulterated, posing huge risks to the health of consumers. In Delhi itself in 1998, more than sixty people died after consuming mustard oil adulterated with a petroleum product. Shockingly, as much as two-thirds of milk sold in the country was found adulterated with detergent, urea and other dangerous substances by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). But overall, junk food with excessive sugar, salt and oil is posing the biggest health risk to large parts of the country, particularly its cities. Almost all ready-made or pre-packaged foods like pastas, potato chips, processed meat and soft drinks — come with a host of colouring agents, artificial sweeteners and preservatives that are harmful in many ways. A generation of overweight but malnourished Indians are growing up, hostage to high calories and dangerous chemicals invading their bodies. Even the courts are taking cognisance of this matter with the Delhi High Court having instructed the FSSAI to regulate food standards, as well as celebrities advertising junk foods. The Maggi controversy simply goes to show how safety standards in packaged food and drinks are being grossly violated in our country, with Assam and other NE States totally in the dark.