Parents, educationists and health campaigners in the UK are demanding that the food industry desist from adding color to food, particularly that which is meant for children. Surely, it is time we take a serious look at the situation in India. Our children's food habits have been changing rapidly with exposure to global markets, and there is precious little by way of safety checks and balances.
The international concern follows a study by the Food Standards Agency, Britain (published in 'The Lancet', September 2007), which links food additives, particularly coloring, with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Lead researcher Professor Jim Stevenson explains that certain mixtures of artificial food colors, alongside sodium benzoate, a preservative commonly used in ice cream and confectionery, are associated with an increase in hyperactivity: children behave impulsively and lose concentration after a drink containing a mix of additives.
If a child shows signs of hyperactivity or ADHD, eliminating artificial colors from her/his diet might have beneficial effects. Implicated are sunset yellow - coloring found in squashes; carmoisine - red coloring in jellies; tartrazine - common coloring in lollipops and fizzy drinks; and allura red - an orange/red food dye, to name a few.
Are we feeding our children unwisely, unsafely? Nutritionist Dr Bela Sagar of Jabalpur Medical College (Madhya Pradesh), says, "Children love sweets, candies and lemon drops but often the coloring is extremely toxic. Maggi (a popular brand of instant noodles) is unhealthy because it is only refined flour with preservatives, yet so filling it becomes a full meal. Colas decalcinate the body. Ice creams, chips and chocolates are not be so bad because at least they have some nutritional value, although they too may contain toxic additives."
While the government has listed non-permitted food additives, the enforcement is lax. According to Dr Ramesh V. Bhatt, Nutrition Foundation of India, New Delhi, "Studies (1997) conducted by the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre (ITRC), Lucknow, revealed nearly 62 per cent of artificially colored eatables in the rural markets have non-permitted colors, which are hazardous to the health. A study in Kolkata (1994) revealed unsafe dyes, including textile dyes, in street food items. In 6.6 per cent of the cases where permitted colors were used, the statutory limit was far exceeded."
Metanil yellow, a frequently used non-permitted color, causes food poisoning. Even among permitted food colors, tartrazine is linked with hypersensitivity responses. An increasing number of food additives are being permitted, without sufficient proof of safety, even in the case of infant foods such as milk powder.
Manorama Devi, 40, and Vidya Thapa, 45, health activists with grassroots NGO Action India in Delhi's Seemapuri area, teach women to include lentils, vegetables, cottage cheese, jaggery, curds, buttermilk, groundnuts, 'laddus' (traditional sweetmeats), sprouted 'moong dal' (lentils), and bread made from millets, corn, barley and non-refined wheat, in the family diet. They explain, "We have a vast repertoire of delicious, nutritious and low-cost food preparations. But children demand white bread, Maggi noodles, chips and toffees. After we inform parents about the risks attached, and the importance of healthy diets, they take extra care, and children actually begin to appreciate home-cooked food. We also advise cooking in iron vessels to bring down the incidence of anemia, and not in aluminium vessels, which can be harmful."
According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), in India, aluminium is widely used to make vessels, food packaging material, and food additives - as a dough strengthener, leavening agent, emulsifying agent for processed cheese, stabilizer and thickener. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) is two milligrams per kilogram of body weight (WHO standards), but a large number of children are consuming much more. Accumulation of aluminium in the body is reported to cause disorders related to bones, blood and brain. There is increasing evidence that it may affect neuro-chemical processes in the central nervous system, and ultimately lead to altered memory and behavioral disorders.
A recent study by Lady Irwin College's Department of Food and Nutrition reveals that the Delhi market is flooded with products using artificial sweeteners. Consumers are unaware that these can produce toxic effects, especially when consumed in excess. Diet colas, Jell-O, sugar-free gelatine dessert, mints and many similar products contain a blend of aspartame and acesulfame K. Popular items such as Catch Clear (a popular brand of sugarfree carbonated water), carbonated drinks and Orbit White (a brand of chewing gum) contain aspartame too. Confectionery shops often add artificial sweeteners to cakes, ice creams and sweetmeats like 'kalakand' and 'kulfi' (ice cream made of condensed milk). Toxic effects can be as severe as bladder cancer, caused by saccharine and leukemia by aspartame.
Dr Janet Hull's book on aspartame, 'Sweet Poison', reveals the dangers of this "very toxic food chemical saturating the world's food supply". She notes, "People are getting very sick and weak from aspartame. That is true and very real... Our food supply is a web of confusion in modern times... What do we do? Get back to the basics of eating and drinking to feed our bodies and our minds what nature intended." She notes that children are consuming more and more aspartame laced products at an earlier age, contributing to health problems like ADHD, diabetes, depression and behavioral disorders.
Dr Margaret Khalakdina, who has worked at UNICEF and at Lady Irwin College, Delhi, and is currently writing textbooks for home science students, says, "In an agricultural economy like ours, it's a shame that children are losing healthy food habits. Packaged food is bound to have additives, some of which will be toxic. People hardly bother to look at the expiry dates of packaged and canned food, so they expose themselves to harm. I would advise parents to go in for 'samosas', 'pakoras' (deep fried savouries), cucumber sandwiches, 'rasgullas' (Indian sweetmeat) and cake for birthday parties, with lemonade or fruit juices. For regular snacks, home-made vegetable rolls are far healthier than factory- produced burgers or pastries."
Other problematic food additives include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), and propyl gallate, used as preservatives in snack foods, chewing gums, cereals, potato chips, vegetable oils, and so on. All three have caused cancer in experimental animals. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), another controversial chemical, is a common ingredient in Chinese food, packaged soups and salad dressings, chips, frozen entrees, canned vegetables and tuna, and frozen foods. Experiments show that large amounts of
MSG fed to infant mice destroy nerve cells in the brain. So, it is best that young children do not consume such ingredients.
Professor Ram Narain, retired from Delhi University's Faculty of Education, notes, "Fast foods have become a status symbol, and children are manipulated by advertisements. Parents and teachers must resist the pressure. Schools canteens should keep only the right kinds of food. Parents should nurture children with fruit, milk and vegetables, all of which can be very tasty."
Teenager Nandita Kumar in the Capital, says, "I love pizzas, burgers and chips although I know it is junk food, but it's okay because I only have it only two or three times a month. I have not had colas since the time I saw a film that showed that the water supply is terribly contaminated due to the production of Coca Cola in a village in Kerala. It is harmful for our health, too. People should see such films to have more information so they refuse to eat or drink harmful things."