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Know It All

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

No, we aren’t talking about an unsavoury personality trait. We’re urging you to be a know-it-all — when it comes to food adulteration! Shirley Mistry tells you about some commonly adulterated foods

Even if you have been shopping for groceries from a trusted shop or supermarket for several years, food adulteration can creep into your food, without you realising it. If you thought that the days when you had to worry about something being added to your flour or milk were over, you need to take a closer look at the produce and spices that you consume, as adulteration is still a rampant issue in our country.

While no one knows the full extent to which adulteration takes place, there are several ways to adulterate most of the food items that you consume on a daily basis. Take a look at some of the most easily adulterated foods:

Olive Oil: You thought you were being smart about your food choices by switching over to olive oil. But, we urge you to pick only the best brand, because it is easy to adulterate olive oil with canola oil or palm oil and then add an olive oil scent to it.

Ghee: Do you remember the outrage a few decades ago, when people realised that Vanaspati was packed with so many trans-fats, that it was literally death on a plate? Back then, switching over to ghee was considered to be a safer alternative. However, several small shops have recently been found passing off Vanaspati as ghee by adding a ghee essence to it.

Honey: The bottle of honey that you devour every morning could be sugar syrup spiked with a scent to give it honey's distinctive fragrance. The more processed the honey is, the more difficult it becomes to tell the difference between adulterated and pure honey.

Milk: There is just so much that can go wrong with milk, it’s extremely terrifying. Apart from diluting it with water, it can be contaminated with glucose, skim milk powder (mixed with water to bulk up quantities), urea and even detergent. In 2012, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India collected samples of milk from across the country and found that 68.4% of these samples were adulterated.

Wheat Flour or Atta: Dirt, white sand and sometimes, even starch, is added in to bulk up your wheat flour. This makes it very unhealthy and also quite dangerous to consume.

Spices: The most trusted spices on your spice rack can be adulterated all too easily. While non-permitted colours, saw dust, dirt, grit and red brick powder are used to adulterate chilli powder, lead chromate is found in adulterated turmeric. In some cases, coriander powder is said to have been adulterated by powdered dung and asafoetida can be adulterated by adding powdered substances that are earthy in colour. Also, grass seeds coated with colour are used to create whole cumin.

If the techniques to adulterate these common foods has given you a royal fright, get to work straight away by performing these simple tests to see how safe you are:

  • Rub cumin seeds in your palm. If the colour comes off, you know that they are grass seeds.
  • Put a spoonful of coriander powder in a bowl of water. The dung will float to the top and give out a distinctive, foul smell.
  • Put your jar of ghee in the freezer overnight. If it is ghee it will solidify, but, if it is Vanaspati masquerading as ghee, the oil will not freeze.
  • To check if your asafoetida is pure, pour some into a bowl of water. The adulterants will settle at the bottom and the asafoetide will float to the top.
  • Always buy the most organic honey you can find, since it is hard to adulterate it in its organic state.
  • When you find a good deal on extra-virgin olive oil, remember to research the brand well before you make your purchase.
  • While buying spices, always look for the Agmark or ISI mark on the products as these specify authenticity.

Report It!
Food adulteration is a crime in India under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act of 1955. However, incidents such as the epidemic of dropsy in New Delhi in 1998 (due to widespread consumption of mustard oil), are proof that many food retailers and manufacturers get away with adulteration because of weak implementation of this law. The government has enacted the Food Safety and Standards Act in August 2006 and a Food Safety Authority is also being established to ensure that produce matches global standards. In case you find any adulteration in the packaged foods you purchase, we urge you to take it up with your local consumer court.

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