The packaged food industry is a result of our desire for a more convenient lifestyle, with readily available foods at hand whenever and where ever we need them. We are able to achieve a lot in life because of these conveniences. Everyone, in some form or another, depends on the packaged food industry, making this section of the retail foods business very lucrative.
Manufacturers make irresistable and mouth watering products packaged in fine little packs with luring colours. To add to all of this they are advertised by public figures we adore and respect. The situation is a win-win for all, cheaper products for the consumer and greater profits for the manufacturer. We need to know that the long term damages to human health as a consequence of this are going to be irreversible. So to what extent are we willing to compromise? To make this decision we need to fully understand what is in the packages.
We need to see beyond the immediate benefit. We cannot hope that the snack manufacturer will act in good faith and good will towards the general population. Is our individual greed greater than our collective need to stay healthy?
Per the UK food labeling regulations all ingredients must be stated so the consumer can make his/her decision. Over time and increased awareness consumers avoided the items with additives and artificial colours, forcing the manufacturers to move to natural ingredients. In the US there are only a handful of approved colours, but the market has several products under with the broad labeling of artificial colours and flavours. Other than this in most other parts of the world the enforcement on labelling itself is so weak that most ingredients are not labelled. Enforcement is tough because all manufacturers, small and big, are looking to export globally.
On fruit flavoured products, you see bright, vibrant oranges and reds(Yummy!). However, real fruit doesn’t even look that bright. Flip the pack and you’ll see the words, “CONTAINS PERMITTED ARTIFICIAL COLOURS”. Did you know that these” permitted artificial colours”,are banned in some countries as their governments do not deem them safe for their citizens.
The only way to control what goes into our bodies is to make sure that the food we buy is safe. We have the right to know what we get when we are paying for these fine little packs. Just celebrating the consumer rights day (March 15th) once a year won’t help.
Dyes and additives are known to cause tumors in the bladder and cause kidney and liver damage. Dyes in foods, whether they are allowed or banned, all come with their own risks. The implications however are serious on the kidneys, liver and on neurological and behavioral problems.
- FD&C Yellow #5 and Metanil yellow are widely used in Indian sweets have negative effects on liver health. If you have the predisposed condition in these areas the risk is even greater.
- Malachite green is another dye that was banned in the US in 198, but is still found in Indian sweets. The chemical is used in aquaculture in some East Asian nations.
- Did you know that your favourite biryani is coloured not with kesar but with a cheap metanil yellow, and the silver foil on sweets ( is what you think..) may actually be a tin foil which is a toxic heavy metal.
So then, why are they still being used in food
Well…A general apathy towards to human life, ….that and the following :
- The azo dyes have high intensity colors that have fast-drying properties. The main advantage is the cost effectiveness of using azo dyes, they can easily be purchased at any dye for a very cheap price and are available at both wholesale and retail quantities. Thus, the azo dye becomes a more attractive option in comparison to other types of dyes.
- Azo dyes are much more stable than most of the natural food dyes. Azo dyes are stable in the whole pH range of foods, are heat stable and do not fade when exposed to light or oxygen. This makes azo dyes applicable in nearly all foods. The only disadvantage is that azo dyes are not soluble in oil or fat. Only when azo dyes are coupled to a fat soluble molecule, or when they are dispersed as very fine particles, oils can be coloured.
- The general formula for making an azo dye requires two organic compounds- a coupling component and a diazo component. Since these can be altered considerably, an enormous range of possible dyes are available, especially as the starting molecules are readily available and cheap. Furthermore, the simplicity of the reactions mean that the process can be scaled up or down very easily. Energy requirements for the reaction are low, since most of the chemistry occurs at or below room temperature. All these factors make azo dyes very cheap to produce.
So, we need to care, campaign collectively and bring about a change
As for the rest of us, it seems like we have to fight this battle seperately, on our own, once again,
It isn’t late: there is lot we can do.
We live in a chemical dump we proudly call mother earth. Some chemicals are bound to seep into our bodies through environmental influences, and the impact of that on our health needs to be dealt with anyway. We definitely don’t need to ingest additional chemicals through our mouths. This we can avoid.
We need to take a multi-pronged approach for this to be effective:
A grass-roots awareness campaign in schools and institutions to remind everyone what is in those fine little packs and how and why they should choose wisely. This constant reminder is very important as we need to counter-act the collective bombardment of advertisements promoting these products.
Scientific Community: There is a lot of industry funded research for products to increase their shelf life and enhance texture and taste. Now research is even going to produce chocolate that does not melt in warm weather. It would be unwise to expect profit driven manufacturers to champion healthy ways.So, as part of the scientific community it is our responsibility to objectively evaluate why these additives are being used and provide a healthy solution to each instance separately.
Government Regulation is the necessary final measure to monitor and enforce updated policy in this regard.
Man as a superior species has an obligation to protecting this planet. If we are only worried about our education, our future, and in saving up for a rainy day, we are no different than the other creatures on the planet ( the busy bees for example). We need to work for the general good of society and for the long term benefit of the environment.
Health Promotion or Disease Prevention
We know that many of these additives are carcinogens, affect our endocrine system in the long run or leave us pre-disposed to several health conditions. Therefore we need to look at food safety controls as preemptive measures and treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
Health promotion needs to take top priority. All measures taken on health promotion far outweigh the costs of disease detection, disease prevention, disease control or disease cure, wether in terms of health care costs or the pain the patients and their families have to endure.
We need to raise awareness in facilitating change in food, excercise and lifestyle habits of society. We live in a society where our habits are driven by media. A good looking, fine tasting snack when marketed well can without doubt change the breaktime choice of a good section of society for atleast a few years, before food regulators or food critiques intervene. Our current system (or lack of system in many nations) is only a reactionary measure, but by then a habit from the product has already been formed and to market on the habit a similar product is released into the market in no time.
Markets should follow health norms and not the other way around i.e. markets driving our habits.
Policy at all levels local (and central government) needs to promote good health and curb the use of dyes, additives and other agents . Markets in all nations need to be inspected with the intent to reduce risk to the population. This will change snacking habits and eating norms thereby forcing the food manufacturers to listen to the general hue and cry and produce healthy foods. We cannot let a new product on the market take the population by storm. Markets should follow health norms and not the other way around i.e. markets driving our habits.