Taste bhi, health bhi. That was the Maggi tagline, and it is as untrue of the instant noodles as it is of most packaged and processed foods.
This week, samples of the noodles were found to contain lead and unlisted monosodium glutamate or MSG, known to cause headaches, nausea and palpitations when consumed in large doses. Even before the national recall by Nestlé India, the packets had been swept off shelves in department stores, college canteens and homes across the country.
But the lead and MSG are not the only problems with the ‘health bhi’ claims.
Long before the current brouhaha, a lab study by Delhi-based research organisation Centre for Science and Environment found in 2012 that the instant noodles have high levels of salt and negligible fibre, and are 70% carbohydrate. "This, much against the company’s claim, makes it an unhealthy consumption choice, as these components can put one at a risk of obesity and upset the body’s insulin levels," says Amit Khurana, programme manager for food safety and toxins at CSE.
And the Nestlé comfort food is not the only one claiming health benefits where there are few such benefits to be gained.
Across the board — whether in packs of ‘fresh’ juice or baked snacks, ‘healthy’ brown bread, cereal, or low-fat sandwich spreads — packages are cloaking the truth, banking on the fact that most people pay more attention to the claims on the front of the packet than the truth hidden in the tables and component lists that must, by law, be printed on the back.
Take wholegrain biscuits. While you’re busy admiring the types of grain referred to on the front (used to varying degrees, usually in very small quantities), you’re missing the chemicals, fats and sugars that go into making the biscuits so crisp — whole grain biscuits, if truly healthy, should be mealy and, well, grainy.
As you pick up the packets of ‘baked’ snacks and chips, you’re neglecting to check for the chemicals and hidden fats that give them their crunch, chemicals that can leach the calcium from your bones and cause weight gain.
When you don’t check the sugar levels in your brown bread, you’re falling for the trap of buying white bread that has been ‘coloured’ using caramelised sugar. It’s the same for the high sodium content that gives low-calorie spreads their flavour; and the many grams of sugar and high levels of sodium that make packaged cereal so hard to resist.
"High sodium content can cause blood pressure and heart diseases in people, irrespective of age," says Dr Samiran Nundy, gastroenterologist and surgeon at Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
As for packaged cereal, much like the Maggi ads, those bright and sunny commercials that tell you a particular brand is the healthiest way of starting your day is selling you a product that likely has no nutritional value and offers just empty calories.
"Most packaged cereals are coated with caramelised sugar and have no particular health benefits," says Archana Juneja, endocrinologist at Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital & Medical Research Institute.
Here's what to look for
There are some words that should raise a red flag when you see them on any packet. Here’s a look at some of them, and what they mean for the product and your health
Refined grains: These are processed grains that have been stripped of their fibre and nutrients to increase their shelf life.
Commonly found in white bread, regular pasta, foods made with white flour including cakes, biscuits, breakfast cereals and snack foods.
Can lead to weight gain, diabetes, hypertension
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene): Antioxidant preservatives
Negatively impact sleep and appetite, have been associated with liver and kidney damage, hair loss, are carcinogenic
Commonly used in cereals, potato chips and chewing gum to keep them from going rancid.
Sodium Nitrate, Sodium Nitrite: These additives are used as colourants and to preserve the shelf life of packaged and cured meats.
Can form nitrosamines when mixed with stomach acids; associated with oral, stomach, brain, oesophageal and bladder cancers. Noticeable side effects include dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Found in packaged and cured meats; ideally, look for meats that are additive-free
Artificial colouring and flavouring:
Found in junk foods such as cookies, chips and other fried packaged items.
Can cause behavioural problems, allergic reactions and hyperactivity disorders. Are also known to be carcinogenic
Look for additive colours such as brilliant blue, indigotine, tartrazine and sunset yellow. These are especially harmful.
Emulsifiers: This is a binding agent most commonly found in ice cream, bread, biscuits, mayonnaise
Can induce inflammation of the intestines if consumed in large quantities
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) aka glutamate acid, glutamate, calcium glutamate
Commonly found in Chinese food, potato chips, frozen foods, and salty flavoured snacks where it is used to enhance flavour.
Consumption in large quantities may cause headaches, numbness, chest pain, lead to elevated blood pressure
Source: Endocrinologist Archana Juneja and Ritika Samaddar, regional head of dietetics at Max Healthcare, Delhi.
Read: All you need to know about the Maggi controversy
Read: Five things Nestle should have done to combat the crisis