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Rude Food: Too much to digest

A recent report on the unhealthy nature of packaged and fast foods in India points to the need for eating natural products.

brunch Updated: Apr 07, 2012 20:19 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

By some coincidence of karmic timing, I went to Dilip Doshi’s swanky new Organic Haus food store, located in a building on the corner of Bombay’s Peddar and Altamount Roads, just days before Sunita Narain’s Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) released its report on the unhealthy nature of packaged and fast foods in India.

What keeps him young? Dilip Doshi must be in his sixties but he has the energy of a man half his age. A lot of it has to do with the way in which he eats

Much of what CSE complained about eerily echoed Dilip’s words of a few days before. Some of you may remember Dilip from his spin-bowling days in the Indian team in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Others may know him better as the guy who brought Mont Blanc to India. But I know him best as the promoter of the two shows that the Rolling Stones played in Bombay and Bangalore some years ago – Dilip is an old friend of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.

Anybody who has seen Dilip recently will marvel at the way in which he manages to keep the years at bay. He must be in his sixties but he has the energy of a man half his age. Some of it may have to do with his natural athleticism – if you buy the line (of which I am not entirely convinced) that cricketers are natural athletes – but a lot of it has to do with the way in which he eats.

Dilip has lived in London since the mid-Eighties but remains a passionate vegetarian (and an equally passionate Jain, for that matter), even during his extensive travels. His view is that as long as you eat right, you can manage anywhere in the world and a good diet will keep you young, energetic and healthy.

Organic Haus (another branch has opened in Ahmedabad and there are plans to open in Delhi this year) is a gourmet food store but instead of stocking the usual range of overpriced maida pastas, fancy pâtés and upmarket desserts, Dilip has tied up with well-established German companies to import healthier food options.

So, if you are worried about your sugar intake, you don’t have to rely on aspartame, you can use agave syrup instead. If you want something nice to spread on your toast but are a healthy vegetarian – like Dilip – then you can choose from a variety of non-meat pâtés. If you find that the heaviness of refined flour just sits in your stomach after a pasta meal, then you can buy pastas made from a variety of natural unrefined grains.

DIV class=photo_disc The light side it: Buy pastas made from variety natural unrefined grains
The light side of it: Buy pastas made from a variety of natural unrefined grains

There are problems with the packaging in the sense that so much of it is in German. (This stuff flies off the shelves in the Fatherland so they don’t bother too much with making it attractive for the export market). But Dilip has a bright and intelligent staff who will help decipher the labels and the stuff I’ve tried has been good. The fusilli made from jowar (a flour that our forefathers used but our generation has forgotten), mixed with pesto from Organic Haus was both tasty and light.

Dilip’s view is that many of our health problems these days (sluggishness, lack of energy etc.) stem from too much refined floor and refined sugar.

Moreover, he argues, our dependence on packaged foods makes us easy prey for manufacturers who load their products with transfats, too much salt and lots of sugar. Further, he says, there are so many chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture these days (which do not have to be declared on the packaging of the finished product) that you never know what you are actually eating. All his Organic Haus products are organic and free from chemicals, preservatives and the like.

Sunita Narain is probably not a great fan of gourmet food stores but she has made the same points as Dilip. Some years ago, she found that colas and bottled drinks contained high levels of chemicals because the water used in the bottling had been contaminated through pesticides and pollutants. (I wonder if a similar study has been done on bottled, so-called ‘mineral’ water.)

Healthy, organic, wise: All Dilip Doshi’s Organic Haus products are organic and free from chemicals, preservatives and the like. (Top) Non-meat pâté at the store

The latest study has three distinct components. The first says that fast food is unhealthy because each portion is so full of calories. A KFC meal contains 51 per cent of an adult’s recommended daily calorie intake. A McDonald’s meal (a single chicken burger, fries and a cola) has 47 per cent of the calories needed per day. And so on.

This is fine and accurate but it is not necessarily new. Such movies as Super Size Me and such books as Fast Food Nation have made this point before. My view is that most people who send their kids to eat fast food know that they are not sending them out for a healthy, organic meal. So it is up to the individual to decide. Nobody forces you to eat a fried chicken or a burger.

The second component of the CSE report is the sugar and salt content in junk / fast / packaged foods. Even those of us who recognise that packaged and fast foods are not particularly healthy often do not realise how loaded they are with salt and sugar. There is nothing necessarily wrong with salt or sugar but an excess of either can be bad for you (and especially for those with diabetes, hypertension etc.) The CSE argues that food companies must be forced to clearly label foods telling people just how much sugar or salt they are consuming. This is valid and reasonable: don’t ban anything but let people know what they are eating.

It is the third component of the CSE study that worries me the most. This relates to transfats. The medical wisdom about how good or bad fats are for you changes almost on an annual basis. The current view is that natural saturated fats are not all bad for you: dairy fat may help with the immune system.

Mind what you eat: A McDonald’s meal (a chicken burger, fries and a cola) contains pretty nearly the entire daily transfats intake for a woman

But on one issue, there is universal agreement: transfats are bad for you. Taken in excess over a length of time they could kill you.

Even the Indian government agrees. It had pledged to wipe out all transfats by 2010 and most packaged food manufacturers agree not to allow transfats into their product.

The most worrying part of the CSE study is that it suggests that even products that claim to be free of transfats actually contain some level of transfats. According to the CSE, a KFC meal contains more than an adult male’s recommended daily intake of transfats. A McDonald’s meal contains pretty nearly the entire daily transfats intake for a woman. So do many packaged foods such as Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion potato chips. Worse still, says the CSE, the levels of transfats listed on the packaging are false and mis-state the actual quantity of transfats.

To be fair to these companies (Lay’s, McDonald’s KFC etc.), they contest the claims made by CSE and say that their own tests do not show the level of transfats that CSE has detected. (The CSE report on colas had faced similar objections from manufacturers.)

But if the CSE is right, then it isn’t just the likes of Dilip Doshi who should be gloating. The rest of us should also be worried about what our kids are eating.

But naturally! We should eat more of the grains that our grand-parents preferred (bajra, jowar, unpolished rice)

Meanwhile, I do wish that somebody would do some independent testing of the fruits and vegetables sold in Indian bazaars. The UK government found high levels of pesticides in many fruits and vegetables sold in the UK and grapes (which we think of as healthy) came off the worst with evidence of 11 different pesticides. UK greengrocers are more environmentally conscious than our subziwallas so I shudder to think what the results of such testing would be in India.

Similarly, somebody should test the chickens sold in the Indian market and tell Indian doctors to stop repeating the mantra they picked up from old American textbooks about how we should eat only white meat (ie. chicken) and not red meat. Almost all (actually, I think it is absolutely all) the mutton we get in the Indian market comes from free range goats reared in the open and fed on a diet that includes grass. Goat meat is lower in fat than chicken, contains omega 3 essential fatty acids, minerals, iron, B-vitamins and protein. Broiler chicken, on the other hand, is an industrial product which depends on birds who are not allowed to roam in the wild or eat a natural diet.

Indian companies routinely deny that they give their chicken the kinds of chemicals, antibiotics and hormones that say, American battery chickens are raised on but then – hey! – packaged food manufacturers also deny that their products contain transfats!

The importance of the CSE study lies in its emphasis on what we already know intuitively: we are much better off eating natural products than those that comes from packets or are sold at fast food outlets.

Not all of us can afford Organic Haus’s products with their emphasis on natural, organic, unrefined ingredients. But there is a cheaper alternative. As the food journalist Joanna Blythman says, we should base our diets “on whole, unprocessed food.” It is not a difficult principle to understand. Basically, it means that we should eat more of the grains that our grandparents preferred (atta rather than maida, bajra, jowar etc. and unpolished rice), steer clear of bionic battery chickens, packaged foods (including many breakfast cereals, by the way, which can be 40 per cent sugar) and consume eggs, red meat, fresh fish and butter and ghee in moderation.

This is an easy enough model to follow. Obesity is America’s national disease. Steer clear of the foods that made America fat and we’ll keep India healthy.

From HT Brunch, April 8

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First Published: Apr 07, 2012 18:22 IST