Check the oil your jalebis are being fried in
Have you ever watched samosas, puris, bhaturas, bread pakoras and jalebis being deep fried at a roadside eatery? The cooking oil often looks dark and murky from constant frying and repeated use of the same oil again and again.
What the food seller probably does not know is that by continuously reheating the same oil, he is turning that viscous fluid into a toxic broth and putting at risk the health of his customers who eat food that has absorbed that oil and with it, the toxins.
Scientists have for many years been expressing concern over the deleterious effects of consumption of re-heated cooking oil on our vital organs and advocating strict regulations to prevent the use of such oil. The worry over such consumption comes from studies that have not only shown the deterioration in the quality of edible oil on heating and reheating and the accumulation of various toxins in the oil, but also the ill-effects of consumption of foods fried in such oil.
Many studies, several of them done in India , have shown the damage to liver, heart, kidney and the intestine caused by re-used oil in experimental rats. Similarly analysis of their blood samples have shown elevated levels of glucose, cholesterol and creatinine. To put it simply, consumption of such oil could cause cancer, besides hypertension, diabetes, vascular inflammation and neurodegenerative diseases.
Taking note of all this, the food safety regulator first advocated in the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulation that food business operators avoid re-use of cooking oil. “Reheating and reuse of oil should be avoided as far as possible. Avoid using leftover oil wherever possible” the regulation said.
Obviously, such general provisions did not have the desired effect. Since the presence of polar compounds in oil is one of the best indicators of heated oil quality, the FSSAI in 2017 amended the regulation to prohibit the use of vegetable oils with more than 25% of Total Polar Compound and directed state food commissioners to enforce it.
Subsequently in October 2020, it further tightened the regulation on the safety of edible oils by amending the FSS (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations and said the TPC in unused or fresh vegetable oil or fat shall not be more than 15% and used vegetable oil or fat with a TPC of over 25% shall not be used.
The regulator also took several steps to prevent the sale of re-used oil from large food businesses to dhabas and roadside vendors and also ensure safe disposal of used oil. One of them was to direct all large FBOS whose consumption of edible oil was more than 50 litres per day, to maintain records of disposal of the oil. The other was to launch the “Repurpose Used Cooking Oil Project’ to facilitate collection of used edible oil from food industries, fast food chains and large hotels through authorized agents or aggregators for transportation to biodiesel plants for production of biodiesel.
Since roadside food vendors may not be able to afford hand held devices to check the TPC percentage of the oil, FSSAI is advising them not to use the same oil more than thrice. However, repeated heating and re-use of cooking oil is so rampant among them that forcing compliance requires persistent efforts by the state food regulators, including education of vendors , regular checks on the TPC percentage and a system of incentives and disincentives.
In fact, a pilot study undertaken in 2018 by the enforcement agency in Ahmedabad indicated that 40% of the eateries across the city re-used oil whose TPC value was over 25%.! A media report quoting municipal authorities there said among street vendors this percentage might well be around 80%.
So consumers need to remain alert and question the state food safety commissioners on the enforcement of the law. Of course at home too, consumers need to ensure the safety of the oil that they use. More on that in my next column.