Tea, sweets and more: The toxins on your plate you don’t know about
Is your cocktail too blue, your tea too fine, your fruit bowl unusually luscious? In the race for food that looks bigger and better, you could be consuming harmful contaminants.
You think you know what you’re eating. But do you really?
The number of contaminants and pollutants in our food has so ballooned that keeping track of what’s really on your plate has become an impossible ask.
Whether chemical or biological, the adulterations can creep in at any stage from farm to fork — in some cases during agriculture, in others, during storage and transportation, or processing, packaging and marketing.
Read: Tinkering with the food supply chain
Eating organic and knowing the source of your produce is one way to ensure a clean diet, say food safety experts.
Meanwhile, here’s a look at contaminants in your everyday diet that you probably don’t know are there.
IRON FILINGS IN TEA
Dried in a sieve fitted with mesh, tea leaves are cut using iron rollers — a process that tends to leave behind traces of iron filings in your tea powder. Manufacturers typically remove these filings using magnets, but particles often get left behind. Based on a 2014 report by the National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)’s draft notification has set the iron limit in tea powder to 150 mg per kg.
“An iron overload can cause something as minor as an upset stomach or as serious as organ damage and even death,” says Dr Rommel Tikoo, senior consultant for internal medicine at Delhi’s Max Healthcare.
The daily allowance of iron is 18 mg for women and 8 mg for men.
ANIMAL RESIDUE IN SILVER LEAF
Did you know that the silver leaf or chandi ka varq atop Indian sweets, spices such as cardamom and paan, is often made by rolling and hammering silver between sheets of animal intestines?
In February this year, the FSSAI proposed a complete ban on the use of animal parts in any stage of manufacturing silver leaf, and now insists on the use of modern machinery instead.
It has also fixed limits for thickness, weight and purity of silver to avoid toxic aluminum foil being used as silver leaf.
ANTIBIOTICS IN CHICKEN
As recently as last year, the Centre for Science and Environment found antibiotic residue in chicken samples collected from Delhi-NCR. Of the 70 samples tested, 17% had more than one drug, found the 2014 study.
Some antibiotics found to be present were tetracycline and ciprofloxacin, which are used to treat infections, including those of the urinary tract, eye and ear, blood stream and diarrhoea, and infections of the respiratory tract like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Read: How antibiotics in meat could be hurting you
Exposure to these antibiotics in food can result in anti-microbial resistance (AMR), which is often impossible to treat, says Dr Chand Wattal, honorary consultant in clinical microbiology at Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.
HORMONES AND CHEMICALS IN FRUIT
Despite chemical ripening of fruits being prohibited under the Prevention of Food Adulteration rules, carbide compounds are rampantly used to do so.
The most commonly used chemical, the banned calcium carbide, is often contaminated with dangerous arsenic and phosphorus elements. When converted into arsine and phosphine, these contaminants can cause cancer.
Meanwhile, oxytocin, a mammalian hormone used to induce childbirth and lactation, is being injected into pumpkin, watermelon, brinjal, gourd and cucumber plants to pump up their sizes. Ingested over time, high levels of oxytocin can cause headaches, dizziness, seizures, heart disorders, sterility and even memory loss.
“These chemicals are endocrine disrupters that interfere with gene expressions and lead to hormonal imbalances,” says Dr SV Madhu, head of the endocrinology department at Delhi’s government-run Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital.
COLOUR BLUE IN DRINKS
That funky blue cocktail you love to order could be damaging your brain and kidneys, if the two artificial colours Indigo Carmine and Brilliant Blue added to it are above their permissible limits.
During a 2011 US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Food Advisory hearing, experts testified that this blue colour behaves differently than others, as it is absorbed more and has been noted to cross the blood-brain barrier, which could lead to permanent damage over time.
Read: Living in Color: The Potential Dangers of Artificial Dyes
“The brain has a protective covering that doesn’t normally allow what a person normally eats or drinks in. However, substances like narcotics, that are known to cross this blood-brain barrier, have the potential to damage brain cells,” says Dr Deepak Agrawal, additional professor at the neurosurgery department of Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
In India, the permissible limit for these two colours has been set at 100 parts/million.
ALUMINIUM PHOSPHIDE IN RICE TABLETS
Rice tablets, as they are commonly known, contain aluminium phosphide, which can lead to poisoning if ingested, or if the tablet crumbles, says Dr Pratik Samdani, head of medicine units at Mumbai’s Breach Candy and Jaslok hospitals. “These tablets are commonly used as a fumigant across India,” he says. “When ingested, they are poisonous as they contain mercury. They also crumble if they are not manufactured according to stipulated rules and regulations. This can poison all the rice in a sack.”
CHALK AND WATER IN MILK
A recent study by the Maharashtra Food and Drug Administration found that 20% of milk sold in the state continues to be adulterated. “Milk can get contaminated by chemicals and bacteria,” says Dr Anil Ballani, consulting general physician at Mumbai’s Hinduja Healthcare Surgical Hospital. “Some vendors add chalk dissolved in water, which results in a build-up of calcium, which can cause kidney stones.”
A lot of unpasteurised milk is sold too, which is a key cause of contamination. “I see about two cases a month of milk-related poisoning,” Samdani adds.
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