Fruit that looks too good to be true is often bad news, say nutritionists
Picture-perfect produce may be a result of injections of synthetic dye, coatings of inedible wax. Super-sweet flavouring could be sugar water.Updated: Jun 16, 2017 21:13 IST
Do you remember watermelons being as sweet when you were a kid as they are today? Some vendors are injecting sugared water into the fruit to make it sweeter, and heavier.
“They’re also injecting red dyes to make the flesh look brighter,” says nutritionist Tripti Gupta. “These colours can be toxic and cause diseases.”
Watermelons are not the only fruit being tampered with.
Apples are also coated in wax — not always the edible kind — to make them look glossier.
The perfectly ripe mango that you bought the other day may have been ripened artificially, using chemicals rather than sunshine. Eating it may just be a health hazard.
Since fruits that are harvested ripe have a shorter shelf life, some farmers or suppliers are known to artificially ripen them to stay looking fresh longer.
The most commonly used chemical is calcium carbide, and an ethylene that artificially ripens fruits.
Artificial ripening is most prevalent during the beginning of a fruit season, when the demand is high, driving prices up. Given that the sector is unorganised, there are fewer food inspectors doing checks, so many harvests go unexamined.
Nutritionist Arati Shah says that calcium carbide is also used to artificially ripen bananas, papayas and sometimes apples. “This is the same chemical used in the manufacture of firecrackers,” she says. “It contains phosphorous, and releases acetylene gas, which hastens the ripening of fruits. It is also toxic.”
- To test for artificial colours: Rub the surface of the fruit or vegetable with a cotton ball soaked in water or vegetable oil.
- Or place a piece of the fruit or vegetable in a glass of water and let it stand for about 30 minutes.
- To detect wax polish, scratch the surface of the fruit or vegetable with a blade.
So how do you pick safe fruit? The country’s top food regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), has put together an online booklet called The Pink Book: Your Guide for Safe and Nutritious Food at Home’. It is aimed at Indian households and offers advice on buying, storing and preparing food. It also has details on how to determine if fruits, vegetables, grains, spices and condiments, milk and milk products are adulterated. The booklet is available for free download on the FSSAI site: foodsmart.fssai.gov.in/ PinkBook.pdf
“We have started many initiatives to ensure what people eat is safe. While we test edible items in our labs, there are certain ways with which a common person can figure out whether the food is adulterated or not. Our booklet will come in handy there,” says Pawan Agarwal, CEO, FSSAI.
Ritika Sammadar, regional head, dietetics, New Delhi’s Max Healthcare, says recommends picking seasonal, local fruits and vegetables as they are naturally fresh, nutritionally dense and cheap. “The problem with off season fruits and vegetables that are not locally available is that they are not fresh as they are kept in cold storage, could also be adulterated,” she says.
To remove surface chemicals at home, water and white vinegar is useful.
“Grapes can be soaked in salt water or vinegar solution and rinsed thoroughly to wash off chemicals. Apples can be soaked in hot water for a few minutes and wiped carefully to remove wax,” says Gupta.
Peeling fruit helps too. “Banana and papaya are the safest,” says Niti Desai, consultant nutritionist at Mumbai’s Cumballa Hill Hospital & Heart Institute.
- Soak them in salt or white vinegar solution for a few minutes and wipe thoroughly.
- Or scrub using baking soda and rinse with warm water.
- Peeling fruits and vegetables is the best way to make them safe to eat.
Most consumers already sense that there’s something off about early-batch mangoes, and fruits that look photo-shoot ready. LocalCircles India, a citizen engagement platform, recently carried out an online poll to understand the extent of the problem. Of the 9,224 respondents who voted during first ten days of June, 32% said that they believed that mangoes they were eating were definitely artificially ripened. Half of them said these mangoes were most likely artificially ripened. Only 11% said they were confident that the mangoes had ripened naturally.
“Artificial ripening takes place most often during the beginning when the prices are high. These prices then ease out with the onset of monsoon as larger quantities hit the market,” says K. Yatish Rajawat, chief strategy officer, LocalCircles India.
So pick your fruit wisely at the store or market. If it looks too perfect, too uniform in shape, size and colour, it likely has been tampered with. This fruit will also be low on flavour, and often not be as sweet as it should be, since the artificial ripening means that flesh is not fully ripe inside.