Dr. Vishal Rao, an oncologist and head and neck surgeon at the Bangalore-based HealthCare Global (HCG) Cancer Center, writes about the debate on food safety in India and how it is related to cancer.
A 45-year-old man presented himself to an oncologist with the typical symptoms of stomach cancer. His worst fears came true, the biopsy reports showed positive results. He led an extremely healthy lifestyle; exercised regularly, maintained a balanced diet and did not have any addictions. Yet, cancer had managed to conquer his system. The distraught man asked the doctor, “Why me?” The visibly uncomfortable doctor was speechless. A lot of their patients may have maintained a healthy lifestyle and yet, end up succumbing to cancer. It may not be just tobacco; we have tons of other carcinogens, which have unfortunately entered our diet chart.
The Maggi trial that India witnessed recently opened the much-needed debate on food safety, exposing just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s reflect on a few aspects of such safety issues. Why do we stand where we stand today?
Is our farmer well educated about balancing the quantity of pesticides to be used for safe and optimal yield; or does he believe that more is better! (Dilution and mixing of pesticides in regulated quantity is key.) A growing concern among consumers is the question – do we have too much pesticides in our food? Are these really harmful? Is there a way to prevent this?
Yes, pesticide residues in food are a growing concern. It is, however, vital to consume healthy and nutritious food after washing them thoroughly. Avoiding fruits and vegetables in fear of residue pesticides would be more harmful that the consumption of minimal residues themselves in causing cancer. Organic foods from reported and accredited farms may be the way forward and needs encouragement from the agriculture department. Educational programmes for farmers from NGO’s and departments would pave the way in foundation of food safety in farms.
Traditionally, preservatives were introduced into food products for keeping them safe and edible for long periods. Salt, sugar and vegetable oil are classical examples, which preserve food and provide the body with nutrition when consumed at required amounts (class 1 preservatives).
As technology and research has advanced, we have moved to synthetic preservatives which help store and protect food from spoilage for extremely long periods (class 2 preservatives). While they may protect the food, they’re definitely harming us. Studies suggest that synthetic food preservatives like Sodium benzoate and Sodium nitrite can cause hyper reactivity in children and have been linked to gastric cancer as well. These preservatives are commonly found in cold drinks, processed meat, canned food and most importantly, ready-to-make food products.
Food colourants are another group of chemicals quintessentially placed in the “cancer causing family.” Natural food colourants like pure beet/ pomegranate juice, carrot juice, spinach powder, parsley juice, turmeric powder, blueberry juice and cocoa powder can be used at home and in industries. Their shelf life may be low but they add nutritive value to the food product as well.
Red 40, Blue 1 and Yellow 5 are common synthetic food colourants used in industries even though they have been proven to cause long-term health problems. Indeed the palak gravy you may be having may be onion based gravy with green colourant.
Adulterants range from chalk powder (common in milk), saw dust (found in chilli powder), non-permitted dyes (common in turmeric powder) to coal tar (found in tea powder). Vegetables like green chillies and green peas are coated with malachite green (highly carcinogenic and are used as dyes to study bacteria) to enhance the colour and fruits like apples are coated with wax give them a glossy finish.
Street food is a delicacy for the Indian palate. Microorganisms are responsible for more deaths than cancer every year. Typhoid fever, botulism, amoebiasis, etc. are common food and waterborne infections. An unhygienic condition maintained by street vendors and eateries is a key factor behind the spread of these infections. Vehicular emission, carbon dioxide and air pollutants from the roads are also absorbed by these food items. The basic practice of washing one’s hands before touching any food ingredient is unspoken of. H. Pylori is a growing cause of gastric cancers. Can this be a cause of increasing contamination and adulteration?
As our storage methods are not effective enough, fruits and vegetables cannot be stored for a long time. They are harvested when they are raw and treated with de-greening ripening agents like calcium carbide and ethylene. They make the fruits colourful and appealing to the customer. By consuming these fruits, the consumer has unknowingly reduced his/ her life expectancy.
With such things around us there is nothing as healthy food. Now it is up to you to decide whats healthy for you and whats not.