Food is one of the basic necessities for the survival of humans. The consumption of food has evolved from finding or hunting and eating only for survival to cooking and eating safe food to designing and innovating a myriad of delicious recipes and methods to produce scrumptious, nutritious, satisfactory and balanced food products. We often come across advertisements featuring foods mixed with artificial and synthetic colour to enhance visual appeal of the product or sand, sawdust added to food items to increase its volume. On one hand, there have been developments to prepare food commercially in an efficient manner and increase our production to a sizable volume, while on the other side the same technology has led to some food manufacturers secretly shifting to food adulteration for financial gain. But little do they realize that adulteration is a very serious problem posing serious (and sometimes fatal) health risks to many people in India and around the world.

What is Food Adulteration?

Food adulteration has been defined as the act of debasing the quality of food offered for sale either by the admixture of inferior substances or by the removal of some valuable ingredient. It is the contamination of food materials with unwanted or sub-standard substances or subtraction of valuable ingredients, such that the natural composition and quality of food is affected. A number of our daily food items are adulterated, starting from our daily groceries to our life saving medicines.

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1988 states that food is adulterated if it contains the following:

  • It bears any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health.
  • Its container is composed of hazardous substances.
  • It contains a pesticide or chemical residue which is unsafe or present beyond permissible limits.
  • It consists, in whole or in part of any filthy, putrid or decomposed substances or has been packed in unsanitary conditions, exposing it to potential hazards for the consumer.
  • It has been processed with methods which are prohibited or not consented for by Government bodies like FDA and FSSAI.
  • A valuable constituent has been omitted completely or has been replaced with other inferior substance.

and many other parameters which have been implemented with time and detection of food adulteration.

A lot of food adulteration activities have been reported. For example,

  • cereals like rice, wheat are adulterated with jute threads, husk, stones;
  • water, sugar, salt, neutralizers are added to milk to increase volume, improve taste, mask defects, increase solid non-fat in milk, improve shelf life respectively;
  • spices and condiments like turmeric, chilli powder are adulterated with rice starch, non-permitted colours to increase its visual attributes, non-permitted cheap flavours to mimic its smell and taste;
  • rice bran oil and mustard oil are adulterated with the addition of palm oil, free fatty acids, etc.;
  • vanaspati ghee (vegetable oil) is added to mimic qualities and texture of good quality butter and ghee, but this infiltration which is mainly done for profits depreciates its quality and purity, and poses serious health risks to the unaware consumers in the long run.

The Solution

FSSAI has developed many methods to identify areas of food adulteration and detect specific adulterants in food through Detect Adulteration with Rapid Test (DART) to ensure the safety and quality of the food that we eat. Detection methods for common products in the market like milk and milk products, oils and fats, sugar and confectionery, food grains and cereal products, spices and condiments, fruits and vegetables and beverages, like in beverages, methods for detection of clay or chicory powder in coffee powder, exhausted tea or iron filings in tea leaves have been devised. On a personal basis, FSSAI has suggested some sensory evaluation quick tests if we suspect a food item to be adulterated. For instance, if milk tastes bitter or gives a soapy feeling on rubbing between the fingers, it is suspected to be adulterated; if chilli powder on dissolving in water leaves a residue which feels gritty on rubbing, it indicates the presence of brick powder or sand or if the residue when rubbed feels smooth and soapy, it indicates adulteration with soap stone. These and many such tests have been recommended for cloves, sugar, cereals and food grains, flour, sago, spices, sweet meats, etc. for analysis on a basic individual level.

To conclude with, food adulteration is a serious problem which needs to be tackled rapidly and continuously to protect people from buying foods of inferior quality. We need to create awareness about its adverse and severe effects on our health. Simultaneously, people as well as the Government authorities and organizations should keep a lookout for detecting and eliminating food adulteration in the humongous food market with an enormous variety of sectors and thousands of products in each sector.

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