Don’t play Holi with your food

Team Udayavani, Mar 23, 2024, 8:53 AM IST

Representative image (Source: Pexels)

Earlier this month the Karnataka government banned the use of Rhodamine B (RhB) as colouring agent in food after testing samples of ‘gobi manchurian’ and cotton candy, popular street foods beloved by millions. Just weeks prior to that, Tamil Nadu government had also pulled up RhB as the culprit, after testing cotton candy sold by street vendors. While these are welcome moves that must have been done long ago, the bigger question about our broken food ecosystem remains unaddressed and they cannot be resolved by government orders alone.

How did we manage to make an essential source of nourishment into something does the exact opposite? Before we answer big questions like this, we must first understand why we are colouring food when it neither adds taste nor nourishment.

India’s broken food ecosystem in many ways resembles the larger farm sector that is now dominated by chemicals in the name of soil nutrients and crop growth enablers. Chemical fertilizers as crop input did not exist even a century ago. The massive shortage in food production in the 1960s gave birth to the industrialisation of agriculture or what we now call Green Revolution. This movement, given the circumstances of its birth, was necessary at the time though the long term impact has left a deep scar in how we grow and eat our food.

The food that ultimately ends up on our dining table has followed a similar path, but with far less justifiable reasons, and colouring food with harmful chemicals like RhB is just one them. According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), no colouring agent should be added to food unless permitted in the Food Safety and Standards (Food Products Standards and Food Additives) Regulation, 2011. RhB is not one them.

The broken food ecosystem is not just about harmful chemical agents. Whether it is fresh fruits and vegetables, food served by restaurants and street vendors or even packaged food we buy from the grocery stores are made to look more “attractive” than what they ought to be. Consumers are naturally drawn to these without realizing that there is nothing natural about it. Take the case of Gobi Manchurian. Street vendors add artificial colours to give it bright crimson red finish by using cheaper chemicals to save money.

The two big reasons for this problem are consumers’ ignorance and food vendors adding cheap chemicals (not permitted by FSSAI) to save on cost. Not just artificial colours, even artificial flavours and preservatives don’t belong in a healthy diet. Unless consumers become aware of this and reject them outright, food vendors or even packaged food brands will use them as an effective sales pitch.

The broken food system has a deeper and more insidious dimension to it as well. Even relatively simple and seemingly harmless technologies like refrigeration has removed us far from what could be considered a natural way of consuming food. Traditionally speaking, off season fruits and vegetables were never part of the Indian dietary system. Eating what is seasonal and grown in a soil we have access to, is a healthy way to consume food.

Besides consumers, other stakeholders like farmers, packed good brands and food regulators also have a big role to play in fixing our broken food system. It has to start with understanding the role of food in our life. Food is a basic and important source of nourishment. Enjoying what we eat is important, but we also need to ask how far we are willing to go to satisfy irrational cravings that cause more harm than good. Rapid urbanisation is also pushing consumers farther away from the original source of food. The unintended consequence of this is that we know very little about how food is grown, quality of the soil, processing etc.

As consumers, it is also our responsibility to be part of these conversations. When consumers become more aware of the food ecosystem, other stakeholders like packaged food brands, restaurants and even street vendors will have to fall in line. Even simple family activities like visiting a local farm and spending some time with the farmers or growing a small patch kitchen garden at home can raise awareness and induce us to make healthier choices about what we eat.

What we see today as the organic food movement and natural farming that is gaining momentum in the country should be seen as our first step towards fixing the broken food ecosystem. We have kicked this can down the road for long enough. This Holi, we start by removing at least known harmful colouring chemicals from our food.

Authored by Shashi Kumar, Co-Founder and CEO, Akshayakalpa Organic. Shashi can be reached at his X (formerly Twitter) handle @thuruka or [email protected].

Disclaimer: The opinions and assertions expressed in this article are solely those of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Udayavani. The publication holds no legal responsibility for the content presented.

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