Agriculture and Nutrition?
MealTango - bringing civility back to the table

The Fat of The Land

Processed versus fresh foods
As food prices escalate across India and the cost of 250 grams of the most common vegetable ranges between 20 and 60 rupees, the weekly basket of fresh fruit and vegetables for a family of four weighs less and less. Till ten years ago most people in India subsisted mainly on fresh food and whole grains and no one was overweight, in fact the average person was thin by international standards and not because of malnutrition.

Now that fast food and processed food is available cheaper than fresh food many among us choose these alternatives on a daily basis.This is both for reasons of cost and convenience but also because in India there is a strange perception that processed foods are better for us- which is why people both rich and poor are turning to them.

Processed foods are filling our grocery store shelves. Instant foods, readymade sauces, packaged meals are slowly reducing the space given to fresh produce. These are so attractively presented many people think they are better both nutritionally and taste wise than food produced at home. As consumers we should become more aware of what exactly is in those packaged and processed foods, or the fast food so readily available everywhere in urban areas.

The list is distinctly unappetizing: Anti Caking agents to make flours, salts and powders flow, bulking agents to increase the quantity of foods, food colouring to make food look more attractive, emulsifiers to keep oil and water mixed, acidity regulators, glazing agents to add shine, humectants to keep food moist, sweeteners, tracer gas to protect packaged foods, stabilizers and preservatives among several others much to increase shelf life and reduce chances of spoiling.

And strangely enough the worse we eat the fatter we become. “According to a report from urban South India, 21.4 % of boys and 18.5% of girls aged 13-18 years were overweight or obese .The prevalence of obesity among school children in India has been reported between 5.74% and 8.82% “ Qazi Iqbal Ahmad - Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism 2010 Part of it is due to lack of exercise . Part of it due to the food choices made by parents today.

We are surrounded by obese people, many of them young, who weigh up the costs of food in a very short term light. “Why should I buy expensive vegetables and fruit, spend time cooking and preparing a meal when I can get a Burger for less”. A stomach can be filled with anything edible and few young people think about the value of ingredients when taste can be manipulated with all kinds of unhealthy additives.

The reason why these processed foods have been so willingly embraced is a kind of food snobbery. The poor, who fed themselves on Jowar and Ragi imagined that wheat and white flour was better because these refined foods were consumed by the rich. Even today the household help will turn up her nose on chapathis to eat white bread. Perhaps it is the taste factor but that is doubtful. Who can deny the greater flavor that Jowar and Ragi have? These also take longer to digest and the stomach feels satisfied for longer. White flour, while quicker to digest, needs to be eaten in greater quantities and so there is an increased intake of starch and sugar while roughage and nutrients have been stripped by refining. Many processed foods are empty of natural nutrients and these have to be added . 

Obesity is only one reason to avoid processed and fast food. We just have to turn our eyes westward to observe the long term effects of this kind of diet . The US has a huge health industry dealing with those effects.

Without any doubt they are bad for our health. While many processed foods claim to reduce cholesterol, glucose levels or weight by cutting out the offending ingredient we know there is no particular food which can be treated like poison. At different times accusing fingers have been pointed at fat, gluten or sugar and foods have been processed to remove the particular poison. So we have low fat milk, sugar free ice cream and sodium free etc. In fact it has been proved that high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease are just a few of the problems exacerbated by these processed foods.

It would be wonderful if simple facts about food, health and nutrition could be taught in our schools. Young mothers also need to be taught to make the right choices for their families. I find it strange that we really need this education when many of those facts were self evident in not too distant memory ,when the average Indian’s plate held mainly vegetables and whole grains appetizingly and simply prepared .

The government would do consumers a service by preventing the import and sale of processed foods and spend more on the infrastructure required to distribute fresh food and grain rather than investing more and more in the processed food industry.

We could save a generation of young people who might otherwise look forward to a life of odd diets and disease.