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The not so Great Indian Kitchen masalas
Saturday, 08 June, 2024, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Nilanjana Bose
A love saga of Indian kitchen queens with the masala kings took a jolt in recent months when the popular masala brands were banned in Singapore and Hong Kong due to ethylene oxide contamination. Amidst the morning hustle in every Indian kitchen what is this Ethylene oxide and why is it creating this hullabaloo.

Ethylene oxide used in these spices poses health risks including an elevated risk of breast cancer as it is a Group 1 carcinogen. The World Health Organization considers ethylene oxide “as a probable human carcinogen” and says “its levels in the environment should be kept as low as feasible”.

Spices otherwise are a storehouse of nutrition and help fight many health issues. Be it haldi doodh (turmeric milk) for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, jeera paani (cumin water) for metabolism and digestion or coriander seeds for its antimicrobial properties have been constant in the Indian kitchens. Be whatever the food choices (keeping the veg and non-veg discussion aside), spices are what makes all the difference. Spices have been part of recipes to enhance taste, flavour, colour and also sometimes mask undesirable odours.

Overnight, the hustle in the kitchen increased and the men, some of them who somehow managed to miss the kitchen passage before, seem to be talking about ethylene oxide contamination and carcinogenic substances. The need to do away with store bought spices increased but what next was in the minds of thousands of Indian women who depend heavily on these spices to keep satiating the palate of the family. The women who ace both at work and home are shaken with these shocking revelations from time to time.

The women are now at an all-time dilemma – to use or not to use. This time the concern is serious irrespective of the food that one consumes. While it is convenience on one hand in a fast paced world, it is health on the other. Well though the Indian food regulator, FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India) has already stepped up the matter and has done random checks and picked up spices from manufacturing units, but the question is why did they wake up late. The Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006, defines unsafe food as those ‘whose nature, substance or quality is so affected as to render it injurious to health.’ Therefore, FSSAI should use all its ammunition to ensure that we get access to safe and healthy food on our plates.

While the consumer rests its faith on the food regulator to provide safe food, the question in the meantime is should you stop using these spices till fresh reports surface and look for alternatives or continue using them in moderate quantities.

Since I am not a food scientist and won’t be able to comment on the extent of damage these contaminated spices, can do, I can only suggest some alternatives and why should these work better not only from the health angle but can also prove convenient.

One time job – You can buy whole spices required for a month’s ration and grind it and keep it in an air-tight container. This will be convenient and easy to use as well.

Quality control – Home-made spices will be under your control and you need not depend upon packaged spices, the ingredients of which you are not aware of. The spice blend at home is also rich in flavour and nutrients. Home blends also allow controls sodium intake compared to store-bought options.

Cost-effective –While buying whole spices in bulk might be expensive, but the blend at home is usually thick and using it in small quantities will be cheaper than store bought spices.

Some of us might be reading food labels to understand the contents of these packaged spices, but not all will understand or even read it. As an average consumer and even more an average home-maker, my question to the regulating body is when can we expect safe food for ourselves and our families? So, on this World Food Safety Day through this article is to draw attention to food safety incidents. This year’s theme underlines the importance of being prepared for food safety incidents, no matter how mild or severe they can be.

Food safety incidents are situations where there is a potential or confirmed health risk associated with food consumption. A food incident can happen, for example, due to accidents, inadequate controls, food fraud or natural events. While being ready to manage food safety incidents requires dedicated efforts from policymakers, food safety authorities, farmers and food business operators, consumers also can play an active role.

(The author is project head, food & nutrition, Consumer VOICE)
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