Thursday, December 4, 2014

"FLAVORING" towards self destruction?-The hidden ingredients in industrial foods with uncertain safety credentials

If processed foods have become popular with every segment of the consumer population, the industry must thank two important causes which have driven consumers into their open arms. First the cocktail of flavors churned out by the omnipotent flavor industry which are used liberally by the food manufacturers ever increasingly to attract more and more adherents into their fold. Second the element of convenience built into these products that relieve the house wives from the kitchen drudgery, making available more time for them to go for income generating employment as well as to spend more time with their families. Unfortunately parallel to the rise of food processing industry, two important social and nutritional situations have shifted significantly to a direction considered highly undesirable. The manufactured foods do not transfer the emotions of a mother, where as foods made within the confines of a home have this invisible and immeasurable "wave' reflecting her concerns and love for her siblings as well to the husband. Nutritionally the food industry has focused more on taste and flavor ignoring the health implications their foods will have on the family. Who is the culprit for this undesirable changes in our food environment?

Of course the first culprit could be the consumer himself who unwittingly get trapped by the mouth watering or eye appealing foods offered by the industry because of tireless promotional activity of the market forces as well as his own gullibility to fall for best tasting foods instead of moderating that desire to factor the health effect of such foods. From time to time pundits, be it psychologists, food scientists, sociologists, medical community or government agencies, have been discussing regarding why the consumer, ignoring his own health, flock to junk foods with empty calories and court diseases like obesity, CVD, Diabetes, Blood Pressure, Cancer etc through wrong eating practices. Probably there may not be a single cause that must be driving the consumers to such health damaging foods. Governments world over try to persuade the consumers to shun fast foods and junk foods through education and consumer guidance which do not seem to be working at all if obesity statistics in some countries like the US are to be believed.

Biologists consider the weakness of most people to junk foods and over eating due to factors like genetic make up, brain functions, hormonal dynamics, etc though there are no compelling evidence generated through human clinical trials of any substantial size and spread to support any of them. Sociologist feel that man's eating surge cannot be controlled through government policies though such interventions are not feasible in a democratic country with a constitution giving primacy to personal freedom and inalienable rights. The  recent attempt in New York to limit sale of jumbo sized foods and drinks ended up in a fiasco because of judicial road blocks. Taxing "bad" foods on a punitive scale tried in many countries also had practically no impact on the situation. Proximity to fast food outlets to residential areas was once cited as reasons for over eating by a section of the population and strict zoning regulations were considered for making the "fans" of junk foods to travel an extra mile to get to an eating frenzy mood. Well being industry puts out from time to time products claimed to be helpful in overcoming obesity and over weight problems but they can be at best a fire fighting operation, not striking at the root of the problem. 

Flavor industry is the least controlled one with practically no transparency in their working. No one knows what chemicals are used by them to concoct various flavor potions for use by the  food industry in different products. Flavor consists of four distinct components, viz color, aroma, taste and texture. Talking about taste we have four recognized ones that include sweetish, salty, sourness and bitterness. Pungency and Umami are also taste variants commonly patronized from specific cultural groups. Food processing industry over the years has realized that uniformity in quality is difficult to achieve when widely varying quality natural raw materials are used and in its pursuit to provide uniform quality finished products they use a variety of artificial, synthetic and flavor concentrates recovered from natural sources to standardize the products from batch to batch. Unfortunately the number of chemicals being used for this purpose is burgeoning during the last three decades and no one, including the safety authorities is sure about their safety in the long run. 

Imagine the situation now obtaining in the food production system where more than 12000 chemicals are reported to be deployed for a variety of purpose. Out of these, safety data are available only on about 5% with the remaining ones posing potential health hazards to the consumers. Food processing industry uses about 3000 additives, mostly synthetic chemicals for improving their end products to make them more attractive to the consumers. These include, acids, acidity regulators, anticaking agents, antifoaming agents, antioxidants, bulking agents, colorings, color stabilizers, emulsifiers, fillers, flavor ingredients, flour treating agents, glazing aids, humectants, raising agents, preservatives, stabilizers, sweeteners, thickeners, viscosity modifiers, nutrients, health boosters, texture modifiers etc. Whether all of them are really needed is a million dollar question for which there is no ready answer as of now.  However emergence of organic food industry has shown the way that good quality food products can still be made without using artificial additives during processing.

Consumer activist organizations are now coming together to deal with the "menace" of indiscriminate use of so called flavors by the main stream food industry and in a country like the US the movement is assuming critical proportions compelling the safety authorities to wake up to the ground reality. At present the onus of deciding about the safety of flavor chemicals rests with the flavor industry and the safety agency is a silent side player, waking up only if there is any serious incidence of harm caused by any such chemical to the consumer as reported through a complaint. It is most unfortunate that the only remedial action is generally banning that particular flavor after perfunctory examination of the case, Is this the right way to protect the consumer? Is it not most unfortunate that the globally renowned USFDA, a role model for safety agencies world over, is shirking its responsibility to its constituency, viz the citizens of that country? Common sense tells that no chemical, especially the ones synthesized in the laboratory, can be safe unless proved by human clinical trials to be safe for use in foods and this basic principle seems to be ignored possibly because of the political and financial clout of the flavor industry. One can only hope that this situation will get rectified through the renewed initiatives now being launched by various consumer groups.


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