Monday, January 19, 2015

Safety of branded instant noodles-A reality check.

Food labeling can be subtle as well as non-transparent as many consumers find themselves while shopping for their daily needs. For a common man many of the information presented by the manufacturers can be "Greek and Latin" but some at least understand the implications of such "facts" presented through the label. As a critic of food industry recently stated the industry can be the "masters of subterfuge" in saying less than what they really hide. What ever it be, food labeling rules do serve a useful purpose and can be made more transparent through consistent efforts in forcing the industry to be more truthful. Here is a typical case of instant noodles which have become popular, especially among the kids. Look at the label declarations made by different brands and what no consumer can make out are the code numbers mentioned for some of the ingredients used in the flavor mix that is added during the preparation process. 

No doubt the food safety authorities permit them to use code numbers, probably to make the system of identifying food ingredients uniform. But in what way this helps the consumer? This information may be as well not there and it will make no difference to the consumer. It is just unfortunate that industry is given this leeway to hide the nature of chemicals used and help it to sell the products more easily to the hapless consumer! Interestingly if we get a little deep into this trickery, it can be realized that industry has come up with alternatives to the erstwhile notorious Mono Sodium Glutamate ( MSG), once monopolized by the famous company Ajinomoto of Japan. After its safety credentials were seriously questioned, its use became highly regulated and the so called INS 627 or E 627 code numbered for sodium Guanylate and INS 631 or INS 631 code numbered for sodium Inosinate were introduced, essentially to obtain the same effect as that would have been generated with MSG. Incidentally these are claimed to be the imaginary fifth flavor called Umami and industry uses them to enhance the flavor of every food and use less salt in their formulations.   

There are two questions the industry and the safety regulators must answer while allowing the use of these chemicals by the food processors. First are these chemicals derived from meat scraps or fish waste? If so can the manufacturers use the green dot on the label to convince the consumers that their products are suitable for consumption by vegans as well as vegetarians?. According to literature, Guanylates and Inosinates can also be made from yeast through hydrolysis of the cells  or from starchy materials by the fermentation route but no one is sure whether the manufacturers use meat derived materials or plant based ones. Interestingly some of them declare use of yeast hydrolyzate also along with 627 and 631 and one wonders why they have to use yeast hydrolyzate which also contains 627 and 631? Could it be to camouflage the real identity of the source from which 627 and 631 are derived. Why not declare that 627 and 631 used in these flavor mixes are really derived from plant sources to satisfy the vegans and vegetarians? 

Second issue pertains to the safety of these additives. Scientific studies do not permit us to draw any firm conclusion because of lack of unanimity. Several reports indicate that at individual levels, 627 and 631 including their blends 635 can create health problems, at times becoming serious if not careful. If one reads the catalog of ill effects of these additives it could be construed as a list compiled by the adversaries who are firmly "convinced" about these "facts". Guanylates and Inosinates have been claimed to cause in humans several adverse effects like Ribo Rash, a form of irritable itchy skin syndrome, elevated heart beats, worsening of gout symptoms, causing migraine, insomnia, asthma, arthritis, sinusitis, etc. However these claims will have to be moderated in the light of the fact that the levels at which they are consumed through noodles can be well below the adversarial concentrations. Also to be borne in mind is that noodles can always be taken with out the flavor mix which contains 627, 631 or 635. 

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