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Law, Awareness Must Address Inherent Risks Of ‘Natural’ Foods – OpEd

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When Western Russia Sarov’s Saint Seraphim, one of the most renowned Russian saints and venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church also generally considered ‘the greatest of the 18th-century startsy’, had said, “Drink water from the spring where horses drink. The horse will never drink bad water. Lay your bed where the cat sleeps. Eat the fruit that has been touched by a worm. Boldly pick the mushroom on which the insects sit. Plant the tree where the mole digs.” 

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Back home, when Lord Rama chose to visit Shabari’s hut, now in Shivrinarayan, Chhattisgarh, and consumed her half-eaten berries (bers), despite brother Laxman’s disapproval, even when Ram could have opted for other fresh food, speaks reams of the merits of truly ‘natural’ food otherwise looked down by modern society.

‘Freshness’ Needs To Be Preserved

Today, to ensure that food remains ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’, as sought after by most consumers by dint of habit and education, paradoxically two kinds of ‘permitted’ preservatives are added. The first being antioxidants used in the food-processing industry to deter oxidation and concurrently enhance flavour, aroma, and colour. Oxidation of food products comprises adding an oxygen atom or deduction of a hydrogen atom from the molecules in the food. 

A simpler understanding of the process lies in the examination of a half-eaten apple that turns brown swiftly owing to a process, known as enzymatic browning. Of antioxidants, there are reducing agents such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and agents that inactivate the enzymes, such as citric acid. Now, citric acid is used throughout the dairy industry, especially for cheese processing and production, as an excellent stabiliser.  

And then there are antimicrobials used primarily to prevent and inhibit pathogenic microorganisms from growing.  In products with a low pH, organic acids such as acetic, benzoic, propionic, and sorbic acid are used against microorganisms. 

It is known that in the dairy industry, milk products such as yogurts, cheeses, yogurt drinks, etc., primarily are produced with preservatives to avoid spoilage. 

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Sodium benzoate and/or potassium sorbate are preservatives that inhibit mold growth and keep products fresh. Sodium Benzoate, while not being carcinogenic, when mixed with ascorbic acid turns into benzene a known carcinogenic and, by itself, triggers violent side-effects that include high blood pressure, seizures, blood clotting disorders and severe organ failures.

Role of Milk In PCOS Controversial

Now, while the research on the effect of preservatives on health is ongoing and debatably controversial, the role of milk, dairy products, and processed food in the trigger of polycystic ovarian syndrome or disorder (PCOS/PCOD) among young girls is overwhelming. It’s time, the authorities ensure food manufacturers are held accountable for the same.

It is a known fact that the PCOS diet focuses on high-fiber whole foods, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats and advocates the avoidance of refined sugars, red meat, full-fat dairy, and processed foods.

Now, refined carbohydrates, such as pastries, white bread and white rice are foods to avoid when you are suffering from PCOS. These increase the production of insulin that make managing PCOS symptoms more difficult and can lead to increased risk of diabetes. Women with PCOS are significantly more likely to develop diabetes than other women. 

Fried foods, such as fast food, high in saturated fats and trans-fats increase the risk of inflammation, cancer risks, weight gain and have the same effects as foods high in sugar. Also, the consumption of sugary beverages, such as sodas and energy drinks insidiously impact PCOS. Like refined carbohydrates, sugar in foods triggers insulin release, which helps sugar enter cells. As with refined carbohydrates and sugars, this process can lead to too much sugar being stored as fat.

Women need to avoid sugary drinks to prevent insulin spikes and stop their bodies from overproducing the male hormones like testosterone. Processed meats contain nitrites and high levels of sodium besides being inflammatory. Unhealthy fats that include margarine, shortening used in pastries, and lard used in cooking and baking are avoidable.

Gluten and Soy need to be kept in strict check by PCOS sufferers. Also, alcohol that increases levels of testosterone leading to an imbalance with oestrogen and stimulates the release of excessive amounts of luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), two hormones that control ovulation in women, can trigger serious problems.

However, the sneakiest culprit among them all is Dairy, like milk and processed cheeses owing to the hormones it contains. A hormone called insulin-like growth factor, IGF-I, increases androgen production in women with PCOS when they consume foods containing dairy like milk or ice cream.

Many dairy products are also high in secret sugars and, as discussed above, women with PCOS should also avoid foods that have added sugar to them such as frozen yogurt and ice cream because of their impact on insulin levels.

Now, where fresh food is concerned, there’s little by way of alternative and, of those available, it’s mostly nomenclature and jargon that is, more often than not, lost on the end consumer.

FSSAI Notification Regulates Narrowly

Applicable here is a notification issued by the Food Safety and Standards Authority India (FSSAI) on 19 November 2018 that details Regulation No: 9 on Conditional Claims. Accordingly,

(1) a claim may be made where a food is by its nature high or low or free of a specific nutrient provided the name of the nutrient or substance is preceded by the words ‘natural or naturally’ in the claim statement.

Explanation: “a naturally low (naming a nutrient or substance) food” or “a naturally (naming the nutrient or the substance) free food”.

(2) claims containing adjectives such as “natural”, “fresh”, “pure”, “original”, “traditional”, “Authentic”, “Genuine”, “Real”, etc., when used, shall be in accordance with conditions laid down in Schedule V and the claims containing words or phrases like “home-made”, “home cooked”, etc., which may give an erroneous impression to the consumer shall not be used.

Also, in Schedule 5, the word ‘Natural’ may be used to describe:

(a) A single food, derived from a recognised source viz., plant, animal, micro-organism or mineral and to which nothing has been added and which have been subjected only to such processing which would only render it suitable for human consumption like:

(i) Smoking without chemicals, cooking processes such as roasting, blanching and dehydration and physical refining;

(ii) Freezing, concentration, pasteurization, sterilisation and fermentation; and 

(iii) Packaging done without chemicals and preservatives.

(b) Permitted food additives that are obtained from natural sources by appropriate physical processing.

(c) Composite foods shall not themselves be described directly or by implication as “natural” but such foods may be described as “made from natural ingredients” if all the ingredients or food additives meet the criteria in (a) and (b) above:

Provided that, the above principles shall also apply to use of other words or expressions such as “real”, “genuine”, when used in place of “natural “in such a way as to imply similar benefits.

Provided further that the, claims such as “natural goodness”, “naturally better”, “nature’s way” shall not be used.

2. Fresh (a) The term “fresh” shall only be used on products which have not been processed in any manner except, washed, peeled, chilled, trimmed or cut, irradiated by ionizing radiation not exceeding 1kGy or other processing necessary for making the product safe for consumption without altering its basic characteristics in any manner. If such processing also leads to extension in the shelf-life of the product the term “fresh” shall not be used.

(b) The term “fresh” or “freshly” shall have no other connotation than the immediacy of the action being described. A food containing additives or subjected to packaging, storing or any other supply chain processes that control freshness shall not be termed as “freshly stored”, “freshly packed”, etc.:

Provided that “Fresh” may be permitted to be used along with “frozen” if it is clear from the context. – “Frozen from fresh” “fresh frozen” “Freshly frozen”– which would indicate that the food was quickly frozen while still fresh.

3. Pure (a) The term “pure” shall only be used to describe a single ingredient food to which nothing has been added and which is free from avoidable contamination and the levels of unavoidable contaminants shall need to be below the levels prescribed in the Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, Toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011 or in any other standard given under Food Safety and Standards Act, Rules and Regulations thereof.

(b) Compound foods shall not generally be described, directly or by implication, as “pure” but such foods may be described as “made with pure ingredients” if all the ingredients meet the criteria in (a) above.

(c) “Pure” shall not be included in any brand or fancy names, nor in coined or meaningless phrases, in such a way as to imply that a food that does not meet the criteria above is pure or made from pure ingredients.

Natural Foods Not Truly Natural

A range of foods, considered, since time immemorial to be ‘natural’, ‘pure’ and ‘fresh’ when procured, stored, packaged and sold are almost always not made available in the form or manner they’ve been procured at the onset. Like ‘low fat’ milk is stripped of all fat then added externally in controlled quantities to qualify for the ‘skimmed fat’ levels.

The abstinence of use of the said ‘words’ in the packaging itself is expected to imply that the end-consumer is aware that the product is not, indeed, “fresh”, “pure”, real”, “natural” or “traditional” and concurrently make an informed decision to buy and consume or refuse to buy and consume the product. And, in that lies the fault. 

Since time immemorial, certain products have been sold, promoted, and consumed for their ‘benefits’ to health and this as passed down generations by word of mouth or, simply, innocuous-seeming propaganda, irrespective of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

Now, whether that evidence affects the decision of the end-consumer or not may be debatable but that the evidence must be made available to him/her each time s/he chooses to buy or consume the product is imperative in order to ensure the opinion to buy, promote or consume is an ‘informed’ one or else the contract fails the test of ‘free consent’.

Food Labels Must Specify ‘Not Natural’

The least that must be ensured, by law, is the publication, and in bold and with significant visibility, that the product is “not pure”, “not fresh”, “not real”, “not natural” or ‘not traditional” as the case may be, if it has been procured, stored, preserved, processed or tampered with in any manner other than what’s popularly perceived.

The popular bias, in favour of consumption of certain foods, like milk and associated products, not procured or sold in original formats, is overwhelming and likely to perpetuate more damage than good should such caveats not be made the order of the day.

The acts of Saint Seraphin and Lord Ram were modelled on facts…and with good reason to top it.

Gajanan Khergamker

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor, legal counsel and documentary film-maker with over three decades of media-legal experience across India. He is the founder of DraftCraft – an India-based think-tank. Through strategic writings and columns across global media; niche workshops held for the benefit of police personnel, lawyers and media students as well as key lectures held at corporate venues and in Law and Mass Media colleges and universities across India, he analyses and initiates 'live' processes that help deliver social justice through the media and legal channels. He trains students, journalists, lawyers and corporate personnel to ideate, integrate and initiate the process of social justice which “isn't the sole responsibility of the State”. He holds legal aid workshops and creates permanent legal aid cells for the deprived across India through positive activism and intervention. He furthers the reach of social responsibility by initiating strategic process by offering consultancy services to corporates in the rapidly-growing CSR scenario. To further the reach of social responsibility, Gajanan Khergamker works closely with state entities, law universities, educational institutes, research think-tanks, publications and media houses, corporates and public-spirited individuals. His areas of interest include public affairs, inclusion, conflict of interest, law and policy, foreign affairs and diversity.

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