Sunday, March 22, 2015

Do we buy foods in the market because of their color? It appears so!

Quality of a food is manifested in many dimensions that include appearance, flavor and nutrition. It is said that consumers first "eat" a food through their eyes by perceiving what is attractive in appearance without realizing whether it is safe or healthy for him. The consequences are the deliberate or some time ignorant action by the processors in adding colors of various hues to the foods they make for attracting them or using inedible mineral oils to give them a gloss. Whether the fact that the colors added are permitted or banned probably never enters the mind of the consumer. Invariably unscrupulous food handlers, be it the processor or trader or the farmer, use these unnatural substances to camouflage low quality or blemishes or non-uniform color and fleece the customers by charging a premium. India has a dubious record of harboring such unscrupulous elements in great numbers with apparently no resistance or control at any point of the supply chain. Probably the tortoise like speed with which adultrators and fraudsters are hauled up and punished naturally encourage the fraud industry to indulge more and more into such heinous activities. Here is a report from a town in Tamilnadu which reveals how even every day foods like boondi, bhujia etc are colored bright by using bright colors which are not permitted by the law of the country.    

"The Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 clearly states that 'unsafe food' is an article in which there is 'presence of any colouring matter or preservatives other than that specified for its category' or if the 'article is being coloured to make it appear better than it really is'. "This point was included in the Act because long-term consumption of such artificial colours is harmful to health, because they often contain colours made of chemicals," said Kathiravan. While colour is permitted to be added to ice-creams, lolly pops, jelly crystal and North Indian sweets, it is banned in South Indian sweets and savouries. "However, in some cases, approved artificial colour is allowed," he clarified. Though food makers admit that colours do not play a part in the taste, they find it hard to change the public's mindset. "They are used to seeing specific foods in specific colours," said Vivekanand Natraj of Moti Mahal Delux. "So we have tried to work around this by using Kashmiri Chilli which gives the red colour but is not as spicy as our local chillies. We use beetroot to add colour to vinegar soaked onion, so the difference is just 10%," he said. "Even after all this we have irate customers upset over the colour of food served or purchased," said a staff member at Nellai Muthu Vilas Sweets."

World over artificial colors are being banned one by one after their safety credentials were doubted and food processing industry progressively switched over to natural colors where ever color addition is unavoidable for technical reasons. The classical case is that of tomato ketchup in India and stout resistance by the industry to the ban of artificial colors to this product was over ruled resulting in breeding new varieties with more intense red color. This goes to show that under compelling situations food scientists can come out with alternatives for most of the chemical additives used in foods for aesthetic appeal. There are thousands of sweet meat shops in the country using unnecessary bright colors so that when these products are displayed openly or in glass cases, they can attract customers to these outlets. While use of color is absolutely unnecessary in any of our foods, if for any reasons they are to be used natural substances must be considered. Chilli, beetroots, annatto, safflower, curcumin etc are some of the natural sources from which colors are to day extracted with no taste or odor. In stead of depending on the government to protect him, consumer must be proactive in shunning such foods as part of a movement to punish those still using them. Though we can blame the governments for shirking their responsibility, in to day's India such blame game will have no effect at all as safety enforcement is yet to get the attention it deserves. 


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