How does the wood in your bread, biscuit taste today?
September 12, 2011 06:19 PM |
A lot of the high-fibre fast-food packages sold by major food brands most likely contains “wood cellulose” that’s even used by the plastics industry. And the food safety authority is aware about it . . .
Incidentally, this article was inspired by this television show:-
A very patronising Vinita Bali with all the correct corporate type answers interviewed by a very unusually careful Shekhar Gupta asking all the right questions = antennae up. Especially when it has anything to do with the processed and packaged food industry - you just know that their levels of corruption would surprise even Anna Hazare!!
Let's start with some first-hand experience, which is very often how curiosity is sparked and questions arise.
A few months ago, I was wading through an assignment at a factory in an industrial suburb outside Delhi, where a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers were employed. Minimum wages in this segment are not very high, and for this category of people, every paisa saved counts. That's what they've left the tough conditions in their rural homes for.
Most of us have absolutely no idea of how this segment lives and survives. Even though they come under the category of organised labour in many cases, protected by law with benefits like ESIC, EPFO and pension plans, what matters is what they get in hand every month and how much of it they are able to save to send home, or to try and buy that elusive plot of land to enable them to build a roof over their heads.
Everything else is nothing but promises, which they have learned not to trust, as it does not get them dinner in the here and now.
Expenses are, therefore, sought to be reduced to the bare minimum. Free meals of the sort provided on certain days at certain places are balanced against the cost of time and travel to get there. Cheap lodging in the vicinity of the factory is balanced against the option of a place to sleep in the factory environs free of cost, perhaps in exchange for some night duty responsibilities.
Education for family members is an aim for which no effort is spared. Likewise, some amount of effort and sacrifice is made towards further self-education, by sacrificing other expenses, and night schools—where they exist—are indeed popular. Free uniforms from the factory are a boon; the older ones are used to sleep in, reducing the necessity of buying clothes.
But what's really interesting is the way they spend on food. As some of them explained, at one time it was cheaper to bring grain, cereals, lentils and even some amount of ghee from the village, and use it during their stay in the city. Now, when they return from their villages, whatever they bring along gets a good price if they sell it, and then they survive on what they can find in the city, in and around the workplace.
The first thing that takes a toss in such conditions is the group-cooked hot meal in the morning. It just doesn't exist, and in lieu it is often a packet of cheap biscuits dipped in the first mug of free tea at work, eaten on the move. Lunch is often a perquisite of the job, huge helpings of roti-daal-subzi-pickle. Dinner is scrounged around. Most of these workers also double up for late evening work where a meal can be sourced.
So, to keep things going when hunger pangs overtake planning, there are the cheap-packed foods of the biscuit sort and the cheap fried foods of the samosa sort, dipped in a cup of 'tea' which is more often than not brewed with urea as a whitener instead of milk at the roadside stall.
The biscuits attracted my attention. Popular big brands selling handy small packs at a "price point" of two to five rupees for 6-12 biscuits, seldom found at the better stores you and I shop at. Taking a bite, dipped in tea, I found that they did not dissolve and break like biscuits used to in the past, and they filled me up admirably, giving me a feeling of fullness in very quick time. At first, I thought it could be excess corn glue binders or baking soda, till I researched the price of corn glue binders and baking soda and wrote that off. So, full of pride that I had discovered a cheaper alternative, I bought a few packets and brought them home, basic "glucose", "chocolate" and "cream". All major brands. So cheap?
Obviously, I was treated to a lecture, that these were simply not healthy. At this point, I thought it was snobbishness talking, but fact remains the biscuits remained untouched for a few days. Everybody prefers "local" bakery biscuits at our home, procured from a charity organisation at the nearby Lajpat Bhavan, or expensive imported ones presented now and then. So after a few days, I thought to myself, maybe the birds and the stray dogs will appreciate them more?
Next morning, along with the bird seed that we have sprinkled on a wall, I laid out some of the biscuits, neatly crumbled, but while the bird seed was gobbled up as usual by about 9am, the biscuits were untouched-even the squirrels who eat everything, left them alone. Same with the stray dogs, a sniff at the "orange cream" biscuit, a bit of a whine, and then left alone. In due course, the ants and the termites presumably finished off the biscuits, because the birds and dogs didn't touch them.
The maid, watching bemused, said that the animals don't eat it because the biscuits have "plastic" in them. Plastic? Where had she heard that from? Turns out that everybody in her village near Ranchi knew about this, because some people from there who worked in a processed factory had told them that the seths were now using an ingredient for bread and biscuits called "cellulose", in quantities from 15% to 25%. How did they know? Because similar packets from the same supplier were being used for the plastic to be used for the wrapping and packaging, as well as to line the insides of the biscuit packaging to prevent the biscuit from going soggy. To prove her point, she crumbled up the biscuits and stirred them into a mug of warm water. After a few minutes, much of what used to be the biscuit was still floating on top. After a few hours it was exactly the same.
Please try this yourself. It is like the "patty" inside the famous McDonalds burger, which does not deteriorate or go bad for days on end.
Around the same time, I had been filing RTI applications on the subject of artificial sweeteners used by the processed food industry, specifically called "aspartame". (Read, Did you check the neurotoxin in your 'soft' drink today?) In the course of the responses, which contained the usual evasive answers from the ministries, as well as the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), I also managed to develop some sources within. People like you and me, but unwilling or unable to come on record, but right-thinking all the same.
I decided to approach a few of them to try and find out what was going on, and meanwhile, tried to place a total ban on packaged bread and biscuits at home, rewarding the maid with basic bakery lessons and going in for "chakki atta" ground at a store. (By the way, the one shop in our area which provides fresh ground atta of various sorts has so much business now that the owner is opening a second shop and provides an increasingly growing range of choices, with exotic grains of all sorts.)
This was when I received my next surprise. Yes, the FSSAI, at an informal level, were aware that there was something being added to processed foods, especially biscuits and bread, for the last few years, and that this new miracle ingredient going under the technological name of 'cellulose' was actually the same 'wood cellulose' used by, among others, the plastics industry, and by an amazing coincidence of nomenclature, was categorised as 'fibre' for all practical purposes, including the list of ingredients. As a matter of fact, within the industry there was growing awareness on the cost-saving benefits of adding more and more wood cellulose to everything, not just bread and biscuits, but also ice cream, cheese, meat . . . and upstream into desserts, pizzas and most other forms of 'fast food'.
So just how did 'wood cellulose' get into the lexicon of the Ministry of Food Processing (MoFP) and the FSSAI as 'fibre'? Well, in one way, it is the truth. Wood cellulose is fibre. The only thing is that unless you share your enzymes with termites, you and I can't digest it. Even woodpeckers can't digest wood cellulose or wood, and they are pecking away at it all the time. Nor could hundreds of thousands of people starving to death in famines from the Siege of Leningrad ,to closer in history in Darfur.
Within the food industry in the US, the FDA apparently permits limited use of wood cellulose under very specific conditions, and up to a maximum of between 1% and 3.5%. And there's no way the manufacturers there can get away by calling it 'fibre'.
Within the food industry in India, welcome to the reality, and check out how many new products on your shop or supermarket shelves carry the added nomenclature 'fibre'. And as per my source/sources in the FSSAI, this is growing at a very rapid pace. The cost of wood cellulose in India, meanwhile, is dropping, because the new miracle raw material for wood cellulose in India is, hold your breath, not just the tree or plant, but sawdust. Processed sawdust = fibre in your bread and biscuit?
At such a rapid pace and with such huge profits on the back of this new trend to put wood cellulose into everything, the processed food industry—riding on the back of these lower prices and huge profits—is making a strong bid once again to enter the mid-day meal space. With an attempt to replace the hot cooked meal with a "high fibre" pre-packaged meal. And as an added incentive, they plan to use the term "fortified and enhanced" with a variety of other ingredients like, for example, iron. This, incidentally, is co-terminus with a strong movement in the developed countries to move away from such processed foods and fast foods.
India, therefore, is the obvious next target. Just like it was with opium for China a few hundred years ago and tobacco in the recent past, it is now going to be wood cellulose masquerading as fibre in our packaged foods.
I wonder, will they use iron sweepings or filings, and will we be able to transport these modern high-fibre fortified with iron biscuits using magnets, soon?
More interacts, responses and a debate on at:-