There is no doubt that dried fruits, nuts and seeds have taken centre stage as a gifting option during Diwali, but do you know how to select dry fruits so they are safe to consume? Dry fruit is the collective name used for fruits, nuts and seeds of fruits which have been subjected to a drying process. To improve shelf life, water content is eliminated from raw fruits to make them into dry fruit. The processes used to make dry fruits are sun or wind drying and drying in a processing plant, using modern drying methods like drum, air, spray or freeze drying. Freeze dried fruits retain the most natural colour, flavour and nutrients and are likely to be of a better quality.
Stocking up for Diwali
In recent years there has been an upward trend in the sales of dry fruits, during Diwali, be it gift packaged or loose. Consumers have become more health conscious and so avoid buying traditional sweets. Dry fruits are not only standalone foods but are also used as ingredients in cooked foods, cakes, namkeens and desserts. Even traditional sweet makers have begun to make more sweets from dry fruits as khoya adulteration has led to a decline in demand of sweets made from khoya. Owing to these factors there is rise in demand of dry fruits, so sweet shops, grocery stores, including e-commerce platforms have begun to stock up large quantities of dry fruits just before the festival.
Contamination in dry fruits
As compared to sweets or bakery products dry fruits have a longer shelf life. This is because dry fruits have low moisture content and since there is low water activity they are not as susceptible to microbial spoilage as sweets or bakery products. However, if not stored appropriately dry fruits can develop moulds and yeast, which cause spoilage. Dry fruits are also prone to mycotoxin contamination especially in figs and grapes. Mycotoxin contamination can occur during production, drying, processing or storage. Consumers must make sure to buy dry fruits from FSSAI licensed vendors as the dry fruits will have gone through the various quality checks and testing procedures to be in compliance with regulations. As per FSSAI regulations, vendors will make sure that the dry fruits they sell are:
- free from mould, living/dead insects, insect fragments and rodent contamination
- free from extraneous matter like stalks, pieces of shells, pits, fibre, peel
- have uniform in colour and pleasant taste and flavour characteristic of the fruit/nut
- free from off flavour, mustiness, rancidity and evidence of fermentation
- free from added colouring
- Stored appropriately to prevent contamination and growth of toxic microorganisms
- Free from blemished, discoloured and damaged nuts caused by sunburn, scars, mechanical injury discolouration and by insects
- free from bacteria, pesticide residues or use of preservatives in excess of permitted limits.
Dry foods and adulteration
Food Safety is the assurance that food will not cause any harm to consumers when it is prepared and consumed according to its intended use. However, there is adulteration in dry fruit too which can cause health concerns. Many traditional Indian sweets are decorated with dry fruit topping but sometimes instead of pista, ground-nuts coloured green are used in the sweets. Adding non-permitted malachite-green can cause allergic reactions and brain damage. Chemicals like sulphur dioxide and sodium metabisulphite are used in dry fruits to prevent discolouration and spoilage and this may cause breathing and health problems. To increase the bulk, good quality cardamoms are often mixed with poor quality cardamoms from which essential oils have been extracted. To ensure food safety in dried fruits, most manufacturers carry out physical and laboratory food testing.
Food safety risk in unpackaged dry fruit
Just like some of the other products in the food industry, the dry fruit market also consists of the unorganised sector. In the unorganised sector the production and processing of dry fruits poses higher risk of contamination and adulteration as they may overlook food safety regulations. If you buy dry fruit that is not packaged but is sold loose then you need to be more cautious and look out for signs of
- Discolouration, as the fruit will grow darker than their natural colour if there is spoilage
- Hardness and unchewable texture in dry fruits like apricots, prunes or figs which means they are old
- Any smell of rot or fungus means absorption of water due to inappropriate storage
- Dry fruits sold loose do not have an expiry date so avoid buying them
Tips for buying dry fruits correctly
Though dry fruits have a shelf life that can extend into years, the risk of foodborne illness is still prevalent if they are not stored appropriately to maintain dry conditions or handled hygienically in retail stores. Consumers must
- buy dry fruits that are packaged and labelled as per FSSAI guidelines and which have the FSSAI logo and license number so you know you are buying dried fruits from a licensed manufacturer
- buy dry fruits that are packed in food grade packaging so there is no chemical contamination and will keep moisture out of the packaging.
- avoid buying dried fruits that mention preservatives and sugar on the label
- buy dry fruits only from stores where they have been appropriately stored and packaged.
FBOs need to follow best practices
Contamination can occur at any stage during handling, processing, storage and distribution so it is imperative for FBOs to follow good hygiene practices in accordance with Schedule 4 of the FSS Act, 2006. The very fact that FBOs are operating as FSSAI licensees is an insurance of their intent to follow all FSSAI guidelines in running their dry food business. Good hygiene practices entail that FBOs ensure:
- Raw fruits used for preparing dried fruits are free form chemicals, pesticides and enteric pathogens
- Hygiene and sanitation practices are maintained throughout the process
- Only potable water is used during processing to prevent microbial contamination.
- Any desiccation during processing must be carried out with proper equipment which is sanitised after use
- Maintain specified thermal conditions so fruit is dehydrated correctly to maintain shelf life
- Keep packaging and labelling requirements in mind as certain dried fruits and nuts especially peanuts/ hazel nuts, etc. can cause allergic reactions. It is also important to mention all the contents in a package that contains mixed dried fruit so consumers do not suffer any allergic reaction.
Sources : FSSAI & Inputs from research journals