There is no doubt that there is a vast amount of sentiment attached to buying traditional sweets during Diwali but there is also a risk of consuming harmful adulterants along with the sweets. In his book, Delhi “a Role Model “of Urban India Part 1 Dr. KP Agarwal has boldly suggests that adulteration is a fast-growing industry. If we are to examine this statement we will find that indeed it holds true especially during the festive season.
Taking advantage of Diwali demand for traditional sweets, not only Delhi but all over India the market becomes flooded with adulterated food products and the traditional Indian sweets are hit the hardest by adulteration. This is because every ingredient used to make traditional sweets can be adulterated, be it milk, khoya, ghee, dry fruits, silver foil, spices and even the flours like besan used to make a variety of laddus. Section 3 (a) of Food Safety & Standards Act, 2006 has defined adulterant as any material which is or could be employed for making the food unsafe or sub-standard or misbranded or containing extraneous matter. Despite the Food Act, there are several unscrupulous traders and vendors that take advantage of the festival to make huge profit margins and so they provide substandard ingredients and endanger the health of consumers.
Why Sweets are adulterated
To keep the prices of their sweets competitive, small sweet shop owners often resort to the use of sub-standard or adulterated ingredients and even chemicals. These sweet shops are more prone to unscrupulous adulterators and suppliers who can sell them synthetic or sub-standard milk and khoya and other adulterated or low-quality ingredients. Consumers must be aware that these types of sweet shops that make traditional sweet fall in the category of the unorganised sector where there are few checks and balances about quality control and hygienic preparation of these sweets. Since there is no system to have the ingredients tested in these unlicensed sweet shops, they knowingly or unknowingly use adulterated ingredients. Also, they often face the brunt of rising prices of raw materials like milk, ghee, oil, sugar, and dry fruits and so get tempted to use adulterated ingredients to make good their losses.
Ingredient adulteration in sweets
- Khoya and Chhena are commonly used for the preparation of traditional sweets during Diwali but these are often adulterated with starch, fine flour, refined oil, skimmed milk powder
- Ghee is often adulterated with mashed potatoes and vanaspati and edible oil could be mixed with cheaper palmolein or mineral oil.
- According to food regulations silver coating (vark) used to decorate sweets must be 99.9 percent pure if it is used as a food ingredient. However, with silver being so expensive many sweet makers use silver foil that could contain aluminum.
- Many sweets are decorated with dry fruit topping but often instead of pista ground-nuts coloured green are used in the sweets. Adding malachite-green is not permitted as it can cause allergic reactions and brain damage.
- Sugar often contains chalk powder while besan that is used to make laddus, Sohan papri could contain maize starch. Turmeric though not harmful is also used to colour maize starch to disguise as besan.
- Rabri is made out of milk but the milk could be adulterated and formalin or even blotting paper could be used to give a thick consistency and longer shelf life as rabri deteriorates very quickly.
- To lower the cost of sugar, artificial and high intensity sweetening agents like saccharin and cyclamate used which can cause certain types of cancer when used over the long term.
- 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.
Milk Most Adulterated Food
Milk is one of the most adulterated food items in the world because it is easy to adulterate anywhere, anytime before processing, at the processing plant, in the warehouse or even in the retail store. During the festive season, as the demand for milk increases, adulteration reaches new heights. While water is the most common adulterant, milk can also be adulterated with chalk, urea or detergent. In some cases, milk suppliers add sugar cane juice and even salt which slows down the decomposition process in milk. Adding salt and sugar can have negative consequences on the health of people suffering from high blood pressure, kidney problems and diabetes especially as they could be unaware of the adulteration and the extent of adulteration.
Do Sweets contain formalin?
The demand for traditional sweets during Diwali is particularly high and there are chances that the sweets have been made in advance. Since traditional sweets are highly perishable and have a short shelf life, unscrupulous sweet makers could use the chemical formalin. Formalin helps to preserve the sweets, gives them a fresh appearance and a longer shelf life but formalin can damage kidneys and liver and cause asthma attacks and even cancer when consumed over long periods of time. Since consumers have no way to know or detect if formalin has been used they must make sure they buy their sweets only from licensed and registered retailers.
Avoid brightly coloured sweets
Food dyes are one of the most widely used and dangerous additives but these adulterants can cause allergic reactions and other health problems in the long run. Use of synthetic colours like tartrazine in place of natural beta-carotene can cause allergic reactions like itchy and runny nose and even asthma. Since most of the artificial colours are petroleum-derived they can cause behavioural problems in children like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and some have even been implicated as possible carcinogens. The use of certain colours in food is permitted but the concentration of these colours has been limited. It has also been made mandatory for manufacturers to specify the use of colours on their packages. Now you know why you need to stay away from the brightly coloured traditional Indian sweets.
How safe are preservatives?
Consumers then have the option to buy branded sweets as chances of adulteration are minimised. However, they also have a disadvantage as they are not ‘fresh’ and so probably contain preservatives. In the food industry preservatives and antifungal agents are used as food additives in packaged foods to prolong shelf life, enhance taste or keep the colour and nutrients of the product intact. Development of any fungus in the sweets leads to deterioration, noticeable off odour and loss of flavour and texture. To prevent microbial spoilage, fungicides and chemical preservative are used in traditional sweets as they inhibit the growth of microorganisms and prevent spoilage. Since these chemicals can be detrimental to health of consumers, food regulator FSSAI has fixed the maximum permitted limit of these preservatives. However, there is no way to measure how much preservatives are being used by non-branded sweet makers and if they have been purchased from reliable vendors or not.
Due to the awareness about adulteration, consumers have begun to look for other options and so the traditional sweet market has seen a dip in sales in recent years. In fact, a number of sweet shop-owners have begun to make more sweets with dry fruits and less with khoya and chhenna or other dairy products. There are some reputed local shops in most cities and consumers must patronise shops of repute as the sweets are standardised, ingredients guaranteed and milk and khoya pure. However, since they do not use preservatives in their sweets they have only limited stocks which get depleted very quickly. In such a situation, while people in Tier I cities have the option to go in for branded traditional sweets, consumers in smaller towns and cities could suffer foodborne illnesses or long-term ill health from consuming sweets that are not standardised and bought from unscrupulous traders.