We must not lose sight of the fact that we are ingesting chemicals through an assortment of preservatives, artificial flavours and colours, sugars, fats, and secondary nutrients when we toss in our next bundle pack of processed food in our cart.
There was a time when I lived on soda, guzzling 4 to 5 bottles a day. I also used to add scoops of sugar to my filter coffee and ate fat-loaded cookies for breakfast. That I am neither obese now nor diabetic is only providential. At some point, when good sense prevailed, the cravings came down. I ditched sugar and switched to ‘equals’ with the smug satisfaction of having accomplished a health goal. But recently my coffee turned completely bitter. The sachets that provided the sweetness went out the window after reports came in saying the WHO will soon declare aspartame, a major ingredient in artificial sweeteners as carcinogenic. Cancerous, in short.
My decision to chuck sweeteners overnight on the basis of a potential hazard might seem uncalled for, but I don’t want to take chances. Slowly, I am getting into that stage of life where what I put into my mouth and load my gut with will have consequences. My level of awareness is improving, which in turn is also leaving me confused. What should I eat and what should I avoid? I may not be alone in facing this quandary.
In the past, we had limited knowledge about what we ate; we knew which food was good than which was bad. The only elephant in the room was fast food, that too after the ‘grab n go’ culture gained momentum. But now, there is a lot more that we must beware of. It is not just the burger and the fried chicken. There are several things that are being sneaked into our bodies by the makers and bakers of our gastronomical fate.
Our epicurean palates have been pampered by processed foods that are fraught with dangers we are not even remotely aware of. Of course, we are now taking a lot more interest in our dietary habits than before, but we are still in the dark for the most part. There is information overload on one side, which leaves us flustered in the supermarket aisles, wondering what must go into the cart and what must not. On the other side, there are those who rarely read their food labels, happy in the philosophy that ‘ignorance is bliss’.
I must admit that my education in the field of food and nutrition is zilch. Other than knowing that high cholesterol can clog my heart and white sugar can make me insulin resistant, there is little that I know about the numerous elements my body absorbs from the things I consume with ravenous alacrity. This ignorance, I presume, is widespread. A majority of us gloss over food labels because they confuse us with ingredients that don’t make much sense to us. We don’t have personal diet charts made out because we find them ambiguous. Then there is the vainglorious pronouncement we make about drinking life to the lees by going the full hog.
There is lack of clarity, and there is apathy. Adding to this already hopeless scenario are misleading advertisements from food manufacturers and their claims that every edible stuff they roll out is filled with goodness to the wrapper ends. There is so much noise around organic contents and nutritional supplements in store-bought food and beverages that one can only take them with a pinch of Himalayan salt.
Government regulations can only restrict manufacturers from crossing the ‘permissible’ levels of ingredients that can potentially cause health hazards, but beyond that, the onus of keeping our physical well-being lies with us. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are ingesting chemicals through an assortment of preservatives, artificial flavours and colours, sugars, fats, and secondary nutrients when we toss in our next bundle pack of processed food in our cart.
It is not possible to be fully educated with sundry sources plugging nonstop information, most of which is unvetted, on us. They will frustrate us to the point of wanting to give up eating and drinking altogether, but that cannot score out the unsavoury reality of our times. There is a little bit of poison in most things we pick from the shelves and push down our gullet. The longer the list of strange names on the label, the more foreign it is to our body.
Experts can only put out notices based on global surveys and research findings. Processed food manufacturers will tickle our taste buds with mouth-watering visuals and tall claims that we have no means to verify. At best, they will put out statutory warnings. Eventually, the responsibility of our health is ours. Knowing the ‘what’, ‘how much’ and ‘why not’ of what is on our plate is our business. If we let our unguarded palates decide it, no one can save us from an impending health disaster.
Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author and children’s writing coach.