Having been lucky enough to eat fresh, home-cooked food for most of my life, I’ve never taken to Maggi noodles, which is why the accusations against Nestlé’s top Indian brand made no personal impact on me. Packs of instant noodles examined by a Calcutta lab at the instance of the Uttar Pradesh Food Safety and Drug Administration apparently exceeded permissible levels of lead and contained monosodium glutamate unmentioned in the ingredients’ list. It seems to me the case is another instance of bureaucratic over-reach. To begin with, the scaremongering about monosodium glutamate is bereft of evidence, as this article in the New Scientist makes clear. (The piece also covers gluten "allergies", for good measure.)

Lead is a different matter. It’s extremely dangerous, even fatal if ingested in large enough quantities. The permissible limit in this type of Indian food is 2.5 parts per million and the examined batch of Maggi noodles is said to have had seven times that much. Nestlé’s own studies provided contradictory figures, which is hardly surprising. While I don’t trust Nestle, I trust India’s food inspectors and government labs even less. Why go after trace quantities of lead in noodles when our air and water are poisonous, and noise levels orders of magnitude above the recommended maximum? How many food stalls, or even restaurants, in India would remain open if they had to adhere to prescribed hygiene standards? And how many have been shut down by the food safety chaps?

The foreign hand

The Nestle case is like jailing a man for fixing a grille on the windows of his home (which happens to be an illegal act), while allowing his neighbours to construct unauthorised high rises. Companies like Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi, Cadbury, and Nestle, all targeted in the past for sidestepping safety, appear to be held to a more exacting norm than Indian firms, and certainly cottage industries. Such double standards would make sense if our immune systems could tell multinational products from swadeshi ones, but unfortunately, they have yet to evolve that sensitivity.

Let’s set aside water-borne germs, and respiratory problems caused by pollution, and sundry illnesses propagated by roadside eateries, and concentrate on lead. Indians are exposed to lead mainly through paint, and there is no prohibition yet on the manufacture of paints containing lead. The bits of plaster young children love to eat are far deadlier than any noodles they will consume in later life. No wonder Indian kids have ten times more lead in their blood than American children.

The greatest lead-related scandal, however, is not about paint but the fact that manufacturers of ayurvedic medications are permitted to use toxic heavy metals like lead, mercury and arsenic, poisoning patients while claiming to heal them. I find it strange that many highly educated Indians grow frantic at the mention of monosodium glutamate, but consider ayurvedic medicines to be entirely free of side effects. Our immune systems, though, cannot distinguish between lead from ayurvedic concoctions and lead from Maggi.

Heavy-metal content

Vaids will disagree with the last statement. They will point out, correctly, that the ancients knew lead, mercury and arsenic were deadly. What Ayurveda does, they will continue, is purify these materials (a process called sodhana) to remove their toxicity. Lead in Ayurveda, they will assert, is very different from lead in noodles. They are wrong. We have no credible evidence that sodhana makes any difference to the toxicity of heavy metals. The Indian medical community has been hesitant to take on tradition, but lead poisoning through ayurvedic medication is a well-documented phenomenon outside the country.

One study found that over 20% of all ayurvedic medicines contained detectable heavy metals. An American examination of lead poisoning in five states highlighted the story of a woman who was prescribed a fertility pill, to be taken four times daily, which contained 73,900 parts per million of lead. In New York City, doctors implicated specific drugs in six cases of lead poisoning through Ayurveda. One of these was Pregnita, manufactured by Indore’s Ajmera Pharmaceuticals. Slide 15 in this presentation by the manufacturer recommends Pregnita for “all nutritive and curative requirements during pregnancy”. As far as I can tell, it continues to be manufactured with impunity.

Defenders of traditional medicine will no doubt claim that such drugs need to be taken under careful supervision, but it is clear from the case studies that many of them were so taken. The father of one of the patients in the New York study was himself an ayurvedic practitioner. In any case, if the heavy metals in the medicines have been neutralised, it should make no difference how much of the preparation is consumed.

The value of tradition

The second line of defence is usually that Ayurveda has its share of quacks but they depart from the norm rather than representing it. That argument takes us into the unfalsifiable realm of "true gurus", "true Islam", "true Ayurveda", where everything discomfiting is explained away as a misunderstanding of, and deviation from an indefinable pristine ideal.

I’m not suggesting that we chuck out traditional methods wholesale. Across the world, we find examples of efficacious cures being discovered in ancient tracts. Earlier this year researchers found  that a 1,000-year-old British eye treatment was effective in fighting an antibiotic-resistant superbug. The frontline treatment for the most dangerous form of malaria comes from a traditional Chinese cure made from sweet wormwood. Called Artemisinin, it was discovered after a rigorous study of 5,000 different traditional formulations. I hope our scientists will have the will someday to separate what is efficacious in Ayurveda from what is useless, and what is harmful. In the meantime, I wouldn’t worry overmuch about those instant noodles.