Everyone’s talking about lead contamination in Maggi, but there is so much more to the story. In the midst of all the testing and the subsequent bans, this is a call for all of us to wake up and pay more attention to what really goes into our food.

Setting aside the whole lead issue for a second, let’s look at instant noodles and other processed foods in general, by decoding food labels to see what we need to know about processed food.

Instant Noodles – what else is in it and why is it bad?

The first rule of thumb for labels is that the ingredients are listed in descending order of their percentage composition. The one present in the largest amount is listed first, and so on.

Wheat Flour: "Whole Wheat Flour" is atta while "wheat flour" is maida. Processed wheat flour implies that the grain has been mostly stripped away of its nutrients. It has a high glycemic index of 71, thus containing twice the number of calories as compared to unprocessed and low GI foods. High GI foods release sugar into the bloodstream quickly, evoking a sharp insulin response. Over a period of time, this could contribute to the loss of the insulin-secreting function of the pancreatic β-cells that leads to diabetes.

Edible vegetable oil: Since the product doesn’t look very oily, you might wonder why it’s the second most prevalent ingredient. This is because the noodles are flash fried in oil! (check the video starting 3:00) This makes the water vaporise from the surface of the noodles, giving it a dry appearance. The escaped water leaves holes for water to get in later on when the chunks are placed in boiling water.

Trans fat: A maximum of 1% of total energy should come from trans fats in a balanced diet, says the World Health Organisation. Therefore, the requirement would be 2.6 grams of trans fats per day (adult male), 2.1 grams (adult female) and 2.3 grams per day (a child). Maggi has 0.6 gm of trans fat for every 100 g (according to the Centre for Science and Environement) which is about 1/4th of the acceptable daily intake.

But then again, many doctors say that it’s better not to have artificially produced trans fats at all. Naturally occurring fats arise from the gut of animals and are found in meat and dairy even before processing, whereas trans fats are added during processing by partially hydrogenating vegetable oils (watch the video below from 2:20). The problem is that the oil is heated in such a way that it is structurally stable enough to avoid rancidity. But it is so stable that even our body finds it hard to break down. Instead, it accumulates as LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and increases the risk of heart diseases and strokes.

Salt (Sodium): A packet of noodles has about 3g of salt, which is already 50% of your recommended daily intake of salt. Consuming excess sodium causes water retention, dehydration, and high blood pressure. (Watch the video from 3:50.)

Dehydrated vegetables: This is the first ingredient that you see on the label about the Tastemaker. At first glance, this may not sound so bad, really how can vegetables ever be bad? But, dehydrated vegetables are as good as no vegetables at all, because the nutrition also goes away with the water.

A study conducted on Instant Noodles by Dr Braden Kuo of Harvard University reveals what happens in the stomach during digestion. Whole homemade noodles is easily broken down, while processed noodles remains largely intact, in the same time period of digestion. The gut has to work overtime to break down the processed noodles. 

Hydrolysed groundnut protein: This is indicative of the presence of Mono Sodium Glutamate which is known as a “taste enhancer”. Glutamate is an amino acid naturally present in the body, while MSG is a derivative of glutamate which is formed by hydrolyzing proteins using a catalyst, which after cooking, forms MSG. E635 is a flavour enhancer added to complement food with existing glutamates to create the same flavour as that of MSG.

Who makes the standards?

Food Standards and Safety Act of India has set up standards, methodologies and rules for food testing and approval. Each state has its own Food and Drug Administration to enforce and implement the rules set forth by FSSAI. With regard to tests, the FSSAI regulations say that only one test per year per product is to be conducted, which is not sufficient considering that groundwater levels and natural conditions that affect processing vary greatly within a year.

The Food Safety and Standards (Contaminants, toxins and Residues) Regulations, 2011 lists the permissible limit of heavy metals, toxins, and contaminants. However, the standards are not in keeping with the international requirement. For example, the idea of a  “permissible limit” for lead (2.5 ppm) should be questioned, because the WHO maintains that lead, even in very small traces, is harmful. The permissible limit for lead should actually be zero.

Food certifications by FSSAI or Bureau of Indian Standards are voluntary in nature, and not a compulsory requirement. The primary focus of the certification process of FSSAI is on hygiene and microbial parameters, and not so much on additives and contaminants.

There are only 82 food testing laboratories in the country, with poor co-ordination between them and deficient in modern lab equipment. Even the rules for labeling are poor, and companies are getting away with writing misleading information on their labels. The Clean Labels Act is their way of substituting more “innocent” terms for complex, potentially dangerous chemical compounds.

What else is in our foods?

1) Adulterants: The FSSAI has a comprehensive list of over 80 common adulterants found in our foods. This includes milk and milk products, oils, pulses, food grains and their products, salt, tea leaves and vinegar.

2) Antibiotics are used in honey production.

3) Calcium carbide crystals to artificially ripen mangoes and bananas.

4) Significant pesticide content has been found in tea, and in soda drinks.

5) Vegetables, especially, those that are green and leafy, show a high tendency to absorb and retain heavy metals.

6) Aluminium is used as an adulterant in those shiny looking, tempting sweets that we like to eat during Diwali.

and even…

7) Animal bones used in biscuit factories

Also check out our list of 10 other potentially dangerous foods that we consume everyday.

In the absence of responsible customer care, how can we as consumers show that we care about foods being safe?

We can begin by simply reading our labels wisely and seeing through the various marketing tactics employed by food making companies. Here are a few tips and tricks on reading labels to help you stay ahead of their game:

1) Keep an eye on the fine print: This is usually found in very small letters near the nutrition label and could contain information that the company wants to keep inconspicuous.

2) Look for less of (it will be in less quantity only if its listed towards the end of the list): Sugar, Sodium, Saturated and Trans fats, cholesterol.

3) Look for: Potassium, fibers, vitamins, iron, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

4) Buy something that has the Daily Value % more than 5% but less than 20% , and less than 400 calories per serving.

5) Always check for the serving size and remember that the nutrition facts are given for one serving. So, remember to multiply that by the number of servings to check how much you will actually end up consuming.

6) Trans fat: 0% trans fat does not mean that the product has no trans fat. In fact, it can have up to 0.5 gm of trans fat and still legally claim that it has 0%. 0.5 grams may seem like a small amount, but remember Rule #5 about the serving size!

7) Whole grains: This is yet another misleading label because manufacturers can include a very small percentage of whole grains and still say that the product has whole grains. To know if it is really a whole grain product, go straight to the ingredients list. If whole grain is  first or the second on the list, then you’ll know that it constitutes a fairly large amount.

8) “Real” Fruit: Instead of actual fruit, they could add just one grape or one drop of orange juice +sugar+high fructose corn syrup+food colouring and write “real fruit” on the label.

9) Low Fat: Remember even though a product may have low fat, it could still have high calories. Manufacturers tend to add sugars, flour, thickeners and salt to compensate for the fat that has been reduced.

10) Fibre: A lot of the fiber advertised may be fibrous, but they’re not always natural fibres. Synthesized Inulin, polydextrose and maltodextrin are powderised fibres that are often used that do not offer any of the health benefits that natural fibers do.

11) Natural flavors: Just like artificial flavors, natural flavours can also have chemicals! The distinction between natural and artificial flavorings is the source of the chemicals. Natural flavours are created from anything that can be eaten (i.e animals and vegetables), even if those edible things are processed in the lab and blended with synthetic chemicals to create flavourings.

12) Artificial sweeteners: These are used in place of sugars, but they have their own problems. Some names of sugar substitutes – Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame-K, Sucralose, Neotame, Glycerol, Erythritol, Maltitol, Lactitol (source). Another popular substitute is High Fructose Corn Syrup, found in several baked goods, carbonated drinks and ketchup. True to its name it has high concentrations of fructose. Fructose goes right to the liver and causes a condition called “fatty liver”. It is also linked to increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia.

13) Emulsifiers: These are additives that are used to mix two liquids that would otherwise have been immiscible. Most commonly, it is used to incorporate fat into dough. On the label, emulsifiers are listed with an “E” followed by a three digit number. They are mostly unavoidable, and are not directly linked to illnesses, but it’s useful to register their presence when you read the label.

14) Food colouring: Almost all food colouring is found to have been derived from coal tar and contains lead and arsenic, which can potentially cause cancer.

So, no, there are no unicorns in your per-packaged breakfast. But the age of ignorance is now over and it’s time we level up with that label.

Next time you go to the grocery store, flip the product over, read that label, and put it back on the shelf if you sense a ploy. Avoid buying products that have a shelf life of more than 45 days, because longer the shelf-life, more is the processing that goes into it. This means that you have to adapt your food habits in such a way that you buy fresh, whole foods and consume it immediately without getting into the habit of storing away food for long periods of time.

Even better, grow your own food right in your garden, and you’ll never have to worry about being duped again.

This article was originally published on The Alternative, an online magazine on sustainable living and social impact.