‘Fake masala’ seized: 6 harmful effects of food adulteration

Contaminated spices were seized in Delhi earlier this month. Consumption of adulterated food is linked to health problems. We tell you the harmful effects of food adulteration.
Food adulteration in Indian spices
Food adulteration is harmful for your health. Image courtesy: Freepik
Natalia Ningthoujam Updated: 9 May 2024, 18:17 pm IST
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Around 15 tonnes of adulterated Indian masala or spices were seized in Indian capital New Delhi recently. Rotten leaves and rice, acids, spoiled millets, wood dust, and chilli heads were reportedly used to make “fake masala”. This put the spotlight on the safety of the food we consume. Adding impurities or substances of poor quality to food items is known as food adulteration. Adulteration not only undermines consumer trust in food products, but also poses a serious threat to our health. Read on to know the harmful effects of food adulteration.

What is food adulteration?

Food adulteration refers to the practice of intentionally debasing the quality of food by either adding inferior substances or removing valuable ingredients without the consumer’s knowledge, explains nutritionist Ramya B. This deceitful act is usually done to increase the quantity or make the product appear of higher quality than it actually is.

Food adulteration in almond milk
Your milk may be adulterated. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

What are the methods of food adulteration?

Food adulteration can occur through various methods aimed at deceiving consumers or maximising profits for unscrupulous producers. Common methods are of food adulteration include:

1. Addition of foreign substances

This involves adding cheaper or harmful substances to food to increase its bulk or weight. For example, adding water to milk, chalk powder to flour, or artificial colours to spices.

2. Removal of nutrients

This method involves removing valuable components from food to reduce its quality. For instance, removing cream from milk to produce skimmed milk, or removing essential oils from spices, says the expert.

3. Use of unsafe chemicals

Sometimes, harmful chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers are used in food products. These are done to increase shelf life or enhance appearance.

4. Substitution

Some manufacturers replace expensive or high-quality ingredients with cheaper alternatives. For example, instead of using olive oil, cheaper vegetable oils are included. Low-grade meat are also used in processed foods at times.

5. Food contamination

During processing or handling food products, contaminants like microbes, toxins, or heavy metals are introduced. This can be intentional or unintentional.

6. Artificial ripening

The ripening process of fruits is accelerated by using chemicals like calcium carbide. Ethylene sprays are used in ripening bananas, says the expert.

What are the harmful effects of food adulteration?

Unsafe food and water are linked to the deaths of around two million people in a year, according to the World Health Organization. Here are some dangers of food adulteration:

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1. Food poisoning

The presence of harmful chemicals, contaminants, or adulterants like lead, pesticides, or artificial colours can lead to health problems such as food poisoning. You may experience an upset stomach, and vomiting within hours of eating adulterated food.

Woman with diarrhea due to food adulteration
Food adulteration may lead to food poisoning. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

2. Cancer

Consuming fruits adulterated with ripening agents have the potential to cause cancer. Uterine cancer, and exhaustion were found to be associated with the consumption of growth hormones, as per a research published in the Foods journal in 2023.

3. Nutritional deficiencies

Adulterants used to dilute or replace nutritious components in food can lead to nutritional deficiencies. For instance, substituting pure cooking oil with adulterated or low-quality oil deprives people of essential nutrients, leading to health problems like vitamin deficiencies or malnutrition, says Ramya.

4. Increased disease risk

Adulteration can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens or contaminants. Contaminated or adulterated food can attract bacteria, viruses, or parasites that cause foodborne diseases such as salmonella, E. coli infections, or parasitic infections.

5. Allergic reactions

Adulterants like artificial colours, flavours, or hidden allergens can trigger allergic reactions in susceptible people. Mislabelling or undisclosed ingredients can lead to severe allergic reactions in people with food allergies or sensitivities. Symptoms may include skin rashes, itching, swelling of the lips or tongue, and difficulty in breathing.

6. Respiratory issues

Inhaling or ingesting certain adulterants like dust, contaminants, or chemicals can cause respiratory issues. You may end up with wheezing, shortness of breath, or irritation of the respiratory tract.

What to do if you get sick due to food adulteration?

If you suspect that you have become sick due to food adulteration, it is important to take the following steps:

1. Seek medical attention

If you experience symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, difficulty in breathing, or any other unusual symptoms after consuming food, seek medical attention immediately. Contact your doctor or go to the nearest hospital or clinic for evaluation and treatment. Do not try own medication and home remedies.

2. Stay hydrated

If you are experiencing vomiting or diarrhea, it is important to stay hydrated. Drink fluids to replenish the lost electrolytes, suggests the expert. Avoid beverages that can further irritate your stomach, such as caffeinated drinks or alcohol.

3. Follow medical advice

Follow the treatment and advice provided by your doctor. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may need medications to alleviate symptoms, intravenous fluids for hydration.

Identifying adulterated food items can be challenging because adulterants are often hidden and not easily detectable through ordinary observation. Just ensure that you get food products from reputable suppliers.

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About the Author

Natalia Ningthoujam has written on various subjects - from music to films and fashion to lifestyle - as a journalist in her career that started in 2010. After getting stories from the crime scene, police headquarters, and conducting interviews with celebrities, she is now writing on health and wellness which has become her focus area. ...Read More

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