Have you ever walked into a mithai shop and just stared at all the brightly coloured sweets? Or tucked into Indian Chinese street food with the eye-popping orange and red sauces? I know I did as a kid, at least once a week. I ate quite a lot as well which, needless to say, led to my being a pretty chubby child. Thankfully, I managed to lose all the excess weight, and now watch my diet very carefully.
However, obesity is not the only problem associated with such bright and ‘attractive’ treats. There’s a pretty grim reality behind the appetizing colours that used to make kids like me stand and salivate. A 2003 study published in the Archive of Disease in Childhood linked the consumption of artificially coloured food with an adverse effect on the behaviour of three-year-old children.
Sunset Yellow (E110) is an azo dye, used in sweets, beverages, ice cream, etc. A 2015 study on it published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health stressed the need to assess the potentially hazardous effects of azo dyes on humans.
Tartrazine (E102) is also a synthetic dye that is permitted to be used in India. A 2013 study on mice conducted by the Department of Zoology, Gorakhpur University observed tremors, convulsions, diarrhoea, food avoidance, sluggishness and abnormal gait in albino mice subjected to non-lethal doses of tartrazine. It also observed that tartrazine appeared to cause the maximum allergic and intolerance reactions amongst all azo dyes, particularly among asthmatics and those allergic to aspirin. According to a study by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, some food dyes, including tartrazine were originally synthesized from coal tar, but are now made using petroleum. A paper published in the Journal of the Manmohan Institute of Health Sciences noted that in 1978, Norway banned all food products containing coal tar and coal tar derivatives. However, this ban was lifted in 2001, pursuant to new EU regulations.
A 2008 study, published in the American Journal of Food Technology compared the presence of potentially hazardous colours in sauces used in street food joints in Lucknow, with their branded counterparts. The study concluded that dyes such as Amaranth (E123), sunset yellow and tartrazine were present in the vast majority of samples of sauces taken from street food joints. If the findings of this study are applied on a national scale, it presents a potentially massive unregulated food toxicity problem. India is famous for its street food and millions of people eat these sauces every day. Street food vendors are not regulated adequately for controlled addition of artificial colours, flavours or indeed, any additive at all. A study published in the Journal of Pioneering Medical Sciences noted that the use of Amaranth has been banned in the United States since 1976. The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 2005, specifically prohibits the use of synthetic colours in tomato sauce. This is because there is a tendency to use cheaper vegetable ingredients instead of tomatoes, and then add colour to hide this.
I still love mithai and Indian Chinese, and I have absolutely no intention of completely giving up either. However, I do take a few simple precautions. If I want mithai, I get it from a reputable mithai shop chain, rather than the small shop next door. Even then, I give the coloured stuff a miss. There’s enough of the good stuff (gulab jamuns and ras malai come to mind) that isn’t artificially coloured. The same thing goes for ‘Chinese’ food as well. Having said all that, I don’t recommend eating either of them more than once a week. Save the sugar bombs for that cheat day.