Junk food vs samosa

Junk food vs samosa

Why Indian traditional food items and snacks score over a pack of chips or instant noodles even if they have similar levels of fats, salt and sugar

Why Indian traditional food items and snacks score over a pack of chips or instant noodles even if they have similar levels of fats, salt and sugar

In November this year, Brazil released its second edition of national dietary guidelines. These are being termed as simple, holistic and are expected to be very effective. The guidelines stand out in multiple ways, particularly in how it defines and characterises foods that are “ultra-processed” and links their consumption with ill health of people and the environment. 

With a simple and powerful message—avoid ultra-processed foods such as packaged snacks, soft drinks, instant noodles, sweetened juices, energy drinks, pre-pared pizza and burgers— it aims to address the growing public health crisis of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases.

The message is relevant universally but crucial to the Indian context. Both Brazil and India are developing nations with similar transition in dietary habits. Commonly available branded junk foods or “ultra-processed” foods, as they have been defined, are increasingly contributing to total energy intake. But these are yet to become a part of our food system, unlike in certain developed countries of the West. So, there still is a chance to control this menace.

Categories of foods

On this count, the Indian national dietary guidelines, developed in 2011, are not entirely off the mark. They, too, recommend minimising use of processed foods as they are rich in fats, salt, sugar and preservatives and are unhealthy. What merits a keen look at the Brazilian guidelines is the way all foods are classified into four categories based on the type of processing involved. A classification, if applied to the Indian context, helps understand how Indian traditional food items or snacks such as a samosa or chilla are different and score better than a pack of chips or instant noodles even in a situation with similar levels of fat, salt and sugar. It enables better differentiation as one is a culinary preparation and the other is an industrial formulation of several ingredients, including chemical additives. Let us see how.

On one extreme of the classification lie natural or minimally processed foods, wherein natural foods are those obtained directly from plants or animals and do not undergo any alteration following their removal from nature. Minimally processed foods, on the other hand, are natural foods that have been submitted to certain processes, such as cleaning, removal of inedible or unwanted parts, grinding, drying, fermentation, pasteurization, cooling and freezing. There is no addition of oils, fats, sugar, salt or other substances to the original food. The guidelines recommend natural or minimally processed foods should be the basis of diet.  Examples of such foods include natural, packaged, cut, chilled or frozen vegetables, fruits, potatoes; packaged white, parboiled and wholegrain rice; and pasteurized milk.

The second category is oils, fats, salt and sugar. These are products extracted from natural foods by processes such as pressing, grinding, crushing, pulverizing and refining. This type of food items are used in homes and restaurants to season and cook food and rarely consumed alone. These are suggested to be used in small amounts.

Processed foods—the third category—are characterised as products manufactured by industry with the use of salt, sugar, oil or other substances added to natural or minimally processed foods to preserve or to make them more palatable. These are derived directly from foods and recognised as versions of the original foods. These are usually consumed as a part of or as a side dish in culinary preparations made using natural or minimally processed foods. Limited consumption of such foods is advised. Pickles, cheeses, tomato extract or concentrate with salt/sugar; salted, smoked or cured meat and fish are some examples.

Ultra-processed foods are at the other end of this classification. Recommended to be avoided, these  are defined as industrial formulations made entirely or mostly from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesised in laboratories from food substrates or other organic sources (flavour enhancers, colours, and several food additives used to make the product hyper-palatable). Manufacturing techniques include extrusion, moulding, and pre-processing by means of frying. Examples are salty packaged snacks, biscuits, ice-creams, candies, soft drinks, sweetened juices, energy drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, instant soups and noodles and pre-prepared meat, fish, vegetables, pizza, pasta dishes and burgers.

Spot the ultra-processed foods

Interestingly, a practical way of distinguishing ultra-processed foods is a high number and presence of ingredients which are otherwise not used in culinary preparations. Such ingredients include fructose syrup, protein isolates, bulking agents, thickeners, emulsifiers, colorants, flavour enhancers. Along with the manufacturing techniques, these are largely exclusive to industrial use and not used in kitchens.

That most ultra-processed foods or junk foods are high in salt, sugar and fat to make them last long and hyper-palatable is known to many. Salt is necessary for preservation, intensifying taste, disguise unpleasant flavours imparted by chemical additives and processing techniques. Higher levels of saturated and hydrogenated fats resist oxidation and decay. However, characteristics that are typical to such foods and also help distinguish them from fresh and traditional preparations, such as a plate of chana bhatura or pakoras, include low levels or absence of dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals in their most natural form and presence of chemical additives.

Invasive food

On top of this, the production, distribution, marketing and consumption of ultra-processed foods are recognised to impact culture, social life and the environment. One does not get to see samosa being aggressively marketed by a film star or a sports person to lure a child for compulsive purchasing. It is also not about mindless eating in isolated situations which is linked with ready-to-consume packaged food, most often available in large portions. Preparation of chana bhatura does not create monocultures with farms producing few key raw materials—not for local consumption but for export to distant places. Moreover, intensive farming harms biodiversity.

Fresh and traditional preparations give the option of further “greening”. Samosa or tikki can have peas and chana bhatura can be cooked in an oil of choice. What possibly could not be offered by these preparations are liquid calories mixed with several chemicals. Yes, I am talking about soft drinks!

Down To Earth