POST TIME: 22 November, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 22 November, 2019 12:34:56 AM
Health hazards with adulterated spices: Save the ‘onion tears’
Large food manufacturers use sophisticated technology that can compare the smells and tastes of various samples to detect possible adulteration
Abdul Kader Mohiuddin

Health hazards with adulterated spices: Save the ‘onion tears’

Spices are among the top five most commonly adulterated food types because they are expensive commodities that are processed prior to sale, used most frequently and consumed by mass population. In Bangladesh, different types of grounded spices powders are available like onion, ginger, coriander, chilli, turmeric, cumin, etc. These powdered spices are commercially processed and packaged by some leading food industries, while some local non-branded industries also exist. Nowadays, people are busy with their carriers, the demand of branded spices powder is increasing gradually. The escalating market of this product implies that in Bangladesh this tradition is increasingly attaining momentum. Although there are few renowned food industries, people are always suspicious about these products. But there are still not enough investigations for the quality check of all these branded powdered products.

Among a database of more than 1000 records of food adulteration worldwide between 1980 and 2010, more than 10 per cent of scholarly articles and nearly 90 per cent of media reports related to spices, many featured toxic synthetic chemical dyes of similar chemical structure. Looking at the past 10 years of data for herbs/spices, chilli powder, turmeric, and saffron have the highest number of fraud records and chilli powder, turmeric, and paprika (spices to be powdered for cooking) have the highest number of distinct adulterants associated with them. Adulterated spices are not very different in appearance as compared to a batch of unadulterated spices. This makes it difficult for us consumers to make an informed decision when purchasing the spices. Large food manufacturers use sophisticated technology that can compare the smells and tastes of various samples to detect possible adulteration. When buying spices loose, however, the possibility of adulteration is much higher.

If “onion prices falling tears”, we have to save tears for other adulterated spices. The problem is not only ignoring the human rights for safer food but also endangering public health seriously with numerous acute and chronic diseases. A recent study by Open Journal of Safety Science and Technology, 2019 on consumer perception towards quality of spices powder available in Bangladesh shows that more than 90 per cent  people believed that the spices powders are not of good quality. People also think that these adulterated spices powder may also be responsible for different types of diseases including cancer, chronic nephritis, high blood pressure, headache, intestinal problem, allergy, etc. The addition of wheat flour to powdered ginger with enough capsicum to restore the pungency and enough curcuma to maintain the natural colour is a typical example of intentional adulteration. Cinnamon is at very high risk of fraudulent adulteration, substitution and dilution due to high price. Cassia, a low-grade cinnamon like bark which is toxic also, imported from China is cunningly added and mixed to cinnamon bulk. Green cardamom pods are often adulterated with “used” cardamom pods, or ones from which volatile oils have already been extracted. Candied corn silk and coloured plastic often make their way into dainty boxes of saffron. This is also known as sophistication, which means no stone is left untouched to produce a food item which would probably look even better than a naturally grown/produced food and food products.    

According to American Spice Trade Association (ASTA) and Indian Institute of Spice Research (IISR), different adulterants are used in spices to make them cheaper than original one likely colour, starch of maize, wheat, tapioca and rice in turmeric, chilli and curry powder; brick powder grit, sand, dirt and filth in chilli powder; dung powder and common salt in coriander powder. Besides these different foreign seed powder, colour, floral waste, leaves, husks, sudan red might also have used to make spices powder adulterated. So, consumer perception may be true in case of addition of suspected adulterants.

March, 2019 issue of the European Journal of Sustainable Development Research pointed several food contamination and adulteration issues of Bangladesh. The study revealed intentional addition of brick dusts and artificial colours (in mixed spices, turmeric, cumin and chilli powders); dust from outer layer of rice (in mixed spices and coriander powder) and papaya seeds in pepper. Brick dust and saw dust causes respiratory problems. Coal tar and industrial Dyes in powdered spices are carcinogenic (causes cancer upon long-term exposure), especially Metanil Yellow Aniline dyes in turmeric powder. In September 2013, the US FDA announced voluntary recall by distributors of “PRAN” brand turmeric powder, a Bangladeshi company, due to elevated levels of lead.

Additional studies identified the presence of contaminated spices originating from India and Bangladesh in markets in Boston, MA. The FDA has released detailed import alerts for lead-adulterated turmeric, naming importing companies and the country of origin. All are from Bangladesh and India.

Uptake of lead from soil into the turmeric is a possible, but unlikely, source of contamination, as previous researchers estimate the maximum uptake of lead into the root of the plant to be approximately 10 per cent. Very recently, researchers of Stanford University, California and ICDDR, B exposed the nefarious act of yellow pigment (lead chromate) adulteration to enhance brightness in seven out of the nine major turmeric-producing districts.

Turmeric lead and chromium concentrations were the highest in Dhaka and Munshiganj districts. Analysing soil samples and gathering interviews with farmers and spice makers, researchers have found lead levels in turmeric that exceed national limits by up to 500-fold. "Unlike other metals, there is no safe consumption limit for lead, it's a neurotoxin in its totality," said the papers' senior author Stephen Luby, professor of medicine and the director of research for Stanford's Centre for Innovation in Global Health. "We cannot console ourselves proposing that if the contamination were down to such and such level, it would have been safe." The relevant policymakers do need to look into the issue seriously, if they are really interested to prevent health hazards from contamination and adulteration. A robust surveillance is necessary for assessing marketed food items in Bangladesh, prompt notification of public health emergency and a year round campaign against notorious daredevils.

The writer is Secretary and Treasurer, Dr. M. Nasirullah Memorial Trust, Dhaka E-mail: [email protected]