There’s a reason why India has an alarmingly high rate of acquisition of diseases of affluence. Diabetes, heart problems, obesity—all problems that were alien to us have become an inseparable part of our lives. Worse, in a country with a majority of the population young (i.e., under 35) these ailments continue to spread their web, implying that we’re falling prey early.
It comes down to the way we see food socially. The French consider it an art form; for Italians it’s the familial ointment; the Chinese—when meaning to query how are you—ask ‘Have you eaten?’, and nobody obsesses over nutritional values and dietary charts like the Americans. But what about Indians? The urban Indian millennials are only the second generation, which hasn’t seen a shortage of food, growing up in multi-cuisine environments with wastage rampant. For us, abundance is a sign of good health.
For long, the newly-independent country struggled to feed its millions. And today, to see food aplenty on our tables is indication that we are doing well. Weddings must have long buffets, and you aren't grateful if you don’t stuff yourself like a goose. In all our modern ways, we laud supermarkets, off-season fruits and packaged foods.
But in our effort to emulate the West, utterly wrong to begin with, we’ve missed one major detail. As Indians, we’re inherently not used to reading the back label. We’re too naive to imagine that there could be a multinational corporate out there poisoning us. The FSSAI was set up with this in mind, to ensure that such practices don’t slip past the system, but as consumers, we remain oblivious to such risks. Amul recently drew our attention to the fact that most of what is peddled as ice cream is ‘frozen dessert’, containing more vegetable fat than dairy fat, the latter being five times dearer. Abroad, the consumer is educated to make healthier choices, especially since the state is footing their medical bills. In India, while that may not be the case, it’s still not a good idea to ingest junk.
So the next time you see ‘organic’ or ‘'biodynamic’ on the label, ask for certification and verify the source. Ask your butcher where your meat comes from. Or the fish—prefer small catches to commercial long-line. Don’t blindly trust words such as natural, handmade, crafted, artisan, or small-batch. Ask about provenance and veracity.
The GI system was put in place to preserve the identity of products ranging from Kanjeevaram saris to Goan feni but it’s far from perfect. We need more such laws but meanwhile the consumer would do well to show awareness.
I’m not saying that all producers are scoundrels. There are many who aim to leave behind a better world for future generations, doing their bit to preserve and ameliorate. Nevertheless, caveat emptor. The next time you’re out buying, disregard the verbose packaging, flip it around and read what exactly you’re shoving down your gullet. That then will be the first day of your healthier lifestyle.
The writer is a sommelier.