From idlis, dosas, pav bhaji, aaloo chole, navratan korma and vegetable biryani to chicken curry—grocery stores and supermarkets are full of packed foods. Store-owners say that the sale of such items, also known as convenience food, has increased considerably over the past few years. But how healthy are they?
Dr Rekha Sharma, former president of the Indian Dietetic Association, says having such food is convenient but it is not at all healthy. “Ready-to-eat meals are full of salt, trans-fat and colours, which can cause problems related to blood pressure, heart and kidneys. Overdependence on such food items, particularly among youngsters and working couples, can prove disastrous,” she said.
According to Swati Bhardwaj, senior research officer at Diabetes Foundation of India, packaged consumer foods use high salt and fat content for long-term preservation. She added that the preservatives make the food unfit for consumption specifically for a population heading towards non-communicable diseases (obesity, diabetes, heart diseases). “If one has to have such meals, it is better to opt for foods which have a lower fat content and contain fewer calories. Steamed, baked, roasted items usually have a lower fat content than fried foods. Adding green salad and fruits to the menu can also help,” she said.
Excess salt, a major component and preservative used in ready-to-eat-meals, is a known cause of high blood pressure. It is the cause for 57% of heart attacks and 40% of stroke cases, says the World Health Organization. “A small amount of salt on a daily basis—WHO recommends less than 5 grams per day per person—is essential for nerve and muscle function. But in India people consume eight to nine grams of salt daily,” a senior health official said.
Use of phosphate as food additive and preservative is another concern. Nutritionists say phosphate occurs naturally in the form of organic esters in many foods including meat, potatoes and bread. “Natural phosphate is organically bound and only 40% to 60% of it is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract. But the additive phosphate, which is not organically bound, is very effectively absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract thus causing health problems,” said a senior doctor.
“Food additives, colors, preservatives and environmental pollution are likely to be contributory factors for kidney diseases especially in young persons with unexplained kidney failure,” said Dr R P Mathur, senior consultant and head of the department of nephrology and renal transplant services at the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, Vasant Kunj.