How India’s become a junkyard for junk food

Big brands such as Nestlé are able to get away only because of their deft circumventing of prescribed norms.

A joke doing the rounds on the internet goes something like this: A friend came home saying he is hungry. I said, “Two minutes”. He vanished. I think this summarises the entire controversy, the reactions and the brouhaha over the recent findings that the popular “two minute” instant noodle, Maggi, is laden with an abnormally high content of MSG and lead that is injurious to health.


I cannot say that I have not enjoyed a dish of Maggi noodles at some point in my life or that I did not receive that instant gratification when I consumed it. The iconic brand, which has been an integral part of our childhood, has been a vital part of our lives in ways more than one. For many, it was a confirmation of the fact that one could “cook” and for others it was a convenient recipe to rustle up when hungry and in need of quick food. Mothers were happy that they had something in their kitchen cabinets that they could serve to their fussy children in just two minutes when they came back ravenous from school or play.

That it was manufactured by a reputed MNC called Nestlé removed all doubts that we may have had in our minds about it being unhealthy. So, it was good, we loved it and we believed in it. Why? Because of the detailed nutritional chart printed on the reverse of that fancy pack? It is precisely for this reason that reports confirming a high lead and MSG content in this iconic product has come as a rude shock to all of us. It almost seems like a betrayal of trust. Since this controversy has broken out, I have been doing a bit of research of my own and have found that this is not a case in isolation.

A short while ago, Sunita Narain, who heads the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had raised questions regarding the objectionably high content of pesticides in Pepsi and Coca Cola. She had alleged the cola majors were flouting BIS standards on the strength of powerful lobbies, brand value and humungous advertising budgets. While surfing YouTube, I saw videos where colas were allegedly used to clean and shine rusted chrome plated car bumpers and as an effective spray on pest-infested crops.

Such videos are not scientific proof but it should make us investigate further as to the content of these cola drinks. Health drinks too have come under scrutiny for non-disclosure of contents. While the popular health drink for children, Bournvita, was being sold in India as a vitamin enriched nutrient, the advertisements for the same drink abroad, labelled it a “good night” drink. It is the same with many branded chocolates that are sold in India. Studies have confirmed an unusually high content of vegetable oil in them that could have seriously damaging repercussions on our health. It has been also observed that these big brands are able to get away with this only because of their deft circumventing of prescribed norms and that it might be a good idea to check whether if “chocolate” is mentioned as an ingredient anywhere on the pack or not!


The list is endless and one would be shocked to realise that so many food items that we consume mindlessly are loaded with ingredients that can be termed injurious to health. Refined grains commonly found in breads, pastas, cakes, biscuits, breakfast cereals and snack foods are stripped of their fibre content that can lead to weight gain, diabetes and hypertension.

Antioxidant preservatives like BHA and BHT that are used to keep potato chips, chewing gum, cereals from going rancid are carcinogenic. They are known to impact appetite and sleep negatively, can damage the kidneys and liver and cause hair loss. Sodium nitrate that is used to enhance the shelf life of packaged and cured meats can also play havoc with one’s brain, stomach and bladder, while artificial colouring agents and emulsifiers can cause inflammation of the intestines and even cancer. MSG, the taste enhancer in Chinese food, potato chips, salty snacks and frozen foods causes headaches, chest pain and high blood pressure.

Whew! Isn’t that shocking? The need of the hour is to ensure consumer awareness as well as consumer protection is increased and stringent laws are enacted to ensure food safety norms are not flouted with impunity.


The BIS and the FSSAI need to be empowered to enforce strict approval, licensing, quality and product recall procedures and India must put in place a system of class action law suits. All consumer complaints could be clubbed together by the government to battle these giant multinationals in order to protect the solitary consumer from fighting a losing and prolonged battle against the highfalutin law firms employed by the MNCs.

It may be interesting to note that product testing budgets of the MNCs are less than five per cent of their overall budgets for advertising, brand building and sales promotion.

We, a country of a population in excess of 1.25 billion, are a greedy and easy market for these multinationals, who must not be allowed to be treat Indian as a dumping ground. I do hope this issue is not blown out of proportion. It must not be exploited by vested interests of certain rabid national organisations to drive the MNCs out of India, as was observed in 1977. Not only will that send alarming signals to the world, it may also prove to be a dampener for the ambitious Make in India campaign initiated by PM Modi.

The brouhaha, the media frenzy and the banning of these addictive “two minute instant noodles” has ensured for now that Maggi, has been laid to rest, and it may not be a bad idea if we were to observe a “two minute” silence in its memory. RIP, Maggi. You were good. Not anymore. – Courtesy Daily O

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