Diwali Celebration: How Safe Are Store-Bought Sweets?

Dr. Saurabh Arora, Founder of Food Safety Helpline  |  Updated: July 13, 2017 13:47 IST

Diwali Celebration: How Safe Are Store-Bought Sweets?
With Diwali knocking at our door, it's time to get festive again. A great time to catch up with friends and family, Diwali is synonymous with firecrackers and delicious food. No festival is complete without sweets and snacks, they are one of the most celebrated gifts and also a great way to welcome guests at home.

You'll find most numerous 'mithai shops' all decked up with their special preparations. There is so much variety with traditional sweets, modern snacks and fusion desserts that one could spend the whole day picking the perfect treat. But before you head out, you should be aware about what's happening behind the scenes. The bulk preparation of sweets to meet the increasing demand during the festive season may lead to compromising on quality through adulteration. This tends to reduce the cost of production and give it a finer appearance without much effort.

You need to be careful while buying, eating and distributing food items during Diwali as the issue of adulteration increases manifold during this festive time.

The Issue of Adulteration

The problem of food adulteration is so acute that 1 in 5 food items fail quality checks (Herald, Panjim, 28.07.2015). Adulteration can be intentional, where substandard substances are added to the food or valuable substances are removed for economic gains. It can also be unintentional, due to carelessness or negligence. In either case, it can cause serious health hazards to the consumers. In spite of the provision of severe punishments for the culprits, it has been reported from states like Tamil Nadu that only about 16% of adulterers actually get convicted. Even home-made food must be made from raw materials purchased from reliable retailers, in order to avoid adulteration. Ready-made food items should ideally be branded, which will guarantee the best quality and standards of the food items being bought. We should also check for the best before/expiry date, the batch/lot number, as well as the FSSAI logo and license number on the packs.
Simple Tests to Check for Adulteration
Food items and raw materials can be adulterated by various substances that are cheaper, have a lower nutrient content and can even be toxic. There are many examples, some of which have been briefly discussed below.

Milk: This is an essential component of various sweet dish preparations. Milk can easily be adulterated by simply adding water to it. While this is not harmful to the consumer, it definitely lowers the nutrient content of the milk, and is likely to alter the quality of the sweets that are prepared with it. This type of adulterated milk can easily be tested by placing a drop of milk on a polished slanting surface; the diluted milk glides down quickly, while the pure milk glides down slowly, leaving a white trail behind.

Khoya and Chhena: These are commonly used for the preparation of traditional Diwali sweets, and are often adulterated with starch. All you need to do is boil a small sample in water, cool it then add a few drops of iodine solution. A blue color indicates the presence of starch.

Paneer: This is often used in popular Diwali main course preparations like Paneer Butter Masala, Shahi Paneer, Kadai Paneer and Paneer Tikka Masala. The above-mentioned iodine test is valid for paneer too.

Silver Coating or Vark: Silver coating (vark) used to decorate sweets is made from silver. According to Indian regulations, silver must be 99.9 per cent pure if it is used as a food ingredient. However, with silver becoming expensive many sweet shop owners use silver vark that could contain aluminium. If you like to buy sweets with silver vark then you should know how to differentiate between pure silver foil and an adulterated one.  Silver vark is very fine and so it will disintegrate when rubbed between the fingers. Alloy of aluminium is not that fine and if you rub that between the fingers it will roll up into a ball.  Also, the adulterated silver foil will not spread out so smoothly but tends to break.

Ghee and Vanaspati: Vanaspati is any refined edible vegetable oil that has undergone the process of hydrogenation. It can be laced with extracts from animal fat or cotton seed and palm oil. Since oil is used to make almost every sweet and savoury product it could lead to intestine related problems. Using adulterated oil regularly can also lead to high cholesterol levels. Ghee can be adulterated if it contains animal fat which increases the risk serum cholesterol and triglycerides levels. To detect adulteration in ghee you have to carry out either a Furfural test or Baudoduim test. However, a simple home test can tell you if ghee or vanaspati is adulterated. Add a little sugar and some hydrochloric acid to ghee and vanaspati. If it turns crimson it means it is adulterated.

Chocolates could contain starch: Since adulteration of sweets and milk products is so rampant, consumers have changed their gifting preferences and might opt for chocolates. However, some retailers may sell fake chocolates which have starch mixed in the cocoa and could also have low quality sugar. Starch in the form of flours from potatoes, arrowroot, rice, sago, and wheat is used to increase the weight of cocoa. Chocolates can be tested for starch adulteration by adding water. If the chocolate becomes grainy and breaks it is sub-standard.

Flour: Flours are used to make sweets, savouries and bakery products. They are generally mixed with cheaper flours or substances that increase the weight of the flours like plaster of Paris, sawdust, clay, chalk and starch. Alum may be added to it to give it a better appearance. Kesari is a hardy crop that grows in dry and arid places and is used to mix with Bengal gram(besan). Never buy flour which is sold lose as it could contain adulterants. To detect starch in flours you can add a few drops of tincture iodine or iodine solution. If it has starch it will turn blue.

Artificial colours: Metanil Yellow and Tartrazine are colours that are not permitted for use in foods. However, besan is often coloured with metanil yellow to give it an appealing look. Tartrazine is used in ghee to make it look like a pure cow's ghee. Non-permitted colours are harmful for the central nervous system when consumed regularly.

Sugar:Powdered sugar can be mixed with powdered chalk, washing soda or white sand.  Cane sugar might be substituted with saccharin or semolina. Since sugar dissolves in water, testing it is easy. Pure sugar will dissolve in water and the adulterants will settle at the bottom. You could also add a few drops of hydrochloric acid to sugar. If it contains washing soda it will bubble or cause a fizz.

Besides common food items used during Diwali, some common ingredients can also be adulterated.

Chilli Powder: It might be surprising, but chilli powder can be mixed with powdered brick! You can test for this type of adulteration by taking a teaspoon of chilli powder and mixing in a glass of water. If it leaches color into the water, it is adulterated with powdered brick.

Coriander Powder: This is sometimes mixed with powdered bran and sawdust. This can be tested by just sprinkling some of it on water; the adulterants will float on the water.

Cumin Seeds: Grass seeds coloured with charcoal dust are made to pass as cumin seeds. Simply rub them in your palm. If it turns black, it indicates adulteration.

Pepper: This spice can also be adulterated by grinding it with papaya seeds. Whole pepper is mixed with papaya seeds which are very similar in size and colour but are relatively tasteless once dried. This can be tested by taking a small sample of peppercorns and dropping them into a glass of water.  The peppercorns will drop to the bottom and the papaya seeds will float.  For ground pepper, the test is similar.

Observing proper food safety & hygiene is of the utmost importance. This is especially true for confectioners who prepare traditional sweets and namkeen items.These food business operators (FBOs) must ensure that the food being distributed from their outlets is prepared and stored in a clean and hygienic environment. They should ensure that sweet and savory dishes are prepared separately in order to prevent unwanted mix-up.

CommentsConfectioners should preferably wear an apron at all times, when in the food preparation area. The personnel who serve should wear clean clothes and plastic disposable gloves. The cooks should have their hair properly trimmed and nails clipped short and clean. They should wash their hands before food preparation. Diwali is a time to be happy and joyful. It’s not a time when you’d want to be bed ridden, particularly from avoidable causes such as food poisoning. I am not asking you ditch your favourite treats but just to be a little more cautious with store-bought items.

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