If the revenue figures from the sales of convenience foods are any indication, it is clear that Indians have taken to such foods in a big way.
Revenue in the 'convenience food' segment in India amounts to US $64.78 billion in 2023 and the market is expected to grow annually close to 9 percent.
Convenience food, as the name suggests, is food associated with great ease of consumption, such as food is available off the shelf and is usually ready to eat without much further preparation.
Generally processed to tertiary levels for long shelf life, many ingredients like salt, sugar, or saturated fats are added to make convenience food more palatable, but often in quantities that far exceed the recommended daily allowance.
And with time, convenience foods have become the way to go for people who cannot spend much time in food preparation because of their rushed lifestyle as well as for people with little to no culinary skills.
An Epidemic of Obesity
Though undoubtedly very convenient, most of these foods are downright unhealthy.
There is emerging evidence that increasing cases of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease) parallel the increasing availability and consumption of fast food in India.
These diseases were virtually unknown before the advent of the multinational fast-food chains in India. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that any thing that is processed, preserved, and packed is not healthy.
Most packaged foods have colours and chemical preservatives besides excess salt. At least some of these have been shown to be potentially carcinogenic.
Several of these packages are lined with Per Fluorinated Compounds (PFC) or their variants which, when heated, release chemicals that can cause cancer.
Most fast foods in India available today originated in the western food culture, which in any case is not well suited for the Indian body and genetic composition.
Excess Salt Intake & Excess Health Problems
Unfortunately, foods supposed to be had as a one-time snack have been adopted by many as mainstream food for daily consumption, thanks to advertising gimmicks labelling them as ‘fat-free‘, ‘low fat’, or ‘low calorie’, which in most cases do not stand scientific scrutiny.
For instance, baked beans are projected as healthy. But did you know...
A 400 g tin of baked beans was found to contain 20 g sugar and a good deal of salt, while soup powders, pickles, and most of the other ready-to-eat processed foods are loaded with salt to extend their shelf life.
This eventually leads to a level of salt intake that is far in excess of the recommended allowance of 2400 mg per day and is associated with diseases like high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, and even stomach cancer.
Reports also suggest that due to a laxity in implementation of labelling laws in India, which in any case are ambiguous, major multinational food chains often get away with not disclosing the ingredients of the food they manufacture and whether they are conforming to the stipulated guidelines.
What's The Way Out?
In some cases, the integrity of the product itself is in doubt.
For example, instead of cheese what some chains supply is a mix of oil and emulsified mayonnaise, which only appears cheesy but actually is fake cheese with no dairy.
Not only that, in India, the quantity of sugar, salt, and saturated fats, as additives, is far in excess of what is supplied in the same products internationally, by these so-called renowned chains.
Several of these self-service restaurants do not have a clearly visible access to safe drinking water, forcing people to order high-sugar carbonated drinks.
The million dollar question then is what is the way out.
A one-line answer could be “Shun these foods.” Do not succumb to social media propagated food fads.
This however, is easier said than done. Suffice to say that such foods should be used very sparingly and only if there are no other options left for example in an emergency or when one is travelling.
Locally Sourced Food For The Win
The answer to a healthy life lies in home cooked food with locally sourced ingredients.
In India, this may be dal chawal, idli sambar, or roti subzi, fish and rice, etc depending on the region. These foods compliment the local weather conditions.
Our traditional foods cooked in well-established traditions are most suited for us. Our spices and condiments like turmeric, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander seeds, etc have disease fighting properties as they are rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal substances.
Similarly, pure desi ghee provides us with the much needed balanced fatty acids and medium chain triglycerides. Ghee is rich in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and Omega 3 fatty acids, both of which help fight obesity.
So turns out, the way to go is to consume what your grandmother considered as healthy food.
(Dr Ashwini Setya is the Adjunct Professor in Gastroenterology, ESIC Medical College, Faridabad, and Senior Consultant with Medanta Institute of Digestive & Hepatobiliary Sciences, New Delhi. Dr Setya is also an advisor and consultant in Medical Law and Ethics. He can be reached at email@example.com. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)