Doctors, stunned by the increase in patients with gastro or digestive-system linked cancers, are suggesting the need to do away with sugar—and breakfast cereals
Over the last few years, an amazing and visible change has taken place in India, and that has to do with the easy availability of such processed and manufactured foods as well as the ailments which follow, with digestive and gastro issues taking pole position. Certainly, low sanitation has one part to play with this, especially the quality of water we drink. But more importantly, it is the rapid change in dietary habits in urban India which is a major change in the reasons behind medical issues, and only one of the areas where it is showing up in huge numbers is cancer.
For example—sweetened coloured carbonated soft drinks, were sold and available out of small cottage industries which had not learnt the art of adding more salt so that they could make you crave for another within a short time. And to counter all that salt, they then had to add more sugar. And since sugar was expensive, other chemicals masquerading as sweeteners have now been added. (Readers may be glad to observe that the number of celebrities endorsing soft drinks appears to have come down now, especially after Yuvraj Singh’s unfortunate episode with cancer. (Cancer Colas: Slowly being outcast by the West, Colas exploit India through unaccountable celebrity endorsements)
Or take another example—pre-packaged polished rice or refined flour was simply not available. Indian food simply didn’t taste the same with this base for a meal. Besides, everybody knew that the real nutrients as well as value came when you ate it without losing all the good parts. And the end products, bread or biscuit, were mostly made locally—from fresh ingredients sourced locally, too. Not loaded with garbage in the name of add-ons. (How does the wood in your bread, biscuit taste today?)
However, within the Indian context, even in the poorest of families, breakfast was the main building block of the day’s meal. Something which had to provide everybody with a reason to go, work, study or whatever. It was healthy, freshly cooked, and it was of prime importance that people knew what went into it.
A lot of that appears to have changed in the last decade or so. And one reason for it is the massive push being given to packaged breakfast cereals. Famously, it has been said more than once, including in the US Congress that the boxes they came in provided more nutrition than did the breakfast cereals themselves—and this was never contested or denied by the breakfast cereal industry. But, based heavily on advertising and marketing, the push for space on your table is huge. Simply put, the more they spend for the effort involved in getting breakfast cereals, the less you will get in terms of value.
This heavy push to try and change Indian breakfast eating habits does not come cheap, for anybody who knows what the cost of advertising is, or the charges levied for retail display space. After soft drinks, breakfast cereals are now the second highest marketed food products in India, and that is saying something for a category that simply did not exist here a decade ago. In the words of one advertising guru, the brief given was to make it a lifestyle product for children, with the power of pestering their parents. So, free toys, provocative advertising, and somehow connecting breakfast cereals to “family values” and “healthy lifestyles”, all this and more, made sure that you brought cereals home.
But what, then, is the link with cancer?
Doctors one speaks to are not very sure, but that old villain—excess sugar and salt—raises its head again. And why is there so much of it? Well, sugar provides the ‘bulk’ feeling and salt provides the taste, and the manufacturers have to provide something for the Indian palate—so up goes the sugar and the salt. In effect, when you are eating a bowlful of cereals, especially the so-called high fibre sorts, you are likely ingesting more salt than an equal weight of potato chips.
So where is the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India on breakfast cereals? As usual, nowhere, other than saying that they adhere to Indian standards. Which, actually, say nothing about the process to be used to make them in the first case, which is where the trouble starts. What sort of corn goes into making corn flakes sold in India, for example?
Even the crows don’t touch GM corn anymore...
Typically, when you manufacture a breakfast cereal, you are simply running the base grain through high temperatures, using a variety of processes to remove most of the natural nutrients, and then replacing them with artificial additives. This is done to (a) prevent the cereal from going rancid and (b) keeping the cereal crisp. The additives can include the mythical Vitamin D as well as our famous plant fibre, and of late, the new buzzword is Omega-3. The problem is, all these make the whole thing taste unpleasant, at least to children, so add more sugar.
Of course, after that you add milk and you guessed right—added more sugar.
So does this conclusively prove that breakfast cereals are now an additional possible cause for cancer?
The point is this we still don’t know what goes into breakfast cereals sold in India. And like there are people still denying that tobacco causes cancer, there are those who will sing the glories of breakfast cereals, so strong is the cereal lobby.
But if you ask the doctors, mostly over-worked and some absolutely stunned by the vast increase across all social and class levels of patients coming in with gastro or digestive system linked cancers, they are increasingly suggesting lifestyle changes need to do away with sugar. And breakfast cereals.
Breakfast cereals on their way to becoming serial offenders? It’s your life and it’s your money. Why do you want to spend it on cancer?
With credit to Felicity Lawrence’s books, “Eat Your Heart Out” and “Not on the Label”.
(Veeresh Malik had a long career in the Merchant Navy, which he left in 1983. He has qualifications in ship-broking and chartering, loves to travel, and has been in print and electronic media for over two decades. After starting and selling a couple of companies, is now back to his first love—writing.)
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