The ultimate onus lies on us, to find out more about the food we eat and take pragmatic decisions about what we eat, rather than follow the false nourishment of fake food news.
By Vikram Doctor
Source: The Economic Times
Some years back, a startling email on sabudana was circulated. It informed consumers of the spongy white starch pearls that the roots it came from were processed in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district. The email described roots left to rot “for several months” in pits of water, giving off foul smells. Insects multiplied, leading to “millions and millions of pests and insects crushed and pasted together” when the roots were processed. “Now I know why many people don’t eat sabudana, treating this as non-vegetarian,” the unknown writer concluded.
Cassava tubers, from which sabudana is made in India, contain toxins that must be washed out. But when asked, SK Naskar, director of the Central Tuber Crop Research Institute, Thiruvananthapuram, explained that the tubers have a low post-harvest shelf life and so must be processed quickly: “Hence, the question of storage and rotting in pits does not arise.” The process does cause foul smells, but this comes from the fibres that are dumped after the starch for the pearls has been removed. And all the mention of insects “seems to be exaggerated.”
This seemed to be an example of fake news in the food world. There are many more. Remember rumours of plastic rice causing panic in places as far apart as Telangana, Nigeria and China? Have you seen videos of fake eggs being made? Did you hear, as a child, the story of how a tooth left in Coke or Pepsi overnight was found dissolved the next day? Stories about concealed use of beef or pork products have caused violence all the way from today’s cow vigilante cases back to the days of cartridge grease that sparked the Revolt of 1857.
Food facts can also be hard to get. Sometimes it is because the information is proprietary to food companies — or has been appropriated by them. Food facts can also be complex because our bodies react to food in complex and non-standard ways. But communicating this can be too baffling or easily boring. It is simpler to present a selective reading as a certainty, especially when it comes to selling diets.
Perhaps the biggest enabler of fake foods news is simply our increasing disconnection from food production. When you actually had to make most of your own food from scratch, you knew the messy realities that were involved, and that could include the fact that insects often do enter our ingredients – and at least that showed our foods aren’t drenched in chemically dubious preservatives and pesticides. The cost of cleaning foods before cooking was tedious, and fell unfairly disproportionately on women, but we knew what we were getting.
Outsourcing this stage to food companies and retailers has brought us the benefits of convenience, time and space – how many houses still have storerooms to keep provisions for the year? This handiness created an illusion of purity that, oddly, came coupled with unease at the idea. We buy our food neatly portioned and packaged and expect it to be perfect. We have no idea where it was made or how or what went into it, and consciously tend to avoid thinking about it. In a way, that trust in food manufacturers and retailers is what we pay them for.
Ultimately, though, this leads to a rather profitless paranoia, which is where all fake news seems to lead us. Suspecting everything is a rather tiring way to live, and swallowing every fake food story leads to a rather dreary diet. Food manufacturers might be guilty of many things, but wanting to kill the consumers they depend on hardly makes business sense.