By Choki Wangmo
Coke juice…I want coke juice!”
Phuntsho throws endless tantrums as he tugs on his mother’s kira with his right hand. His left hand clutches a large plastic bag filled with chips and instant noodles. He is barely four.
As a healthy eater, I am concerned. So, with a little fake smile, I approach the mother.
“Aum, processed food, especially the instant noodle, is harmful to your baby and you,” I say. “Fizzy drinks like coke are not a good choice for small children. It will damage their stomach lining. Moreover, they’re addictive. The habit will be hard to kill.”
Heaving a sigh of frustration, the mother replies: “I just can’t help. It’s available everywhere, and if I don’t give, my son cries until I yield.”
This is a story repeated daily in many Bhutanese homes today.
Consumption pattern in urban areas is an irony. Ideally, we would shop from the farmers’ market, settling for the locally produced, fresh, and organic foods. In reality, we have no idea about our food sources.
The downside of processing
We buy foods we can store on the shelf for longer periods because we have no time to prepare proper meals. Of course, processed foods are convenient, and most easily accessible. However, the price we pay for convenience is a large amount of sodium, fats, and sugar—all poisonous if taken in huge amounts. Eating a diet heavy on processed food is the quickest way to trade our good health for illnesses.
A popular health website, Body Nutrition, which focuses on research-backed health product ranking and reviews defines processed food as one with chemicals, that contains refined ingredients, or has artificial flavors, colors or other synthetic components. The idea of processing originated about 2 million years ago when our ancestors discovered fire and cooking. From then, fermenting, drying, and preserving with salt started as primitive forms of food processing. The process continues today with modifications using advanced and sophisticated technologies.
Foresight 2020, a research report written by the Economist Intelligence Unit, found that globally USD 4.7 trillion was spent on processed food. The report states that Asia Pacific is the leader in processed food, accounting for 43.2% of the total produced in 2013. The consumption trend is similar, with Asia Pacific being the largest consumer of processed food at USD 2.03 trillion in 2013, accounting for more than 40% of the total consumed that year.
Our noodle empire
As a child, when my parents left for Sunday market, I would wait patiently to get a packet of potato crackers, Maggi, or Wai Wai. To my dismay, I would always get a bunch of bananas or a kilogram of apple. I would hang my head low and curse them for bringing me things I did not like. I seriously thought it was unfair, especially when my friends would always get huge plastic of chips and fizzy drinks. Even when I was given some money, my mother would shout, “Don’t eat noodles!” I had to get to the point that my mouth did not smell of noodles or chips, wash my hands after eating, dump the plastics far away, and act like I had something filling like a mango. Now as a careful consumer, when I look back, I am thankful to my parents for instilling such eating habits in me.
Come to think of it, instant noodle is an empire in itself. People from around world eat 102.7 billion instant noodle servings a year. According to a report published by the World Instant Noodles Association, China tops the list with staggering 44.4 billion servings annually. India, on the other hand, consumes only 5.5 billion servings per year.
Bhutan is no exception. The national consumption figure could be much less compared to bigger countries, but the country continues to import huge amount of noodles, mainly from Thailand and India. Bhutan Trade Statistics shows that there is increased import of noodles every year. In 2014, import of noodles alone totaled to over Nu. 450 million. In May 2015, the Maggi controversy made the instant noodles go off the shelf in most homes as the laboratory tests revealed high amount of lead and monosodium glutamate (MSG). However, after five months Maggi noodles floated freely in the Bhutanese market.
Processed food and public health
I neither have a dislike for processed food industries nor am I trying to set propaganda against instant noodle. All processed foods are not bad. However, due to pressure to increase production and profits, food industry today seems to care less and less about what consumers really eat. Several cases of food-related public health crisis are being frequently reported globally. For example, the Chinese government faced a severe public backlash when, in 2008, tainted milk powder killed six infants and left 300,000 others ill.
Today, a wide range of products is made from cheap ingredients and additives. Transnational exchange of ready-to-consume foods and drinks has resulted in dramatic increase of obesity and related non-communicable diseases. Processed foods are also low in nutrients and fiber. This is because processing damages the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, and removes the natural fiber content. Even if the label claims the food to be “enriched with vitamins”, they are just synthetic versions.
Most instant noodles are prepared from maida, which is a milled and bleached form of wheat flour. It is highly processed, possesses zero nutrition, and leads to obesity. It affects the digestive system and the residue reach the appendix area that triggers infection. High amounts of sugar content disturb the metabolic processes and lead to insulin sensitivity, high cholesterol, and triggers type 2 diabetes.
Instant noodles are also made to bear longer shelf life. They are therefore highly processed, and high fat, calories, and sodium are laced with artificial colors, preservatives, additives, and flavorings. Public health officials and doctors say that monosodium glumate and tertiary-butyl hydroquinone—the chemical preservatives in instant noodle—are derived from petroleum industry to enhance taste and preserve properties, and regular intake of these can cause severe health issues.
When I was staying at a retreat with my Root Guru, I noticed several parents bring their sick children for spiritual healing and blessing. Some common characteristics I observed in them was that they were restless, refused to eat, were insomniac, and would often walk around directionless. To my surprise, all of them had developed taste for packaged food. They would happily eat salty chips and sweetest of the chocolates. If parents refused such food, they would sulk or cry. So, I obviously asked myself if this was the result of uncontrolled junking!
What can be done about it?
It’s time the Bhutanese government seriously promotes healthier eating habits among its people, especially children. Schools could play a big role here. I have heard of schools that have banned children from bringing in packaged food into school premises. However, much remains to be done in terms of raising awareness and advocating for healthy lifestyle through healthy diet.
The government should reduce the import of processed food, especially the instant noodle, by putting an annual import cap or increasing the import tariff. The prices of fruits and vegetables should be regulated, so that consumers have the choice to consume at affordable prices. Parents should be educated about the downside of eating too much processed food.
Research says addiction to packaged food is same as addiction to drugs and alcohol. Studies have shown that sugar and some junk foods light up same pleasure center in the brain as cocaine. It is an issue that calls for multi-sectoral attention. It is time we start consuming real food that nurture our body and spirit.