The menace of contamination in food is a serious health hazard. Here are some quick tests to spot common adulterants in food

Powdered spices are indispensable to every Indian kitchen. They are flavourful and it’s what makes our indigenous food delectable and nutritious. Unfortunately, though, these powdered spices are often contaminated with artificial colours, chalk powder, etc., which increases their bulk and enhances their colour (yay for seller) but has serious health implications (nay for consumer). According to Neha Gupta, Chief Nutritionist at N-lite Nutrition and Health Consultancy Private Limited, Delhi, “The most commonly adulterated powdered spices include turmeric, coriander, dried ginger, cardamom, cumin, pickle powder, garam masala, chilli powder, Kashmiri chilli powder, rasam powder and curry powder.”

Types of adulterants

Substances added

Intentional adulterants

Sand, marble chips, stones, mud, other filth, talc, chalk powder, water, mineral oil and harmful colour

Incidental adulterants

Pesticide residues, droppings of rodents and larvae in foods

Metallic contaminants

Arsenic from pesticides, lead from water, effluent from chemical industries, tin from cans

But there is help at hand. Below are some simple tests that can be conducted at home to identify the presence of adulteration in powdered spices:

1. Turmeric Powder: “A commonly used adulterant in turmeric powder is the addition of lead chromate which gives it a bright yellow tinge and is insoluble in water. To detect the presence of lead chromate, mix a small quantity of turmeric powder with water. If adulterated, it will immediately leak colour,” Delhi-based nutritionist Neha Gupta points out. According to a manual released by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) in 2012, all water soluble artificial colour can be detected by sprinkling a small quantity of turmeric powder on the surface of water contained in a glass tumbler. The water-soluble colour will immediately start descending in coloured streaks.

2. Red Chilli Powder: The most commonly used adulterants in chilli powder include presence of saw dust and brick powder. Neha recommends that you test the red chilli powder that you have just purchased by adding a teaspoon of chilli powder into a glass of water and swirl it. Adulterated chilli powder will dispel a red swirl of colour. According to the FSSAI manual, while coloured water extract will show the presence of artificial colour, any grittiness or sand-like texture that may be felt on rubbing the sediment that settles at the bottom of glass confirms the presence of brick powder/sand. On the other hand, soapy and smooth touch of the residue at the bottom indicates the presence of soapstone.

3. Cumin Powder: Presence of starch, food colours, dust, horse dung etc. are some of the commonly used adulterants in cumin powder and can lead to serious health complications. Immersing cumin powder in water will ensure that the adulterants float on the surface of the water while the remaining spice will settle on the bottom of the glass, as per the FSSAI manual. Neha adds, “Similarly, weed is mixed in cumin power and this requires chemical testing in a laboratory. Hence it is important that Indian spices undergo intense and detailed laboratory testing before making their way into the market.” On the other hand, cumin seeds are often adulterated with grass seeds coloured with charcoal dust. Here’s the FSSAI-backed test for that: Rub the cumin seeds on the palm of your hands. If your palms turn black, it is an indication of adulteration.

4. Coriander Powder: Two commonly used adulterants in coriander powder are husk and ash. While husk can be detected by dissolving coriander powder in water in a glass—if adulterated, the husk will immediately float. But Neha warns us that while one can test for husk, detecting the presence of ash in coriander powder is near impossible with in-home remedies. It requires chemical testing and cannot be identified with the naked eye.

5. Asafoetida (Hing): Hing is often contaminated with soapstone. The FSSAI-backed test to detect this is to shake a little portion of the sample with water and allow it to settle. Soapstone will settle down at the bottom. Furthermore, to test for foreign resin, you can burn hing on a spoon. If the sample burns like camphor, it indicates the sample is pure.

6. Common Salt: Salt is often mixed with chalk, but there’s an FSSAI-verified adulteration trial for this: Stir a spoonful of the salt sample in a glass of water. The presence of chalk will make the solution white and other insoluble impurities will settle down.

The best way to avoid consuming adulterated powdered spices is to buy them from a trusted source that packages them after being checked by food regulatory boards and carry either an ISI mark or a Agmark stamp. You could also look to buy from certified 100% organic stores (check label carefully). Some of the spices can also be bought whole and powdered by hand or in a grinder.

Image courtesy: Shutterstock


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