20 years ago when something used to go wrong, the world used to “turn upside down”. (And then correct itself I suppose in some time)
Now under the lip smacking scrutiny of 24/7 News and social media when something goes wrong the world just goes flat like an bottle of Coke left opened. That is what happened to the MNC giant Nestle in the case of one of the most enduring brands, Maggi noodles.
Firstly, how many (definitely not me) were aware that the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government had a department called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It was a epiphany for many, like discovering many years ago that there is something called the Election Commission when T.N. Seshan became its chief and discovered, like Spiderman, that not only he has great responsibilities but along with that, hey, great power.
So some obscure, unnamed lab worker in the UP FDA found lead and MSG in a randomly selected set of samples of Maggi noodles. I am sure she went to her boss expecting to be ignored and like other times have the report gather dust. But this time it was different. Clearly this time there was a chief who had his maa-ka-doodh and discovered that they had great power.
I am sure that somebody in Nestle was aware and informed of the situation in the UP FDA. But unlike these unlikely heroes, Nestle officials, in their hubris induced wisdom, assumed great power while shedding all great responsibility.
This is what the conversation would have gone like:
UP FDA: Hey Nestle, I found MSG and lead in your Maggi noodles.
Nestle: UP FDA who exactly ? Do you have an appointment ?
UP FDA: Listen, we have to go public with this..
Nestle: Oh yeah ? And who exactly is going to listen to you ? Never heard of you!
UP FDA: Lead, MSG. MSG, Lead. Please. We will take action.
Nestle: You and what army ?? Go away..
UP FDA: Ok.. Hello, Arnab Goswami ? I think the nation wants to know this..
And then the world went flat for Nestle because like Douglas Adams said, bad news travels faster than light, in the age of 24/7 news and social media. All news channels got their TRPs going with only 3 facts:
- MSG and lead found in Maggi noodles
- Lead was 17 times the permissible limits.
- Nestle makes Maggi before Madhuri Dixit or your mother cooks it.
Rest of it was posturing and apoplectic fits by the talking heads on TV and suddenly we discover every state has an FDA, that the National Consumer Forum can take action, that Army canteens feed Maggi to its soldiers (not any more), Future Group pulls it off their shelves and that Arvind Kejriwal can take action against a baddie MNC. The Delhi Lt. Governor must be heaving a sigh of relief for this break.
The funniest was Rajdeep Sardesai ending a talk show with “experts” saying, “Tomorrow I will still eat my cereals, but very very carefully”. Like what, “waiter, there is lead in my oats..” ?
So after all this hoo-haa, like our politicians I did some “introspection”.
In my parents generation, lead lined cooking vessels were pretty common. I remember as a kid before it became generally known that lead in food is bad, rasam was cooked in a lead vessel because it turned out tastier. I can vouch for that – there is a taste difference.
Till 10 years back lead additives were present in petrol and diesel and lead free house paints are a pretty recent phenomenon. Lead is possibly still present in sunscreen creams and water pipes made of lead are still around.
I looked up how lead ingestion affects us on wikipedia. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead#Biochemistry_of_poisoning)
The bottom line – “it interferes with cognition”. I could not understand the rest of the complex chemical processes described about calcium analogs and ion channels because of a lifetime of ingestion and inhalation of lead through rasam, petrol bunks and well painted homes. Not only that, veggies grown in sewage water could have lead in them, so do fish.
I realised through lead induced brain fog, that I grew up as a lead addict. Damn that lead, could have gone to IIT.
Fortunately, our bodies have the ability to excrete most lead and keep some of it which causes the interference in cognition.
The permissible limit (in India) as per news reports is 2.5 parts per million while it found found to be 17 times in excess – 42.5 parts per million by UP FDA. Kerala and Goa FDA found it to be within limits.
What about MSG ? Wikipedia to the rescue: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate
MSG is a complete eye opener. Its used as a taste enhancer, but:
- One of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acid.
- Present naturally in Tomatoes! Cheese! Potatoes! Mushrooms! Others!
- US FDA (yes, they too have FDA) has recognised it as safe, so has Australia and New Zealand.
- We humans produce it naturally in the gut! Yes!
- No statistically significant negative effect has been found with “normal” amounts of MSG as food additive.
- Lethal dose was 15-18g / kg of body weight in rats and mice. Extrapolating, I who weighs 67 kg needs to go to a shop and ask the flabbergasted shopkeeper atleast 1 kg of MSG and consume in a short period of time to commit suicide but with my taste buds in heaven… I am sure there are easier ways.
So why exactly is MSG additives completely banned in India such that you cannot add it at all?
On one hand we know for sure that tobacco consumption causes cancer yet freely available on the other hand we find miniscule amounts of lead and MSG in Maggi with dubious negative effects and the whole world goes mad. The Joker, where ever he is, must be cackling his guts off.
So all in all, the Maggi mess is a big mystery.. call Byomkesh Bakshi, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Mikael Blomkvist. Who threw rotten MSG laden tomatoes on Nestle and pump lead into them leaving them with egg on their face?
But what’s the point?
If you are worried about MSG and lead in Maggi noodles, you are barking up the wrong tree. What you should be more worried about is the wheat flour / maida and wheat gluten that constitutes most of your Maggi noodles, which is the killer in terms of increasing your blood sugar and bad cholesterol, and is implicated in a host of inflammatory and auto immune diseases. By the way do you know how MSG is manufactured? Using wheat gluten! That’s where the word glutamate comes from..
The other killer is excess salt – we take way too much salt than required anyway and in India it’s not necessary to list how much Sodium is present in packaged foods.
Now lets look at the forest instead of the trees.
Maggi noodles is junk food.
No amount of added vegetables is going to make it healthy, since the base is junk. I remember when my son was 4 years old we asked him to pass around Lay’s potato chips to visitors to our home – and he said – “please have some junk food..” because that’s what we taught him about potato chips. My wife corrected him in mock shock… but that is the unpleasant truth.
The thumb rule is more ready-to-eat a packaged food is, the worse it is nutritionally and health-wise. If you buy ready-to-eat paneer butter masala which you can pop into the microwave oven – BAD. If you buy basmati rice packet which takes 15 minutes to pressure cook – BETTER. With Maggi noodles and its 2 minute readiness is – BAD.
So take some time to think what goes inside your body. You take your car for servicing every six months and with good handling can last a decade. Our bodies are meant to last for 8 additional decades, but what servicing do we do for it?
So if tobacco is easily available, is it correct that Maggi noodles is being pulled off the shelves ? The difference as a friend pointed out is the misrepresentation. While the packaging for tobacco is clear about what’s inside, Maggi noodles is positioned and marketed as a healthy snack (without lead and MSG) for kids. Which is complete bull-stuff – harried mothers feel OK in giving it to their kids because they think its healthy because Madhuri Dixit says so. Regardless of lead and MSG, nothing can be farther from the truth.
I remember Shahrukh Khan during his 6 pack Om Shanti Om days exclaimed “Single-handedly try and bring the junk food industry to closure!” and now he advertises for Mango Frooti (Junk food!). Makes sense since public memory is short – must be all that lead interfering with cognition!
Maggi will recover, using these celebrities. When Cadbury’s chocolate was affected, atleast its brand, by the news of worms in it Amitabh Bachchan put his weight behind the correction campaign. When Coke was impacted by news of pesticide in it Aamir Khan came along and we saw how he visited Coke factories to allay our fears. Guys forget the pesticide and the worms – worry about what is the 99% problem with Cadbury’s Chocolate and Coke and Pepsi.. SUGAR!
So what we would like to see and I am sure we will never get – correctly presented and represented ads. Sure, I live in a dream world.
Something to wonder: Do you think if an image and health conscious person like Madhuri Dixit consumed any of the Maggi noodles she advertised for ??