Are Our Neighborhood Sweets and Snack Shops Killing Us?

I lived in Chandigarh between 2009 and 2013. During those four years, several of my evenings were spent enjoying hot samosas and tea in the rather large balcony of my company provided house in Sector 16. The tea I always made myself but the samosas came from one of the several sweetmeat (Halwaai) shops in Sector 15 or Sector 17 markets. During 2013 I saw something that has since prevented me from venturing into a 'Halwaai' shop to buy a few samosas or any other fried snack. It was perhaps in Sector 15 or 17 but I can't exactly recall now. A small delivery truck stopped in the back of the Halwaai shop and the driver and his helper started unloading 15-litre tins on which the word "Vanaspati" was clearly visible. The label further read "made from Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils". That was shocking for me because those tins contained nothing but pure trans-fat. The reason behind my state of shock was my belief that this seriously dangerous product was already out of the market and now everybody used refined vegetable oils for deep frying whether at home or in restaurants, etc. Apparently I was wrong. There were dozens of tins packed with deadly trans fat and god knew to be used within how many days. Keep reading...

Samosas Fried in Trans Fat

Now two things need to be made clear here. 1: Why trans-fat is bad and 2: Why Halwaai shops and other food manufacturers still use trans-fats. Keep reading...

How Trans Fats Hurt Our Body

According to the Wikipedia article on trans fat, "Trans fat has been shown to consistently be associated, in an intake-dependent way, with increased risk of coronary heart disease, the worldwide leading cause of death" Generally speaking, trans fats increase bad cholesterol which is low density lipoprotein and is referred to as "artery clogging stuff". Trans fats also decrease good cholesterol that is high density lipoprotein. Additionally they increase triglycerides in the blood and also systemic inflammation. Borrowing information further from the Wikipedia article, "In 2013, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a preliminary determination that partially hydrogenated oils (which contain trans fats) are not "generally recognized as safe", which was expected to lead to a ban on industrially produced trans fats from the American diet. On 16 June 2015, the FDA finalized its determination that trans fats are not generally recognized as safe, and set a three-year time limit for their removal from all processed foods." Now that is America, not India and not the Indian traditional world of Halwaai shops. Even when the Halwaai shop owners themselves know that the artificial ghee called "Vanaspati" made from hydrogenated vegetable oils is very bad for health and should be completely eliminated from all foods, they will continue to use it for some "unavoidable" reasons.

Why Halwaai Shops Use Trans Fats

I have spoken about this to a Halwaai shop owner in my hometown Amritsar. I was told that the crispiness in fried snacks that is achieved by frying them in "Vanaspati" can never be achieved if the stuff is fried in refined oil. Please look at the picture of samosas above. The outer texture that you see there is the magic of "Vanaspati". Now we know that most of the salty snacks in our Halwaai shops are made from refined wheat flour (Maida) in which liberal amounts of salt and fat are added. This fat, more often than not, is "Vanaspati" made from hydrogenated vegetable oils. Chhole Bhature is our favourite snack and the bhatura will never be as crisp as we like it if it were fried in just oil. Use of a trans fat will be required to make it perfect. This is also true for several Indian sweets that are deep fried before being coated with sugar. In addition to using trans fat for deep frying, Halwaai shops add trans fat to the Maida flour while making the dough. My intention is not to give a bad name to Halwaai shops or to label them as the only villains in the trans fats saga. Others food manufacturers, restaurants, bakeries, etc. are guilty too.

For processed food manufacturers, using hydrogenated oils in their products increases shelf life and hence results in more profit. Now a days it in fashion that the wrappers of most of the packaged fried snacks say 0% trans fat. But can we really believe that. I even saw a "Vanaspati" brand that claimed to contain 0% trans fat. Let me also mention that a large FMCG company selling biscuits and cookies in India does not even declare if their products contain trans fats or not. They claim their products to be "proprietary foods" and are perhaps exempted from making this declaration. There are thousands if not lakhs of proprietary food products being sold in India.

The situation is grim. But I also know that having been raised in this special Indian environment we will often succumb to the temptation of venturing in to a Halwaai shop. Well, the least we can do is to limit such occasions and during those occasions, limit the quantity of the trans fat that we buy for us and our families.