‘Purity guaranteed.’ ‘100% pure.’ ‘Na kuch daala gaya, na kuch nikala gaya.’
Rings a bell? Such slogans are used by brands to sell various food products with the premise that they are pure and therefore healthy. Open your wallets, please, and let us empty it.
Have you ever wondered why supposedly pure orange juice tastes like anything but? See, orange juice is stored in large tanks and the preserving process involves stripping the juice of oxygen, a process known as ‘deaeration.’ Trouble is, with the oxygen goes any semblance of flavour. Juice companies therefore engineer flavour packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavour packs are not listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet, people in the industry will tell you that the flavour packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurised orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature.
So, no, you don’t get pure orange juice in that fancy box. What you do get is a combination of orange juice residue, preservatives, dodgy additives and plain and simple lies on the box, thanks to giant loopholes in food regulation. The story is pretty much the same for every so-called pure juice brand.
Or take water. We now all invariably drink bottled water at the office and at least filtered water at home. Tap water is a big no-no. Whether the water is bottled, or filtered, or cleaned through other methods, some company is making big bucks. This, in turn, has led our water utility companies to become increasingly lax in ensuring that the water is potable. Who wins? Not you or me.
In reality, most pure or organic foods that are advertised as such and command a premium, often come from the same factories and prepared under the same conditions as the rest of the packaged, ‘impure’ food. In many cases the pure or organic label is a ruthless exploitation of the lax disclosure requirements with respect to ingredients.
The question is: whose fault is it?
Ours. We love packaged goods. We automatically attach more importance to fancy packaging, big brands and good advertising. We are the reason there is a market for packaged milk, bottled water, processed cheese, frozen and processed meat.
This is not to say that the non packaged ‘pure’ foods don’t have their own set of problems. Unpackaged milk is more water than milk, and has hygiene issues and the same can be said unpackaged meat. As for unpackaged fruit, you can be sure that some pieces will be of prime quality while the some sub-par ones will be included slyly by the vendor. Same goes for no-brand spices and other goods.
We love packaged goods. We automatically attach more importance to fancy packaging, big brands and good advertising. We are the reason there is a market for packaged milk, bottled water, processed cheese, frozen and processed meat.
Advertisements for packaged food stress on purity and consistency and above all, emphasise hygiene. This is a common theme and a common Achilles heel for unbranded products.
Here are a few example: This one ad for Milk Pak which shows their gleaming processing facilities:
Then there are the ‘health benefits’. All you see it is a colourful bowl of cereal. Nestlé will tell you that it includes a host of additives that will transform your child into Kal-El from Krypton.
The same message comes from Horlicks. Instead of emphasising that the product makes milk more drinkable for kids, the health benefits are touted. Similarly, Nestlé Bunyad uses Fawad Khan to tell us that it fulfils iron deficiencies in Pakistani children.
I am not challenging the scientific studies behind this logic. However advertising is replete with examples where paid studies are commissioned to derive very specific results. Furthermore, these campaigns are silent about pure alternatives to these products, such as mashed food as a substitute for cereal and honey for Horlicks. Advertising can also push heavily skewed messaging to consumers, to the extent of misleading them.
Another aspect is ‘aspirational’. K&N, for example, remodels the housewife into a guardian for the health and fitness for her family and arms her with De-line, its line of breakfast-oriented meat products.
Precisely the same approach is adopted by Nestlé Pure Life in this ad.
What are we to do?
First of all, research. It is true that every day we are bombarded with messages on social media about a particular branded food product, listing its danger to our livelihood. Often these posts are not based on reality and at worst are planted by a competitor. Similarly, there is a crusade against unbranded foods (such as ‘khula doodh’) by the food companies. That said, there is always a supplier in your neighbourhood who is well known for supplying high quality foodstuffs, be it meat, milk or spices. Check them out, and research the ingredients used and long term health effects of packaged food, and assess for yourself whether or not purity and branding are very often mutually exclusive!
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night.