It seems like the dark days for India’s favourite noodles are over. Maggi noodles have been deemed safe by the Food and Drugs administration of Goa. As a result shares of Nestle India ended the day with nearly 8 percent gains as the FSSAI-approved laboratory of Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) found Maggi noodles in compliance with the country’s food safety standards. For the uninitiated the dark days for Maggi started when the Centre had lodged a complaint with the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission against the Indian arm of the Swiss manufacturer, Nestle, and the Delhi government had imposed an arbitrary 15-day ban on sale of the product, a ban which was extended later. As happens in most cases of mass hysteria, several states, including Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, West Bengal and Odisha, have sent samples of the product for testing, while the Jammu and Kashmir government had advised people not to eat Maggi noodles till the test results were out.
The Army and Navy had also issued advisories to their canteens to set aside the existing stocks of the popular snack until further orders. Why did this sudden embargo on Maggi noodles happen? Well, that is a good question. Only a while back, some Maggi noodles samples were reportedly found to contain higher-than-permissible levels of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Maggi noodles had been in the eye of the storm ever since laboratory tests allegedly found eight times as much lead as permissible. Not surprisingly the naysayers were out in full force as soon as the ban hit the popular brand. Taking on Maggi, Baba Ramdev had said that Maggi should apologise. Ramdev had also asked that the company should be asked to pack up and leave the country. It goes without saying that this was a clever ploy to pitch for his brand of Maida free Maggi. Ramdev had hoped that the controversy had done enough to scare off people and attract them to Patanjali-made noodles.
What about Monosodium glutamate (MSG), the ingredient which had caused so much commotion? Perceptions differ wildly on how harmful MSG can be. MSG is one of the most common, naturally occurring non-essential amino acid, which is found in tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, potatoes, mushrooms, and other vegetables and fruits. In the food industry, it is used as a taste enhancer that increases the meaty, savoury flavor of food. Although the U.S Food and Drug Administration recognises MSG as safe, it is considered far more harmful in India. It has long-term effects, but show signs of discomfort among sensitive people whenever consumed. Many studies have also shown that it is particularly harmful to pregnant women and nursing mothers as infants and very young children are susceptible to brain damage and underdevelopment. It is highly improbable that any pregnant mothers would have included Maggi as part of their staple diet.
For most people, it remains a quick-fix meal which can be prepared and consumed quickly when hunger pangs strike. Just ask anyone who has lived in a college dorm or hostel or for that matter just any working professional. In all of this a key question was missed. Can Indians get healthier eating choices, with or without? Life expectancy in India has risen by an average of nine years in the last two decades, from 58.5 years in 1990 to 66.4 years in 2013, according to last year’s Human Development Report. But while the rate of mortality has fallen, the decline in diseases hasn’t kept pace. In India, as in the rest of the world, people are living longer but spending more time in ill health. It is high time we had a larger debate on the state of public health in India.