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Atta sense (on wheat flour), Claude Alvares


The roti is the most popular bread in the world and a billion Indians (men and women) are good bakers in that respect. In my own house, the pile of rotis we have consumed in one lifetime would probably stretch to the moon.

One of my childhood memories in Khotachiwadi (in Mumbai) in the ’50s is of carrying the weekly ration of wheat to the flour mill for conversion into flour which would be hot to the touch. The smell of the freshly ground wheat was delicious and I always returned with my clothes (and sometimes, face and hair) happily spattered with flour.

wheat For decades, most Indians have sent their wheat to such ubiquitous mechanized chakkis. Even now, living in a Goan village, we send our wheat to the village mill. Why has this custom persisted? Because ground flour does not keep well, if stored. This is due to the fact that the germ of the wheat contains oils. Whole wheat flour, from which such oils have not been removed, tends to go rancid.

But wheat grains don’t. To get by that, we as a civilization have learnt the habit of storing wheat and making periodic visits to the flour mill instead, so that we need to store only small quantities of flour. It is a simple solution, but praised by all international agencies including studies by the United Nations University.

It follows that if millers want their flour to last on shelves, they would extract all the oils, minerals and vitamins from the whole wheat so that we get maida or refined flour—a product wholly bereft of nutrition. Maida products will stick to your teeth, causing caries; or to the colon, causing constipation.

The trouble begins when we exchange our traditions of having freshly ground wheat flour for convenience atta from the market.

Every time we go in for ‘convenience’ foods, we make a trade-off in terms of our health. Why? Because the processed atta you get from the market is an unknown entity. Adulteration (with maida, suji or other cheaper grains) everyone is immunized to—it is a way of life in this country.

But in recent decades, because of the use of pesticides for growing the wheat, the atta generally available is often contaminated with its residues as well which no milling operation can remove.

I contacted farmers in Punjab for details of the chemicals they use when growing wheat. Here is the list: for nutrients, dia-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and urea. For weedicides: isopruturon, leader, puma and puma super.

For insect attacks: monocrotophos, confidore, actara, lindane, malathion. The FAO and United Nations Environment Programme, have been trying to get monocrotophos banned for several years. Malathion appears as a residue in wheat.

Unlike rice, wheat grain does not have a sheath of protective clothing. The seed can therefore absorb pesticide sprays easily. These get into the inside of the seed, affecting its gluten. For this reason, a large number of allergies which may come from eating contaminated wheat flour disappear when the person stops eating wheat or wheat products (including biscuits) altogether or switches to wheat grown without chemicals.

The Consumer Education Research Centre in Ahmedabad, a few years ago, carried out a laboratory analysis of the atta in the market and found most of it contained pesticide residues, including lindane. Even India’s very lax standards insist that there should be no traces of lindane in food. (That’s the stuff used for killing lice!) A 2004 study of atta used in Jaipur indicated pesticide residues higher than permissible limits.

The first large-scale disaster from pesticide poisoning took place in 1958 in Kerala when more than a 100 people died consuming wheat flour contaminated with deadly parathion. Recently, the Taiwanese Government rejected 9,000 tonnes of American wheat contaminated with malathion.

So, what should you do? Even if you restore your habit of going to the flour mill (and supporting employment there), but are not particular about the wheat you buy, it is bound to be contaminated with pesticides. So make extra effort to source wheat grown without chemicals, especially if you consume chappatis on a regular basis.

Buy the right wheat

Get organically grown wheat. It's now becoming increasingly available. For example, the Haryana Coop. Supply and Marketing Federation has recently introduced the sale of organic wheat in 25 kg bags.

Where possible, obtain organic wheat directly from farmers. (Wheat stored for several months in FCI godowns or with traders may be contaminated with pesticide or fungicide used to protect the produce from storage insects or fungus.)

Organic wheat is also available with recognized organic food outlets. Prices will be above those prevailing in the mandis. Examine the labels to ensure the wheat being sold to you is from a certified source.

Consider buying a domestic scale electric chakki. Use it if you do not want to have your wheat flour mixed with others at the neighbourhood flour mill.



Claude Alvares is associated with the organic farming and safe food movement in India for the past two decades. He is editor of the Organic Farming Source Book and is director of the central secretariat of the Organic Farming Association of India.This article was originally published by PINK--Healthy Living magazine, a supplement of India Today, in 2008.

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