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Chilling facts about chilli (on red chilli), Claude Alvares

One feature of our present-day lives and shopping habits is the almost universal tendency to go for food with bright colours. Vivid colour and shininess influence buying choice. Where there is demand for such glitter, supply is immediate.

So we have uniformly yellow mangoes (fumigated with calcium carbide), or bright red chillies, coated with a textile dye called Sudan Red. Nature has made chillies hot. But the facts about the chillies we buy today would make us all cold.
red chillies
In 2003, a huge consignment of red chillies was sent back to India from the United Kingdom because the red of the chillies had been obtained with application of the chemical dye Sudan Red (a carcinogenic chemical used in the textile industry).
The Spices Board was forced to cancel the licences of the five Indian exporters involved and to order mandatory pre-ship inspection of all future chilli consignments leaving the country.

As you can well guess, these measures were taken because we faced a chilli boycott from Europe the following year and this meant huge business losses. But what about us poor Indians? Are similar measures being taken about the chillies we buy?

Sudan Red is in the nature of an adulterant. It is used only after the chilli is grown and processed for the market. But deadlier chemicals are used for growing chillies by farmers nowadays. The commonly used pesticides and fungicides are lindane, quinalphos, acephate, dicofol, dimethoate, monocrotophos, triazophos, cypermethrin, mancozeb. You cannot eat a chilli sprayed with mancozeb (a fungicide) until five days are over.

It has the potential to cause goitre and the metabolite has produced birth defects and cancer in experimental animals. The wait time for a chilli sprayed with quinolphos (an organophosphate insecticide) is between 5-10 days.

Like the plastic industry, pesticide manufacturers have wormed their way into practically every food item that comes to your table today. From being wholesome and life-nourishing, food now comes laced with poisons.Millions of farmers have been encouraged to become murderers of their kith, kin and countrymen living outside their killing fields.

So how do we survive? Who can do without chillies?


chilli pdrTo begin with, beware of chilli powders and readymade masalas available in the market these days. Don’t buy loose chilli powder ever. If you have to buy powder, buy from the certified organic trade or Agmark.

You will find it only marginally more expensive. Some new organic players that market organically grown chilli (including powders) include the Khadi stores (Desi Aahar brand) and organic brands like Aashirvaad. (The Khadi stores are very good for unadulterated food items in general).

A plus side of organic shopping: the more you buy organic, the more farmers will be forced to grow without toxic poisons. This will give something back to the earth as well.

Your grandmother was no fool. She always used whole chillies for her masalas because it is difficult to adulterate them with red brick powder or other muck such as sawdust, which you can also find in your spice.

However, even your grandmother would not know how to conclude whether she was handling chilli coated in Sudan Red. That requires a lab and specialized equipment. The consumer organization, Consumer Education and Research Centre (Ahmedabad), has a simple 'Annam' kit costing Rs 500 which can test for Sudan Red in chilli powders (besides other foodstuffs) as well. School children should be taught to use these kits on all the stuff available in their neighbourhood. They'll have fun, you'll be safe.

If you want to test chilli powder quickly yourself, put some in water. If there is sawdust, it will float to the surface. If there is dye, the water will get coloured. If there is red brick powder, it will sediment faster than the real chilli.

To decontaminate pesticide residues, keep chillies for 10-15 minutes in 2% salt solution and wash under tap water before use. Then pray to God hoping that all the wicked stuff is taken away.

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, a supplement of India Today, in 2008.
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