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Processed: Pakistan's unhealthy trend

October 25, 2014


Our our traditional ethnic food recipes are unparalleled in terms of health and taste. — Photo by Fawad Ahmed
Our our traditional ethnic food recipes are unparalleled in terms of health and taste. — Photo by Fawad Ahmed

In recent years, Pakistanis have increasingly turned their consumer preferences around from natural foods to commercially produced processed foods.

This comes much at the expense of our health and our rich culinary tradition.

As a child, I remember serving guests in our house with tea, cookies and nimko (spicy lentils and grain flour). But over the last couple of decades, middle-class families have started serving a variety of processed foods to guests at home.

I was at a dinner party recently and the host served a milkshake made of mango concentrate, solid with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives in a can. When I let on that the juice of the fresh fruits sitting in a bowl on the table would have made for a better drink, my host, a bit taken aback, responded, “but it has a rich flavor.”

At another friend's house, I was served black tea with dried, powdered milk on the side. When I asked for regular milk, my host graciously complied but not without the remark, “but tea really tastes better with this whitener”.

Even more common is the serving of chilled cola drinks to guests.

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Backed by advertising that creates a brand image of refreshment, energy and modernism, processed food companies have attracted many new customers for their products.

Coca Cola expects double digit percentage growth in Pakistan this year. Pepsi Cola ranks Pakistan among its top 10 markets in the world and the sale of Mountain Dew in Pakistan is second only to that in United States, in the entire world.

Multinational companies have also been hugely successful in getting real milk and sugar replaced with dry milk and artificial sweeteners in our everyday usage.

People should be aware that processed food may come in fancy packaging but not without health concerns attached.

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For example, in the process of making dried milk, machines take important ingredients out of milk and add sugar, lecithin and other solvents, artificial flavours and additives. Eating these processed foods exposes our bodies to unnecessary and possibly harmful chemicals and substances.

While Pakistan is increasingly switching to processed foods, much of the Western world is trying to switch to a greater use of organic and homegrown natural food. More and more consumers are buying fresh produce from the many farmers' markets that have sprung up in urban areas.

To fight the epidemic of obesity, consumers are constantly reminded to reach out for fresh fruits and vegetables while avoiding sugary drinks and fried items. This is crucial for Pakistan, where the obesity rate is among the top 10 in the world; we need to make healthy food choices to control this epidemic.

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I grew up in mid-sized cities in Pakistan. My family always grew vegetables in our yard and we ate homegrown, pesticide-free produce with great enjoyment and pride. Even today, I personally pack my lunch box with a vegetable salad and a piece of fresh fruit every day. We are lucky in Pakistan that in most places we have access to an endless supply of fresh vegetables and fruits.

So, when it comes to food, I request my countrymen to avoid the pitfalls of the Western consumerist bandwagon. Increasing use of processed foods may have conditioned some to their taste, but otherwise, our traditional ethnic food recipes are unparalleled in terms of health and taste.

When I next visit Pakistan, I hope to be treated with shikanjabeen and lassi instead of soda; chai with fresh milk instead of dried processed milk; barbecued fresh meat instead of processed meat burgers; a bowl of fresh fruits instead of jello and custard; and if lucky, maybe I will get a bite of freshly made paneer (goat cheese) with a cracker.