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Watch what you eat

January 29, 2013

The dreaded “C” word is what no ill person ever wants to hear from their doctor – yet there is no family I know of in Pakistan (or abroad) who has been spared from hearing this devastating news. With all the dangerous chemicals and toxins around us (a by-product of the industrial age), it is just a matter of time before they get into the food chain and into our bodies where they bio-accumulate and eventually turn cancerous. While there is still no conclusive evidence on what exactly causes cancer, doctors now say that mounting evidence shows that the foods we eat weigh heavily in the war against cancer.

Doctors say that the easiest and least-expensive way to reduce your risk for cancer is just by eating a healthy diet. When it comes to a diet rich in cancer-fighting substances, most experts agree that it should consist of a predominantly plant-based diet. Living in Pakistan, where various lentils (daals) and freshly cooked vegetables are already a part of our diet, that should not be too difficult. However, we do have to be very careful about what else we eat, given all the adulteration in our food.

A few years ago, I remember interviewing Imran Khan, the politician who as we all know, set up Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital after his mother died from cancer. He told me his typical main meal consisted of a karahi made of desi (free range) chicken, organic wheat chappatis (from flour sent from a friend’s village), fresh vegetable salad from his own kitchen garden and plenty of lassi from the milk of buffaloes kept in his house in Islamabad. He would have freshly made lassi all day, which is high in protein while low in cholesterol.

Most of us don’t have access to our own buffaloes, and are dependent on packaged milk that we buy from stores. But can we trust this packaged milk? How much of this milk is “pure” and how much of it is adulterated? What is safe to give to your children, who need plenty of milk during their growing stages? I asked a good friend of mine who is in the milk business but wishes to remain anonymous.

“Most of the big packaged milk companies source their milk from collection centers, where milk is brought from nearby villages by doodwallahs who own motorcycles or other transportation. While the big companies do try to do some checks for adulteration, there are so many things that can be put in the milk nowadays that you would need a huge lab to check for everything. No such facility exists in Pakistan.”

So what are the “things” that are put in the milk by doodwallahs? “Well, first of all, no doodwallah is ever going to waste his milk – if it goes sour, they will throw in caustic soda. In the hot summers when their animal’s milk production goes down, they will add water – but that is usually dirty canal water, not water from the tap! Then, since that makes the milk a bit murky they will add some bleach. Also, cow’s milk is a bit yellow so to make the colour nice and bright for consumers they will also add bleach. They sometimes add glucose or vegetable shortening to increase the volume and thickness. To make the milk frothy they might even add surf every now and then. Urea is another commonly used ingredient.”

Bleach, surf, caustic soda, urea in our packaged milk? Why don’t these companies, some with international reputations, do something? “Some of the bigger companies buy up to 2,000,000 liters per day, that is a lot of milk. Like I said before, they do some testing but they can’t check for everything. What they do check for are the solid non-fats and also the total fat content of the milk. But they can’t guarantee that the milk is free from adulteration. Also, the UHT (Ultra High Temperature) process with which they treat the milk kills all the bacteria in it but it can’t do much for the hydrogen peroxide or sugar content in the milk.”

In my friend’s view, since these companies work with such large quantities, the hope is there that all the adulteration will eventually be diluted to negligible amounts. I asked him whether he buys packaged milk for use in his home. “Ummm, no, actually we have some buffaloes on our farm, whom we ensure eat organically grown feed and we get the milk from there. Drinking packaged milk is not going to put you in the hospital, but it is like death by a thousand cuts… what if you are diabetic and there is glucose in the milk? What if you are hypertensive and there are traces of urea (which is salty), in the milk?”

Since we were on the subject of dairy, I also asked him about the poultry industry. “Most eggs in the market today come from what we call broiler chickens that are fed a diet of blood meal and fish meal. They have made chickens that are supposed to be herbivores, omnivores that eat anything! These broiler chickens are grown in just 42 days. They are genetically modified chickens, which have been imported from Holland or the US (at least the grandparent flock). Our desi or natural chickens have just 40 per cent egg laying capacity while these broiler chickens have 90 per cent egg laying abilities. It is purely about economics, these large poultry businesses do not have our health interest at heart.”

Like Imran Khan, you can’t be too careful about what you eat these days. It’s good to know how our milk, eggs and chickens are produced so we can make informed decisions. In the end, it is up to us to ensure we have the right diet so we can at least reduce our risk of getting serious illnesses.

The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.