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An interesting question in food and nutrition history is how many lives, energy and time has gone into finding out what is edible and non-edible. What we eat or bring to our plates represents our culture, tradition, prosperity and wealth as well as our health. Food is the indicator of our evolution as civilization.

What makes Tamil food special? Tamil food is wholesome. Let’s take Pongal, sakkarai (sweet) pongal or ven pongal, for our analysis. It has rice, lentils, nuts in the form of cashews, milk solids in the form of ghee, fruits (dry fruits) and jaggery and coconut in case of sakkarai pongal.

It just has everything the body needs and if we supplement it with chutney and vegetable sambar, the breakfast satisfies one third of the dietary needs of a healthy individual. (Diabetic or anyone looking to reduce the calories can replace the rice with millets). A typical characteristic of a Tamil food is its flexibility. An elderly family member can easily tweak it for requirements.

From consumption of raw food to processed food, there have been many generations through which knowledge has evolved. The advancement in science and technology has had a major impact in food; its processing and preservation. But it would be surprising to know the foods consumed during Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilization are still in our kitchen. To list a few, they are rice, chickpeas, barley, wheat, brinjal and so on. It can be noted that archeologists found a single paddy in earthenware during excavation at Tirunelveli.

The fermented foods of the kitchen namely idly, dosa and millet porridge underwent vast scientific studies which reveal that such fermented foods are very beneficial to gut microflora.

Indian food items have always been rich and royal with so many varieties in recipes, tastes and processing techniques differing region wise. Different states in India have their own foods which has given them pride through geographical indication.

Our culture has special foods for certain occasions too. But what is common is that they appear to be nutritious and healthy when compared with modern day processed foods. The fermented foods of the kitchen namely idly, dosa and millet porridge underwent vast scientific studies which reveal that such fermented foods are very beneficial to gut microflora.

Our Indian foods have always lingered in the taste buds of people all over the world. One speciality is the complementary items that they are served with. For example, there are varieties of chutney to compliment idlies and make it sumptuous. We also have special foods for special needs such as pregnancy, lactation, puberty as well as specific therapeutic foods for non-communicable diseases such as jaundice, kidney stones, bone fracture and insect bites.

Our rich knowledge of food should ensure our plate is filled with a balanced diet. The free will to choose the right food is based on the health status of our body. Of late, these food choices are known as diet modifications, personalized nutrition and Diet therapy which scientifically helps a person to choose and adopt safe food practices to keep oneself healthy. Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food said Hippocrates in 400 BC and it has been the Tamil way of eating for ages.

The food prepared fresh and consumed in ancient times kept our people strong and healthy. Our food habits have undergone sea changes in the last few decades. Use of processing methods and techniques has led to loss of nutrients and inclusion of preservatives led to deterioration of health. Processing techniques right from harvest to garnish include a lot of unit operations. It is hard to detect which technique leads to loss of which nutrient and at what levels. It is generally represented as processing loss.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food said Hippocrates in 400 BC and it has been the Tamil way of eating for ages.

We are in a position to only thank the advancement in technology for improving the shelf life of the product/value added product but not to focus on the loss or the ill-effects it causes.

To state, for example, the water which was freely available but from hard means created no diseases and was considered as the elixir of life, but now the water available at door step has micro plastics. Treated mineral water with no natural occurring minerals is a good example of inviting diseases with our own money. It is this water that is used for the processing of foods and beverages. Shouldn’t this be alarming?

There is a reason why our mothers and grandmothers insisted on grinding masalas on their own. Home-ground masala avoids a number of chemical preservatives which are added as taste enhancers, anti-caking agents, thickening agents and many more.

As Tamils, let us not forget the food practices we have been following since ages and the secret of freshly prepared foods at home. As we enter 2022, let us practice to process our own foods and consume foods prepared at our homes instead of procuring 100% processed foods. Prefer fresh fruits and vegetables over processed ones. Procure fresh from neighbourhood farms and invest some time in cooking and spend money to buy fresh foods so that we avoid the risk of food related diseases. Let’s prefer traditional/whole foods instead of refined ones.

Modernity has brought many changes, some of it welcome. But not all changes are beneficial. Processed foods are certainly not beneficial. Let’s remember that we are not in space or the moon. We don’t have to eat 100% processed foods.

(Dr M Durga Devi is a food scientist with a PhD in food science and nutrition)


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