Tea, Chips or Tezaab?

Story By Sujit Chakraborty: It is a health policy and governance issue that must catch the eyes of the courts in India. To prevent “Our Stolen Future”

The Processor
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Thirteen boys with undescended testicles and 11 girls born with no vagina. Archita, my then fiancée (now wife), and I stood aghast as Dr Pema Sen, the then head of paediatrics department of Eden Hospital (Neo-natal department) showed us around with little, nay, tiny babies who could barely open their beautiful eyes. 

But do you know, Dr Sen, why this is happening, I had asked her. She said that she found this inexplicable. I then opened the pages of notes that I had with me from the World Health Organization (WHO).

She did not know. For she had not read the book “Our Stolen Future” by Theo Colborn and others published in 1996. The WHO regularly runs directives on health issues. And now let me tell you the story in a different mien.

Theo’s book has been described as a medical detective book, for it shows how chemical contamination is costing us a generation that is mired. 

Darjeeling Tea, the brand name that has mention on the London Stock Market index, along with gold and bullion, is wrapped in pesticides. And to what impact? We shall come to that a little later… kindly bear with me.

When I showed the WHO list of banned chemicals and their impacts on human health, Dr Sen promptly crashed on to her chair. “I did not know!” is all that she could say. 

Theo Colborn had shown how the chemicals play truant with the endocrinal systems and create havoc.

“I did not know!” is all that she could say. 

But let me come back to that later….


“Prostitutes’ Packets”

Day before yesterday, a friend, sculptor-painter Siraj Saxena gifted me a brown paper packet with the “Kat Katha” written in tiny letters. There were mathris inside, a beautiful packet. Asked what the name means, he said “kat” means the Kathputli, or puppets, and katha is their story. 

Those mathris are made of select attah and packaged at the home-factory of some rehabilitated sex workers, who had till some time ago been the puppets in the sex trade. 

“These matrhis are pure, and very tasty. I bought fifty packets to gift to friends,” Siraj Bhai told me. But where can I buy them? Only in the Noida rehab centre, he said. Nowhere else.


I remember some years ago, I had been invited by an NGO in Udaipur to create a brand for their pure honey harvested from forests by tribals. I had returned to Delhi with a kg of that honey. Thereafter, believe you me, my little daughter refused to touch any other honey. But where can I buy them? Only in Udaipur, home to the Desert Greens brand I had created. Nowhere else.


Later, three years ago, I was visiting Dr Anil Joshi the retired zoology teacher and Gandhian reformer in Uttarakhand, and he gifted me some rhododendron juice. 

Those were harvested by poor village women who had been trained by Dr Joshi. It was so exhilarating that I wanted these women to open a kiosk in the premises of Press Club of India. But I am sorry, that juice is available only in Uttarakhand. Nowhere else.


In fact, I had tried to get the Udaipur honey for my local kirana store, but they said the most famous honey brand did not allow them to keep anything else. “Kya karein Sir, hamare kharidar to Dabur hi mangtey hai.”



Not many years earlier, the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE) lab traced artificial chemicals in that bottled brand honey.

This is the true story behind most branded food items, and it is known that the colas we guzzle are best for cleaning vehicle exhaust tubes. I have seen that if you put a drop of sugar water and a drop of cola next to it, the ants devour the sugar water but do not even touch the cola.

Naturally, I am not surprised that the global non-profit Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) has found recently that the top twenty FMCG brands in India are making their money from unhealthy food packaged in plastic, with glitzy and often garish colours.

The Covid pandemic boosted this business manifold. Day by day I am watching one food item after another coming from newer companies, from baby food to fish, crabs, salami, mutton to potato chips.

To be honest, I am fond of potato chips, but the ones that are plain and come in transparent packets, not the glitzy ones. And they are coated with salt only, not the acidity fuelling horrid masalas used by most FMCG companies. But those plain chips too have vanished – possibly under threat from FMCG

A company insider confided to me two years ago that cloth is used to make those chips, rotten cloth picked up from any garbage dump, which is minced with many other ingredients and shaped like chips. I have no way of proving it, but why should he lie about his own company?


In March 2015 itself Delhi High Court had ordered to regulate junk food consumption among school children across India. It asked the food authority (FASSAI) to enforce its guidelines on wholesome and nutritious foods

Foods high in fat, salt and sugar such as chips, fried foods, and sugar sweetened beverages should be restricted in schools and nearby, the court had said and also that advertisement and promotion of such foods targeted at children is to be regulated.

The CSE runs its highly sophisticated labs for testing food and has blasted several companies, starting with the landmark findings against the colas. But that is not all.

A CSE report says: “Energy Drinks have been in India since 2002. Currently there are several brands such as Red Bull, Coca Cola's Burn, Goldwin Healthcare's Cloud 9 and SJ's XXX in in India. Energy drinks are in controversy because of its high caffeine content. Most of these brands have upto 320 ppm of caffeine in them. These drinks are marketed as an instant source of energy. 

“The manufacturers claim that it is the combination of caffeine, taurine, glucoronolactone, vitamins, herbal supplements, and sugar or sweeteners that gives the energy. However studies show otherwise.

“While it is the sugar that gives the energy rush, the caffeine only gives a 'feeling' of energy. While there are studies to show health impacts of a few of the above stimulants, there are hardly any long term studies to show the effect of a combination of these stimulants in the drinks.

“Energy drinks, a Rs 250 crore market growing annually at the rate of 20 per cent, is unregulated.”

The CSE lab had tested items such as honey, and found antibiotics in fish, chicken and honey and had named Dabur as a violator. Transfat was also found in oils. 


But most importantly, it had found pesticides in bottled water and soft drinks. The tracing of pesticides in food is a deadly worry. Pesticide residues and their accumulation on human body fat is what I had started the article with.

CSE did not test Darjeeling Tea, a prime global commodity. You would be surprised that the highest priced tea in the world, from Darjeeling, India, costs as much as Rs 33,000 a kg. 

But tea is not the only thing that is robbing us of our future. Any chemical add-on in any food is just the same truant player. For we need to know how they work.


From the time an egg is fertilised by a sperm cell, in any creature, from an amoeba to a human, what happens is that the endocrinal systems – the system of hormones that finally shape a being ‑ from an amoeba to a human – and in succeeding stages give shape to the arms and legs, heart, eyes, genitals, lungs and liver.

Chemicals such as used to make yours and mine food “tasty” interfere with this entire endocrinal, or play of hormones that shape a physical being. The reason you find fruits such a mangoes or lichies lacking in shape or taste is because of this. 


The net result was what Archita and I were witnessing that devastated morning in 1998 standing at the neo-natal department of the Eden Hospital, Darjeeling. 

Thirteen boys with undescended testicles and 11 girls born with no vagina.

Let me tell you that there was a single case of undescended testicles in Holland in 1990s had led to Dr K Sijstemans and others to investigate and that is when the endocrinal disruption capabilities of chemicals in food had been identified. And from that finding the Dutch government changed its entire system of medical care and made it mandatory to have a national health register.

Ultimately it is a policy issue. We in India do not have it. Here it is all about cheap political gimmicks. The central government announces am Ayushman scheme. To compete with that a state government announces a Rs 25 lakh free medical insurance. 

But who cares about a national medical policy guideline that makes it mandatory for every child to be registered with what congenital deformity it is born with?

This is where the Delhi High Court has forgotten its duties, having made good noises about FMG products being banned from near schools.

So what? Just a 20-yard distance from my daughter’s school is a paan shop selling Lays chips!

In the end I am posing one question. If forest honey harvested sustainably, and rhododendron juice can become like Anand Milk Diary United Limited… AMUL, a commercial consortium of all manners of snacky tidbids and soft drinks that are safe and healthy for our progeny. 


Let us face it. 

The world is not going to change, and the faster it gets, the more the need for ‘smart food’. 

But the FMCG conglomerates will brined their way through, as is evident from FSSAi certifying their products. So could we have an Amul of sorts as a counterfoil for the FMCG against Our Stolen Future?