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How do I know that my food is adulterated?

This article gives simple home based techniques for identifying adulteration in foods which can be carried out at home level


When was the last time you were tempted to buy a red shiny apple, or a lush green pack of peas? Or a bottle of golden yellow honey? Everybody prefers purity in the products that they consume especially when it comes to food. But how can you confirm whether it is pure? What are the after effects of consuming products that have failed to ful fill the specifications described in the pack? What are the home tests that can be performed to check the purity of the product?? These are some of the major concerns and the challenges faced by the final consumers in today's marketing industry. While there are so many similar products available in the market, which makes it difficult for the consumer to choose the best out of the lot. This article gives an insight into the various food safety issues in India and the simple home tests that can be carried out to identify the fake or substandard products available in the market.

Why are foods adulterated?

So what exactly is food adulteration? Is all foods adulterated for commercial purposes? The answer is NO. Food adulteration can sometimes be unintentional and may enter during the manufacturing process or during the procurement, harvesting, or transportation stage in case of agricultural produce. Unintentional adulteration usually takes place due to carelessness, ignorance and absence of proper facilities. Heavy metal and pesticide residues in crops and microbial infestation in grains can be considered as an unintentional adulteration. Irrespective of the reasons, food adulteration deteriorates both the health and quality of foods

Foods are adulterated to meet the demands of the growing population. We would have heard and read about cases where the manufacturer would have intentionally adulterated a food product in order to sell it at a cheaper rate when compared to the competitor's product, the manufacturer is forced to add substandard quality ingredients to improve the appearence and taste of the product and at the same time reap maximum profits. For example, organic honey or a premium quality monofloral honey is extortionate and uneconomical for the masses. Therefore honey is usually adulterated with molasses syrup to reduce its production cost.

An other major reason for food adulteration is that the lack of awareness among the consumers on "what's in their plate". As a consumer we usually give importance to the taste and appearence of a store brought food, be it an ice cream, or a pack of chips or a juice. All that we care about is whether the food gratifies our sensory organs. We fail to educate ourselves about the composition and the amount of additives that are added to the food to make it look acceptable. We as consumers feel that it is the duty of a governmental body to regulate the amount of additives that goes into it's making and we also feel that since it is certified by a certain organisation it is safe to consume. There have been instances where we fail to check the expiry date of a food product.

Chocolates, ice creams and junk foods are consumed occasionally in countries like India. Usually Indians prefer traditional home-cooked food. Pizzas, pasta, baked goods, ice creams, are considered as a delicacy in India and are usually ordered from outside, but what about the other foods that are store brought often or on a day to day basis? The most adulterated product is milk followed by oils, preserved juices and non alcoholic drinks, spices, coffee, tea, confectionery and flours. These play an integral role in the kitchen of an average Indian household. Adulteration of these essential goods are a major challenge in developing countries.

Food Safety and Standards Authority of India

Feeding a large population is a major challenge when it comes to developing countries like India. Clean food and water is a basic right of every individual and if it is available to all, it indicates that the country is sustainably developed country. Countries like India are charecterised by a wide variety of population which includes the poor, the downtrodden, the malnourished, the anaemic (etc). This has led to an escalation of substandard food products in retail outlets and food supplies which are adulterated with ingredients that can be hazardous to health. This is the point where the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India emerged which laid down standards and regulations for various range of food products under the Food Safety and Standards Rules, 2011. The act lays down specifications for a various range of food products right from its raw material selection to its final packaging and labelling. According to a report by Kerean Watts in September 2019, the FSSAI has trained 1.7 lakhs food safety supervisors who will ensure that the manufacturers and the food vendors comply to the food safety regulations including the hygiene aspect. The Eat India Campaign is an effort undertaken by the Govt of India to promote the awareness of nutrition among the citizens. The organisation has also given a detailed manual on rapid tests that can be carried out at home for detection of adulterants in foods.

Home Tests for Milk Adulteration


Table sugar

Sugar increases the thickness of the milk by increasing its carbohydrate content so that the milk can be diluted with water to increase its volume and it will not be detected in the lactometer

Diacetic strips / diabetes testing strips can be used for testing sugars present in the milk. The strip has to be dipped in the milk for 30 seconds to 1 minute. The change in the colour of the strip indicates the presence of added invert sugar in the form of glucose


Starch increases the carbohydrate content thereby increasing the solid contentcontent

Add few drops of iodine solution to milk which turns the milk blue or black. This indicates the presence of starch


Detergent is added to give a white foamy texture to the milk

Take some 5-10 ml of milk and add water to it. A stable lather is formed by vigorously shaking the mixture. This indicates the presence of detergent.


Water is added to increase the volume of milk

Pour the milk in an inclined plane, pure milk is thick and while flowing leaves a white trail whereas milk mixes with water flows immediately without any trace

Synthetic milk

Synthetic milk do not contain milk solids they are made of water, pulverized soap, sodium hydroxide, vegetable oil, salt and urea

Syntrhetic milk has a bitter after taste, gives a soapy feeling when rubbed between fingers, and turns yellow on heating.


Urea is added to increase the shelf life of milk and it kills the microbes in the milk

Mix the milk with soybean powder and shake the contents for 5 minutes dip the mixture in a red litmus paper, the change of colour from red to blue indicates the presence of urea


Oils and Fats

Edible oils and fats are quite expensive in the market which tempts the manufacturers to adulterate with low cost vegetable oils.

Coconut oil

Pure coconut oil is usually adulterated with other oils to sell it at a lower cost. To detect the presence of other oils, coconut oil can be refrigerated. The coconut oil solidifies on refrigeration leaving a layer of other oils on the top of the container


Ghee gives a creamy white appearance and thickens when it is cooled. Mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes are added to give this mouthfeel and texture. Eventhough it does not pose any serious health issues, it deteriorates the quality and the aroma of the ghee. The ghee sample can be mixed with iodine solution which makes the ghee turn purple that indicates the presence of potato starch in the ghee.

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A butter that is been processed by the 'slow cook method' gives the best quality ghee with a long lasting aroma. Indians usually prefer to prepare ghee at home. I have seen my mom using a big iron vessel in which she puts the butter chunk and keeps stirring it slowly until it reaches the desired consistency. I have noticed a huge difference in the aroma of a store brought ghee and the home- made ghee. The former one has a strong long lasting aroma, which when used in foods enhanced the taste of the food.

TOCP adulteration in edible oils

Tri- Ortho- Cresyl- Phosphate (TOCP)is usually used as fire retardant and in varnishes. It is also used as a lubricant oil in vehicles. When ingested, it poses serious health issues like paralysis and damage in the peripheral nervous system. Edible oils are adulterated with this oil and FSSAI has given a home-detection method that produces rapid results. The TOCP is odorless, tasteless, and colorless. It is insoluble in water. Mixing the oil adulterated with TOCP with yellow butter (solid) produces a red colour solution and this indicates the presence of TOCP.


Sugars and Sugar Substitutes

Off late there has been a increased awareness and demand for sugar substitutes like jaggery, palm jaggery, and honey. People are slowly shifting towards the usage of unrefined sugars due to health disorders like diabetes and increased risk of cancers due to various chemicals used in the refining process of white sugar.

  • White sugar and jaggery are adulterated with chalk powder. This can be detected with mixing the sugar with water. If adulterated with chalk powder, the adulterant is settled down at the bottom
  • Similarly the common adulterant found in honey is sugar syrup. Pure honey when mixed with water, settles like a ball in the bottom of the container, if it is adulterated with sugar syrup it dissolves in water.

Coffee and Tea

These two beverages play a very important role in Indian household. Among these the filter coffee holds a special place in Indian households. It acts as a mood elevator, it is a great starter early in the morning that keeps a person active through out the day. It also helps in better bowel movement. A well-brewed filter coffee is an addiction in many Indian household and without which causes irritation, dullness and in some cases headache also.

Tea is second predominantly consumed beverage after coffee. Indians usually consume tea mixed in milk. The traditional tea making in India is carried out by infusing medicinal herbs such as ginger and cardamom. A good ginger tea helps relieves one from cold, cough, fatigue and body pain.

Consumption of tea and coffee without milk is slowly coming up in India from the West. Tea and coffee adulteration can be easily detected with home tests and by its taste.

  1. Clay in coffee: Take some coffee powder and mix it in a glass of water. Pure coffee powder does not leave any residue whereas coffee powder adulterated with clay leaves a residue at the bottom of the glass.
  2. Added colors in tea leaves: Take a filter paper add some tea leaves/ dust. Add few drops of water and place it under the light. Pure tea leaves does not leave colour probably it might give a dirty green or a dull yellow colour which indicates the presence of chlorophyll.
  3. Iron fillings in tea leaves: Move the magnet over a plate of tea powder or tea leaves. Pure tea leaves/powder do not get attracted by the magnet unless they are adulterated with iron fillings.

The Role of a Consumer

Small changes makes a big difference in our lives. Most of the lifestyle diseases like cancer and diabetes comes from the consumption of foods that are intoxicated with chemicals. Even though we cannot eradicate it, we can make make a difference by reading the label of the product, using simple home tests to identify adulterants and to become aware of the possible adulterants that can be added to foods. My mother used to tell me that any food that is been avoided by our ancestors should be avoided by us. Eating locally grown foods and locally available oils are one of the best methods to avoid adulteration. As a consumer I dont believe in words like 'organic' or 'sugar free' or imported fruits and veggies but reading of the label and the nutritional information is a must before purchasing the product and also regularly checking the products for adulteration helps us to avoid heavy losses both from health and money point of view.


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