June 5: When you think of a cold drink, you think of its sweet taste, the fizz, and the sparkling bubbles under your nose. But not for a moment do you imagine animal parts being mixed in it.

And yet that is what seems to be happening, says a report in The Hindu newspaper. The use of animal ingredients in ‘vegetarian’ food products is more common than you can ever dream of.

According to the report, an organisation called the Animal Welfare Board of India has brought out a list of vegetarian food products containing disguised animal supplements. What’s more, these ingredients are undeclared by the manufacturers.

Do You Know What You are Eating?
Do You Know What You are Eating? [Illustration by Anand James Dev]

The breads and buns that are part of our breakfast table are glazed with eggs or animal fats, with the help of a pig bristle brush. Calcium phosphate of animal origin (bones) is sometimes used to improve the dough-making properties of bread.

Gelatin, used commonly for many food preparations is actually obtained by boiling animal bones, connective tissues, animal skins, tendons and ligaments in the water. And chewing gum that we thought used vegetable gum actually has gelatin as one of its ingredients!

The story doesn’t end here. Remember the silver foil that often decorates Indian sweets like barfis? It seems the foil is made by placing thin metal strips between steaming intestines of freshly slaughtered animals and then pounded between the ox-gut.

Even the milk chocolate that we all love to devour any day, uses an ingredient called shellac. This ingredient is derived by killing lakhs of insects. An innocent looking product like chyawanprash, makes use of powdered antlers obtained illegally from killed deer. The list is endless.

Such revelations raise uncomfortable issues of many kinds. Vegetarians who chose to be so on religious grounds will cry foul saying that they have unknowingly been forced to betray their faith. Those who are vegetarians by choice will also protest. What unites these protests ultimately is the demand that people should be made aware of the ingredients in the food product they are buying. And that is a demand that is common to all protests.

It is precisely for this reason that consumer forums have been created to record complaints of people who are not satisfied with a product. What is interesting is that big, respected multinationals like McDonald’s also fall prey to these unfair practices as much as the small businesses. And all this is to have that extra edge in business in hard times.

Add to it the rule that everything has to look good even if it is not good enough to eat! As times get worse, we shall no doubt have more mind-numbing additions to food products, without any inkling of the after effects.

On Environment Day, it would be wise to remember that nature is the biggest recycler of all: after all some wise guy’s decision to feed the cows with a protein obtained in sheep caused the Mad Cow disease epidemic throughout Europe. And humans, too, eat animal meat, as we all know.

So what do we do? For starters, we can all take a crash course in understanding the deep links between our actions, their impact on the environment and its more than equal and opposite reaction…