Eating ourselves to the grave
We eat to live, right? A good, balanced and healthy diet, we are told, keeps the doctor away. Food is the only natural and most effective medicine known to Man. The only adverse medical conditions that I know could cause death are bulimia and anorexia. I cook; and I love cooking. Being a vegetarian even makes it more imperative for me to be mindful of what I eat. As a result I frequent the market for my groceries.
What I see in the market these days gives me the creeps. I have taken my time to figure out how some of the foodstuffs we buy are treated, and my findings reveal an astonishing array of ignorance and downright evil intent from some of the traders in our markets.
Let me deal with the easy consumables. In order to maximise profits some traders resort to mixing groundnut paste with cassava powder, locally called kokonte. This gives a bigger volume to the paste and the customer is none the wiser. Assuming you were a diabetic who must avoid starch at all costs, what do you think this will do to your health? Avocado seed is chopped into little bits, dried, ground and mixed with powdered pepper. I am told avocado seed contains medicinal properties, but that cannot be the reason traders do this.
Palm oil is mixed with a toxic red dye to give it a more attractive red colour. Paradoxically, palm oil is one of the healthiest consumable vegetable oils in our parts. The others are groundnut oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil and Shea butter oil. Similar colouring is done to salted lamb chunks (popularly called tolo-bifi) by the market women for whatever reasons known only to them. That I am a vegetarian does not mean I should not be concerned with what others consume. When my daughters were in the University, and because I had no right to impose my diet on them, I would go to the market to get condiments to prepare soups and stews for them.
Why do these traders do this? Is it because they are ignorant of the consequences of their actions or it is just a diabolic, evil intent to harm their clients/consumers? I once asked a woman who sold salted mutton chunks at the Kaneshie market in Accra if she ate the dyed meat at home. Her response was that because she sold it, it was like she had seen too much of it so it ceased to be a part of her diet.
I bought veal, mutton, crabs, salmon, tuna, tilapia and other smoked fish to cook for my children. Having been brought up near the coast, I knew good fish when I saw one. The only thing I excluded from the meals to my children was cow-hide (wele) because it has no nutritional value whatsoever. It was a delicacy for them though.
Let me take on the cooked food sellers briefly: Personally, I hardly eat from outside my home. However, occasionally I go for sinkafa-da-waakye (cooked rice and beans), but to save firewood, the women add too much of saltpeter (they call it kanwe) to soften the beans fast. Now, kenkey, another staple has joined the fray for saltpeter application, to the extent that kenkey has become so soft you can hardly leave it without refrigeration for a day without it going bad. Just a decade and a half ago I could leave kenkey on my dining table for a week,then heat it up for consumption. Kenkey cannot stay in the fridge for a week nowadays. It turns mouldy rather quickly.
Then is all manner of poisonous seasoning all over the place in the guise of spices. Potassium glutamate readily comes to mind. Some of these things add a false appetising aroma to the cooked food just to entice the consumer. Some of these come in the form of cubes, the favourite of lazy housewives. What has happened to the natural spices of garlic, onion/shallot, kpakposhitor, ginger, nutmeg and cloves blended together?
A health consultant tells me that excessive saltpeter consumption corrodes the mucus that lines the intestinal walls, thus slowing down movement of what we ingest down the digestive track. This, according to her, causes pain as the food rubs against the exposed walls of the intestine. Sadly, our health authorities are more interested in checking the health status of the food vendors not the quality of the food they sell to the public.
Do we blame the poor food vendor? Less than two decades ago Ghana flared Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) into the atmosphere. Then some smart alec decided we could encourage our countrymen to stop cutting down trees for firewood so they could use the LPG for domestic use instead. The reason was to prevent deforestation. Ghanaians bought into the idea and started patronising the LPG, realising it was cheaper than firewood. As I write, LPG is beyond the reach of the ordinary Ghanaian. Petroleum products have become the cash-cow for tax revenue.
Now, back to the traders. In fact, they can be forgiven for some of the stuff they sell. A few years ago I used to buy tomatoes in bulk, spread them out on newsprint on the floor and use them as and when I needed them. Right now, ripe tomatoes cannot last three days in the fridge. Same goes for many vegetables. You cannot keep okra for more than a day; it will develop dark blotches on the skin. Same goes with green pepper, cauliflower and many of the green leafy vegetables.
We used to keep yams for weeks, but if you take a tuber of yam now you have to ensure you cook the whole tuber else it gets rotten the very next day. Even if the rest is refrigerated it must be cooked within 48 hours. Our agriculture scientists are not telling us what is going on. Is anything wrong with the soil? Does this phenomenon have to do with the agro-chemicals used by the farmers? Why is no one telling us anything?
I saw a video clip of lettuce being washed with detergent. I watched another where what looked like spinach is soaked in some chemical solution so it would look fresh to the consumer. Mango, avocado, orange and papaya are doused with chemicals to speed up their ripening.
I hear there is an Authority on food and drugs. Can someone please tell me what they do? I ask because methinks we are eating ourselves to the grave and no one seems to care about us. Let me also ask if we have standards for the food we eat or the stuff we purchase? Do we have those? We are constantly admonished to eat healthy, yet the things we buy to put together as a meal give us cause for worry. Is it any wonder cases of diabetes are on the rise? Liver and kidney ailments are on the increase. What do the people we put in charge of our very existence do with statistics from our health facilities? Until they wake up to the reality and save us, shall we continue to eat ourselves to the grave?
By Dr. Akofa K. Segbefia