The Masala Mystery:  AIIMS Professor explains ‘Ethylene Oxide Controversy’ in spices

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Iethylene oxide in spices

In 2023, an unsettling revelation involving two renowned Indian spice brands, Everest and MDH, unfolded when traces of ethylene oxide were detected in their products. This discovery led to an immediate ban in Singapore and Hong Kong, setting off alarm bells among consumers and health authorities worldwide.

Ethylene oxide, a highly reactive chemical primarily used for sterilization in various industries, including food processing, is also used to prolong the shelf life of packaged spices. Its effectiveness against bacteria and pathogens is well-documented, yet it carries a significant downside. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies ethylene oxide as a Group 1 carcinogen, indicating its potential to cause cancer if exposure occurs at high levels over extended periods. This classification stems from its mutagenic and carcinogenic properties, which have been linked to several types of cancer including leukemia, lymphoma, and breast cancer, although direct causal relationships in human studies remain unproven.

The use of ethylene oxide in spices raises critical concerns due to the extended shelf life required for exported goods, which may contain higher levels of preservatives than those sold domestically in India. This discrepancy highlights the challenges the food industry faces in maintaining product safety and integrity while navigating complex supply chains and manufacturing processes.

The incident underscores the urgent need for greater transparency and accountability in the food industry. Consumers have the right to know what ingredients are in the products they consume and the safety measures in place to protect their health. The controversy has served as a wake-up call, emphasizing the importance of proactive safety measures and strict regulatory compliance to maintain consumer trust.

While the use of spices in cooking remains safe, it is imperative that regulatory authorities regularly check ingredients and quality to mitigate any potential health risks. In addition to addressing these immediate concerns, it is also vital to focus on broader cancer prevention strategies. These include reducing common risk factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and exposure to certain viruses and air pollution. Public health campaigns promoting HPV vaccination and age-specific cancer screenings are also crucial in minimizing cancer risks.

As we navigate these complex issues, the “Masala Mystery” not only highlights specific safety concerns but also calls attention to the broader implications for consumer health and industry standards. The food industry must continually evolve to ensure the safety and well-being of its consumers, reinforcing the need for vigilance and adherence to the highest safety standards.

This article has been written by Dr. Abhishek Shankar, Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology at All India Institute of Medical Sciences. He tweets with @ShankarAbhishek