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Maggi returns: How safe is Maggi?

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New Delhi: Sometimes back, Nestle India seemed to have found a bonus in an earthquake. Following the devastating tremors that rocked Nepal, it faced a demand to supply as many as 200,000 packets of Maggi noodles as relief aid from India. But, situation somersaulted after the controversy that tests in Indian labs detected the presence of lead above the permissible limit in the tastemaker. Consequently, the sale of Maggi was banned.

However, it stormed back passing all the laboratory tests in November. However, are the chemicals that enhance the taste of Maggi safe?

Though Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) intensifies meaty and savory flavour in food. Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda identified the unique flavour and coined it as ‘unani’, Japanese for the fifth taste besides sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Strangely, glutamic acid is one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids and can be traced in many vegetables and fruits including tomatoes, potatoes and mushrooms.

Ajinomoto is a Tokyo-based company which produces MSG besides seasonings, cooking oils, TV dinners, sweeteners and pharmaceuticals. It operates in 26 countries and has 27,500 plus manpower.

Reports of side effects attributed to MSG first mushroomed in 1968. Numbness in the back of the neck, arm, weakness and heart palpitations were listed among the major ailments caused by MSG.

Though the US enlisted MSG as generally recognized as safe (GRAS) category, but large doses of MSG can induce headaches and other feelings of discomfort collectively known as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”. Other common symptoms of MSG are- headache, flushing, severe sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, tingling or burning sensation  in face, rapid fluttering, chest pain and nausea. Since, bulk of Maggi consumers are minors, the Indian government came down heavily on the snack and clamped the ban.

Lead, another toxic element traced in the tastemaker sachet in Maggi packets too has its satanic qualities. Lead poisoning undoubtedly is a serious and, sometimes, fatal condition. The highly toxic metal if accumulates in the human body can cause irreversible health hazards. Children are more prone to lead poisoning since their brain and nervous system are still developing.

The poisoning can cause severe mental and physical impairment. However, lead poisoning occurs over a period of months and years. Abdominal pain, abdominal cramps, aggressive behavior, constipation, sleep disorder, headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, kidney dysfunction, anemia, vomiting, seizure, encephalopathy are the notable symptoms if the human body gets exposed to lead. While low-level presence in adults is not harmful but similar levels in children is an unambiguous concern.

In general, acid foods and drinks leach lead out of dishes much faster than non-acid foods. Spaghetti sauce, salsa, soy sauce, orange juice, applesauce, coffee, tea, cola drinks, and salad dressing are examples of acid foods. The longer the food stays in contact with a dish surface that contains lead, the more lead will be leached into the food. Heating up food in a lead-containing dish can speed up the lead-leaching process. A combination of these factors will make the problem even worse. The sachet body of the tastemaker in Maggie reportedly showed traces of lead.

Maggi might be back, but the chemicals are still present, maybe at a prescribed limit. But is it worth it?

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Dr Herbert Needleman: A crusader’s lifelong battle to save children from lead poisoning

Lead levels found in children have dropped by over 90 percent since Needleman first published his findings in the 1970s

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Dr. Herbert Needleman. Thanks to his work, we now know that even in small amounts, lead can cause children long-term learning disabilities and IQ deficits. Image source: www.wbur.org
  • In the 1950s, lead was used everywhere- paint, pipes, toys, and gasoline
  • Dr. Needleman used children’s baby teeth to explore the lead levels
  • He now has Alzheimer’s and is not able to speak on his own behalf

Back in 1957, Dr. Herbert Needleman went to see was on his way to see a 3-year-old patient at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, when he first came across a case of lead poisoning. In Pipes, paint, gasoline and toys- lead was everywhere and options to escape it were too little.

The girl child he treated was probably poisoned by lead paint or dust at home, making it difficult for her and her mother to go back there. The girl’s mother was a single parent and therefore, it was difficult for her to afford another place.

Thus, Herbert decided to devoted his time and career to fight against odds and find a solution to lead poisoning that affected many during his time. His son, Josh Needleman, referenced a time when he was in a boat with his father. They passed some teenagers who were smoking and throwing rocks at a duck. Dr. Needleman immediately yelled at the teens to cease throwing rocks at the defenseless creature. Josh says the teenagers stopped, most likely because they were so startled. Dr. Needleman defended a duck, now you can only imagine how passionately he felt about standing up for children.

Dr. Alan Leviton (L), Dr. Herbert Needleman, and Dr. David Bellinger (R) at the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award ceremony in 1989. Needleman won an award for his research on lead poisoning. (Photo courtesy of David Bellinger). Image source: newsworks.org
Dr. Alan Leviton (L), Dr. Herbert Needleman, and Dr. David Bellinger (R) at the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award ceremony in 1989. Needleman won an award for his research on lead poisoning. (Photo courtesy of David Bellinger). Image source: newsworks.org

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The children who suffered with lead poisoning were treated as best as they could be. They were advised by the doctors to simply move out of the houses they were living in due to the lead levels found in paint at the time. The children suffered from many symptoms including abdominal pain and cramps, aggressive behavior, constipation, mental impairment, and many more.

Symptoms of lead poisoning. Wikimedia Commons.
Symptoms of lead poisoning. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Needleman conducted a study examining the effects that lead had on children. He used children’s baby teeth to explore the lead levels. In 1979, the study was published, and the results caused an international debate. In an interview with with Bill Moyers which aired on PBS, Needleman said, “[children] who had lead in their teeth, but who had never been identified as having any problems with lead, had lower IQ scores, poorer language function, and poorer attention.” These findings were controversial because companies who made lead products did not want to take the blame for unintentionally poisoning children. These companies claimed that those results are due to family life and education.

In the 1980’s, the government was working hard to wean lead out of gasoline and Needleman’s findings sped the process up. In 1991 Dr. Needleman testified in support of the bill to remove lead from households, “There is a broad consensus on the part of everybody except the lead industry and its spokesmen that lead is extremely toxic at extremely low doses.” This did not go over well with landlords or realtors, and the bill was not passed.

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As a follow up, in 1992, Congress passed that Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act. The act required landlords and others to disclose to customers any information regarding lead paint in the home, apartment or building they were viewing.

On the other end, scientists were working feverishly to prove that Needleman was guilty of scientific misconduct. The University of Pittsburgh, where Dr. Needleman worked, investigated for a year and found no proof of scientific misconduct.

Although lead levels found in children have dropped by over 90 percent since Needleman first published his findings in the 1970s, the government has stopped trying to eliminate lead completely. Meaning, there are still children who go to the doctor’s office with lead in their blood. These doctors are still left with little to help the children as any amount of lead found in the blood is extremely dangerous.

-by Abigail Andrea, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @abby_kono

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