With Coca-Cola and Pepsi bogged down in a losing publicity battle over pesticide residues in their bottled products, consumers are rediscovering the value of fruit juices and natural thirst-quenchers that are abundantly available.
Ever since the U.S. colas began flooding the markets as the most visible part of the decade-old economic liberalization process, nutritionists have agonized over the dangers posed by "empty calories" in soft drinks. But pushed by relentless advertising campaigns involving top film stars and sports personalities on television and other media, both Pepsi and Coca-Cola have been steadily notching up sales to well over six million bottles annually. It is amid such a scenario that the New Delhi-based environmental group Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) sprung on an unsuspecting public on Aug. 5 the discovery by its laboratories that most soft drinks sold in India, including Pepsi and Coca Cola, were contaminated with large doses of commonly available pesticides. Among these pesticides are Lindane, DDT, Chlorpyrifos and Malathion.
Vandana Shiva, internationally known campaigner for chemical-free organic agriculture and 'people's food rights and food sovereignty', said that from the point of view of nutrition, colas were already bad but colas laced with pesticides were "doubly bad". Shiva, who runs the return-to-basics 'Navdanya' movement, which promotes traditional Indian thirst-quenchers, said the pesticides controversy would not have risen in the first place if people had stuck to sustainable, organic farming.
Also see: Interview with Vandana Shiva
Leading nutritionists have opined that the soft drink controversy may have not only served to sensitize people to the serious problem of pesticides contaminating drinking water and the environment, but to issues like "empty calories" and the "chip-and-cola" diet that are relatively new to the country. "Nutrition awareness is generally low in this country and there is a need for the right kind of knowledge on the value of fresh fruit and vegetables to reach people who may be easily swayed by advertisement campaigns," said Santosh Jain Passi, reader in nutrition at the Institute of Home Economics at Delhi University.
Passi said ignorance concerning the right type of diets may affect the well-to-do just as easily as poor and illiterate people. "Broadly speaking, for all groups, money spent on soft drinks is better utilized on fresh fruit or fruit juices because they carry the benefits of valuable micronutrients, bio-active compounds and phyto-chemicals," Passi added.
But following the 'pesticides-in-cola' controversy, fastfood outlets have begun advertising their burgers and pizza packages with fresh fruit juice. Cola manufacturers reported a massive 40 percent drop in sales in August, the slack being taken up by unfashionable fruit juice vendors who ply their business on the street corners and the more trendy 'juice-bars' that have suddenly sprouted up in India's cities. Amoretto's, a firm which operates eight juice bars in Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta, now has plans to increase them to 21 outlets by the end of the year, thanks to a growing fad for all kinds of fruit juice among the well-heeled.
The switch from colas to fresh fruit juice is easy given that India is among the world's biggest fruit juice producers. It has an annual output of around 50 million tonnes, although the packaging industry is still lagging and lacks the technology of the advanced countries. Meanwhile, the central government has announced that it would shortly pass an ordinance to fix standards for drinking water, including that used by the bottling industry. So far, the cola companies seem to have avoided costly purification processes because of a total lack of standards.
In reaction to the outcry over CSE's findings, Union Health Minister Sushma Swaraj released the results of tests carried out by the government on 12 brands of soft drinks, which showed nine of them failing to meet European standards for pesticide residues. Swaraj declared the beverages safe by present standard. However, all the samples tested by the Central Food and Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) were found to contain lindane, a pesticide banned for agricultural use in the European Union and several other countries because of its proven toxicity to the liver and kidneys.
Parliament, which has already banned colas and soft drinks from its premises, said reinstatement will happen only after an all-party parliamentary committee clears this. That must be bad news for those who would 'cola-nize' the country.