Many people on Twitter marked an article to me. The piece was a summary of a report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and had an irresistible headline: “Samosa is ‘healthier than burger’: CSE report.”
Naturally, this got people very excited. One person (SP Shukla) tweeted to me: “Samosa is ‘healthier’ than burger. This CSE report on our favourite fried snack will make happy weekend for most of us. Wonder if Vir Sanghvi concurs with the view.”
His tweet got many likes and retweets and set off a chain of samosa-loving tweets. The CSE report seemed to confirm what many of us already felt intuitively: we were better off eating a desi snack rather than the product of some nasty global multinational. A samosa was made with care and love. A fast food burger, on the other hand, was an industrial product.
At first, I did not think too deeply about the tweet.
I would take a samosa over a Big Mac any day. What was there to think about?
But then, considering that my opinion had been asked for, and claims about health had been made, I clicked on the link and checked out the original HT article about the CSE report.
According to HT, the CSE had concluded that “while a samosa may be calorie-dense, it is largely made of chemical-free ingredients such as refined white flour, cumin, boiled potatoes, peas, salt, chillies, spices, vegetables or ghee.”
And all of these are healthy? Well, so the article suggested. The burger, on the other hand, contained “preservatives, acidity regulator, emulsifier, improver and antioxidant along with refined wheat flour, sugar, wheat gluten, vegetable oil, yeast, salt, soya flour, sesame seed, vegetables, mayonnaise, cheese or potato patty.”
So what made the (vegetable) burger less healthy? Well it would have to be the chemicals, the preservatives, emulsifiers, etc, that were listed among the burger’s ingredients because otherwise, there was not much difference between the two dishes: both were made with potatoes encased in maida.
And sure enough, the report (dramatically entitled Body Burden: Lifestyle Diseases) said “fresh food contains none of the chemicals present in ultra-processed food.” This was not only true, it was also a self-evident tautology. If food is served fresh then it does not need to be processed and therefore does not need any chemicals.
The CSE is a well-respected body that has done great work in protecting our environment. So I have no problems with their report. My worry is with the conclusion people have drawn from it: that one food is healthier than the other.
To say something is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ is not terribly meaningful. Most foods can be both healthy and unhealthy, depending on the context. Our bodies need salt to survive. On the other hand, too much salt can be bad for some people. So is salt healthy or unhealthy?
It is the same with fat. Without fat, we would not taste very much. But equally, many people are advised to go on low-fat diets for a variety of reasons (diabetes, coronary health, weight loss, etc.). So how do we categorise fat? Healthy because it is essential? Or unhealthy because some people need to cut down on it?
The truth is, except for an actual poison, there is nothing that is always unhealthy. Most foods (in moderation) can be healthy for some people and unhealthy for others at different stages of their lives. Diabetics must avoid direct sugars for instance. But only a monster would stop a healthy child from eating a toffee or a chocolate.
So why is a samosa healthy?
Well, I doubt if you will find many doctors who will urge you to eat lots of samosas on health grounds. Some may even actively discourage you from eating samosas. They tend to be high in calories (magicked away in the article as ‘calorie-dense’), are deep fried (which adds to the calorie count) usually use refined flour or maida, which most nutritionists say is less healthy than whole wheat flour or atta and sometimes, at roadside stalls, are fried in oil that has been used again and again (which doctors will tell you is a bad thing).
Let’s take the ‘veg burger’ next. Is bread good for you? Well, you are better off eating whole wheat bread rather than the white bread that is used in burger buns, but nobody will ask a child to completely give up white bread. As for the patty: like the samosa filling, it is also made from potatoes. But as the patty is cooked in very little oil on a griddle, you could argue that it is actually healthier than deep-fried samosa-filling.
A burger will come with ketchup and mayonnaise but then samosas are also eaten with chutneys and sauces and if the CSE folks have been touring street food places, then they will know that the sauces tend to come out of a bottle these days.
So why is a burger necessarily unhealthy?
Well, it isn’t.
And is it really unhealthier than a deep-fried samosa?
Aha, that is the crux of the debate.
Until about five years ago, most doctors would have told you the opposite. They would have said that anything deep fried is bad. A potato sandwich (which is what a “veg burger” is), they would have said, is much healthier.
So why is the CSE so categorical about the health virtues of the samosa over the burger?
Well, essentially, it boils down to preservatives and emulsifiers. Otherwise, the burger has the edge over the samosa.
Nor is the CSE alone in taking this view. The Western world is now full of food and nutrition writers who tell us to avoid processed foods. As the writer Michael Pollan says: “If it came from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t.”
Even Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef, says you should only use fresh ingredients. “Cooking this way will always be cheaper than buying processed food, not to mention better for you.”
What all of these writers and chefs have in common is the view that we ate better when our grandmothers cooked at home. In fact, Pollan puts it plainly: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food.”
This certainly sounds good, even though such a prescription would lead to chaos for people like me. My poor sainted great grandmother would not recognise a tandoori chicken (let alone a burger) as food. Nor would she recognise chia, quinoa, amaranth and all the other trendy foods nutritionists recommend. (Frankly I am not even sure if Gujaratis ate samosas in my great grandmother’s time.)
But the basic idea is sound: eat food made from fresh ingredients by real people, not food made by vast industrial operations.
So yes, I would eat a roadside samosa over a Big Mac (let along a disgusting ‘veg burger’) any time.
But would I argue that I was doing it for reasons of health rather than taste? Would I encourage other people to eat deep fried foods over sandwiches? Would I tell my son, when he was young, to eat a samosa and not a McDonald’s burger?
I don’t think I would. (And when it came to my son, I did not.)
There are some issues that this debate ignores.
The first is hygiene. My great grandmother may have eaten preservative-free food but the life expectancy in her era for the average Indian was 30 years. We have forgotten how much of a gamble it used to be to eat out – especially at street food stalls.
So yes, preservatives are not great. But often, they are safer than the alternative.
The second is, as we have seen, that there is no such thing as healthy or unhealthy food. It depends on the context and on what is right for your body at that stage in your life. So sweeping generalisations are not always useful.
And finally, remember that the use of additives is quite rigidly controlled in America – where most of the fast food chains come from. There is very little scientifically proven evidence (though there are popular nutritionists who have lots of pseudo science in their books) that any of the preservatives and additives used by the food industry are actually toxic or injurious to the health of a normal person.
So give your children fresh food whenever you can. But don’t become a food fascist. Don’t deny them the odd burger or chocolate: their bodies can take it.
And never ever believe a blanket generalisation about one food being healthier than the other. Nutrition is far too complicated for that.