I am a Postgraduate in Pharmacy, a lot of my batch mates are from Gujarat and are involved in manufacture, import and trade of various API’s, Chemicals. I had sent a few bottles of my homemade Deccan organics pickles to a friend. He send me a few forwards from a associate of his who deals in chemicals used in food industry, this guy’s specialization seemed to be in South indian pickles, all his marketing materials consisted of images of mango pickles and all the chemicals that can be used to make them last longer, taste better at just few rupees per kg.
Now it became clear why none of the commercially manufactured pickles which gather dust on supermarket aisles never develop fungus or mold, despite customers opening them months after they are manufactured. Although farm made products rarely go bad, once in a while we do get complaints of mold etc. Most organic farmers who want to try adding value to their produce face the same problem with their initial batches. Only after they tweak their ingredients ( increase sugar or salt content, add more spices, avoid moisture) do they succeed. A few give up making farm made items altogether because of initial hiccups.
What are these chemicals that commercial large scale pickles make use of, are there any side effects ?
Before we delve into this, let’s see how traditionally pickling had worked without use of chemicals for hundreds of years. It’s difficult to trace the exact origins of Indian pickle, but it is connected to the ancient art of preserving food by curing it with salt or sugar.
In the crudest form of pickling any vegetable or fruit can be preserved for a long time in brine (Concentrated salt solution). The salt solution just by dehydrating the and killing bacteria and fungi preserves the food safe for a long time. When it comes to jams and squashes, a high concentration of sugar does the same work as salt.
Indian pickles have many ingredients and are much more complicated than just vegetables floating in a salt solution. A combination of spices, oils are used simultaneously to add depth and new dimension to their flavor. Some of these spices also have antimicrobial properties. The oil used also aids in longevity of the pickle, mustard and sesame, two most used oils in pickling bring their own anti microbial properties to this mix.
Another natural process which happens in all pickles but is not common knowledge is anaerobic fermentation. Salt tolerant bacteria naturally digest the sucrose in the fruit or vegetable matter to produce by-products such as carbon dioxide, acetic acid and lactic acid. This naturally produced lactic and acetic is what gives most indian pickles their tartness, most of our pickles have an acidic PH of around 4.5.
The problem with traditional pickle making is, it requires age old recipes, dry climate, best of ingredients and most importantly a lot of patience. Most attributes which a commercial pickle maker who manufactures in tonnes won’t have, He can’t have a single batch of pickle go bad due to some bad ingredients which may have escaped q.c. That’s where all these chemicals come in.
Now that we know how traditional pickling works let’s take a look at the preservatives which commercial manufactures use
Acetic acid : This could be the least dangerous ingredient used. Vinegar is chemically speaking 4% acetic acid in water. Traditional pickling leads to formation of natural acetic acid and lactic acid. But this takes time, the pickle needs to mature for 15-20 days for these acids to be naturally produced. Time which a factory may not have. So they just add acetic acid directly to the pickle. The upside is these instant acetic acid, 2 minute maggi type pickles are extremely tangy but on the downside the added acetic acid makes the vegetable or fruit pieces very soft and mushy. The acetic acid naturally produced in the course of traditional pickling is biologically produced whereas the one added artificially is a product of chemical reaction called Methanol carbonylation.
Citric Acid : Citric acid is found naturally in citrus fruits, especially lemons and limes. It’s what gives them their tart, sour taste. But what we are talking about here is about industrially produced citric acid. Is it the same and safe as the natural thing?
Industrially produced citric acid is used in colas and candies and now increasingly in pickles. Similar to the case of acetic acid, citric acid will also be produced in the pickle by bacteria because of anaerobic fermentation. Pickles made from citrus fruits would also have them naturally even before the fermentation begins. But again due to time constraints and use of lower quality citrus fruits commercial picklers will add industry grade citric acid.
Is this safe ? A few studies have found that some people may be allergic to this artificially produced citric acid. Some of the problems observed in these individuals were joint pain with swelling and stiffness, muscular and stomach pain. But the same people could consume natural citric acid from citrus fruits without any of these problems. So definitely the artificial stuff is not equivalent to the natural one.
Sodium Benzoate : Sodium benzoate is best known as a preservative used in processed foods and beverages to extend shelf life.. Chances are if you have ever picked up a packaged food product from the supermarket aisle, 9 out of 10 times it had sodium benzoate as the main preservatives. It has both antibacterial and antifungal properties and is the cheapest most commonly available preservative. Even a lot of cosmetics have sodium benzoate in it, but because we are not ingesting these cosmetics we shouldn’t be too worried about them.
USFDA considers sodium benzoate a fairly safe food preservative and there are good indicative guidelines on how much it can be used in food. But do our commercial pickle makers follow these guidelines. I am sure large reputed manufacturers like Priya or ITC would follow these guidelines because they have reputed food technicians. But what about all the other manufacturers who are producing tonnes of pickles in small factories ?
And do USFDA guidelines be followed when using sodium benzoate in Indian foods. Sodium benzoate reacts with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and produces benzene. Benzene is a very well known carcinogen linked to all types of cancers and a few cardiovascular problems as well. Lemons, mangoes, tamarind have good amounts of ascorbic acid and ironically these are the most popular primary ingredients or souring agents used in typical pickles. This along with the fact that most of these pickles are packed in transparent plastic bottles is worrisome as higher temperature and direct exposure to sunlight catalyzes this reaction. Sodium benzoate could be safe in the hands of reputed food technicians. But it is definitely not safe in the hands of untrained people handling most of the production in less reputed and mostly unsupervised food manufacturers .
I would rather prefer traditional farmmade chemical free pickles made by people who treat it as a ritual and heritage than take a chance with industrially prepared ones, as no Indian meal is complete without a smidgen of pickle.