New Foods, New Habits, New Hazards

Eating conventions are in a state of flux as Himalayan communities open up to outside influence. While the most dramatic transformations are in the urban middle-class diet, changes in rural eating habits and nutrition are potentially more hazardous.

Habits die hard, and eating habits are said to die harder still. What we grow, how we cook, and how we eat and drink are perhaps conventions most difficult to change. And yet, in the hills across the Himalaya, routines of eating and cooking are under assault. New crops, innovative planting techniques, and the availability of processed foods and soft drinks are altering our diets in significant ways, not always for the better. Nutritious makai-bhatmas is giving way to soft popcorn; local butter-milk (mohi) is losing out to orange squash and aerated drinks; unleavened bread (roti) is being replaced by mass-produced white bread; and in the hinterland, nutritious local grams are being supplanted by rice and other exotic varieties.

"Food habit is a static concept as long as it is not disturbed by external forces," says Yogesh Nandan Baidya, Chief of the Nutrition Division of Kathmandu´s Central Food Research Laboratory (CFRL). Ever since potatoes entered into the Himalayan diet a century ago, these "external forces" have gathered momentum.  Asparagus, kurilo, is now a major sales product in Kathmandu´s Ranamukteswar market. No local farmer would have been able to recognise the vegetable, just three decades ago.

Change in dietary habits has been a fact of life in every civilisation. However, the transitions have generally been gradual enough to allow societies to adjust. Not so in today´s world, shrunk as it is by road transport, radio, television, and the long and effective reach of advertisers and MBAs. Traditional diets are under attack like never before, by new and exotic ways to prepare and consume food. Because this change is increasingly sudden, it deprives societies of the lead time they had always had, to adapt to a new food possibility. Unlike developed regions with adequate consumer protection traditions, Himalayan societies are quite unprepared to deal with white loaf, for example. Who will tell the porter in Pokhara´s outskirts that the rather tasty piece of bread he is dunking into his glass of milk tea does him less good than sattu, his traditional fare.

Dietary Catastrophe

Over time and over generations, indigenous foods have always been found to attain a nutritional balance closely tied to the particular needs and circumstances of each society – be it the Newari diet of Kathmandu valley, Gurung diet of the hills of central Nepal, or of other ethnic groups. This dietary balance evolved from the environmental and climatic conditions, the quality of land, irrigation, and the cultural heritage of a society. When external forces impinge, the nutritional equilibrium is among the first to be impaired. Traditional flattened rice, chiura, is replaced by modern packaged snacks. Fruits canned in syrup stand in for fresh produce. Mountain spring water is replaced by sodas peddled by multi- national corporations. Easier-to-grow crops replace hardy and nutritious traditional strains.

If changes in dietary patterns came gradually or were planned, societies could actually adjust to and benefit from the new eating possibilities. It is important for traditional diets to maintain their nutritional equilibrium. The best example of this happened when the potatoes entered the Sherpa diet in the Khumbu to slowly take over as a staple (Nov/Dec 1988 Himal). If the change is sudden, unplanned, and a result of marketing acumen of the new food peddlers, then chances are that the nutritional needs of the population would be drastically affected, and, society would be headed towards a dietary catastrophe.

At least for middle-class Himalayan society, such a dietary catastrophe is a distinct possibility. In Nepal, one often hears of the Tourism Master Plan, the newly launched Forestry Master Plan, and other plans. But only few are aware of the Food Master Plan, formulated in 1985 with the help of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In the absence of a well thought out and implemented food policy, the society is adrift and prey to the blatant commercialisation of soda pop manufacturers, the purveyors of instant noodles, "cheese balls," and other attractively packaged western-style eatables. While the rural populace has not been affected by these "modern" food items, they too have had to deal with dietary dislocations brought about by development activity and foreign aid. Development agencies have been largely ineffective in guiding the introduction of new hybrids and new food items.

Not all dietary changes are alarming or unwelcome. Indeed, often, there are changes that have benefited the society. The recent introduction of soya milk and vegetable oils in Nepal can be taken as examples. The production of cheddar cheese in the hills of eastern Nepal with Swiss help, is also potentially beneficial, if it ever becomes affordable to the general public. On the other hand, sudden and haphazard intervention from the outside can easily ruin the nutritional health of a people. The need, therefore, is for thoughtfulness and caution. For example, horticultural authorities, taking cues from foreign experts and the success of Himachal Pradesh, have rushed to promote apples in the hinterland, though without much success. But for some reason, they never considered an indigenous fruit, the guava. Says Yogesh Baidya, "the guava has more roughage than apples, provides Vitamin C and is said to control cholesterol." Being up to ten times cheaper than the exotic apple, certainly, it could be said that it is "an amba a day" that would keep the doctor away, if given a chance to enter the diet, in the face of apple propaganda.

Modern Eurocentric dietary practices are also dealing a death blow to traditional foods that are good sources of nutrition. According to Baidya, these include gundruk (which contains calcium, iron and Vitamin B); sattu, the "traditional instant food" made from powdered maize, soya beans or grains; or masyaum, made of lentils and different vegetables. Kwanti, mixed beans sprout, is probably the most nutritious among Nepali diets, providing calcium, phosphorus, iron and Vitamin B. It is a particularly rich source of protein for vegetarians. And yet, even traditionally, kwanti is eaten only during the observance Janai Purnima in early August. Unless it is made a "fad" by the tiny health-conscious elite, kwanti will probably not endure in Kathmandu households.

The Restaurant Culture

The influx of Tibetan refugees in the early 1960s was of major significance to Kathmandu´s dietary history, says Madhav Gautam, a nutrition expert at the Agriculture Project Services Centre (APROSC) in Kathmandu. That was when the "momo business" took off. Traditionally, the local steamed meat dumpling known as mamacha was largely confined to Newari homes. The Tibetan dumpling, on the other hand, hit the streets as the refugees searched for ways to make a living. Bahuns and Chhetris found it possible to dispatch proscribed buffalo-meat dumplings, in the security of eating-houses, without being found out by peer or pundit. Today, signboards announcing "New Taste Momo," "Five Star Momo," or "Rasilo Momo," entice the passer-by in the streets of Kathmandu.

Given their proliferation, it is hard to believe that restaurants are a new phenomenon in Kathmandu; barely four decades old. Until then, all meals were taken at home and the local bhattis served mainly the traveler. It was the tourist industry that spawned the restaurants in town. The majority of office-goers, still have their dal-bhat before leaving for work and have a tea-snack before returning home for dinner. The traditional combination of lentils, rice and vegetables continues to provide adequate nutrition. But the hundreds of travel executives in Kathmandu make it their proud ritual to take a "lunch break" between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to eat often poorly prepared international fare. Yet another dietary custom, eating food at home, thus bites the dust, at least with the "trend-setting" section of Kathmandu society.

Thukpa, too, long a standard in the Sherpa diet, was alien to the Kathmandu culture. This noodle-meat-vegetable soup also entered via the Tibetan refugee restaurant. Unfortunately, thukpa is losing out today, pushed aside by yet another entrant — the instant noodle. Order a thukpa in a local eatery today and you are likely to get not the traditionally rich Tibetan dish, but the mass-produced "RaRa Chow-Chow" in your bowl, garnished with a few pieces of scallions and carrots.

Khaja Time Menu

It is not that all the Himalayan societies are willy-nilly shifting over to alien foods. Says nutritional anthropologist Ava Shrestha, "When there is a perceptible change in the core food, then there must have been some degree of acculturalisation of the host society." Of course, the vast majority of the Himalayan communities, in Nepal and elsewhere, have not imported western culture or plains culture in enough doses to change their "core foods", or staples, such as dal-bhat and dhindo-gundruk, the corn-flour paste dish with fermented vegetable leaves.

Even in the major towns of the Himalaya, the "core" diet has not undergone major changes, except among a very few ultra-westernised families which have crossed over to corn-flakes, lamb chops and soup-before-meal. There is, however, a distinct evolution regarding the consumption of snacks, or khaja. Traditionally, snacks at home or at the workplace, used to consist of chiura (beaten rice), with eggs, yogurt or curried potato. It was as recently as the mid-1980s that imported varieties of "junk foods" routed these traditional snacks. Potato chips, instant noodles and other instant or near-instant foods are becoming important components in the middle-class diet.

Definition: Junk food is food that has excess empty calories and salt. In a society where protein-calorie malnutrition is prevalent, this definition is not adequate. Food items of no nutritional value, while welcomed in diet-conscious western societies, may be termed junk in the context of Himalayan diets.

To be sure, there were enough of what might be regarded as traditional junk food before the advent of the modern junk. Take the traditional titaura appetiser made from the lapsi fruit, or pushtakari made from hardened concentrated milk. But what was wrong with the traditional junk was not their nutritional value but their suspect observance of hygienic standards. In today´s urban culture, however, even the traditional junk's nutritional value is being undercut. Today´s pushtakari, for example, is adulterated with flour and stale, curdled milk – thus making convenient use of food rejects.

Chou-Chou Syndrome

Modern junk and fast foods must be studied in the light of their hygiene, their nutritional value, and their questionable use of chemical additions and colouring. The major inroad into the middle-class Nepali diet is being made by instant noodles. The market was pioneered by "RaRa", consolidated by "Maggie", and finally won over by "WaiWai", which remains the leader today. The instant noodle peddlers have proven the standard maxim that "the market can be created."

All instant noodles, of course, contain monosodium glutamate (MSG, known locally by its Japanese name, ajinomoto), which enhances flavour but is considered by many experts to be carcinogenic, though this contention is disputed by some. (Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand actually include MSG in diets as fortification for Vitamin A, much as salt is fortified with iodine to counter goitre in the Himalayan region.) Whether MSG is a boon or bane, much of what we hear are instances of acute "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" – diners complaining of severe headaches after having MSG-laced food. Similar allergic reactions are visible, say experts, among many individuals who consume instant noodles. Meanwhile, seduced by its supposed taste enhancing magic, many housewives are sprinkling liberal doses of MSG into their traditional Nepali dishes.

Toddler's Tiffin

While adults should know better than to give in to the glorious virtues — read convenience – of the instant noodle, children are unwittingly victimised by the market forces and the increasing urbanisation of their parents' lifestyles. No longer is there time to prepare nutritious snacks for toddlers. It is so much easier to "reward" them with "WaiWai", the brand that children eat un-cooked, straight off the packet, for their tiffin. With a smile, the child goes through the ritual of crushing the packet before opening it so that the noodles break into small pieces, then sprinkling hot masala from the small packet provided, and presto, the meal is ready.

Anuradha Pradhan, who runs the Amar Sishu Vidyalaya at Kupondole, expresses her frustration in her attempts to convince guardians not to make instant noodles their wards´ staple. "Parents are too busy and too submissive to their children´s demands," says Pradhan. "They don´t realise the harm done by exclusive reliance on this type of tiffin." She voices the fears of other educators that Kathmandu´s children, who in no time since television´s arrival have become TV addicts, imbibe the message of motivated commercials. A Rara chow-chow commercial jingle, for example, claims that children study better when they eat that brand.

It is not only noodles that worry concerned teachers and counselors in Kathmandu. The last couple of years have ushered in the non-brand "cheese balls." These balls are nothing more than salted corn puffs, round and brightly coloured. Nutritional value: nil. These pseudo cheese balls, without a strand of cheese in them, are the creation of Om Shrestha and R.Sharma, two entrepreneurs from the town of Narayangarh, who designed the cheese ball machine. A case of innovative indigenous technology going awry, perhaps.

D.K. Suman of Nepal Snacks Industry, a major producer, boasts that children love the cheese balls. But evidently, this "love" is not enough to grab the market. He and other manufacturers of non-brand cheese balls have begun putting pictures of film personalities, rubber balloons and plastic whistles in the polythene packs to attract more children.

Soda Takes Over

Speaking of enticements, the Coca Cola bottlers hit upon a brilliant strategy of including flags inside the bottle caps. That alone must have given a boost to their sales. Starting with Coca Cola imported from Calcutta two decades ago, today the bottles of Coca Cola and its multi-national competitor, Pepsi, are found all over. The spread of Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, Limca and 7-Up from the furthest reaches of Khumbu to the high valleys of Manang and Mustang have been assisted by the presence of tourists.

The strong subliminal advertising message of the multinational sodas – "be western, be hip, be modern, be successful" – has been taken to heart by most Nepalis who can afford it, and even those who cannot. It is the same story – the "Third Worlder" who is taken in by the secret formulae of the multinational soda merchants, added sugar syrup, water, colouring and carbon-dioxide. Almost unnoticed, in Kathmandu, the traditional soda-walla who used to produce carbonated drinks using half-a-century old gadgetry has lost out to the Coke and Pepsi.

Colour In Your Food

While the local bottlers of multinational sodas are at least thought to use permitted colouring in their products, there is hardly any monitoring or testing of the vast array of other modern snack items that have entered the Nepali market. Cheese balls, for example, come in all hues and colours. In fact, production differentiation is done through colouring, with one factory producing pink cheese balls, another orange, and so forth. "The colours used are organic, but the quantity is higher than our prescription," says Urmila Joshi, a senior officer at CFRL.

Manufacturers claim that they use only permitted colourings or additives. But sources in CFRL admit that they have neither staff nor expertise to continuously keep track of colouring use. In India, there have been oft-reported cases of unscrupulous traders using the very dangerous Metanil Yellow and even highly toxic textile dyes on food stuffs, particularly in jilfis and mithai sweets. The same is possible, if not probable, in Nepali food products, though there is no telling to what extent. The effect of using illegal and untested dyes, range from mere indigestion to anaemia and pathological lesions in vital organs, such as liver, kidney and spleen. Nepal and India both permit coal tar dyes as colouring in foods, even though serious doubts persist about their safety.

Rural Diets

The problems regarding changing diets and the advent of instant food items are, for the moment, confined to the towns of Nepal. Much of the rural hinterland remains concerned with the more crucial problems of daily survival. In many places, particularly in west Nepal, food grains last for only seven months of the year, and thence villagers have to revert to diets consisting of bhyakur (yams) or sisnu (nettle).

Rural Nepal remains poor in cash liquidity because, the modern food sector has not penetrated much of the hinterland other than via trekking routes, and also because of the limited reach of advertising, diets in the country´s far corners have not and will not change as rapidly. However, developmental activity, introduction of new crops or new strains of old crops, and the reach of highways are liable to bring about dislocations in local eating habits. Already, there are reports of porters in east Nepal preferring instant noodle packets to the more nutritious sattu that was the traditional trail food.

The diet of hill people often consists of maize and millet, and rice is considered a luxury. It was in such conditions, that the Food Subsidy Programme of the Nepali Government brought rice to the hilly regions and changed the consumption pattern of many. The milled rice made available through subsidy loses most of its micro-nutrients, especially Vitamin B, during milling and polishing. There is also the question of what happens when the programme is ended? Examples of miscalculated introduction of crops abound in the hills of Nepal, but ironically, it is because of economic backwardness and isolation that the bulk of the hill population has been spared some of the ill effects of marketing hard-sell– new foods and new habits.

Food Policy and The Future

The Nepali Government´s "Basic Needs Programme" has declared that by the year 2000, all Nepalis (including the 42 percent who presently fall below the poverty line) will have a daily intake of 2,250 kilo-calories a day. Meanwhile, the Government has given priority to paddy and wheat cultivation in the hills. Herein lies a paradox.

If the target is to increase the per capita calorie consumption, then the resources must be concentrated on more robust grains such as maize and millet, whose total calorific value is much higher than the more popular rice and wheat. Additionally, says Yogesh Baidya, the 2,250 calorie mark is a production target and not a consumption target. He adds that the quality of food intake should not be measured by calories only, but should look at overall nutrition and balance in micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals, health issues, and the economics of food.

As diets change in the urban landscape and as development distorts traditional diets, it is important for the government and public to realise that they are dealing with a matter that has a long-term bearing on the health of the population and of the economy. Dietary change may be inevitable, but the challenge lies in pointing it in the right direction. What will not do is the present policy of leaving an unknowing populace at the mercy of western foods and alien (but extremely effective) marketing techniques. While much attention has been paid of late, to issues such as environmental degradation, trade and transit, and foreign aid, the "mundane" subject of diets and nutrition has been left for discussion only in specialised seminars and symposia. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are at license to profit at the expense of an unsuspecting population.

Who's the Watch-Dog?

In a state of ever-increasing external influences and constant flux, nothing can stay put for long. Eating behaviour can change haphazardly. Social norms alone may not correct the maladjustments in society´s eating patterns. What and how we eat will ultimately reflect on the country´s overall health. After all, next to breathing, eating is the most important activity for human survival. Its study should not be neglected. A proper nutrition policy should consider changing diets in the urban areas as well as in villages. Though not obvious, there exists a relationship between the increasingly "modern" foods being consumed by the rich and middle-class and the traditional foods of the rural majority. Kathmandu´s decision-makers, increasingly remote from the diets of the villager, are liable to take decisions regarding nutrition, according to their own preconceptions. Are resources being used to subsidise products that contribute to the palate of the rich while compromising the nutrition – and, therefore, the health – of the poor? Why waste resources over Pepsi and Coke when water quenches thirst just as well, and is healthier too? It is clear, that food policy has to be linked to industrial policy as well.

Perhaps it is too much to expect the government alone to fulfill the demands made on it. "There must be a continuous watch. And this watchdogging must be done by consumer protection groups," says Madhav Gautam of APROSC. Clearly, Nepal and the other Himalayan states need their educated public to be mindful of how their societies make their march towards the sometimes dubious, "rewards" of modernity and affluence. One important aspect of this modernising tide is the matter of nutrition. Government must remain alert and consumer groups must emerge to sound the alarm when things get out of hand, as they are beginning to. Somebody must watch the changing urban dietary landscape and be on the look-out for the possibly graver dislocations in the dietary standards of the hinterland.

Kadam Arjel is a Kathmandu writer who likes to keep track of how modernity affects traditional lifestyles.

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