Unsafe Food Preparation Habits: Steering Focus from Saving Money to Saving Lives

It was quite surprising to many listeners of a phone-in programme of a popular radio station in Abuja that food vendors were admitting on air that they still use paracetamol tablets to “soften” meat because it helps them to spend less on kerosene, cooking gas, firewood or charcoal.

According to them, no matter the quantity of meat, paracetamol will soften them within a few minutes of being placed on the fire. They added that the drug is also accessible and affordable as one sachet of 12 tablets is sold for only N50.

A bar attendant who claimed he is based in Mararaba, Nasarawa State, explained that when ten or twelve tablets of paracetamol are used to cook cow leg and skin popularly known as “ponmo”, they get very soft and ready for consumption within a few minutes.

The surprise was that even after this negative practice was roundly condemned when it was first reported about two years ago, when it was quite common in bars and pepper soup joints, there are still some food vendor holding on to this nefarious practice and endangering the lives of over 60 percent of Nigerians who eat out of home on a daily basis.

The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in its recent report described eating out or too much ordering of food as the possible cause of sudden sickness and death in both developed and developing countries. This report is corroborated by experts who believe that there are chemical substances that cause contamination and therefore make food unhealthy for human consumption, especially during preparation and processing.

The rate at which Nigerians are unsuspectingly consuming foods that are prepared with harmful substances is quite disturbing. Restaurants, eateries, and households in a bid to make cooking faster, use injurious items referred to as tenderizers such as paracetamol, nails, kerosene, potash, detergents or cleaning agents (to boost fermentation of cassava or prepare “foo foo” also known as “akpu”), among others.

With modernity and the changing role of women, many are either guilty of or complicit in this unwholesome practice by way of saving cost and time. Some do it out of ignorance while others do so deliberately, and it becomes a habit.

Some of such cooking practices emanate from cultural systems and traditions. Some women cook because of the way they were brought up. For instance, in a particular community, fish could be cooked for a whole day in an earthen pot so that the bones will crumble along with the flesh, not minding the health implications of such overcooking. Such a cooking pattern will obviously be different when compared with a belief system which emphasises that fish could be cooked for about an hour and then used for pepper soup. In this connection, accommodating differences and dissent will become a challenge. While one believes one’s method is a reality that cannot be changed, the other believes such experience is the standard for misery.

Experts reveal that benzene is one of the by-products of the degradation of paracetamol. For better understanding, benzene is equally the smell one inhales at petrol stations. It is poisonous and carcinogenic, meaning that it causes cancer. But the pharmacist is able to convert benzene into a useful product or drug called paracetamol.

Using paracetamol as a tenderizer in cooking will lead to degrading and destroying the process of producing the drug, Hence, freeing up benzene that converts the paracetamol into a more deadly form. In other words, when paracetamol is heated, its components that have been put together under an ideal condition are disassembled.

Every food or drug that is taken has limits of acceptability. That is why in the pharmaceutical world, it is said that all drugs are poisons. It is a question of dosage. The dosage that will prevent death is different from the one that will cause loss of life.

Health practitioners say the reason why 500mg paracetamol, for example, is recommended is because the pharmacist has done their laboratory research that enables them give out information through a literature leaflet in the drug pack containing laboratory investigation including the therapeutic dose that can cure a particular ailment.

Drug abuse and misuse are not only limited to the use of tramadol, codeine, among others. The habit of using paracetamol as a tenderiser is also a form of drug abuse and misuse because there is no mode or mechanism of regulating the dose.

Medical authorities warn that paracetamol is not for everybody. Because of some people’s lifestyles and health issues, they are not allowed to take paracetamol. Such persons include pregnant women because the babies’ organs are just developing, and their exposure to harmful chemicals is detrimental. Alcoholics, those with compromised liver, among others, are also exempted from taking paracetamol. These people are encouraged to talk to their doctors before taking paracetamol if need be. But when paracetamol is incorporated into the food system, it becomes dangerous as these restrictions are removed.

Ponmo (animal skin) is injected with chemicals or potash to soften it during cooking. Since the chemical stays in the skin of the ponmo even though some argue that it is superficial, it becomes very dangerous.

Public health practitioners are of the view that people who are at risk of hypertension, should not consume food items such as beans cooked with potash. It raises risk of hypertension and complicates hypertensive condition. As a remedy, one can pick the dirt in beans, wash, soak and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. By the time it is placed on the fire, it won’t take that long to cook. Slow cooking is the way to go.

Food issues are very delicate in the sense that whatever is consumed, determines whether one lives or dies. Adding substances while cooking is highly toxic and could lead to devastating health challenges. The liver can be damaged which adversely affects other vital organs of the body.

Research indicates that the liver is the organ which metabolises or breaks down the drug that we take in, so that the useful part can go to where it is needed and do the job it is supposed to do. The liver takes out toxic products but when it is given excess work to do, it can shut down and the kidney can be compromised. When the liver is unable to carry out its assignment, it collapses.

Health specialists say carbon-monoxide from generator fumes and other sources can kill because it has a higher affinity to blood (haemoglobin) than oxygen. In science, it is called “shifting the curve to the left.” In the same manner, the affinity of paracetamol to blood is even higher than that of carbon-monoxide to blood. This forms a very harmful compound that can cause immediate liver failure.

Findings reveal that in using nails as a tenderiser, radicals or chemicals such as iron and lead are freed or released and they go into the body to do all kinds of harm. This is achieved through a leaching process where some of the trace elements of the nail can act as a catalyst that speeds up certain chemical reactions. According to experts, lead causes madness because it affects the brain.

These dangerous substances complicate our health conditions as records show that there are more cases of liver, renal, and kidney failures now than was the case in the past.

However, studies show that there are available natural tenderisers such as the juice extracted from pawpaw leaves, the middle stock of the pineapple, among others. These natural ingredient-based tenderisers can also be converted into powder forms at the industrial level.

Industry experts should find a way of utilising research results already domiciled in the academia. These can be developed into diagnostic tools that will serve as markers to ascertain the presence or otherwise of paracetamol and other toxic substances in food items.

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Health analysts suggest that beans pudding (moimoi) should not be wrapped in cellophane, nylon, aluminium containers, among others. The way to go is to use natural broad leaves to wrap moimoi, okpa, among others, and cook, just like the way agidi is prepared.

The problem we have is lack of proper sensitisation mechanism. As a nation, there is a need for a deliberate action or policy to begin to address the use of drugs and other harmful elements in cooking. It is time to bring these unhealthy food practices to public consciousness, and put measures in place to curb such excesses of individuals trying to cut cost at the detriment of innocent food-loving Nigerians.

Additionally, it is pertinent to increase the expertise and capacity of food regulators to improve compliance and sanitary requirements in food processing enterprises. Government on the other hand, should make more robust, its cooperation with the private sector to implement a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)-based food safety management system, in line with international requirements for food hygiene practices.


Categories: Features, Food, Health