Biscuits and chai are an inseparable jodi (i.e. couple). Most Indian families consume them daily. Kids eat biscuits as a snack almost daily. You look at it – especially the ones we grew up with Parle G, Krackjack, Marie etc. – most of them have simple packaging, simple prices, everyone is buying it. So, it should be alright??
Of course, I get that biscuit is a great equalizer. The same Parle G biscuit packet could function as a meal for someone poor, a snack for a middle class rail traveler or a fun ingredient that a fancy restaurant chef plays with.
But nowadays, the biscuit shelf in the grocery store keeps getting bigger and bigger – more flavors, more cream biscuits, more multigrain choices, etc.
But, have you tried to read the ingredient list in your biscuit packet? Shouldn’t biscuits be just made of:
- Leavening (Baking powder)
But instead you will see a line of ingredients after that. Like:
- DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Ester of Mono- and Diglycerides)
- Enzymes (Bacterial Protease, Fungal Alpha Amylase)
- Emulsifiers (soy lecithin)
- Artificial Flavors, Colors
- Invert Sugars, Dextrose etc…
Have you tried to make sense out of it? Now, I am not saying they are good or bad – but why is an ingredient there? Once you understand the labels, you can make better purchasing decisions. Let’s dive right in.
What’s the deal with adding DATEM, Emulsifiers and Enzymes to biscuits?
Simple looking biscuits does not mean simple ingredients. In fact, the more thinly stamped out, bulk packed, simply packaged your biscuit is, the more likely that is has DATEM (Diacetyl Tartaric Acid Ester of Mono- and Diglycerides), Enzymes (Bacterial Protease, Fungal Alpha Amylase), and Emulsifiers like soy lecithin in its biscuit labels.
Why are these long-sounding ingredients being used? Enzymes (like protease, amylase) are used as: dough conditioners (reduce dough mixing time, improve dough machinability, etc) and anti-staling agents. DATEM and other emulsifiers are used for dough strengthening, to increase volume and provide a very uniform and fine crumb grain.
You probably read the whole above paragraph and still wondering – but why?? Think of it this way, Parle G apparently produces 400 million biscuits per day!! I mean, that number is insanely large.
Consider a packet of Parle G, Marie Gold or Nice Time biscuit. They are all stacked up neatly with only a thin wrapping separating the outside world from the product. But whether you bought the product 2 weeks OR 1 year after production, you expect to eat this biscuit:
- at a really low cost (which means machines are stamping out biscuits 24/7)
- that is not stale
- that is a 100% carbon copy of the biscuit you have eaten in the past (irrespective of supply variations)
- Biscuit that is hard enough to withstand transportation and stacking in shelves, but not too hard to eat.
For all these consumer expectations to happen, you have to add the above ingredients. Whether they are healthy or not, is it ‘natural’ or not is a decision you have to make. I will give you some links below to help you figure it out. But, now you know why these ingredients are added.
Should biscuits have preservatives? Technically no, they are a low moisture food. Plus, biscuits are very high in sugar (and we will discuss this in more detail below). What most people don’t realize is that sugar is not just a flavor, but it also functions as a preservative (eg Jams, candy etc).
Ingredient labels are listed in order of their weight. So, when a biscuit has low levels of sugar, like in Sweet and Salty flavors, it goes from #2 ingredient in the label to #3. So, in these flavors, fat (Palm oil) becomes #2 ingredient and your preservative will be listed as Sodium Metabisulphite.
This is a lose-lose situation. While we should be celebrating that the biscuit has low levels of sugar, the food scientists have to ensure (and rightfully so) that their product should not spoil. Now, the preservative levels in these biscuits are obviously low and approved by FSSAI and FDA, otherwise they would not be sold. But, eating way too many of them can impact your health.
Is Sodium metabisulphite bad for everybody? No, however, if you or your child have an increased risk to asthma, know that sulphite-induced asthmatic symptoms can range from mild in some individuals, to very severe in others including triggering of bronchconstriction in asthmatic patients. Here’s a link to the study detailing adverse reactions to sulphite additives.
Sugar, Sugar and More sugar
Biscuits have all kinds of sugar hiding in their ingredient labels. Look for sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, invert sugar, etc. They all add up!!
Look at this label – Sugar is #1 ingredient – even more than wheat flour!!
Artificial Flavors and Colors abound!!
I feel that with the low cost biscuits, there is low expectations. At least, there is no hypocrisy. But, with the more ‘sophisticated’ biscuits consumers can be fooled into thinking high quality packaging always means high quality ingredients.
The whiff of elaichi, almond or vanilla that you smell when you open the packet is not from real spices or flavors. They almost all have artificial flavors. (Again remember 12 months from date of manufacture, no real elaichi can possibly smell that fresh).
Some have artificial colors. So, the orange in your orange cream biscuit has 0 real orange in it. The color is artificial, the flavor is artificial.
Even now, after the last decade of people fighting against trans fats, the biscuit market continues to use hydrogenated oils in their products.
This is such a shame, since this particular Haldiram’s packet, shown below, has almost all clean ingredients otherwise!!
Some companies are so afraid to use the word hydrogenated fats or trans fats, that they hide behind words like vegetable fat.
Why do we Indians eat so much biscuits? As it is, we eat roti and rice and all sorts of carbs.
The irony is that, we Indians will drink tea without sugar, but eat it with biscuits – hello, the biscuit is loaded with all kinds of simple and complex sugars!! Our kids are forever snacking on biscuits – how is this a good food habit?
- Turn your biscuit packet over. Read the ingredients label and make sure your kids also read the ingredient label. This will introduce some barrier/ resistance before stocking up the cart with various flavors.
- Cut your current biscuit usage by half, whatever that may be (2 biscuits a day to 1, 1 biscuits a day to 1 every 2 days and so on)
***Edit: Based on repeated questions in Twitter and emails asking me advice on how to buy the right brand- I wanted to add 1 more – Avoid buying biscuits that have
- Trans fats
- Artificial Colors
Studies published on these 3 ingredients (links included in the post) suggest health issues on prolonged use (especially on trans fats). Based on my current knowledge of evidence (date stamp: July 2021), there have been no large scale papers connecting DATEM, enzymes, artificial flavors or other emulsifiers with any serious health concerns.
I love food scientists, but I think they should be solving better problems – like, how about making shelf stable sundal packets, or freeze dried Indian veggie or fruit snacks or canning neer-morr (spiced buttermilk)? They shouldn’t be wasting their energies trying to get more biscuit varieties on our shelf. As a consumer, you have to vote with your wallet and nudge the companies to do their part!!
What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Post your thoughts on your biscuit purchasing habits and ideas down below.
- Bakerpedia: Absolutely brilliant website that will give you information on any baking ingredient listed in your favorite’s biscuit’s label
- Enzymes as a way for food manufacturers to make clean food labels.
- Ingredients banned in Whole foods (Hint: Most Indian biscuits will not make the cut)
- Identification of an unauthorized genetically modified bacteria in food enzyme