Is your Alphonso safe to eat?

Is your Alphonso safe to eat?

Every summer, the stories are as seasonal as the fruit. As Alphonso mangoes flood Mumbai markets in May, so too do allegations of them being toxic due to artificial ripening with calcium carbide. 

This year, it was kicked off by a widely circulated video shot in the Vashi wholesale market. A man is shown packing a box with green mangoes and then spraying them. In an accompanying message, the person who shot the video writes that labourers say all mango brokers used “carbide” to ripen the fruit and earn money faster: “All consumers are paying a premium price for purchasing the fruit and are buying ‘Poison’ from fruit markets.” 

Soon after, raids from the Food and Drug Administration seized 109 dozens of mangoes to test for chemicals. A media report quoted doctors warning about “dizziness, headache, skin burning, allergy, vomiting and diarrhoea, to name a few” which could result from eating mangoes ripened using chemicals. Sometimes, the actions go beyond warnings: last year, a magistrate in Wardha sentenced a fruit seller to a year in jail for chemically induced ripening. 

This could be a classic example of doing the right deed for the wrong reason, because the physical danger to consumers from chemically induced ripening is debatable. Calcium carbide is undoubtedly dangerous when handled directly, but consumers of the fruit are only exposed to it indirectly — the symptoms described might as well come from eating what is essentially unripe fruit. 

Calcium carbide might not even be involved at all. Savvy fruit sellers in Mumbai are now labelling their boxes “carbide free”, but this still leaves them free to use 2-Chloroethylphosphonic Acid, a chemical more easily called ethephon (this was what was used in Wardha), or similar substances. Calcium carbide must be carefully handled in the solid form, but ethephon comes in the form of a liquid, which can be easily sprayed. 

Ethephon quickly converts to ethylene gas, which plants produce naturally to stimulate ripening. Calcium carbide reacts with water to produce acetylene gas, which is chemically similar enough to stimulate ripening. A 2007 study by the Institute for Agricultural Engineering in the Tropics and Subtropics at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart compared the effects of both on Thai mangoes and found ethephon more effective. But the study also compared them with naturally ripened fruit and found significant differences. The chemicals efficiently changed the look of the fruit, but not the texture and taste. “When eating ripeness was defined based on the characteristic developments of total soluble solids and the sugar/acid ratio, the required ripening time was not affected by the chemicals,” noted the report’s summary. 

Natural ripening is complex. Mark Schatzker, in his book The Dorito Effect, which examines how flavour is manipulated by the food industry, notes the edibility of fruits is not just about sweetness: “As a fruit ripens, its skin surrounds an eruption of minerals, colour, and aroma compounds. The mix of secondary compounds switches from unpleasant and repellent to attractive.” 

Artificial ripening cuts this complex change to just a few factors, like the look of a fruit. This suits large traders who can pick fruit when less than ripe, so it is firm and less likely to suffer in handling, and then flood them with ethylene before selling. But the complexity of natural ripening is lost, and this is all the more evident in Alphonsos, which are prized for their aroma and subtle flavours. 

This is the real reason to avoid artificially ripened fruit. But does it matter if health fears get people to do the same thing? The answer must be yes, because a misplaced motivation prevents people from finding real solutions. The problem with artificially ripened Alphonsos isn’t just the duplicity of traders, but also Mumbai’s manic fixation on just this one variety, which simply increases the incentive to cheat. 

For Alphonso farmers, so much annual income now literally hangs, highly perishably, from their trees, that it is really hard for them not to cut their risks, pluck early — well before May — and sell to traders. Yet, mango lovers who are willing to wait till the season really starts and are willing to put some effort into seeking out and consistently supporting farmers and traders still willing to take the risk of natural ripening will be rewarded with truly delicious, and healthy, fruit. 

The confusion that comes from being driven just by health claims comes up elsewhere, too. Honey, for example, is criticised for antibiotic contamination — but the real problem is that demand for cheap honey leads to companies importing it in bulk from Chinese beekeepers, who feed bees sugar syrup and farm them so intensely that the bees become disease-prone and require antibiotics. This honey is cheap, but might as well be sugar syrup, and can’t compare to far better tasting, and healthier, natural honey from smaller Indian apiarists. 

Delicious food is, of course, not always healthy. Deep fried snacks, like bhujia and chips are, sadly and irresistibly, proof of that. But healthy food can often be the more delicious option, if only we are willing to invest in understanding how it is produced and how the producers can get a fair price for the extra care they put in.

By BOA Bureau