What are kids in government schools in Karnataka expected to avoid in their meals? Onion, garlic and eggs, if one were to go by the agency entrusted with supplying mid-day meals in the state's government schools.
A section of civil society has written an open letter to the National Institute of Nutrition for its report endorsing the Akshaya Patra Foundation's (APF) no-onion-garlic-eggs policy for government school kids in Karnataka. “APF has refused to provide eggs or use onion and garlic in the food supplied because it considers these foods as ‘tamasik’. Onion and garlic, part of the traditional food items such as sambhar in Karnataka, are a part of the menu prescribed by the state government,” the letter states. However, the non-inclusion of these two ingredients by APF was raised by the Karnataka State Food Commission and civil society groups. The state government then asked ICMR-National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad and Central Food Technical Research Institute, Mysuru, for technical inputs on nutritional adequacy, bio-availability, diet diversity, taste and food safety and hygiene.
The letter states that in its response, CFTRI refused to comment on the nutritional quality, taste, diversity and safety of food supplied by APF. It has instead asked for “sufficient time and resources to do a proper assessment”. NIN, however, has made “sweeping statements” praising APF, without carrying out any “systematic scientific” study. “No empirical data was collected on the quantity and quality of ingredients used, or amount consumed and wasted by children to certify food supplied by APF as nutritionally adequate. Instead, a paper menu submitted by APF, was considered evidence enough to comment on an aspect of the scheme which have nutritional impact on lakhs of children,” the letter states. The NIN also “did not visit a single school” and did not speak to children consuming the food.
Citing an earlier research paper by the CFTRI on the subject of bio-accessibility of food grains in the presence of onion and garlic, Bengaluru-based public health expert Dr Sylvia Karpagam said that the government ought to support the use of these ingredients given the nutrition benefits. “The CFTRI research tells us that onion and garlic enhanced iron bio-accessibility [quantity of a compound released from its matrix in the gastro-intestinal tract, becoming available for absorption] from both cereals and pulses, the per cent increase in iron bio-accessibility ranging from 9 to 66 in cereals, and from 10 to 73 in pulses. A similar enhancing effect was also seen on zinc bio-accessibility,” said Karpagam. The research says that bio-availability of micro-nutrients such as iron and zinc is particularly low from plant foods, which is why adding onion and garlic can benefit greatly.
However, the eagerness exhibited by NIN to offer opinions in this case, in absence of any scientific field evaluation, raises serious questions regarding NIN's credibility and independence, concerned individuals and groups state in their letter.
The groups alleging NIN of being “unscientific” also recognise its contribution to “nutrition research and evidence-building”, and acknowledge having used its work to secure “right to food” for Indian citizens.
In a written response to THE WEEK, the National Institute of Nutrition, however, has said that their comments on the issue were sought by the "concerned authorities" in the Karnataka government in January. "We were asked to comment on nutritional diversity, compliance (to state government norms) of the mid-day-meals provided by the Akshaya Patra Foundation (APF). As per the request, we computed macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients from the meal recommended by the Karnataka government and the meal provided by the APF, from published scientific data of the Institute [Indian Food Composition Table (IFCT-NIN) and Nutritive Value of Indian Foods (NVIF)]. It is an accepted norm to assess the nutritional quantity and quality of food using these computational methods from the quantities of ingredients that go into making it," according to the NIN.
The nutrition body said that they made comparisons between the menus suggested by the government and the menus that were reported as being supplied by APF. "We commented on the reported menus, and nowhere have we commented on the quantities consumed by children who are receiving MDM either through APF or government as the state government never asked us about this. We stand by our response to the Karnataka government," the NIN has said.
On the issue of bio-availability of micro-nutrients, the NIN has contended that the bio-availability of nutrients would "definitely increase with addition of vegetables". On the importance of onion and garlic in food, the NIN has said that they acknowledge CFTRI’s study (which the activist groups are referring to) that shows 0 to 5 per cent increase in bio-availability of iron and zinc compared to plain rice without onion and garlic. However, the NIN has cited evidence to the contrary—"in-vitro studies from Taiwan reported that onion and garlic inhibit iron absorption in a rice-based meal".
Besides, the Institute says that ongoing in-vitro studies at its premises show that tomato, lemon and other vegetables can improve the iron bio-availability by 8 to 10 per cent. These are being recommended as alternatives to onion and garlic. "Looking at each vegetable or compound in isolation and implicating it to the overall nutritional quality of composite meal is not justifiable. For that matter, it has been scientifically proven time and again that addition of vegetables/fruits or some spices to rice/millet preparations certainly improves bio-availability of iron as well as micro-nutrients and better contributes to the overall health. Therefore, NIN has no hesitation in saying that most vegetables/fruits improve bio-availability of micro-nutrients and hence can be used interchangeably."