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India’s Colorless Revolution: the History of our Oils Part 1

The interrelationships between agriculture, food, cooking and health are highly complex and profoundly significant. A characteristic of complex relationships is that a change in any one component will have effects on the viability and functioning of each of the others. In India, where native seeds such as mustard, groundnut, sesame (til) and coconut are traditionally cultivated for their oil, this linkage can be clearly seen. With high oil content, these seeds are traditionally extracted by cold pressing, an activity suited to small scale production and which utilizes non-hazardous low-impact technologies. The resulting oils are nutritious, and high in natural flavors. And since they are traditionally used and stored in their unrefined state, they are long-lasting.

A large proportion of the Indian population is vegetarian and therefore, since they are the main source of dietary fats, choices of edible vegetable oil are of great importance. In each region, distinct oils are used for cooking and food preparation. In south India coconut, in the east and north mustard, in Rajasthan sesame, and in central India and Gujarat groundnut oil is used. The specific choice of edible oil in the various regions is based upon traditional eating and cooking habits which in turn depend on local availability, local soils and India’s often arid climate. Thus there exists a virtuous circle in which agriculture, cuisine and health are mutually supportive.

Relatively recently, foreign oils – principally palm oil and soybean oil, but also sunflower and safflower, have been introduced into India. These oils, extracted with heat or solvents, are very high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) and are unsuited to Indian cooking methods or for long term storage. Sold only in a ‘pure’, i.e. highly refined, transparent and almost colorless form, and often fortified with vitamins, these oils are, in nutrition and health respects, inferior to traditional oils. However, because they are heavily advertised (often with spurious health claims), they are making inroads into the Indian market. And because of these changes, indigenous farmers are now receiving reduced prices for their mustard and sesame crops, production is now decreasing, and for many the virtuous circle has already been broken.

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