Dangers of artificial ripening of fruits and vegetables

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Mysore, September 16: Fruits are a good source of vitamins and minerals, and play an important role in preventing vitamin C and vitamin A deficiencies. People who eat fruits as part of an overall healthy diet generally have a reduced risk of chronic diseases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends five servings of fruits and vegetables every day for a healthy living.

However,
health benefits of fruits depend on how they are ripened. The
best course will be to allow them to ripen on the plant itself. After proper
maturity, fruits ripen in nature by using many physical and biochemical events.
This process is irreversible and leads towards what is called senescence. The
fruits become soft, change in colour, and develop characteristic aroma and
flavour, with increase in sugar level and reduction in acid content. Many
factors influence the process of ripening including temperature and relative
humidity.

It
is not always possible to wait for the fruit to ripen naturally. More often
than not, they need to be transported over long distances and if they had been
harvested in a ripe stage, they get spoilt before reaching their destination.
For such situations, farmers harvest them much before they get ripe. The
traders then ripen them artificially at the destination using certain chemicals.

Most fruits produce
a gaseous compound called ethylene that
starts the ripening process.
Its level in under-ripe fruit is
very low, but as the fruits develop,
they produce larger amounts of the chemical that speeds up the ripening process or the stage
of ripening known as
the “climacteric.” Recent studies have shown ethylene regulates the
expression of several genes, which are involved in fruit ripening. These
enzymes convert complex polysaccharides into simple sugars and make the skin of
the fruits soft. In artificial ripening, this
process is mimicked using chemicals.

The
most commonly used chemical is called ethephon (2-chloroethylphosphonic acid). It
penetrates into the fruit and decomposes ethylene. Another chemical that is
regularly used is calcium carbide, which produces acetylene, which is an
analogue of ethylene. It is, however, fraught with several problems. It is
explosive in nature and studies have shown that it breaks down the organic
composition of vitamins and other micronutrients. Besides, it changes only the
skin colour: the fruit remains raw inside. In addition, industrial grade
calcium carbide is often found contaminated with trace amounts of arsenic and
phosphorus, which are toxic chemicals.

The symptoms of arsenic and phosphorous poisoning include
vomiting, diarrhoea with / without blood, weakness, burning sensation in the
chest and abdomen, thirst, problem in swallowing, burning of eyes, permanent
eye damage, ulcers on the skin, mouth, nose and throat.

Other symptoms include throat sores, cough, wheezing and
shortness of breath. Consumption of artificially ripened mangoes can upset stomach.
It damages the mucosal tissue in the stomach and disrupts the intestinal
function. If a person is exposed to the chemicals for a long time, they can causes
peptic ulcers.

According to studies, calcium carbide can also affect the
neurological system by inducing prolonged hypoxia. It causes symptoms like
headache, dizziness, high sleepiness, memory loss, cerebral oedema, numbness in
the legs and hands, general weakness, cold and damp skin, low blood pressure
and seizure. Pregnant women particularly need to be very careful and should not
consume such fruits and vegetables.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of
India
(FSSAI) has banned calcium carbide under the Prevention of Food
Adulteration (PFA) Act, 1954. Anyone using it can be imprisoned for three years
along with a fine of Rs 1000. However, no effective action plan has been
devised to implement it.

How to know whether a fruit has been artificially ripened
or not? What should one do if they are? One can distinguish the
artificially ripened fruit. They will have uniform skin colour in fruits like
tomato, mango, papaya, and in the case of banana, the fruit will be yellow while
the stem will be dark green. The fruits would also have lesser flavour and have
shorter shelf-life. Also, if the fruits are available before season, it could
mean they are artificially ripened. Washing and peeling the fruits before eating can
minimise the risks of calcium carbide. Analysis in standard laboratories can
also be done to find out whether they are contaminated.

By Dr Renu Agrawal

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