The festive season is just around the corner and everyone you know is probably gearing up for Diwali. Gifts, goodies, and all manner of wonderful things await.
But nothing truly captures the spirit of India’s biggest festival quite like the mithais that accompany it.
Halwa. Laddoos. Gulab jamun. And of course, that king of confectionery, barfi. No Diwali is complete without enough sugary treats to make even Halloween think you’re taking things too far.
And the best part of it all? You’re actively encouraged to gobble the stuff down under the indulgent gaze of your parents, family, and friends. Otherwise known as the people who delight in spending the remainder of the year passing unflattering comments about your physique.
But as with so many other things, this indulgence comes at a price. One piece of barfi can contain between 12 to 15 grams of sugar in a 30-gram slice. Why else did you think it tasted so good?
And trust me when I say that no one has ever stopped at just one piece.
I can tell you’re rolling your eyes at me for stating the obvious: "Holiday sweets are loaded with obscene amounts of sugar! Gasp. Alert the police."
And that’s an understandable reaction. But what if I were also to tell you that sugar is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unhealthy ingredients in our festive sweets?
I thought that might catch your attention.
Once you've moved past the firecrackers and the diyas, one of the most enduring images of any Diwali celebration is the endless rows of mithai. And sitting atop them, a paper-thin sheet of glittering silver leaf.
India has always been a wealthy country. And what better display of riches is there than to literally eat it? Silver leaf has been an integral part of our culinary heritage for centuries and remains an enduring icon of both Mughlai and Awadhi cuisine.
Of course, we didn’t just eat the stuff because we could. Silver is highlighted in Ayurvedic texts for its medicinal properties. Its antimicrobial properties ensured that the food we ate was free of any bacterial growth, while also preventing spoilage in an age when ice was the only form of refrigeration.
Unfortunately, silver doesn’t come cheap. Which is why that tempting layer of "varak" may have more in common with aluminium foil than would think. Adulteration and substitution are rampant in the market, and even toxic heavy metals such as nickel, lead, and cadmium have been known to make their way into silver leaf.
Although this may alarm you, there are a few simple tests you can perform to ensure that the silver you’re eating is pure. The first is to rub the suspect leaf between the palms of your hand. Pure silver will flake and disappear, but anything adulterated with aluminium will turn into a tiny ball. An even easier method is to run your finger across a sweet. If any of the leaf sticks to your finger, it’s likely to be adulterated.
However, the easiest method is to buy your mithai from a reputed sweetshop. You may pay a premium but your peace of mind is worth any price. But before you pat yourself on the back for a job well done, there’s also the matter of ensuring that the pure silver you’re eating is ethically sourced and 100 percent vegetarian.
You’re rolling your eyes again. I can tell. After all, what on earth is vegetarian silver?
I’ll answer your question with a question: have you ever wondered how those fine, thin sheets of silver are produced?
And if your answer is “in a machine”, you’d almost always be wrong. Instead, one of the most widely used methods of preparing silver involves the intestines of cattle.
This industry-wide practise sees manufacturers purchase intestines from slaughterhouses as soon as the animal is killed (and before their innards stiffen and become unusable). After stitching the intestines together to form a booklet, sheets of silver are then placed between them and hammered till they turn into thin wafers – which happen to be the final product you find on your sweets.
Despite an attempt to ban this practice by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), India’s food regulatory agency, this method remains alive and well, and is likely responsible for producing the majority of the "varak" you’ve eaten.
Not only is this practice repugnant to our senses socially, morally, and religiously, it also results in a product that is contaminated and potentially unsafe to consume.
A Silver Lining
Faced with all of these revelations, you’d be forgiven for giving up on mithai entirely. Especially since the only available options seem to be poisoning yourself with shoddy silver substitutes or eating pure silver that’s been prepared in the intestinal tract of a cow. But don’t despair!
India’s food manufacturing space has undergone a revolution, and a generation of ethically- and environmentally-conscious companies have arisen. They share your values and concerns and are actively challenging the status quo. And what better time to take a stand than during Diwali.
Certain manufacturers have recognised that customers need new options when it comes to Diwali mithai. To that end, they’ve gone to a great deal of effort to ensure that the silver they use is pure and ethically sourced.
By sourcing the metal from reliable suppliers, and using specialised machinery to turn it into the final product, their sweets offer the public an alternative they never knew they needed – until now.
Sometimes good does triumph over evil. And victory has never tasted sweeter.