Artificial Ripening: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Ripening is the process by which fruits attain desirable qualities making them palatable. Generally, fruits become sweeter and less green as they ripen. Many fruits are harvested in unripe conditions itself and are allowed to ripen by the natural release of ethylene – which is a ripening hormone – in the fruit itself. However, fruit suppliers and dealers cannot wait for nature to take its own course of action due to the time and risks involved and hence jump in with some of their own measures.

Natural ripening however is a time taking and cumbersome process. Stocking up of unripe fruits is a waste of storage space, waste of time and thus a loss in revenue for suppliers and dealers in the agribusiness. Faster the fruits and vegetables ripen, faster can their marketing be done and faster will the profits be generated. Moreover, a significant amount of fruits become undesirable after the process of natural ripening where high weight loss, desiccation of fruits and uneven ripening remain a common problem.

For example, Mango fruits exposed to 100 ppm ethylene gas for 24 hours ripen in just 5 days as opposed to 10 days when they are left to ripen on their own. Thus artificial ripening not only helps create faster revenue for the agriculture industry but also helps keeps prices of these fruits in control. This is because if the demand of these fruits exceeds the supply, it does not take much time for the prices to rocket sky high levels. Thus to fulfil the demand of the consumers and out of their own self-interest, many traders are now use artificial methods of ripening fruits and vegetables. While ripening using the ethylene gas does not seem to have any harmful effects, there are chemicals like Calcium Carbide which have significant ramifications for human health.

The Ugly side of Artificial Ripening

The artificial ripening of fruits using Calcium Carbide is still quite prevalent even though the substance has been banned. When Calcium Carbide comes in contact with moisture it produces an unsaturated hydrocarbon gas named acetylene which is similar in nature to the natural ripening agent ethylene. But industrial grade Calcium Carbide contains traces of Arsenic and Phosphorus which are carcinogenic to humans. Also, the acetylene which is released upon the reaction of Calcium Carbide and moisture is an inflammable gas and poses fire hazards to its users. Nevertheless there are numerous fruits like bananas where traders ripen fruits in enclosed chambers and water is sprinkled before the chambers are sealed. According to an officer at the Tamil Nadu Food Safety and Drug Administration Department, “Ethephone, an insecticide, is another chemical used for the purpose. Some vendors also resort to burning kerosene stove or incense sticks in closed rooms to quicken the process of ripening”. He says that even though artificial ripening has been completely banned by the FSSAI in India, the practice is still quite prevalent.

It can be observed that even though fruits ripened with Calcium Carbide might have a more uniform colour and texture, they are inferior in taste, flavour and have shorter shelf lives. Also the effects on human health might be disastrous. Symptoms of Arsenic and Phosphorus poisoning include vomiting, diarrhoea, burning sensation in the chest, thirst, weakness, difficulty in swallowing, irritation in the eyes, permanent damage to the eyes, skin ulcers, sore throat, and a general shortness of breath. Additionally, Calcium Carbide being an alkaline substance, wears out the tissues in the stomach and intestines. Acetylene gas, which is released when Calcium Carbide comes in contact with moisture, affects the neurological systems of the human body. This might happen if the fruits and vegetables ripened using Calcium Carbide are not washed properly and produces effects such as headaches, mental confusion, memory loss, mood swings, cerebral oedema (swelling in the brain caused by excessive fluids) and seizures. Even though Rule 44-AA of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act and Rules prohibits the use of carbide gas for fruit ripening, the practice is still pretty prevalent.

How to mitigate the effects of such practices?

“Not only is it harmful to the consumers, but it is also dangerous to handle calcium carbide and acetylene because of their explosive properties. The chemical is so reactive that it causes blisters, if it is touched unknowingly with wet hands,” says Dr Mahajan who is a Horticulturalist at Punjab Horticulture Post-Harvest Technology Centre. Calcium Carbide is not the end of the story though. Green vegetables are dipped in artificial colours to give them a fresh and pleasant look even though the PFA rules explicitly prohibit such practices. Also pesticide residues and heavy metal contaminants are often found in many fruits and vegetables these days. Hence some precautionary measures need to be taken so as to mitigate any chances of harm caused by the chemicals used for artificial ripening such as:

  • Fruits should be washed thoroughly with potable running water in order to completely wash away the chemicals used for ripening.
  • Peeling off the fruits before consumption helps remove any leftover chemicals that might be present in spite of washing. thing
  • Soaking fruits in a solution of 10% vinegar and 90 % water helps remove most of the pesticides. However care must be taken while washing fruits that have a thin outer skin like berries where the solution might damage the thin peelings.
  • Buying already cut fruits and vegetables from the open market should be avoided.
  • The outer leaves of green leafy vegetables like cabbage and lettuce should be discarded to minimise the chances of pesticides entering the body through their means.

Mangoes, Bananas, Papayas, Chiku, Dates and Tomatoes are the most prone to be artificially ripened using Calcium Carbide. Even though technological advancements and increased awareness of the biological structures of fruits and vegetables has allowed for superior products with higher nutritional value and longevity, it also brings greed along with it. “We periodically raid and check if fruits are being artificial ripened. In season, more than 10 raids are carried out and large amount of fruit that are artificially ripened destroyed on the spot”, says Dr. Hemant Desai who is the deputy commissioner of health in Surat. But even though there are plentiful of regulations to protect consumers from malpractices in the agribusiness, it is extremely difficult for the resource strained government to implement them. Till the time government finds a way to successfully do that the public will have to do with these sub-par products. Only increased awareness and activism from the consumers in this regard will have the required impact on the market. “The consumer movement should be strengthened by the government through involvement of consumers. Additionally, the execution of the law should be non-compromising,” aptly concludes V.B.J. Chelikani Rao of United Federation for Residential Welfare Societies.

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