Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

What did you use to wash your hair, when you were a child?

I used soap, so did most of my friends and acquaintances. None of them used shampoo.

We didn’t cry much when the soap lather went into our eyes. We didn’t need tear-proof shampoo. The products were safe, we thought, since they were made mainly from olive oil from the Levant.

Our families used Nabulsi soap produced only in the West Bank city of Nablus. It is called a Castile soap, since it originated in the Spanish region of Castile. Even today, many prefer the odourless ivory-coloured Nabulsi soap.

Mediterranean people in Syria and Lebanon used “Aleppo soap”, made from olive and laurel oil.

Over the years, we have moved away from the products used by our parents and their parents. We have now turned to products with chemicals and artificial ingredients.

So it’s alarming to learn from the reports that “harmful ingredients” were found in the samples of Johnson & Johnson’s baby shampoo in India and some other countries.

The American company rejected the claims, but it threw open the door for a debate on the dangers of products in the market today.

Many products, including foodstuffs, have ingredients that are harmful for health.

Why is this? The rapid pace of our lives forces us to opt for convenient alternatives.

That convenience comes at a price. Packaged food will have preservatives and flavour enhancers — all artificial ingredients.

Some of them may be hazardous in the long run.

Genetically Modified food

Even paint, perfumes and other products could contain chemicals that endanger our health.

Some years back, reports said that toys contained lead, mercury and other heavy metals that could damage the child’s nervous and immune systems.

But food poses the biggest challenge. One of my friends, a medical professional, convinced me to throw away any food in my kitchen that has MSG (Monosodium glutamate) on the label. MSG is a processed flavour enhancer; it’s a sodium salt of glutamic acid.

Although it has not been directly linked to any health issues yet, it’s still a chemically processed salt.

Some argue that chemicals have to be used to produce large quantities of food to meet the increasing demands of a growing population around the world.

This argument has been used to justify the production of genetically-modified (GM) food grains. And it certainly has a downside since our bodies may not be designed to handle GM food.

The current trend is to opt for organic stuff and chemical-free products. But older generations were doing just that. They even used to make jams, pickles, tomato paste, and dried meat — all of which were stored without artificial preservatives. It helped them stay healthy.

These days, we do not know what our food contains. Are we sure that the corn, the bread, the chicken and the vegetables we consume are free of chemicals, hormones, pesticides, artificial flavours and preservatives? No, not at all. Unless the vegetables and chicken are home-grown and the food home-made. It is difficult to trust ingredients in any product that is coming from outside our kitchens.

Read the labels

Even the food labels are not of much help. I feel some companies deliberately make it impossible to read the nutrition labels by using tiny fonts. Even when you can read the label, we can’t understand some of the ingredients, unless we have a degree in chemistry.

My dieticians offered some tips: If a product has more than five ingredients, question it. If there are strange names, question it. Also, the main ingredient should be the top item on the label.

For example, if it is chocolate milk, it should have three words: milk, cocoa and sugar. Otherwise, it is not chocolate milk.

That brings us to sugar.

It’s general knowledge that refined sugar can be harmful in large quantities. It’s easy to mask the sugar content in a product. There are at least 56 different names used for sugar in a label, including raw sugar, corn syrup, Florida crystal, lactose, Maltodextrin, sorbitol and so on. They all mean sugar.

How do we stay out of harm’s way?

The internet is a good place to start. It will give us a good idea of what is permitted for consumption in each country. Next is to start reading the food labels. Over time, we will learn to understand the contents of food products.

When I shop for groceries, it is comforting to find that the queue for organic vegetables is getting longer. More and more items are available from local producers.

There’s no need to buy expensive imported items with big carbon footprints.

Let’s eat safe. Live safe.