Next time you gorge on a pile of fried snacks at a roadside eatery, think again.

A recent survey report has revealed that almost 60 per cent of the used cooking oil (UCO), which, according to scientists, raises the risk of contracting non-communicable diseases, including cancer, heart ailments and organ damage, often finds its way back into the food stream.

Observer Research Foundation (ORF), in association with Koan Advisory Group and Finland-based Neste, in a report revealed that the re-use of UCO by commercial food business operators (FBOs) is pervasive, especially among small establishments and street vendors, who often utilise black, smoked oil till the last drop.

As many as 505 (101 large-sized and 406 small-sized) food business operators (FBOs), including street vendors and small establishments, across four metros -- Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai -- were surveyed in the study.

According to Amit Javed, Director, Gastrointestinal Surgeries, CK Birla Hospital, “Re-using cooking oil causes free radicals in the oil to get released. These free radicals are carcinogenic. Reusing cooking oil may lead to stomach cancer and cancer in the food pipe, apart from heart disease. Cooking oil mustn't be reused even once. Regulatory agencies have prepared guidelines on the proper use of cooking oil, which must be adhered to, in the interest of public health and wellbeing."

RUCO initiative

In India, consumption of UCO in any form is strictly prohibited under food safety guidelines. The Food and Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) launched Repurpose Used Cooking Oil (RUCO) initiative – under which UCO was collected and converted to biodiesel -- to combat the health menace.

"The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has regularly advised food business operators (FBOs) to replace cooking oils when the Total Polar Compounds (TPC) levels reach 25 per cent, as reusing cooking oil aggravates risks of atherosclerosis, hypertension, liver diseases, and Alzheimer's. Proper enforcement of regulatory guidelines on the management of UCO is critical in the interests of public safety, health and well-being,” said Oommen Kurian, Senior Fellow, Health Initiative, ORF, and co-author of the report.

By directing used cooking oil from human consumption to renewables production, India can mitigate the public health risk and combat the climate crisis simultaneously, said Steven Bartholomeusz, head of public affairs in the Asia-Pacific region at Neste, a company specialising in renewables.

The report underlined the need for greater collaboration among the government food safety authorities, networks of doctors, nutritionists and experts and private sector organisations to create an evidence-driven regulatory and policy framework that drives behavioural change and consumer awareness reducing the diversion of toxic waste oils back into the system.