Indic Food Labeling – A Manthan

Author: Prof. K Gopinath.

Editorial Note: Prof. Gopinath in an incisive piece (with illuminating Notes), highlights the issues that need to be considered. not just in terms of strategy but also calls out to activists and public intellectuals to be honest and true to India’s civilizational pedigree, when pursuing efforts on changes to Food Labeling. The efforts should not be knee jerk or reactive, but rather should carefully consider many deep issues, issues requiring public manthan before pursuing quick-fix policy changes.


There is now a demand for Govt certified “Dharmik meat” or other Dharmik products, spearheaded by an advocate Ishkaran Bhandari (2020). This is an important issue in the current context: while food has traditionally been “processed” mostly at home or at small scale, in the recent past (say, about the last ten decades) the market is now an active intermediary. Thus food and its processing is beholden to market’s own imperatives (financial, ideological, ecological, civilizational) with gross distortions possible (for example, preferential access to rice vs millets, carbonated drinks vs buttermilk/“elneer” (coconut water), or cattle ranching in colonies or neo-colonies, etc). Historically, an important component of the impetus for colonization and neo-colonization has been access and control over food sources and its processing. Furthermore, “the use of animals, the food technology, is essentially completely responsible for [the] catastrophic collapse in global biodiversity.”[1]

In the current context, food labelling is often the point at which choice is exercised between the producer and consumer. Maybe it is therefore appropriate to expand the denotation of the word Dhārmika for food labelling also, using the traditional गुण categories this way[2]:

a) धार्मिक (सात्विक): food that encourages सात्विक behaviour, typically vegetarian food (including milk and its products).

b) धार्मिक (राजसिक): food that encourages क्षात्र behaviour, this includes झट्का which is fine traditionally with kshatrīya-s, shramajīvī-s and many others. Halal is excluded from this as it has inspiration from a completely different model.

c) तामसिक has a negative sense but can be used to indicate that some food item has fermented alcoholic component or other despoiled food items (such as with high fungus content).

Such a labelling can be seen as a heuristic due to the various complexities that we  discuss below. For example, there can be further differentiations as necessary such as

धार्मिक (जीन), धार्मिक (हिंदु), …

धार्मिक (वंग) [geographic, may include fish],

धार्मिक (मध्व) [sampradāya],

धार्मिक (पर्व: एकादशी, श्राद्घ, …) [specific days, or observances].

But it is good to keep धार्मिक as the main high level label at the top level. We can also label

  1. Āyurvedic food preparations? धार्मिक (आयुर्वेद), esp. classification according to the dosha-s.
  2. Traditional food practices/preparations mentioned as धार्मिक (पारंपरीय)
  3. Newer labels since the last few decades, mostly picked up from outside the country: Whole Foods? Organic foods/preparation? May be धार्मिक (प्राकृत). Also, specific labels for lack of allergens (eg. peanuts in US, or gluten-free diets), for the commonly used lacto-ovo labels, or for medical reasons (eg. diabetes). What about genetically modified crops and organisms (GMOs)? What to make of marketing terms such as “probiotic”? Or, alternate food styles such as “macrobiotic”?

Labels are now conventionally given for processed/packaged food with nutrient information given compulsorily (as per Govt requirements) but sometimes also coloured optionally for “organic” (eg. green) or sometimes labels such as “farm fed” or “free ranging”. Dhārmika labels also attempt to capture the “process” of food production[3] but more as a primary marker. As “eating out” is a part of societal arrangements due to travel and entertainment reasons, we may need dhārmika labels for  cooking and food preparation processes[4], especially for hotels and restaurants.

Another aspect that may need consideration is the support for dinacharya and ritucharya among the Indic populations. Many do not consume food outside home for precisely the reason that such information is not available.

अधार्मिक can also be used for foods from “mass farming” of animals under extremely “inhuman” conditions such as practiced wrt chicken, cattle[5] etc. Also, it can be used for those animal farming practices with high chances of new viruses jumping to human  beings[6]. This label makes sense as अधार्मिक means also “not supporting”.

What about

  1. Meat substitutes, esp. future “vegetarian meat” (“alt-meat”)? These also have many GMOs. Is it राजसिक? Need some discussion[7]. Similarly, what to make of chimera? These are living forms that have genes from multiple plants/animals and could be designed for use as food. This is going to be common with genetic engineering; many medicines are already from chimera.
  2. Labelling to warn about non-ecological practices (such labels practical only in a negative sense!)? eg. whether non-local (high transport/storage, esp non-seasonal vegetables or meat from neo-“colonies”), has high carbon-footprint or high water usage[8], or has it furthered invasive species, or used “no-tilling” approaches? While beef-centric model is clearly unsustainable[9], a cow-based agronomy in India may not be as problematic due to availability of cattle for tilling and for fertilizer.
  3. “free trade” (no exploitation of growers): eg. coffee where it is now common in “progressive” circles.
  4. labelling to warn about undesirable geographic origins: eg. China (eg. mixing melanine for milk).

In general, food packaging should support URLs or QR codes that can point to detailed dhārmika provenance. May be also some notion of a dhārmika quotient (ie. some indication of the proportion involved in attempting to meet the dhārmika requirements wrt food[10]).

Given the above complexities wrt food labelling, it is not easy to signal to the consumer such information. One solution is a graphical notation such as the radar chart or Kiviat Graph[11]. For example, if the important issues are extent of animal origin, extent of food processing that is explicitly anti-Indic, how much cruelty or lack of compassion (incl. travel over long distances) in the food processing, the potential for green house warming and the amount of water needed in the processing, a 5 ray Kiviat graph can be used with high values on the radii being undesirable. Hence, a good label from the Indic perspective would be a small “dot” close to the centre (optionally with a green colour to agree with current labels) while a really bad label would be a large pentagon (with a red colour). Such diagrams can be quickly grasped by consumers.

Of course, this requires Govt and food industry support which is not going to be easy given anti-Indic sentiment.

May be companies like Patanjali should take a lead in formulating a comprehensive model and get its suppliers to follow the model and increase the acceptance of a Indic model based on guna-s more widely across the country and outside. These are civilizational imperatives and not following them, for example, has resulted in India being currently one of the largest exporter of meats, an ironical development in a country where Hindu, Jina and Buddhist thought for 2 or more millennia have supported ahimsa as a basic principle esp wrt “mūka” jīvī-s. With an Indic perspective, the situation may be different.

For example, Bajaj and Srinivas document in their book “Annaṁ Bahukurvīta” (Centre of Policy Studies, Madras, 1996) how the dharmika ecosystem over the millennia functioned during emergencies for relief, valorising the act of giving food as a solemn vow (tadvratam) (Taitt.U. 3.7-10) rather than expecting free market to work well during shortages[12].

Similarly, not following such imperatives results in Āyurvedic food (and other Indic food models) “digested” into non-Indic corporate food models just as it happened with Yoga.

Historically, what is now called “Mughal” food is likely to have been Indic styles of food preparation with meat as a newer ingredient, as Mughals (whose ancestors were Mongols) were originally nomads and did not have access to the sophisticated spices[13] that are part of Indic cooking for ages; note further that there is no such cuisine other than in the Indian subcontinent.

Conversely, outside India, some food establishments currently call themselves Indian restaurants even if run by those from the “neighbourhood” who are otherwise inimical to the very notion of India or the Indic civilization.

Food is a critical component in Bharatiya thinking (Taitt.U. 3.10 says “aham annam,.., aham annādah,..”); it permeates every aspect of its culture (see also Taitt.U.3.7-10).

Control over food processes, and its labeling, is essential proof that any sort of Indian Grand Narrative ,is even in play.

Lack of it is indicative , that we are too far ahead in the trajectory of enslavement to a Western Universalism: awaiting cultural genocide.



Notes & References :

[1] Prof. Pat Brown, former head of Stanford Medicine Genomics Lab. and founder of “Impossible Foods”. The Amazon forests or the forests in Indonesia are receding primarily due to pressure from commercial agriculture. Nearer home, the recent killing of a pregnant elephant in Kerala  is likely due to the subtle encouragement given by the ruling dispensation to favoured sections to occupy forest lands, against the advice of Gadgil recommendations on preserving Western Ghats.

[2] with the implicit अधार्मिक for halal, etc. Note that this is an overarching scheme and thus many details are left out in this short note, or further have to be worked out where necessary. More details makes the model complex and probably unusable. Hence, an usable model by definition will be problematic for some. See, for eg, Jon Kleinberg, Sendhil Mullainathan, “Simplicity Creates Inequity: Implications for Fairness, Stereotypes, and Interpretability,”  ACM Conference on Economics and Computation, 2019.

[3] Even the “means of production” in this case can be critical. Kolkata may not have been part of India if it were not for a local nationalist organization that organized local blacksmiths and butchers overnight to fight back during the “Direct Action Day” in 1946 when lumpens of the ruling party of that time were (Suhrawardy) were indulging in systematic massacres. See “Remembering Gopal Mukherjee, The Braveheart Who Saved Calcutta In 1946,”  Jaideep Mazumdar, Swarajya, Aug 19, 2017. Thus an exclusivist halal-economy has serious dangers for those outside of that system.

[4] The Michelin Star, used to rate hotels, and restaurants, is used implicitly as a powerful cultural tool by Western Universalists; there is a need for Indic equivalents. Note that even attempting to indicate Indic preferences (by end consumers) or signal Indic processes (by vendors) often results in police intervention due to the current toxic anti-Indic environment. We need to remove such asymmetries not only at the “janata” level but also at the premium segments also.

[5] Antibiotics, hormones and feed additives (incl. cattle meat-and-bone meal that has been held responsible as one factor in mad cow disease) are also commonly given to cows raised on an “industrial” scale.

[6] A recent book (“How to Survive a Pandemic” by Michael Greger, May 2020) warns of the danger of a pandemic triggered by chicken farms that could kill half the world’s population. See also his “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching” by Michael Greger, Lantern Books 2006. A review of this book by Chengfeng Qin and Ede Qin in “Virology Journal” 2007 Apr 30 says“…Chickens and other commercial birds are raised in closed, crowded, stressful and unsanitary industrial poultry facilities, offering the bird flu virus opportunities for infection, mutation and spread. The drastic changes in poultry farming worldwide will trigger the inevitable pandemic. Fortunately, it is not so harrowing, as the author states in the introduction of book, “If changes in human behavior can cause new plagues, changes in human behavior may prevent them in the future”. …

Yes, we can change. In the last sections of the book, Greger carefully details how to protect ourselves in the very likely event that a bird flu pandemic begins to sweep the world and how to prevent future pandemics. Dr. Greger’s simple and practical suggestions are invaluable for both nation and individual. The poultry industry should change, and “humanity must shift toward raising poultry in smaller flocks, under less stressful, less crowded, and more hygienic conditions, with outdoor access”.

[7] see a current article on the likely commercial success of this in https://www.outsideonline.com/2399736/impossible-foods-beyond-meat-alt-meat

[8] To grow one gram of rice, we need almost 5 to 10 liters of water (5000 to 10000 gm of water) whereas meat might need as much as 50 litres for 1gm! Next, suppose we export 5M tonnes of rice (like Basmati rice; India actually exported about 4.5M tonnes of rice in 2006) to some other country. We can argue that we have spared the recipient country of the need to locate 25 trillion liters of water (25TL)! (Note that a city like Hyderabad needs about 1.8TL of water for its population assuming 100LPD per person.) Luckily for us, rivers have considerable amounts of water but they are not inexhaustible. India’s usable water available is about 1100 trillion liters (1100TL) of water per year (from rain, river flow from Himalayas, etc). But we use about 75% of it already, and may need close to all the available usable fresh water by 2025. In a few decades, we need to start understanding that embedded water in exported materials may be significant. Hence, it is important to consider such flows of material when shortages appear. This is a simple (and incomplete) case of water life cycle analysis. Similar life-cycle analysis can be attempted wrt energy, and CO2 emission, the latter nowadays an issue of considerable concern due to its contribution to the “global warming”.

[9] Currently, cows and other cattle emit a potent green house gas (methane which is 30x more potent than CO2) equivalent to about all oil and gas wells worldwide. It is estimated that cattle raising is responsible for more than half of the green house emissions due to livestock which is pegged at 14.5% worldwide.

[10] Esp important for Indic people while travelling, visiting or residing elsewhere as animal products may be present in small proportions (such as calf rennet in cheese, animal-derived gelatin in yogurt and even in wine, beef-derived products in french fries, etc.)

[11] see radar chart in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radar_chart

[12] Shockingly, in contrast, Lytton’s Anti-Charitable Contributions Act 1877 of the British Raj forbade, on pain of imprisonment, private relief donations that interfered with free market setting of prices during the great famine of 1876-1878.

[13] Persian food, often said to have influenced Indian cooking, generally lacks spices; southern Iran food is said to be even today somewhat spicier than in the north due to the latter’s nearness to the Indian subcontinent. The online Ency. Iranica (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/spazi-cookery) says, “Plants brought from or through India were acclimatized in Iran earlier than in the lands of other Near and Middle Eastern civilizations: e.g., sugarcane, eggplant, citrus (lime, bitter orange, sweet lemon), and watermelon (hendovāna, i.e., Indian-type), later also rice and tropical spices (which had further uses in medicine).” Furthermore, “…rice, at first a specialty of Safavid court cuisine[15th century], evolved by the end of the 16th century into a major branch of Iranian cookery. From that period have come down the two methods of serving rice most popular in Iran todayBoth are evidently techniques of Central Asian origin elaborated and diversified in Iran during the first century of Safavid rule. … Attention was concentrated on costlier, better-flavored varieties originating from northwest India, and for a long time recurrent importation of Indian seed was found necessary (Polak, Persien II, p. 138). On the other hand, the new fashionableness of rice at the Safavid court influenced the haute cuisine of the Mughal empire. The modern cookery of north India (sometimes known as Mughal cookery) evolved from the adaptation of Safavid skills to Indian traditions and circumstances.” While the Indian connections are acknowledged in this source, the Safavid skills mentioned might have been mostly expertise in meat and bread. On the other hand, wrt the stated Central Asian role, Mark Nesbitt, St John Simpson and Ingvar Svanberg, in “History of Rice in Western and Central Asia”, in “Rice: Origin, Antiquity and History,” ed. S. D. Sharma (CRC Press 2010) say, for example, “Pilov therefore has been prepared in essentially the same manner for atleast 130 years in Central Asia. The name of the dish is originally borrowed from Persian (<pīlāv) but is probably an early borrowing into the Turkic languages.  Pilov is considered to be derived from Sanskrit “pilaaka” [sic, pilaala] millet. The dish most certainly reached Central Asia from Iran but probably originated in India”.

About Author: –

Kanchi Gopinath teaches CS at IISc and is interested in Indic thought and its current relevance. (View More)


1 thought on “Indic Food Labeling – A Manthan”

  1. This is really thought provoking. Very much needed and surely at the earliest.

    Question: Like the Halal model is economy based and generates huge revenues, should that also be a part of the Dharmik Food model? Like we didn’t patent Yoga, which could have brought massive revenues to India and pushed development; so should that be a consideration for this Food Model?

    #DharmikFoods #IndianGrandNarrative

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