Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why irradiation technology not catching on? Misconception, fear or lack of understanding?

Whoever has not heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan? People in these two unfortunate towns were the "pioneering" victims of the horrendous atom bomb attack by the Americans during World War II and even to day, after seven decades of that horrible incidence, the wounds have not healed completely. What is the connection between an atom bomb and food? Of course there is a connection in that people are reminded of the deadly effect of radiation when the modern irradiation technology was developed for food preservation and human safety. What a contradiction! The bomb is a destroyer par excellence while irradiation technology is a savior of man kind. It is this paradox that is coming in the way of popularising a technology based on gamma radiation that can kill a hoist of pathogens which are the scourge of the millions of consumers, victims of food poisoning, maiming and killing them. Why is that the world inhabited by 7 billion plus population, in spite of the unassailable safety data generated over decades of exhaustive research is not able to convince itself that irradiation is a process with zero danger and absolute safety? No one knows the reason though one can guess that governments world over have not done enough to educate their citizens at an early stage of their lives about what irradiation technology is all about and its tremendous potential to eradicate food borne diseases.

Consuming safe food is not an issue that has divergence of opinion because food borned diseases pose a major risk to the well being and quality of life. Only those who were exposed to food-borne illness know how unpleasant the experience can be and how it can be deadly if not properly and timely treated. Food scientists and technologists have been working incessantly for the last two centuries to evolve technologies that can extend the life of perishable foods without sacrificing the safety or quality. Thus thermal processing, dehydration, salt and sugar preservation, high pressure processing, refrigeration, freezing, controlled atmosphere storage and transportation etc are front line technologies in use to day and industry is indebted to them for making available foods across the globe irrespective of the length of the food chain. Though using these technologies food can be made safe, often the manufacturing facilities and the personnel involved in managing them can falter resulting in catastrophe in the form of food poisoning. Thus however beautiful or fool proof the technology is, ultimate safety still depends on uncompromising hygiene and sanitation in the manufacturing environment. Food irradiation may be a very good technology but it can be good only as long as no compromise is made on the base quality of the food and soundness of the processing facilities. 

What is irradiation? It is a simple process of exposing food materials which are perishable due to vectors like microorganisms and insects, to ionizing radiation capable of generating energy that can be transmitted without direct contact with the material exposed. Such radiation is capable of freeing electrons from their atomic bonds in the targeted food. Such an exposure reduces risk of food borne illnesses, prevents spread of invasive insects and pests, delays or eliminates sprouting in crops like potato and delays the physiological phenomenon involved in ripening in fruits. A characteristic feature of irradiation is that the foods so processed do not become radioactive as being feared by many ill informed consumers. Though radio active substances are commonly used to emit radiation, electrons can also be generated by electricity. Medical industry uses gamma radiation very widely to day for sterilizing many inputs used in hospitals. Since International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has unequivocally cleared food irradiation as a safe and effective tool for disinfection and disinfestation, more than 60 countries have approved this technology for use by different sectors of food industry. It is estimated that about half a million tons of foods are irradiated across the world annually. In fact many countries are insisting that products like spices and herbs must be irradiated if to be imported into their countries.

While countries like Brazil permit use of unlimited doses of gamma radiation in foods some restrictions are in place in countries like Austria, Germany and others. Generally gamma radiation application is categorised into low dose, medium dose and high dose depending on the intensity of the energy deployed, as measured on kiloGray scale (kGy). Low dosage means radiation should not be more than 1 kGy, medium denotes 1-10 kGy and high dosage uses radiation above 10 kGy. Low dose is effective against insects, sprouting and ripening. Medium dose is needed for delaying meat spoilage, preserve spices, seasonings and herbs. High dosage is deployed for sterilization of packed meat, increasing juice yield from fruits and improving the rehydration characteristics of dehydrated foods. To ensure adequate consumer awareness and proper transparency, Codex Alimentarius Commission insists on compulsory labeling of irradiated foods and also recommends inclusion of the "Radura" logo on the label. Both FAO and IAEA strongly favor wide scale use of irradiation for improving the food safety environment in member countries. There are global standards created by Codex of FAO and WHO agreed upon by member countries under WTO protocols and each country can adapt these standards for application within their countries. 

One of the impediments in wide scale use of irradiation technology is the enormous capital investment required for establishing the required facility which is beyond the financial capability of normal entrepreneurs. It is estimated that an economically viable treatment facility can cost upward of $ 5 million to establish and industry expects government involvement in establishing common irradiation facilities in areas where food processing and exports are concentrated. Also of constraint is the tight control on fissionable materials which are essential part of an irradiation plant and which have security connotations in terms of misuse by terrorists and criminals if they get access to such dangerous materials. Cobalt-60 radioisotope is the preferred radiation source used in irradiators though Caesium-137 can also be used if available. The latter isotope is a by-product of atomic power reactors which are working in many countries. But its availability is rather restricted because of logistical factors. Though Caesium-137 is cheaper compared to Cobalt-60, it has an inherent risk in that it is soluble in water raising the risk of radiation contamination of cooling water due to possible leak and consequent health hazards.

Another issue that is hindering universal application of irradiation technology is the hesitation on the part of the industry to adopt the same because of the mandatory requirement of labeling irradiated foods that will distinguish it from products made with other technologies. There can be some apprehension that when such a declaration is made on the label, it raises doubts in the minds of the consumer regarding the quality and safety of these foods vis a vis that of other products in the market. It is similar to the labeling war that is going on Genetically modified foods where industry opposes such distinctive and compulsory declaration precisely on same grounds. Really speaking there is no need for declaring the foods treated by irradiation process as distinct as the food material is not changed in any way and there is no residual radiation left behind after the treatment. Unfortunately the consensus politics at the international level seeking wide acceptance among the countries and wide scale application in most countries led to the provision of mandatory labeling of irradiated foods. How this logjam can be broken remains to be seen. One way for solving this issue amicably could be to make industry declare compulsorily on all packed foods the technology used to manufacture all the products marketed. For example canned products can carry a declaration that it is thermally processed or pH modification process for acid preserved products or chemically preserved for those where preservative chemicals have been used. Of course it is uncertain whether industry is amenable to such a proposal.    

New technologies such as irradiation that can make food safer have historically been a tough sell as far as the public is concerned and they face severe backlash at least in the beginning due apprehension about the health implications among the public. Many countries were on the threshold of clearing irradiation technology during early 2000 but retracted because of fear about public criticism. Is it not a tragedy that in spite of irrevocable and irrefutable evidence in favour of irradiation process extraneous considerations are holding it to ransom coming in the way of universal adoption? Can any one refute the fact that treating food products with ionizing radiation can reduce the presence of mould, E coli, salmonella, campylobacter and parasites without reducing nutrition or food quality?. International authorities such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization have unreservedly endorsed it. Take the example of a developed country like Canada where irradiation technology was approved for use since 2002 on potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole and ground spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations. Why is it that industry is currently using it only on spices, that too sparingly? .

Surveys in many countries suggests that public sentiments range from comfortably oblivious to vaguely supportive of this technology. Interestingly vast majority of consumers who respond to such surveys , more than 70% express their ignorance of existence of irradiation technology. An encouraging trend is that generally more consumers are positive about their views on the technology compared to those who are negative in their perception. Another revelation that comes out of consumer surveys is that more than 80% consumers want compulsory labeling of irradiated foods though they are not clear why that should be so. Looking from another angle, if milk labels contain words like pasteurized, UHT treated etc why not irradiated beef and other food stuffs processed using gamma radiation also declare the technology used. Some critics are concerned that if irradiation technology is used widely, meat industry may lower their guard vis-a-vis maintenance of high standards of hygiene and sanitation. Whether this is really a problem may emerge only when irradiation becomes the standard process of vector destruction in industries like meat processing and other easily perishable and vulnerable food stuffs. If world is facing to day a serious health crisis because of the wide spread contamination of foods due to infection with more than two dozens pathogenic microorganisms, a choice needs to be made to day whether we want irradiation technology to be made compulsory especially for meat products. The fact that more than 50 million people get sick every year, almost 2 lakh are hospitalized and more than 3000 people die because of food poisoning from pathogens is a strong enough reason for the world to move in the direction mentioned above. 


Monday, May 9, 2016

Influence of food pack labeling on moderating consumption-A new paradigm needed

Food labeling has been hailed as one of the most transparent efforts of the food industry to gain the confidence of the consumer who is supposed to have the right to know what he is buying and eating. Granted that this is a sort of empowerment of the consumer, a logical question is whether these labels do any useful purpose when it comes to taking a decision regarding what is healthy or unhealthy and still worse how much is good for the well being of the consumer? For many labeling does not make any sense as the numbers printed in the nutrition labeling table are just numbers with no meaning, especially to an uneducated person and invariably very few people read them before buying any product. The intention of the policy makers and health pundits are indeed laudable but whether such declarations do have any impact on the eating behavior or the overall health of the consumer is a million dollar question begging for an answer. The fact that almost 15 to 35% of the population in almost all countries across the world are either overweight or obese is a telling commentary on the effectiveness of the current label declaration laws in the world. Can there be any solution to this intractable problem and will any improvements in the labeling regulations bring about a change in the consumer attitude and perception about food and health and moderate the consumption?   

One of the basic principles of health and nutrition is that one must balance the consumption of calories based on the physical activity that is part of the life. Though 2000-3000 kCals are often bandied about as the daily requirement of an individual depending on factors like age, profession, type of physical activity, environmental conditions including ambient temperatures prevalent and finally amount of exercise one indulges in daily. Thus a sedentary person may need lesser calories than an athletic individual and there fore food consumption will have to be different. People tend to put on weight beyond the normal body weight when calorie consumption exceeds the level that is necessary to maintain a steady state of equilibrium with all the calories burned off for the daily activity associated with normal life. The concept of Body Mass Index (BMI) evolved years ago is a yardstick that helps to define whether a person is normal, over weight or obese. While a BMI figure of 25 is considered normal, when it reaches 30 one becomes over weight  Obesity becomes the rule if BMI figure exceeds 35 and it is generally considered a disease requiring treatment, lest other more serious diseases like CVD, diabetes, blood pressure, kidney ailments etc follow, making life more miserable and risky. 

No doubt nutrition labeling does indicate the amount of calories contained in one serving of a particular food product manufactured by the industry which helps to moderate consumption in many cases. But such information does not sink in when products are eaten sporadically through out the day in several servings which can have a cumulative effect on the calorie intake without the consumer realizing about it. How does a person know that he gets sufficient calories to perform his day to day activities without fatigue or weakness? There is a well set body mechanism with timely signals to indicate satiety when eating should be stopped. But once a person gets too much attached to food such signals are ignored resulting in over eating and many times gluttony. When too much food beyond the body's need is ingested naturally excess calories get converted to body fat that is stored in places like belly and other vulnerable parts of the body, distorting the shape of the person with pot belly. There is still no unanimity regarding the roles played by the three major contributors of calories in our foods though lately the focus has shifted from fat to carbohydrates. Most of the industrial foods  that dominate the markets in the well to do affluent countries are all considered "fattening" because they are all loaded with "empty calories", meaning they are rich in calories but devoid of vitally needed nutrients like proteins, dietary fiber, EFAs, vitamins and minerals. To add to this "deficiency" these foods are designed to make them addictive with too much sugar and fat. 

Modern foods churned out by the industry are made from unhealthy ingredients like sugar, white flour, highly refined saturated fats and trans fats, meats with practically no dietary fiber and natural nutrients besides being fast digesting releasing the calories too fast. In contrast foods made from natural raw materials like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meat and fish do not raise blood sugar levels quickly enabling the body metabolic apparatus to "manage" them on its own pace. Adding to this burden is the presence of many processing artifacts, leachates from packaging materials and man made chemicals like crop protectants and preservatives which all have debilitating impact on the human body. Is it possible and feasible to expect the industry which markets thousands of products to address all these concerns on a small label? This is where the regulatory authorities come into focus and to day's knowledge base helps to weed out many unsafe and unhealthy substances from the processed food products which have to conform to rigorous safety regimes mandated in each country, well supported by international agencies like WHO, FAO, IAEC, UNICEF and others. In spite of all these controls food related mortality rates are steadily increasing. A complex situation that needs more attention globally. 

Probably the knowledge disseminated through the label regarding how many calories a chocolate bar, a packet of chips, or a serving of an ice cream will provide may not be sufficient to "impress upon" the consumer as to how much exercise he has to do to burn it off. Will it take half an hour or one hour of walking or running to get rid of these calories.? Why is such an information crucial for the consumer? In what way it will help him? To answer this we have to consider the importance of the staple diet in influencing the health of an individual. If a human being has to get 2000 calories of energy, 50 gms of proteins, 50 gms of fat besides other micronutrients through food consumed every day, how much of the energy can come from casual food items like beverages, fried foods, sweetened snacks or other low nutrient density foods? This is important to avoid over consumption of these calorie rich foods and under consumption of proteins and other vital nutrients. Can a person survive for long if whole of the calories come from low nutrient junk foods without causing serious health crisis? It is here that the need arises to link food consumption with exercise. If the label indicates that one has to run for 1 hour to burn the calories contained in a serving of a particular food or two hours of walking for the same, this can be expected to have a sobering influence on eating casual foods to a significant extent.

Probably pictorial presentation of calorie burning exercises like walking, running, cycling or tread mill and the duration of the exercise for burning the calories in the packed products may really help most layman in restricting food intake as much as possible. If consumption of a sugary soft drink, about 200 ml, containing about 100 kCals calls for walking at least for about 15 minutes or running for 8 minutes, this can be a constant reminder that such drinks, not part of a regular meal, should not taken multiple times a day. Similarly If eating a quarter of a large sized pizza with more than 400 kCals will necessitate walking for 75 min or running for 45 mins, it will definitely scare a consumer that may act as a disincentive against over consumption of pizza. A single piece of cinnamon roll with 400 calories will require 120 mins of walking or 40 mins of running to shake off the calories. Eating a 50 gm portion of roasted peanut with 300 kCals will call for 50 mins of walking or 30 minutes of running to neutralize the calories ingested. The idea is excellent but whether practical needs to be considered.

Enlightened consumers can be expected to encourage the concept of activity-equivalent calorie labels wholeheartedly. Processing industry will probably resist any such move because of its implications on their bottom line due to lower purchase of their products by a well informed consumer worried about their health. While it may agree to include such information in their web sites, it can have no impact as most of the population are computer illiterate besides having no access to internet in spite of the "free basics" being promoted by one of the internet giants. Current information barrage on the nutrition labels has very little influence on the consumer and replacing them with simplistic ones containing just the basic nutritive facts like calories, fat, sugar, carbohydrates, health value as presented by the traffic lights system and calorie-activity equivalents may be more than sufficient. 

A pertinent question that may be asked is whether in a country like India such labels will have any relevance at all?  May be it is not because more than 90% of the population do not consume packed foods except biscuits, their life style dependent on staple home cooked diets or  small and mini eateries serving a variety of freshly cooked foods. It is not practical to force these eateries to display calorie-activity equivalent information for the benefit of the customers. Besides even the existing labeling system is so complicated and eye-straining to read and understand as most of the population are English language illiterates. Ultimately sociologists will step in saying that education is the only solution to make the masses understand the goodness or otherwise of the foods they consume. This may be true but from the practical angle a long time consuming process which should be pursued as a long term objective while bilingual labels containing vital information on health and nutrition on the food labels by the processing industry and on display boards in eateries can provide some relief to the harried citizen.    


Monday, February 29, 2016

The great dilemma that is agriculture! Balancing between production and pollution

"Food insecurity" is a subject talked about very often because of two critical factors-population explosion and progressive reduction of food crop yield attributed by many to the global warming phenomenon. During the last 10 years frequent droughts and floods in different parts of the world have adversely affected agricultural out put significantly. Though technologies are continuously being developed and deployed to achieve increased yields, farmers in most undeveloped, under developed and developing countries still remain impoverished due to economic factors. In a country like India farmers are choosing the route of suicide to get them relieved from the unbearable burden of life. Recent climate talks COP21 (Conference of Parties to the 1997 Kyoto protocol ) that took place in Paris in November 2015 were concerned more with global warming due to uncontrolled green house gas emissions by all countries irrespective of their economic status a small but significant step was taken to bring focus on the food security in the world in the coming years and a realization seems to be dawning on wise people that climate change is intimately linked to food production and unless it is tackled there is no hope for survival of the human race. The ambitious target of reducing global warming and restricting global warming by not more than 2C by achieving zero net anthropogenic green house gas emissions by the second half of this century. was a bold decision. These decisions are to be given legal frame work of agreement between April 2016 and April 2017 in New York aas per the Paris agreement. Some of the decisions arrived at the Paris conference can have far reaching implications for all the countries though a mute question still remains as to how far actionable steps will be taken in the coming years. . 

It's become a catch-22 of our times: the global food system is both a villain and a victim of climate change. Agriculture accounts for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and yet floods, drought, and the planet's increasing climatic variability play with the fate of our food. Continuing on the current climate trajectory will mean a future of profound food insecurity, especially for developing nations.
This week, these concerns have been prominent on the agenda at the COP21 climate talks in Paris. For the first time at a COP conference, agriculture had its own dedicated focus-day, held on Tuesday by the Lima-Paris Action Agenda (LPAA), a partnership established between France and Peru to showcase and strengthen on-the-ground climate action in 2015 and beyond. "For years, agriculture, food systems, including oceans, including forests, have been knocking hard at the door—and now there's movement starting," said David Nabarro, former special representative of food security and nutrition for the United Nations, at the LPAA agriculture press briefing on Tuesday afternoon.
That door should have been yanked open a long time ago, considering that our food systems are due to bear so much of the brunt of climate change. But there are strong signs of progress. The world needs creative solutions if we are to reduce agricultural impact and feed everyone on the planet (an estimated nine billion by 2050)—and some of the best have recently been aired at the talks.
Here are three that caught my eye: each places our global food system squarely on the climate table.

The first step in prioritising food systems is to confront what will happen if we don't. On Tuesday at COP21 the World Food Program and the U.K.'s Met Office Hadley Centre launched a new, interactive mapping tool that predicts, in unprecedented detail, how future climate scenarios could influence food security, especially in the world's developing nations. Based on five years of meteorological and agricultural research, the Food Insecurity and Climate Change Vulnerability Map shows how food security could change at the individual country level, either worsening or improving depending on three variables that users can tweak on the map: time scale (you can choose between the present day, 2050s, 2080s), emissions (low, medium, high), and adaptation (high, low, none).
As a starting point, the map could help countries forecast their food security risk and inform their planning, says Richard Choularton, chief of climate and disaster risk reduction at the World Food Programme. "The results of the analysis can provide some insight into vulnerability at the national level, when the specific factors behind the index are unpacked." For example, in one country road access might emerge as the main limit on food security, in another it might be the variability of rainfall. The map also shows what can be achieved if reduced emissions are paired with increased adaptive measures—like climate-smart agriculture—to make food systems more secure. "What's most important, especially in the context of Paris, is that mitigation or adaption alone is not enough," Choularton says. "We need a very serious combination of both."

The planet's soils naturally hold vast quantities of carbon—two to three times more carbon than the air. Releasing it through unsuitable, soil-degrading agricultural techniques will contribute to climate change and also reduce soil health—but, if we keep more carbon locked in the soil, it has the power to both mitigate climate change and increase agricultural productivity. On Tuesday as part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, hundreds of partners joined to launch '4/1000', an initiative designed to increase the storage of carbon in the earth: "If we were to increase the amount of carbon in the soil by just 0.4% then we would compensate entirely for the increase of carbon in the atmosphere—just to show how huge the potential is," says Frank Rijsberman, CEO of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Centers, one of the partners contributing to the initiative. As part of 4/1000 the CGIAR itself is proposing a $225 million project that aims to increase carbon storage by promoting better farming techniques in developing world agriculture. Methods like agroforestry and reduced soil tillage could keep carbon enclosed in the soil, leading to a 20 percent boost in yields, and in theory offsetting greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent. The benefits will be three-pronged, says Rijsberman: "We will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; adapt agriculture to climate change and thus improve food security; and improve ecosystem functioning."

An estimated 1.3 billion tons of food is lost and wasted annually between farm and fork, producing 3.3 Gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year. On Tuesday at COP21, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the International Food Policy Research Institute announced that to counter it, they'relaunching a new platform that will encourage G20 member countries, the private sector, and NGOs to pool their resources toward the goal of fighting food waste. Today, that new forum—called the G20 Technical Platform on the Measurement and Reduction of Food Loss and Waste—goes live. The platform is designed to "provide up to date information on policy, strategy and actions for food loss and waste reduction, and share best practices across countries—something which is badly needed," says Anthony Bennett from the Rural Infrastructure and Agro-industries Division at the FAO. G20 member countries—which include China, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States—along with other countries, will be encouraged to use the forum to share what works for them in cutting food waste, and what doesn't. As the platform grows, it will also feature a database of low-cost, accessible technologies available to tackle this problem. The hope is that the platform will become a place where countries can unite and ultimately scale up their efforts to reduce the global impact of food waste. These are just three of the many projects worth knowing about: as part of the Lima-Paris Action Agenda, several other food-focused initiatives were launched this week, touching on everything from low-carbon beef to the sustainable management of marine food systems. 

No one should have any quarrel with the contention above that Carbon emission, carbon lock up and enormous food waste taking place around the world are the most critical areas which need to be tackled. Reckless use of fossil fuels, especially by the industrially developed countries for ensuring a luxury life style speaks of a mindset that sacrifices will have to come from poor countries in the form of mandatory reduction of carbon emission though they are on the threshold of exciting economic growth and improvements in their living conditions. Similarly the enormous food waste that is taking place in advanced countries is depriving the poor people of their food needs for survival in the continents of Asia, Africa and South America. Use of these wastes considered enormous go for landfills generating green house gases that contribute to global warming. The responsibility to arrest the catastrophic climate changes rests both with the poor as well as the rich countries of this planet and a give and take approach only can produce tangible results in the coming years.                                                 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Anti-obesity oil -Is it a new innovation or rehashing of the old Japanese technology?

It is true that obesity is assuming epidemic proportions in countries like USA where almost one third of the population is either overweight or obese. Therefore any suggestion that can help to deal with highly dangerous global situation is worth getting a close attention provided it is logical, scientific and practical. What is tragic is that there is no unanimity about the exact cause of obesity though different experts opine differently defying any consensus. While consumption of saturated fats and trans fats, carbohydrates, white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are all implicated in one way or the other with obesity, the bitter truth is that humans are themselves responsible for this scourge visiting them through reckless dietary system combined with sedentary life style. There is unanimity that putting on body weight is directly linked to an imbalance between calorie intake and calorie expenditure and if the intake is more than what is necessary, even God cannot help in preventing increased body weight!. Though the theory is so simplistic to understand and to be acted upon by the people, the desire to eat good food ( purely from taste angle) over rides the need to keep the body weight constant for an adult. In other words, the will to moderate food consumption according to one's body needs seems to be lacking in case of most consumers resulting in over consumption. One of the curious facts is that healthy foods are invariably less tastier that nutrient light junk foods with lots of calories loaded in them and naturally such foods more or less create a sort of irresistible addiction, repeatedly attracting the hapless consumer!.

Billions of dollars are being made by the so called nutraceutical industry through peddling of hundreds of products claiming the magical properties of shedding body weight though their credentials are suspect. With food safety authorities choosing to look the other way without coming to the help of the citizen through appropriate control measures, the antiobesity products industry has a roaring time with their uncanny marketing strategy to trap vulnerable people like a "spider trapping its prey in its web"! In parallel with this development, another segment of the industry peddles "exercise" machines and crash "weight shedding courses" for the benefit of overweight people minting enormous fortunes. Who can forget the "famous" (or notorious?) Atkins diet or the South Beach diet and similar weight control regime peddling companies who were able to attract millions of people, scared about the ill consequences of high BMI which can cause a plethora of diseases including diabetes, hypertension, CVD, kidney ailments etc, crippling the life style even at an early stage of life. 

Latest to get the spot light is a romatic product going by the captivating name "antiobesity oil"! Though there are some traditional oil based concoctions in the market coming mostly from China and India, the new offering by the above name got a focused attention during the recent scientists conglomeration at Mysooru in the first week of January this year. According the flamboyant innovators, the antiobesity oil they just discovered could "maintain healthy body weight", provides "clean energy"  and "is not stored" as fat in the body. This product is claimed to have been developed for the "first time" in India from sunflower seed oil and it is "one of the kind in the world"! Added to this the antiobesity oil prepared at Mysooru is safety assured unlike similar ones developed elsewhere in the world, so goes the claim. According to the innovators this product is chemically identified as diacylglycerol oil which is supposed to be edible because the only difference between an edible oil as we are used to at present and their new product is that one of the three fatty acid molecules in the triglyceride oil products has been knocked off by controlled lipolysis. If the new product can be commercially made and approved by the food safety authorities in the country it can be a speciality edible oil for use by obese people to reduce their body weight. Of course the food industry needs to be convinced that the technology is "commercially workable" and economically viable. 

Let us look at the claim that such a product has been made for the first time in the world in India. Looking back one cannot forget that in early 2000 a product called "Enova oil" was developed and marketed in Japan claiming that less of this product is stored as visceral fat in the body unlike triglycerides which are the basic chemical entities of all edible oils. This product also boasted of unsaturated fatty acids which are known to reduce undesirable LDLs and raise desirable HDLs in the blood. However this product was abruptly recalled from the market because of several safety and health issues. One of them was the formation of glycidol during deacylation of the oil, an artifact implicated as potentially carcinogenic. Besides the ratio of Omega- 6 to Omega-3 fatty acids was 10:1 in Enova oil whereas most healthy vegetable oils have this ratio 3:1. High percentage of Omega-6 acids is reported to be associated with higher blood pressure and chronic inflammation. Thus the charmed marketing run of Enova oil abruptly ended in September 2009. Though the manufacturers promised to come back with the product soon, till to date there is no sign of this product, leading one to conclude that the technological and health problems were serious enough for the company to abandon it for ever.  

Another interesting fact which did not come to surface when the benefits of diacyl glycerol were glorified by the innovators pertains to its suitability for use as a frying fat. Most Indian preparations expose them to high temperatures between 160C and 210C and many conventional oils do cause frothing and foaming if the free fatty acid content is high in them. Also the mono glycerides of fatty acids are recognized as an excellent emulsifying agent in preparations where stable water in oil emulsions are to be made and in most counties their use in small quantities as emulsifier is approved as safe. According to FAO-WHO Alimentarius Commission daily intake of 12.5 to 25 mg of monoglycerides per kg body weight is considered safe. This works out to about 0.75 to 1.5 gm intake daily through all the foods consumed by an average person weighing 70 kg. Such data on diacyl glycerol are not readily available though it is generally assumed that the lipolytic enzymes present human body may be able to dispose of the product without much harmful effect. Against such a background if the new so called anti obesity oil is really going to be made for Indian consumers, adequate safety studies and tolerance limits will have to worked out before its clearance as a cooking oil..

Friday, January 22, 2016

Reckless control over an industry and its consequences-India's "bitter" sugar story

It is an irrefutable fact that india is one of the top sugar producing countries in the world as well the top sugar consuming country. Whether these achievements are due to the extraordinary skills of the farmer, efficiency of the sugar industry or the proactive government policy interventions, is a tough question that begs for an answer. Another crucial issue is whether this most regulated industry is really healthy providing equity to all the stakeholders, the farmer, consumer and the industry. Though we call India a market driven economy, when it comes to sugar industry it is government driven with neither the industry nor the farmers being truly happy. Some time one feels that sugar is a product that has got more importance that it deserves. Its consumption at high levels has been implicated in a variety of lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity and still this is one commodity government considers as an essential one to be included as an item for subsidy under essential commodity basket distributed through PDS! 

Is sugar really an essential commodity? A highly debatable question. Health experts world over point out the havoc sugar has brought about among the population in developed countries like the US. It is an irrefutable fact that two out of three Americans are either over weight or obese and high consumption of sugar has been implicated as the major cause for this epidemic. As against the recommended maximum consumption of  45 grams of added sugar per day for sound health, the present average consumption of almost 180 grams per day proves the point that over consumption is responsible for the health crisis being faced by that country. The US seems to be on a suicidal course as its consumption of sugar and refined wheat flour is incongruously high reported at 60-65 kg each per capita annually. White flour from wheat is equally dangerous as its GI values are even higher than that of white sugar and this flour is the major ingredient in practically all the food products including bread, biscuits and cookies, pastry products, pizza, pasta and noodles and others. Can India learn a lesson from the experience of this country to prevent a catastrophic situation where people with increasing income opt for a lifestyle that is characterized by high sugar and white flour consumption? 

Sugar consumption in India is estimated to be 20 kg per capita per year which works out to about 60 grams per day, considered tolerable from health angles but the average figure hides the real fact that extent of daily consumption can vary enormously with poor segments of the population consuming much less than the average figure while well to do citizens might be taking sugar at a level higher than the average. Similarly taking refined flour (Maida) intake which also contributes to quick boost in blood glucose, the production by roller flour mills is comparatively low More than 65% of the wheat produced in the country is milled in conventional plate mills (Chakkis) and the healthy whole wheat flour (Atta) from them is consumed directly by the households for making many traditional preparations. The 900 and odd roller flour mills just produce about 12 million tons of maida which works out to just 10 kg per capita per year and therefore this is considered to have insignificant adverse impact on the health. Probably the relatively low incidence of life style disorders like diabetes in India can be explained by the lower consumption of sugar and maida by the vast majority of the population. Still any rise in sugar price due to a long term policy of restricting sugarcane cultivation or encouraging fuel alcohol will be good for the health of the consumer and economic well being of the farmer as well as the industry in the long run.

Series of farmer suicides in the sugar belt during the last few years raises the inevitable question whether government should really micromanage the industry or leave it to the market forces to determine the extent of sugarcane cultivation in the country from time to time. It is an anachronism that while the country is facing huge shortages of pulses and oilseeds which are the backbones of nutrition especially for vegetarian population, during the last two decades precious little has been done to shore up their production. The country is watching with dismay shortages of these critical foods in the market and escalating prices that deny many people access to these critical food components in India diet. Billions of rupees worth imports are taking place expending our precious foreign exchange and India has the unenviable position of being the biggest importer of edible oils in the world! As most of the sugarcane cultivation is carried out in areas in 6 states where irrigation facilities have been created to help farmers to grow this crop, pulses are relegated to the background growing mostly as drought crops with meager productivity. Successive governments must answer for this criminal negligence of both pulses and oilseed crops that has condemned the nation to a nutrient starved one. Can this be condoned? 

It is rather amazing that sugar is intricately linked to vote bank politics and  to say that the industry is controlled by a few sugar barons with political power and clout is an understatement!.  Successive governments have played into the hands of the sugar industry by instituting regulatory controls that distort the sugar landscape in the country. It is an irrefutable fact that vast number of people are employed by the sugar industry and tinkering with it may turn out to be disastrous if not carefully planned. What will happen if the sugar industry is totally deregulated leaving it to the pulls and pressures of the market? If sugar prices to day are ridiculously low making the entire industry sick, the responsibility must be borne by successive governments which held it in its vice like grip because of vote bank considerations. Why should the government give unlimited licenses to sugar mills which eventually become sick though those well connected politically prosper because of many reasons?  If such a total decontrol takes place only fittest ones will survive and there may be temporary hike in prices for the consumer which will not be felt especially when food costs are constantly on rise without the consumers raising any serious alarm.

It is said that when India sneezes the sugar world catches the cold! This is because of the influence of surplus sugar lying with sugar mills which are not allowed to be exported beyond a certain limit and naturally if too much is exported the global prices crash and vice versa. With the recent decision by the government to mandate blending of petrol to the extent of 10% with ethyl alcohol the demand from the fuel industry is likely to grow manifold. However has the country enough capacity to produce alcohol from sources like molasses at present?  Probably not and is it not then incumbent upon the government to give priority for more production of alcohol rather than white sugar? Brazil has shown to the world how sugarcane crop can be harnessed to make more sustainable fuels and its example ought to be followed by India. If sugarcane crop is diverted for alcohol production there might be some price hiccups in the market but consumers will not mind it when they are already coughing up Rs 150-200 for a kilogram of commonly used pulses. 

Look at the global scenario vis-a-vis sugar and alcohol. Brazil produces more than 35 million tons (mt) of sugar compared to India's production of 28.5 mt in an year. While Brazil exports 23.8 mt of sugar Indian export is pegged at 2.5 mt reflecting the high control government has on the sugar industry in the country. World wide sugar production and consumption are more less balanced though the industry carries a large stock as a buffer against wide price fluctuations. Brazil is also in the fore front in utilizing sugarcane for alcohol production as recently it has increased the mandatory blending level from 25 to 27%  Interestingly Brazil uses only 40% of its cane production for making sugar while the balance goes for alcohol production. In contrast India has not even been able to enforce effectively the 5% blending policy so far and the reason attributed to this shoddy performance is shortage of alcohol in the country..It is against this background that government has to think of diverting the sugarcane crop directly to produce alcohol instead of relentlessly pursuing sugar production through unnecessary and burdensome subsidization policies. Government does not seem to be worried about the enormous outgo of foreign exchange on import of petroleum fuels and an effective policy to ensure alcohol blending can substantially reduce our petroleum import bills. As added bonus the country will be able to reduce its carbon foot print significantly as ethanol-petrol blend is less polluting compared to petroleum fuels. 

As a part of such a policy the country must incentivize setting up alcohol production units which can directly convert sugarcane juice into ethanol. If the avowed policy of mandating 20% blending by 2017 is to be realized India will need about 4.5 billion liters from the current production base of 1.5 bn liters of fuel grade ethanol. Though the established capacity of 350 distilleries is placed at 1.5 bn liters, they also produce rectified spirit to the extent of 4 bn liters per annum for industrial and other uses. It may be difficult to divert the latter to fuel ethanol production as it will adversely affect the industry which uses alcohol as its feed stock. As increasing biofuel ethanol production solely from molasses is impractical, direct conversion of crushed sugarcane juice seems to the only alternative available to the country. One ton of sugarcane is supposed to yield 70 liters of alcohol and naturally a huge quantity of sugarcane may have to be diverted to direct ethanol production which could limit sugar production to some extent. Sooner the government takes a policy decision on this crucial sector better it will be for the country. .


Friday, January 1, 2016

Safety of PET bottles for packing medicines, foods and beverages under cloud-Will the real truth emerge ever?

What do we understand by the oft used word PET when it comes to food packing? Probably common man may have no clue about the chemical nature and the implications underlying its use by the food industry. But there is a general awareness that all plastics are not good when it comes to their use for food contact applications. It is true that plastic materials, mostly made from fossil fuels, have taken over the lives of people in to day's world because of convenience and cost. Glass and metal containers are unbearably costly though they are much more safer than plastics. There are a number of plastic materials varying in their characteristics and functionality and food industry has a wide choice before them for packing foods. Protection from air, moisture and tainting from the environment are the primary concerns when plastics are used as far as the industry is concerned but environmentalists are more worried about the pollution caused by the used plastics which take more than 800 years to be completely degraded in nature. World over restrictions are being placed on use of plastics and make recycling a priority to save the planet. 

Quality and safety requirements of plastics vis-a-vis food contact applications are more or less standardized though there could be small variations in the methodology used to determine their suitability. Safety authorities in developed countries focus on the foods consumed in their countries and tests using model systems reflecting these foods are used to arrive at the permissibility of various packaging materials. However in India there is a sea change in the chemical, physical, biological and sensory characteristics of foods we eat here and therefore the interaction between food and the packaging materials used needs to be assessed by appropriately tailor made tests. The safety aspects of some of the packing materials used for ethnic foods or traditionally consumed foods in this country have not yet been determined conclusively as the authorities concerned is rather slow in tackling this crucial issue with any sense of urgency. The responsibility of the plastic manufacturer ends once a certificate is generated by testing laboratories using standard testing protocols involving simulated solvent systems for acidic, neutral and alkaline foods. What is appalling is that once such a certificate is produced the manufacturer can produce tons and tons of the materials and sell to the food industry without any further overseeing or vigilance from independent authorities. 

The issue of safety of PET bottles for packing pharmaceutical products became a debating one after some concern was raised recently and the government's knee-jerk reaction in setting up a committee to "look" this controversy. Consumers are genuinely concerned about the impact of packing medicines in PET bottles which is becoming a standard practice of the industry which finds it a better packing material compared to glass due to logistical and economic reasons. This has compelled the authorities to arbitrate on this issue. The demand of consumer organizations and environmentalists to ban PET plastics must be based on an assessment of the balance between risk and advantages and scientific data therefore is necessary. The government approved testing laboratory to which this problem was referred, came out with a shocking conclusion that PET bottles are not safe for packing liquid drug formulations because of high levels of leachates passed on to the contents from the container. The controversy became more "controversial" because both drug industry as well as the plastic industry questioned the veracity of the report alleging that too few samples were tested and no important decision should be taken based on the findings of a single laboratory. Probably they may have a valid argument and further testing can be ordered in multiple laboratories controlled by the government on a proprity.     

If we go back to history of this problem it was due to the diligence of an Uttarakhand-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that works in the health sector which raised this issue requesting the ministry of health to impose a ban on the use of PET for pharmaceutical packaging. The present impasse is due to the testing results showing high levels of some chemicals in the products tested. The Government is sitting on the recommendations of a technical group set up to examine this issue which categorically suggested banning of liquid pharmaceutical formulations to be packed in PET bottles and eventually extend this ban to the entire industry. More concerns were expressed with regard to the potential impact of the contaminants leaching out from the bottle on the health of children and other consumers with normal health as well as with weak state of health. There are documentary evidences to support the adverse impact of leachates like Chromium, Antimony, Lead and Diethylhexyl Phthalate at concentrations much beyond the safety limits. According to experts health risks to people can manifest in the form of diseases like cancer, diabetes, endocrine damage kidney damage, reproductive diseases and obesity when these contaminants are present at levels far exceeding the safety standards and this cannot be ignored that easily. calling for emergency measures to tackle this issue once for all.

An interesting argument put forward by the packaging industry is that instead of banning PET blindly, some way should be found to modify the technology of manufacture of this commercially important material to make it safer. A larger question that begs for an answer is why the industry did not take adequate precaution before and was indulging in making and selling a material of doubtful safety credentials? Similarly why it should have been left to an NGO to raise this issue of grave concern where as a responsible and diligent government with enormous powers at its command was sleeping over it all these years with least concern for the health of the 1.3 billion people it is "ruling"? Is it not criminal and shameful? Probably there will be lot of "passing the buck" game when some thing seriously happens due to possible systematic poisoning of its helpless citizens! God forbid such a contingency.

What is perplexing in this entire saga is whether PET bottles and films are safe for packing water, beverage and foods? In India food safety is a portfolio in the domain of the Health Ministry which incidentally also controls the drug industry. Though there are a few reports indicating that PET bottles are safe for packing water, beverages and most food products, there is no clarity as to the minimum thickness of the bottle, impact of long storage and exposure to temperatures prevalent in tropical countries. The same question that has bedevilled the drug industry vis-a-vis use of pet bottles for packing drug formulations does bother the food sector also and there is practically no report of any real time study using any food product packed in such containers. Here again the safety is assumed or presumed based on model systems using standard solvents and solutions which might not really represent any foods we consume in this country. Also to be borne in mind is that in the absence of overseeing of the PET production facilities, food industry has to depend on the unilateral view of the manufacturers that their bottles are food grade. If toxic materials like Chromium, Lead, Antimony and Diethylhexyl phthalate have been found in drug preparations in quantities beyond the permitted levels, there is all the more reason that chemically complex food can leach out much more of them over the duration of their shelf life. It is a million dollar question as to why the Indian government and the research institutions specialized in food, packaging, health and toxicology controlled by it are sleeping over the issue for so long! 

While the issue of safety of pet bottles for packing food and medicines is sill being debated, there is a tug of war between the PET industry and glass industry, both of them having a vested interest in the business generated by the products they make. According to the PET bottle industry more than 200 manufacturing may have to close shop if the Government enforces an across the board ban for food, beverages and pharma products which together account for about Rs 2000 crores market, almost 50% of the total production of 6 lakh tons per annum. In contrast glass bottle industry which was once the prime materials used by both food and pharma industries is witnessing a decline in its growth because of the increasing preference shown for PET bottles. One of the last bastions for glass bottle is the liquor industry which consumes almost 50% of the production estimated at about 3 million tons per annum probably because of the ability of glass to retain the flavor in its original form. Only cheap liquors have switched over to PET bottles in preference to glass because of cost considerations. If banning of PET bottles does materialize there is no option for the industry but to go back to glass bottles. Thus what is a lose to PET industry will be a gain for the glass industry. We will have to wait and see how the situation is going to develop in the next few months. In the mean time glass industry must invest in new technologies that can give glass bottles with lighter weight and extra strength to with stand rigors of handling and transportation .