Sunday, October 23, 2016

A new interpretation on GM foods-Will such window dressing impress the consumers?

The debate about the safety of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods never seems to end and in fact it is becoming more and more bitter and acrimonious day by day. The vacillating attitudes of government policy makers regarding making labeling mandatory for foods derived from raw materials raised by genetic modification are making the consumers more and more disturbing leading to world wide campaigns to ban such foods until their safety is established beyond a shadow of doubt. Massive consumer movements and multi pronged initiatives by consumer groups across the world demanding at least forcing the industry to declare on the label presence of GMO ingredients are gaining momentum and it is a question of time before the industry has to bow before such cascading consumer pressure. A simple question as to why the GMO industry is fighting tooth and nail to sabotage plans for making label declaration mandatory is- why are they doing it if GMO foods are absolutely safe? May be industry has a feeling that consumers will boycott such foods if they become aware of presence of GMO ingredients in such products. Added to this many products carrying declaration that they do not contain GMO ingredients provide a ready platform for consumers to go selectively for such "neat" foods as perceived by them, in preference to the GMO containing ones. Ultimately it boils down to the impact this will have on the bottom line of many GMO food peddlers! 

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of USA whose dictats are followed by many countries across the world has been very circumspect in its interpretation and policy orchestration vis-a-vis GMO foods. For ages FDA has been maintaining that GMO foods are "almost" like natural foods and are safe to consume by human beings. Probably such a policy support to the GMO industry has created a situation in that country where more than 80% of the processed food products made and marketed contain one or more GMO ingredients without the innocent consumer ever knowing about it! Does this not amount to deception by a government supposed to be the most democratic in the world? Is this ethical? Of course in an over democratized country like the US every individual has the right to do what he or she wants and true to this "ideal" the elected representatives also practice their fundamental right to say and do what they feel is right. It is another matter that a majority of these law makers are obliged to the GMO lobby because their elections have been bank rolled by them and they feel it is not correct to let their clients down by siding with the citizens though they forget that they owe their power to the very same electorate! 

Here is a contradiction which is very difficult to explain away. In some of the states the proposal to make declaration of GMO ingredients mandatory failed ballot initiatives giving an impression that people are not too concerned about this issue. On the other hand surveys after surveys have shown that more than 80% of the citizens want to make such labeling compulsory! This has been attributed to the massive propaganda unleashed by the GMO lobby to "brainwash" the consumers through half "truths" and "no truths" about the safety of GMO foods. To an ordinary citizen it does not make any sense to adopt GMO foods because nature provides foods which have been found safe over centuries and why there should be attempts to tinker with nature. Hybridization technology practiced since long takes time to give desired results but the resultant hybrids generated due to natural gene mutations are stable and safe, consumed since time immemorial. Also not easily understood by the common man is the advantage of GMO foods for them or for the humanity as the claims of increased yield through GMO technology has never been proven any where so far. Of course traits like pest resistance and others are incorporated through GMO technology but here again net advantage is not undisputed. 

Why is that the issue of GMO foods became a debating point again? Recent attempts by FDA to stop use of the phrase " does not contain GMO ingredients" by those not using them has created another unwarranted controversy and many feel that such an attempt is tantamount to punishing the citizen through denial of information about the nature of food being purchased by them. FDA feels that no one should use such declaration because many foods created through biotechnological process do not use genetically modified organisms all the times and most products are at best genetically "engineered" or "bioengineered"and therefore industry must shun using GMO word unnecessarily to avoid confusing the consumer. It is similar to saying that "no protein is present in an edible oil pack". May be there is a point and FDA may be right in issuing such an advisory which industry can adopt as long as no one uses the word GMO in any context. As far as consumer is concerned all he is interested is to know whether the food he is buying is made from natural ingredients with proven credentials. Whether the new FDA advisory is acceptable to the industry remains to be seen.

Many major food companies using genetic engineered food ingredients are happy that FDA has stuck to its position that it is not required for the processors to disclose presence of genetically engineered ingredients, sticking to its position that such products are not materially different from non-engineered versions. After all industry's efforts to resist mandatory labeling, fearing that customers will be scared off by foods known to contain genetically engineered ingredients seem to be succeeding. However the specious plea by them that mandatory labeling will drive the cost of the food cannot be accepted. It is a good sign that many major food companies have already moved to voluntarily label products that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, either simply stating that on their packaging or using a small butterfly seal to show that the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that provides certification for food producers, has certified the absence of genetic engineered substances. Interestingly there is a genuine attempt by many manufacturers in the US to source non-GMO. ingredients which is a good sign as far as consumers are concerned. According to a recent report there are more than 30000 products in the US market carrying the label that they are free from GMO food ingredients and probably this sector may be worth about $ 13.5 billion which may be a fraction of the total retailed foods estimated at $ 638 billion last year.

The desire of the citizens for accessing clean and safe foods is reflected by efforts in the US in different states to mandate labeling of foods that do contain genetically engineered ingredients but they have largely failed by narrow margins, after heavy lobbying and campaign spending by the food and biotech industries. it is in this context that the law makers at the federal level passed a bill that would require food companies to reveal presence of genetically engineered ingredient in food products via a QR code, a pixelated square that can be scanned with a smartphone, on packaging that will reduce the chorus for hard printing the same on every label. Though it may be acceptable to many people who have adequate computing literacy to read the code before making a buying decision, a vast majority might not be able to decode to understand the nature of the product. In such a situation FDA also wants to differentiate between genetically engineered and genetically modified to convey different things to the consumers. According to them genetically engineered product comes from the efforts of biotechnologists originating in a laboratory while genetic modification happens by natural process as in hybridization process. Thus we have three technical terms which include Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), Genetically Engineered (GE) and Genetically Modified (GM). Of the three GMO is the most dreaded because genes from another species find their way into a particular food, though in small quantities. This means GM foods are analogous to natural foods while GE foods are similar but created in the lab with some distinct advantages. 

Consumer is still left confused to make out what each of this term means if industry starts using all three terms for declaring their products are free from them. Probably more positive approach could be to make those using food ingredients created through GE or GMO technology to declare the same unequivocally as a part of the transparency protocol which consumers are bound to appreciate. Whether industry will agree for such a transparent practice is some what uncertain at this point of time because of monetary implications. Efforts of many manufacturers to source raw materials not tainted by GE or GMO will get rewarded only if declaration of presence or absence of lab created food ingredients on the label of each pack..


Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Stomaching" the food we eat-The imponderables!

We all know that food serves the twin purpose of satisfying our hunger and delivering the nutrients we need for growth and well being. Out of the three basic necessities of life, viz food, shelter and clothing the first one is most important as without food along with air and water no life can sustain in this planet. Most human beings take it for granted that when food is consumed the gastrointestinal ( GI )system automatically process these foods into usable nutrients required for the well being. But rarely any thought is given as to how complex is the GI system and what problems can arise if the normal process of digestion and absorption is hindered or adversely affected due to a host of reasons, many of them not still well known. Only people with disorders like allergies, intolerances, Crohn's disease, Celiac disease, Irritable bowel syndrome etc know what sufferings they have to endure as the present day treatment regimes are not considered absolutely satisfactory. Explosive growth of that industry sector manufacturing gluten free foods bears out the fact that all foods cannot agree with all the people. The so called well being food industry is rolling in money because the products being made by it commands a good following by those with one or the other real or imaginary problem with the foods they eat. Recent evolution of the concept of adverse effect of FODMAPS, a group of carbohydrates present in many foods, is further complicating the picture vis-a-vis tolerance of some of the foods by the GI system. Whether this is really a significant issue will emerge soon requiring attention at the hands of health pundits sooner or later. 

Take the case of Gluten-free foods which are made and marketed through out world mainly to cater to the needs of those consumers who experience disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Celiac disease. These foods are designed based on the presumption that gluten is primarily responsible for the discomfort experienced by the patients. However over the years many consumers who do not have this disorder, rightly or wrongly, seemed to have started a feeling that gluten is a villainous food component and avoiding the same can improve their quality of life.The result was the beginning of a booming industry that caught the fancy of the consumer creating a huge market. Whether it is ethical for this industry to make a fast buck exploiting the misconception that is gaining traction during the last one decade is a difficult issue to answer because the industry is after all giving to the consumer what he wants on a platter. What may not be justified is the massive marketing blitz singing the virtues of gluten free foods attracting more and more consumers of normal health into the fold of IBS patients. The global business for gluten free foods is reported to be worth $ 3 billion which is predicted to reach about $ 5 billion within 5 years. Interestingly Europe leads in marketing these foods, more than 50% of business generated in this region. But in terms of growth, USA is on a fast galloping growth phase out pacing Europe in the near future though no one knows what is contributing to this peculiar phenomenon.

Though no reliable statistics can be cited for the extent of people affected by intestinal disorders like IBS and Celiac disease, some estimates claim that 10-15% of global population is affected. But among those patronizing gluten free foods more than 70% are not suffering from this affliction. That means the size of the current market does not reflect the ground reality vis-a-vis gluten induced GI disorders. While gluten free food market is fast growing, there is another interesting development that gives further hope to the well being industry to expand the market several fold. Based on the findings in Australia that besides gluten, there is a range of food constituents present naturally in most foods which can also create GI related disorders. These are collectively called FODMAPS, the acronym for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di--Mono-saccharides and polyols and it has been scientifically shown that reducing the levels of FODMAPS containing foods in the diet dramatically provides relief to those suffering from such GI related disorders. What does this mean to the food industry? A sign that demand for specially designed food products containing no or low levels of FODMAPS is bound to grow dramatically in the coming years.

Though Gluten cornered all the attention over many years as a causative factor for GI disorders, there have been many observations in the past that consumption of some carbohydrates does not go well with many consumers and among them a few short-chain carbohydrates that include lactose, fructose and sorbitol, fructans and galacto oligosaccharides caused IBS-like symptoms. What was more significant was that such studies also showed dramatic improvements among the affected people when there was dietary restriction to exclude short-chain carbohydrates in the diet. These carbohydrates induced symptoms similar to that caused by Gluten in the small intestine. These short-chain carbohydrates, being small molecules are either poorly absorbed or not absorbed at all and are capable of dragging water into the intestine through osmosis Further  they are easily fermented by colonic bacteria that reside in the large intestine generating gases like hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. Such a situation causes an expansion in volume of intestinal contents, which stretches the intestinal wall and stimulates nerves in the gut. that triggers the sensations of pain and discomfort, commonly experienced by those affected by IBS. The FODMAP concept maintains that a collective reduction in the dietary intake of all indigestible or slowly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates would minimise stretching of the intestinal wall which in turn may reduce stimulation of the gut's nervous system and provide the best chance of reducing symptom generation in people with IBS. Later the collective term FODMAPS was evolved for designating indigestible or slowly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates. 

Formulation of low FODMAP diet was originally developed by scientists in Australia and tested as to know whether low FODMAP diet really improved symptom control in patients with IBS. It is this pioneering work  which established the mechanism by which the diet exerted its effect. This led to efforts to evolve methodologies for measuring the FODMAPS content in foods and create a data base for foods that are consumed regularly. It is tribute to these scientists that a comprehensive and accurate database now exists describing the FODMAP content of a vast array of foods. There is now a better understanding about the mechanism by which the diet works and there is sound evidence indicating that a low FODMAP diet improves symptom control in approximately three out of every four people with IBS and other other Functional Gastric Intestinal Disorders (FGID). To day it is more or less agreed that the basis of many functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) is distension of the intestinal lumen. Such luminal distension may induce pain, a sensation of bloating, abdominal distension and motility disorders. Therapeutic approaches seek to reduce factors that lead to distension, particularly of the distal small and proximal large intestine. Food substances that can induce distension are those that are poorly absorbed in the proximal small intestine, osmotically active, and fermented by intestinal bacteria with hydrogen. 

An important question that may trouble many consumers is whether poor absorption of most FODMAP carbohydrates present in many foods can affect every body including normal healthy persons. A pertinent question that can be explained away in an understandable language.  Any FODMAPs that are not absorbed in the small intestine pass into the large intestine, where bacteria ferment them. The resultant production of gas potentially results in bloating and flatulence. Fortunately most individuals do not suffer significant symptoms but some may suffer the symptoms of IBS depending on their constitution and other biological variations. Fructose
malabsorption and lactose intolerance may produce IBS symptoms through the same mechanism but, unlike with other FODMAPs, poor absorption is found only in a minority of people. Many who 
benefit from a low FODMAP diet need not restrict fructose or lactose. It is possible to distinguish these two conditions by breath testing for the presence of hydrogen hydrogen and methane breath which will help to build into the diet only reasonable restrictions. Some of the significant sources of FODMAPS include wheat, rye, barley, onion, garlic, jerusalem  & globe artichokes, asparagus, beetroot, chicory, dandelion leaves, leek, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, fennel etc. Pulses and beans are rich in galactans while some some fruits like apples, apricots, avocado, blackberries, cherries, lychees, nectarines peaches, pears, prunes, water melon have significant concentrations of polyols. Isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol gets into the food when they are used as functional processing adjuncts by the industry. If such a large portfolio of foods is out of bounds for some people vulnerable to GI system malfunctioning, it is difficult to imagine how their quality of life is affected. May be this is the price humans pay for the progress of civilization as we see to it day. Ultimately the one going to be benefited is the well being food industry and the pharma sector! 


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sponsored research, tailor made research and cooked up research-Credibility of food research at stake?

When it comes to research and development efforts, especially those with potential commercial application, who funds them becomes critical if the results of such scientific studies are to be credible. This is the reason why public funded research assumes critical importance for protecting the health of the citizen. In a country like the US, industry is in the forefront to offer financial assistance to Universities and other R & D institutions, the obvious purpose being touted as public interest. In contrast a country like India where resources are limited and industry is reluctant to open their purse for research in public organizations, most research is funded by the government. Is it not an irony that results generated by public funded agencies are not taken seriously by the industry due to many reasons while industry sponsored projects try to ensure that there is veil of secrecy attached to them for gaining advantage vis-a-vis the competitors. Thus renowned institutions in India like CFTRI, DFRL, NISTEM and a host of universities engaged in food R & D are repositories of knowledge generated over decades of research spending huge public money. Which system is preferable for the progress of a country is indeed a vexed question with uncertain answers.

The above issue came into sharp focus after a recent report about the unethical practices perpetrated by the sugar industry in the US to mislead the government as well as the consumers through "sponsored" research in some organizations using "friendly" scientists to deflect the truth that sugar is responsible for almost all the ills faced by the American citizens during the last 50 years. Words like Cardiac disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, kidney impairment etc are magnetic words that command immediate attention by people who are concerned about the terrible health disaster looming ahead of them and how each one of them can avoid succumbing to these ailments.  It is in such an environment that sugar industry sponsored and funded research sought to assure the citizens that there is nothing wrong with consuming sugar and the real culprits are saturated fats, cholesterol and lack of physical exercise. Even if they have a point in asserting about other factors, it is is nothing but fraud to suppress the results that showed adverse impact of sugar on health and continue to pump into the market products with high levels of sugar that stimulate the taste buds of most citizens. If sugar is so innocuous why is that the whole world is now trying to curb its consumption through persuasive as well as mandatory actions to force the food industry to reduce sugar levels in their products? Such research projects are more aptly called tailor-made research to suit the needs of the sponsorer rather than a genuine scientific research!  

One is reminded of the famous quotes of the CEO of the biggest soda company in the world where in consumers were advised not to bother about sugar in the soda but concentrate on physical exercise for maintaining their body weights. That shows the mindset of the food and beverage industry which has least priority as far as the health of the citizen is concerned or the quality of the environment he lives. Though the sugar industry tried to portray sugar as a safe ingredient through its tainted research efforts, it is now universally recognized that sugar is an addictive substance like opioids and habit forming and once hooked on it is next to impossible to keep away from sugar sweetened products. On the economic side down fall of sugar from its high pedestal can have severe financial impact on industries based on beverages, confectionery including chocolates, fruit preserves, canned fruit products and pastry products. Is it not a catch 24 situation? One cannot demolish the industry which provides gainful employment to millions of people while it is criminal to ignore the harmful effects, if any, of the products the industry churns out? That is probably the logic behind the approach of governments like that in the US not to be too harsh on the industry but use persuasive efforts rather than coercive methods to ensure healthy products are made in stead of suspect products too high in sugar, fat and refined carbohydrates. 

Sponsored research generally refers to programs funded by private players among the industry to achieve a certain result of their liking but what is nauseating is the tendency of the funding party to influence the results and bring out results that suit them. The sugar research mentioned above comes under this category. There are many other instances where such studies have been financially supported by the industry and obtained results that help to market their products among the unsuspecting consumers. An excellent example is the research sponsored by the cocoa industry to implant in the minds of the consumers that chocolates are healthy because it is supposed to contain antioxidants like flavanols. Sadly this is a red herring because the harsh processing conditions undergone by cocoa beans before they become suitable for making good quality chocolates do not help to retain much of the flavanols in the final product. On the contrary chocolates are rich in saturated fats and high in sugar making them a prime candidate as a causative substance for some of the life style diseases encountered to day. Even the new generation healthy chocolates now in the market containing upwards of 70% cocoa solids are suspect products with no proven health benefits. Imagine how this industry making obviously a unhealthy product is flourishing raking up billions of dollars of business all over the world! Probably most of the so called well being products in the market to day have not undergone any sound scientific studies with hardly any credible peer review. 

In a world starved of funds for research which after all cannot bring dividends in the short term, can the scientists refuse funding from the industry? Of course not. There must be some ethical standards which have to be followed while accepting such funding. Who will set such standards? This is the duty of the research organization in collaboration with the government. While product development may be a genuine area for industry funding, especially in a country like India where captive research set ups are far and few because the astronomical cost involved in establishing them, the R & D agencies must be careful regarding projects offered by the industry to support their unjustifiable health claims and far fetched agenda. India is fortunate in having organizations like CSIR, ICAR and ICMR with a vast network of R & D laboratories with a massive number of multidisciplinary scientists and all claims made by the industry must be verified before allowing to be marketed and if there is a resource crunch those who make the claim can be charged, at least nominally so that consumers can trust such claims when printed on the label.  

Coming to cooked up research, many of the studies undertaken by scientists and degree yearning research scholars are suspect as they do not face any real test regarding the veracity of their results. Those pursuing doctoral degrees are aware that no system exists to day that can challenge their results through repeating their studies to confirm the same! This is not to brush the entire research system with tar but to highlight the lacunae of the present university research system. There may be many honest scientists with unimpeachable integrity and honesty but they are far and few in to day's permissive atmosphere where every thing is accepted as truth without undergoing the veracity check. Internationally there have been many instances where research findings are retracted after a few years of their publication, more by accident than by any genuine checking system. If some of the R & D agencies working under government aegis have miserably failed the nation in delivering what is expected from them through development of global standard technologies, lack of reliability, trust of the potential users and failure to demonstrate under field conditions are responsible. One has to admire our scientists in space agency who cannot afford to fudge results because to ensure success of the space program their work has to be demonstrable and reliable for the entire country to see. It is this golden standard scientists in other fields also must set for themselves if they do not want to loose their esteem before the public.  


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Glycemic Index of foods- its relevance and reliability under a cloud

Diabetes is by now considered a debilitating disease which many viewing it as a silent killer. While educated people with some basic knowledge about the etiology of this affliction understand how the food we eat affects the blood glucose level and the adverse effect high glucose levels can have on different health parameters. It is sad to see millions of people suffering from diabetes, not very much aware of the consequences of eating high carbohydrate foods, that too based on highly refined ones, on the dynamics of glucose generation within the body and fall prey to serious ailments affecting eyes, heart, kidneys, limbs etc destroying the quality of their life. According to available reports there are more than 422 million people suffering from this disorder which is fast becoming a top killer among all the diseases. In India itself number of people afflicted by diabetes is placed around 62 million and if experts are to be believed, India may become the world capital of diabetes soon, if not checked effectively. Once diabetes is diagnosed appropriate diet and disciplined eating habits can provide substantial benefits along with correct drugs in right dosage. Inability of the body to assimilate sugar at a rate that will prevent undue build up in the blood, due to insulin insufficiency or insulin insensitivity has to be recognized and such build up can be "managed" only by a diet predominant in whole grains with particular emphasis on pulses, vegetables, meat, fish and nuts with low rate glucose release when consumed.

It is not that information is lacking regarding the type of foods that can be eaten moderately and the quantity that can be safe but often the logistical difficulties in adhering to a strict diet regimen besides often conflicting nature of such information, make it impractical to follow the guidelines of the physicians. Against such a situation the evolution of the concepts of Glycemic Index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) during early eighties provided a reasonably reliable guide to the ability of different foods consumed regularly to generate glucose in the body. Thus high GI, medium GI and low GI foods were developed or conceptualized that will safeguard against undue glucose spikes in the blood after consumption. But if recent reports by a group of scientists from the US are to be believed, GI is not as reliable as it was thought to be pushing millions of diabetics as well as the food industry developing products with low GI into a new era of uncertainty. What are the implications of the results of this study? 

Traditionally blood glucose levels, estimated after a 12 hour fasting  and 2 hours after ingesting a normal breakfast provided a reasonable clue as whether a person is diabetic or not. While a glucose level of 100 mg per 100 ml after fasting and 150 mg/100 ml 2 hours after breakfast are considered normal. Though there are slight variations in diabetic assessment technique essentially all of them highlight the ability of the body cells to assimilate free glucose from the blood for hundreds of biological functions. While high levels of blood glucose are supposed to cause hyperglycemic conditions considered dangerous, especially it it continues for long time, low levels of glucose cause hypoglycemic symptoms such as giddiness and over all weakness. Though these values are more or less accepted universally, monitoring blood glucose levels frequently, especially in the home environment is fraught with some logistical problems. Estimating glucose in a pathological laboratory may take at least a couple of hours but there are home gadgets based on mild pricking and drawing a tiny drop of blood on to a glucose oxidase enzyme strip that provides digital readings of glucose levels in a matter of a few seconds. Many people buy these gadgets for testing of glucose as and when they feel symptoms of hyper or hypo glycemia. A non-invasive system without the necessity of puncturing the skin is still in the realm of development and may take some time before becoming a common tool.

What is GI? Using a standard material like sugar for testing glucose transfer to blood from the food ingested is measured as a percentage of the time taken for the sugar to manifest in the blood, GI is expressed usually as a definitive number. Easily assimilable and fast appearance of glucose from the ingested sugar sources usually have high GI numbers while those foods which do not release glucose easily  have low GI values. Generally whole grains and pulses are slow glucose releasers and hence have low GI values. Most food products based on sugar and refined cereal flours have high GI values indicating that they cause glucose spikes in blood considered highly undesirable. Similarly processed foods containing high levels of retrograded starch and uncooked foods also have relatively lower GI values. Since a diabetic wants to avoid rapid rise in blood sugar levels, his choice is always foods with low GI numbers. Food industry also strives to evolve food products with less and less GI numbers to attract diabetes affected consumers and incidentally such tailor made foods also command higher prices.

It is almost a decade and a half since GI became a standard parameter for assessing suitability of different foods for consumption by diabetic affected people and no one has so far contested the relevance or reliability of GI to assess the glucose release and absorption by the blood. Of course from time to time there were informed criticism regarding the reliability of GI concept, in the absence of a better alternative, GI was still widely adopted by nutritionists and medical community as a practical tool. Though GI is widely used by physicians and dietitians for advising their clients regarding the best foods they must consume to control diabetes, periodic checking of fasting sugar and postprandial sugar levels still gives an idea about the extent of control of the food regimen by a diabetic patient.  Of course this traditional practice of glucose monitoring in the morning can at best give a picture about the glucose dynamics in the blood during pre-lunch period.  What about the situation in the post lunch period? Though many diabetics use home gadgets to monitor the blood glucose level as many times as they wish, it is not practical to do this often due to the physical discomfort involved in skin puncturing. The concept of glycosylated haemoglobin (HbA1c) measurement in the blood once in 2-3 months provides a reliable means of knowing about the history of food eating during that period. While a value of less than 6 is considered normal, any value beyond that can be an indicator of onset of diabetes. Values beyond 7 must be taken seriously to exercise better control of the diet by including more and more of low GI foods in their diet. 
One can realize how far the world has gone in adopting GI as a useful tool to manage diets. It is this edifice which is sought to be destroyed by the findings of a group of scientists in the US who claim that GI is not as dependable as it is thought to be, because of inconsistent values of GI noted for the same food in different people. While minor variations up to 5% can be ignored because of experimental error that may creep in in different laboratories, variations as big as 20% cannot be attributed to lab error. If their results are true the commonly consumed white bread can show GI values ranging from 47 to 77! This means white bread can be a low GI food for some, medium GI food for some body else and a high GI food for some others. How ludicrous it is? But if the results of the American scientists are validated, it is going to open a Pandora's Box with unimaginable consequences. Low GI foods have values 35-55, medium ones 57-67 and high GI category with GI 70-103. More shocking is that same food with a certain standard GI value gave widely different values in the same person when determined on different occasions according to these scientists! What can one make out of these observations and what impact it will have on various stakeholders of the diabetic disease?.

It is unfortunate that the new studies have come at a time when some consensus is emerging about the need for the food industry to include in the label information regarding the GI value of the contents within the packet. Will this be the pretext for the manufacturers to resist pressure from the consumer community to publish GI data on the label? That should not be allowed to happen at any cost unless more studies are organized to validate the new findings. Even if GI values show variations under different conditions, by and large they seem to remain same most of the time. Similarly it does not matter that GI response varies from person to person since most data applied to day is based on majority response. Till a new and better alternative energies, it may be fool hardy to ignore it for the time being. Diabetics are better advised to base their diet on low GI foods and best way to manage diabetes could be to adopt diets based on foods undergoing minimum processing.

The million dollar question is whether hundreds of scientist working on GI of foods have gone wrong some where? What can be the scientific explanation for this shocking anomaly? A larger question is if there are such wide metabolic and physiological variations amongst human beings, what relevance studies using humans as subjects can have in generalizing the results of such studies to be applicable to entire humanity? This question assumes more significance when human studies are undertaken while testing drugs for various ailments and diseases. It is urgent that the questions raised by the Tuft university scientists are further examined by a few independent groups under international collaboration to arrive at a consensus. If Gi tool is to be thrown out of the window what other alternatives we have to assess appropriateness and soundness of foods for consumption by diabetic population? No body disagrees with the universal consensus that fruits, vegetables, whole cereals, pulses and foods rich in retrograded starch must constitute the core part of any diet but to make them palatable appropriate products have to be evolved acceptable to the targeted consumers.  .     


Thursday, September 1, 2016

The "Bromate in bread" controversy-Where lies the truth?

The recent controversy regarding the presence of potassium bromate residues in bread and other wheat based bakery preparations does not help either the consumer or the industry. While it showed bakery industry as a villain, consumers became weary about the industry giving an impression that the products churned out by this sector are not safe. According to the organization which splashed this news based on a study of a few samples picked up from the Delhi market, since bromates are carcinogenic, bread made with this chemical is not safe for human consumption. Probably it may have a point and safety authorities need to look into this issue more carefully and dispassionately. Decision to ban must be taken based on facts and ground reality, not as a knee-jerk reaction. What is not understandable is the haste with which the authors of this study had gone to the press which can only serve to create panic among the consuming public. FSSAI, the "Authority" sitting in Delhi seems to have been woken up from its slumber mode and since it has authority to ban any products as it did with maggi noodles last year, one can only expect a similar reaction from this babu organization. But it is time the consumers realize the reality, give the report a cursory glance and go on with their lives till more definitive data emerge on this issue.

According to the Center for Science and Environment, a Delhi based consumer watch dog, Indian bread may cause cancer because of the existing practice of the baking industry using potassium bromate for improving the raising quality of the bread. Not only that it also includes besides bread other products like pizza, burger etc as potential cancer causing products about which consumers must be aware. It further declares that potassium iodate, an approved additive in bakery products, has the potential to adversely affect thyroid functions in human beings and therefore needs to be banned. Lo, there goes the declaration by the FSSAI banning bromate for use in food products in India and further assures the public that it would examine iodate regarding its ill effects on humans! Steps in our over concerned Mantriji, the custodian of health of the population in India, cautioning the public against panic as he is "fully seized" of the matter. He further assures the public that a thorough investigation will be undertaken to find out whether these chemicals already approved by FSSAI are really dangerous and take "appropriate action" if so. Of course every body knows that he and his ministry will promptly forget about this issue and move on to the mundane things they are doing to protect the health of Indian people!  

For those not knowing what is potassium bromate and why it is used in bakery products, it is appropriate to peep into into its history. Potassium bromate, or commonly referred to as bromate, is an oxidiser deployed to strengthen wheat dough so that its elasticity is increased, besides helping to get a uniform bake and white color for the final product viz bread. Usual practice is to use 15-30 parts per million (ppm) of potassium bromate in the flour before making the dough. For a number of years this chemical was being used extensively by the baking industry across the world with no adverse report coming from any where. One of the reasons why it is considered a safe practice is that bromate gets destroyed at the high baking temperatures which is required to make a good bread. It is well known that at the baking temperatures normally no residue is supposed to be left behind to cause any ill effect. Of course if good manufacturing practices are not followed, especially use of high concentrations of bromate or under baking, possibility of some residue remaining cannot be ruled out. 

Is use of bromate confined only to India? Of course not. There are a few countries like the US which permit use of bromates but under the condition that there is zero residue left in the product after baking. Many countries, to be on the safer side out rightly banned use of bromates. Though earlier a limit of 75 ppm was allowed which was reduced to 60 ppm later, subsequent international studies did find bromate to be of carcinogenic potential and advised all countries to avoid using it as far as possible since alternative safer additives are available to achieve the same objective as a flour improver. It was in 2012 that the Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO/WHO withdrew specifications for bromate from its official list implying that its use should be discontinued. However, India, though a member of the Codex did not bother to implement the recommendations of this body and continued permitting bromate in the country for reasons known best to FSSAI. Is it not ironical that FSSAI has to be woken up by the limited studies of the Delhi organization to remove bromate from the list of permitted food additives? 

Before we take the side of the consumer, it is only fair to listen to the compulsions of the bakery industry in India as to why it is persisting with the use of bromate, in spite of the adverse views of the Codex. Most logical explanation would be that it is legally permitted in the country and no one can find fault with it. Interestingly in a country like the US where 60-75 ppm of bromate is legally allowed many major bakery players have shunned its use voluntarily, finding alternate flour improvers like  ascorbic acid, ammonium persulfate, ammonium chloride, amylase, glucose oxidase  etc. The attraction for the industry to use bromate is that it is the cheapest flour improver in the market, all others costing considerably more. It is the contention of the bakery industry that if it is forced to stop use of bromate, the bread prices may go up due to increased cost of manufacture. Probably this is an argument no body is going to buy that easily! The industry feels that since FSSAI does not want to shoulder the responsibility of monitoring the bromate residues in bread regularly, it is exercising its power to ban this chemical. May be there is a point but responsible industry leaders must understand that monitoring thousands of small and micro scale bakeries across this vast country is not that easy and therefore it must accept gracefully the decision to discontinue use of bromate in the country. As for potassium iodate it is not used widely in India in food preparations though it is a recommended source of iodine for fortification of salt to prevent on set of the goiter disease among the population. Probably banning this chemical may affect the salt fortification project promoted by the government. 

If the industry is to be believed the report by the Delhi organization regarding the safety of bread in India based on a limited study confined only to Delhi has caused a severe backlash against bakery products in the country as it has touched a raw nerve among the consumers, causing significant damage to its business. May be it has a point as voluntary organizations publishing such reports needs to be controlled and there should be an alliance between such groups and the government for exchanging such information before making them public. After all GOI has big institutions like CFTRI, CDRI, NIFTEM, etc and veracity of such panic causing reports must be vetted by peer scientists from these institutes before being put on the public domain. However well equipped voluntary organizations are, their facilities and experience cannot come any where to that of GOI food research institutions and hence this caution.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why is irradiation technology not catching on? Misconception, fear about safety or poor awareness?

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.