Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Monthly Bleg

A Bleg is when a blog begs for stuff like ideas, contributions etc. The last few weeks there has been a flurry of interest in this blog. We ask you to contribute original material related to food technology that will be posted with attribution to the writer. If the material is of high quality and prolific enough, you can even become a coblogger! Dr. Potty will vet the contributions for the high standards of this blog. We want to expose the readership of this blog to a wide variety of ideas, philosophies and provoke thought. So, dear readers, send it in and mail it to

Please remember if you want your comments to appear in the comments section of a particular post, you have to click on comments at the bottom of that post. This bleg is to generate entirely new posts under your authorship. So, send it in folks



Rice and wheat constitute the two major staple food grains that divide the world when food consumption profiles are used as the criterion. Both are excellent foods containing nourishing macro and micro nutrients. The growing conditions for each of these grains differ significantly and historically the food consumption habits are also influenced by the climatic conditions that allow their cultivation. Sadly there is also a great divide between countries which are rich and others not so rich and this economic segmentation is telling on the grains consumed by each group. Thus wheat consumption is more common in rich countries while rice is the staple in less richer countries, Japan being an exception. Looking at the rice scenario, depending on annual per capita consumption, countries can be fitted into 3 categories. Under the Asian model comes countries like India (80 kg), China (90 kg), Indonesia (150 kg) and Myanmar (200 kg) consuming 80 kg or more per capita annually. Countries like Brazil (45 kg), Colombia (40 kg) and Ivory Coast(60 kg) constitute the second group under the subtropical model consuming between 30 kg and 45 kg per capita annually. There are a few countries coming under the west model taking less than 10 kg per capita yearly which include France (4 kg) and USA (9 kg). World average is 86 kg per capita per year which is a 40% increase compared to consumption 30 years ago.

World production of rice is about 400 million tons (MT) a year, out of which China and India, accounting for almost 35% of world population, produce more than 50%. While China produces about 130 MT of rice, Indian out put is around 90 MT. That the food consumption habits can be subtly changed by economic and other factors is borne out by the popularity of wheat rising in many predominantly rice consuming countries during seventies and eighties due to aggressive promotion of wheat by countries like USA, Canada, Argentina and Australia where large surpluses were available for export. Wheat production, driven by modern agricultural technologies, has crossed 600 MT and this reflects the imbalances in supply of food in rice consuming and wheat eating populations. Even in India wheat is increasingly becoming popular with the younger generation, probably due to the tremendous technological advantage this grain enjoys over rice, in terms of modern innovative and convenient products. Breads, pastries and cookies, pasta products, pizza products, hamburgers, subs, sandwiches, hot dogs etc are the favorite choices amongst the children and youngsters while there is not even a single rice based modern product that has been popularized, at least in India. Rice based products popular in South East Asia are based on their traditional food cultures and it is less likely that they will become popular else where in the world. Thus there is a large technological gap vis-a-vis products as far as these grains are concerned. But this does not deter the value of rice as one of the most nutritious foods, consumed over thousands of years of human evolution, sustaining large populations in several continents.

Economic considerations do play a role in castigating rice as an inferior food and implicating it in some of the serious health disorders through sustained campaigns. There are many dubious claims by vested parties, implicating rice in practically every disease mankind has known! But the facts are totally different and world must recognize the fact that rice is not only equal to wheat in food value,but also it has several positive advantages compared to other grains. Rice eaters consume more nutrients like folic acid, potassium and iron, are less likely to be over weight, have 34% reduced risk of having high blood pressure and 21% lesser risk of metabolic diseases. It has fairly good levels of Manganese, B-complex vitamins, Selenium and Magnesium. Sodium content is practically nil being less than 5 mg per 100g. It has been shown that rice, especially the brown version, decreases dramatically the risk of cancers in colon, throat, thyroid, pancreas,rectum, stomach, breast, mouth and uterus. Selenium present in rice protects the cells from free radical damage, enables thyroid to produce thyroxine in optimal quantities and reduces risk of joint inflammation. In contrast those eating bread, pasta and similar wheat products are reported to be at greater risks of kidney disorders according to Italian researchers. Gluten present in wheat is allergic to many people, so much so, all labels have to declare the presence or of absence of this constituent of wheat in any processed foods. When wheat is milled to white flour, the most nutritious part, the germ, is removed, leaving only the starch and gluten as major edible materials. In contrast during rice milling, germ is not removed and even the bran layer is only partially removed leaving substantial nutrition in tact.

The only fault with rice, if at all one can call it that way, is its high glycemic index which is responsible for the release of glucose in less time into the blood, possibly not desirable for diabetic patients but it is an added strength since normal consumers can derive faster energy by digestion and absorption. Rice based weaning foods are universally recommended to infants due to this unique quality. With development of low glycemic rice, (less than GI 50) which is now available in the market even Type II diabetic consumers can eat rice with practically no risk of glucose surge. New varieties are also in the market with higher contents of iron, protein, fat, dietary fiber etc and it is time for all misconceptions about rice, probably orchestrated by anti-rice lobby, are removed from the minds of consumers and rice is restored to its preeminence as the "LIFE SUSTAINER" in this planet. Long live rice, long live homo sapiens!.



Fish is considered a protective food with almost all essential nutrients for growth available from it. The presence of essential fatty acids, Omega-3 fatty acids in abundant quantities makes fish a much sought after food. In fact 14-16% of animal proteins world over are estimated to be coming from fish. There are over 27000 species of fish but only a few of them are considered tasty and acceptable. Commercial fishing is based on such a demand profile.
Though there is no unanimity regarding how much fish one should consume to derive maximum benefits without any ill effects, the consumption rate at present indicates an annual per capita intake of 16 kg globally. Averages can be misleading as some do not consume any fish at all while others make fish part of their regular diets. A minimum of two servings of fish are considered good for deriving the health benefits attributed to fish. Eskimos depend on fish for a major part of their calories and proteins and they are one of the groups of population with practically no incidence of Cardio Vascular Disease because of abundant availability of Omega-3 acids from their diets. Long life span reported from Japan and Nordic countries is attributed to the fish-rich diets the population in these places consume regularly. Omega-3 acids are known to help reduce serum cholesterol, protect heart, improve circulation, reduce risk of arterial diseases and some types of cancers and improve brain development. The over whelming evidence in favor of Omega-3 acids has persuaded the industry to venture into extracting this nutrient from fish in the purest form with no smell or color and use it in many functional foods including juices and beverages. Besides Omega-3 acids, fish is also a good source of some essential minerals like iron, zinc, iodine and selenium.
While there is no dispute about the value of fish in the diet, its consumption is hampered by two constraints. First the aversion by many people to fish which can be due to religion, eating habits, environmental factors and other socio-ethnic reasons. There is no way this can be overcome though future generation of youngsters may yet change this scenario. The second constraint is the wide spread contamination of fish with mercury which is known to cause life threatening life disorders if consumed regularly beyond a certain limit. Many species of fish are known to carry mercury in the range of 0.73 to 1.45 ppm which far exceeds the safe limit agreed upon by WHO. The current safety limit is 1.6 ug per kg body weight per week working out to about 112 ug for a normal adult. Two servings of fish therefore should not contain more than 0.112 ppm of mercury.
The conflicting views of experts over the desirability of consuming fish by women during pregnancy have created uncertainty regarding the safety as well as the benefits of eating fish. While one group feels that two servings of fish a week have benefits far outweighing the potential harmful effects of mercury, others have taken the stand that eating fish during pregnancy must be avoided to prevent damage to the fetus. Four species of fish are reported to be high in mercury while species like Shrimp, light Tuna (canned), Salmon, Pollock and Cat fish are low in mercury and many experts feel that these can be consumed with least risk by expectant mothers.
The Indian situation is some what hazy as no reliable data could be found regarding mercury contamination in fish from either fresh water or marine sources. But logically the fresh water fish may be a safer bet as they are not generally contaminated with industrial effluents except in some areas. It may be the onus of the newly created Food Standards and Safety Agency to look into this area to evolve a consensus as to the safety of fish caught inland as well as coastal areas.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Whether in solid or liquid form, food fats play an important role in the diets of population all over the world. The type of fat used differs from country to country and some times localized in different parts of the same country depending on the taste perceptions of the population there. Ideal intake of fat in human beings is adequate quantity to provide 30% of the total food calories required for a normal person. If 1800 kC energy is taken as daily requirement per ca pita, total fat content, visible as well as invisible should not be more than 60 g a day. Of course there is no unanimity amongst nutrition experts some of whom justify fat consumption up to 90% of the diet calories in extremely cold conditions while it can be as low as 10% for normal persons. Fact remains that fat serves several purposes in the diet such as imparting texture and flavor to prepared foods, carrier for oil soluble ingredients and vitamins and concentrated energy storage in the body.
World wide fat consumption is estimated at 130 million tons(MT) derived from soybean, Oil Palm, Rapeseed, Sunflower seed, Peanut, Cotton seed, Olives, Maize germ, Rice bran, Safflower, Sesame, Coconut etc. In India the consumption is estimated at 13 MT per year out of which 8.5 MT is domestic production and rest imported. Though regional preferences do exist regarding the choice of cooking oil, lately Palmolein is more or less accepted nationally because of cost factors. Soybean oil is also a major commodity traded in the world market, exported from countries like the US, Brazil and others. India and China are the biggest importers of edible oils with the latter expected to overtake India in the near future. If the 30% calories level is taken as an average requirement, the global need for fat in 2050 for 10 billion people will work out to some thing like 200 million tons and achieving such a stiff target looks daunting if the past achievements are taken into consideration. India's own need will be around 30 MT.
The issues involved are: 1) the total quantity to be targeted 2) the qualitative make up of the oil pool and 3) the cost factor. Desired quantity is as worked out above and existing chemical, food and biotechnological tools may be able to achieve the target if the task is addressed collectively by all the countries. Quality is a major issue which has defied solution ever since the commercial edible oils practically wiped out the small enterprises world over using ghanies and small expellers. With the modern refining technology aiming for producing a bland oil ideal for cooking purposes, ignoring nutritional aspects, and over consumption leading to obesity epidemics in many countries, nutritional quality assumes wider significance. It is to be noted that short and medium (S/MCT) chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the blood via intestinal capillaries and travel through the portal vein just as other nutrients do. In contrast long chain fatty acids are absorbed into the fatty walls of villi and reassembled again into triglycerides which are coated with cholesterol and protein into a compound called chylomicrons. Within the villi the chylomicrons enter a lymphatic capillary known as lacteal which merges with larger lymphatic vessels. It is transported in this format through the thoracic duct up to a location near the heart where arteries and veins are larger, getting emptied into the blood stream via the left subclavian vein. Thus fats coming under S/MCT do not need cholesterol for metabolism while LCT fats are dependent on it. Logically therefore S/MCT fats must be the preferred choice from the nutritional angle.
A larger question is the need for essential fatty acids like linolenic and linoleic acids by the human system which invariably come from liquid oils with long chain fatty acids. S/MCT fats have higher melting points being in solid or semisolid forms at room temperature. Two of the most famous S/MCT fats are coconut and palm kernel fats, both of which, paradoxically, are consumed directly to a limited extent but find extensive use as ingredients in processed food products. Though the characteristic flavor of coconut oil is not liked by many, limiting its direct use, palm kernel oil availability is rather limited as it is a by-product of palm oil industry. Ideally if these oils are available in abundance, their use could obviate many of the problems associated with fat consumption.
Synthetic fats may be an option the world has to keep in mind looking ahead but attempts so far were restricted to creating zero calorie fats or low calorie fats for use by weight watchers and over weight consumers. Sucrose fatty acid polyesters popularly known as Olestra is already in the market from the global giant Procter & Gamble containing 6-8 fatty acids but this is not digested in the body. Other companies like Nabisco, CPC International, Fritto Lay etc also have their versions of synthetic fats at different stages of evaluation. Most promising seems to be MCT, a medium Chain Triglyceride with C6-C10 fatty acids which is being readied for launch in the near future. Even if some of the synthetic fats are found to be acceptable, the moot point is from where the basic fatty acids and glycerol can be sourced in such huge quantities. Can biotechnology come to the rescue by evolving fermentation technology that can yield medium chain fatty acids? How about glycerol? Again by fermentation? Already there are bugs identified for producing both fatty acids and glycerol and further work can raise these technologies to commercial levels if sustained inputs are provided. As for essential fatty acids it is going to be a problem because the concentrated sources are fish which is not consumed by more than 25% of the population. Here again the biotechnology route can be examined.
Though synthetic fats cannot be expected to replace plant fats in the foreseeable future, a beginning has to be made and progressively more and more synthetic fats must be brought into the fat pool, sparing land for more critical crops like Rice, Wheat, Pulses and other food grains. A critical factor in the acceptability will be the cost of such fats to the consumers. If it is comparable to that of plant fats there is greater chance of gaining consumer acceptability. It is time a body like FAO takes up an inter governmental mission to prepare a route map for achieving ways and means to meet future global demand for fats without sacrificing land required for staples.


This blog was created with the objective of raising a platform for debating, discussing, interacting and innovating ideas about issues that confront food technology with a free access to one and all with passion for the subject.As indicated earlier all comments, even critical of this blogger WILL be published here without moderation as long as the language used is civil and no personal agenda is pushed through under the guise of any commonaity. Further it is the desire of this blogger to continue this platform for years to come with trusted colleagues/friends taking his place after his time. Though initially there was disappointment at the lack of response in the form of constructive comments, the effort was continued since blogging is relatively a new activity and the practice of reading blog is yet to take root in this country. It is strongly felt that youngsters undergoing education and training in Universities and other learning centers in food science and technology and young professionals in their early career phase can learn some thing about writing on the subject by reading this blog regularly, besides updating their information base.

The last blog which appeared on December 26, 2008 drew many comments which were all published without any moderation and any one who wants to criticize this blogger also can do it, so that the contents in the published item are balanced and equitable to all. The provocation for this particular blog was the editorial which appeared to have crossed the fine line of objective analysis, almost bordering on one sided affirmation of unjustified claims of people for celebrity status. Many retired scientists who are no more in active service in their chosen field but still committed to the subject have been watching helplessly the high decibel claims like 1000 patents, earth shaking technological achievements without any basis, tsunami heroics and call for help from Katrina flood victims for foods, the supposed bonding with industry, getting many regional, national, international and extra terrestrial laurels for many of the imaginary achievements, etc etc etc etc. But probably it is time they stand up and call the bluff. It is time an accountability check is made by a high level commission of GOI with the assistance of a few non controversial peers with unsullied reputation and the guilty is severely punished with out any sympathy, for wasting precious public funds earmarked for R & D for personal ends.

Many of the comments submitted without giving out the identities of those who sent them pose serious questions regarding the democratic functioning of scientific institutions in the country as there appears to be an atmosphere of fear that pervades through their portals. It is beyond the scope of this bog to delve deeper into the malaise that afflicts the community of food scientists in this country but appropriate authorities who are vested with the responsibility of managing R &D in foods must wake up to this reality for taking remedial actions. Pretending not seeing it is like ignoring the cancerous affliction before it eats up the vitals, signifying the death of food research in this country. What ever little initiative, pride and loyalty to the country that is left also will evaporate if the situation continues like this.

One of the comments received and published suggests to start a new blog for mysorejoker. for dedicating to a particular person who seems to be fond of calling every one a joker but this blogger is not good in the field of satire and has no grudge or grouse agaist any body that may require venting out in public. A Food Technology blog is not a sterile/sanitized site and if responsible person(s) or institution(s) are perceived to be harming the interests of the subject or its sincere practitioners, same has to be dealt with, setting aside any personal considerations like friendship, relationship, etiquette, sympathy or other factors. Probably the anonymous person who made this suggestion can consider starting such an exclusive blog for entertaining the public. Here are the best wishes for the venture.


Friday, December 26, 2008


Mysoreans were supposed to have been 'thrilled' on the Xmas day by reading an "inspired" editorial in a local paper that a 'son of the soil' food scientist has achieved the pinnacle of glory by becoming the president of an obscure organization about which practically no one in the country is aware of. Though this person was a member of this organization comprising of 'mutual admiration society' folks from a few countries and was 'elected' president for 2008-2010 more than two years ago, why this news suddenly became a topic for an 'editorial' is a mystery. India is 'blessed' with many so called 'scientists cum politicians' who do not leave any opportunity to 'garner' awards, titles, positions of power and pelm, be in the media if possible every day preferably with their color photographs, be a chief guest, special guest, VIP guest, key not speaker, etc , though their actual contribution to the the development in the country needs a microscope to see.

IUFoST is a conglomerate of many non-governmental national organizations of food science and technology controlled by developed countries and the Indian body AFST(I) had found to its dismay long ago that it does not serve the purpose of national interest to continue as a 'paid' member of IUFoST. IAFoST is an exclusive club promoted by this body to reward those influential in their own country by virtue of their position or those who actively canvas for getting membership of the Academy to bloat their bio-data for personal glorification or boosting their career. Currently there are two 'members' from India who 'got' into this body (no one knows how?) and there appears to be a competition between them as to who will garner more number of awards from wherever they are available. One of these had recently the ignominy of 'retracting' a paper published in the reputed periodical PNAS of USA as it was found to be not based on reproducible scientific data. This was all the more reprehensible because the paper was reported to have been 'peer reviewed' for the periodical by one of the 'famous' agricultural scientists who had set up a research foundation in his own name with the award money he got for his 'achievements' some years ago. It is instances like these which generate skepticism regarding the genuineness of innumerable awards being sponsored by all and sundry. What credibility the food scientists working with them will have amongst the industry, the public and the governments, especially when technologies developed by them are offered for commercialization? Of course Indians are immune to getting shocked at these episodes as even the national and state awards have become a laughing stock due their politicization lately. Any thing is possible in an era when degrees and awards can be purchased at a price from some of the organizations that operate all over the world.

Before publishing such 'inspired' reports, the media have the responsibility to verify and corroborate the claims. Being in Mysore no body would have missed the sorry spectacle of this newly acclaimed international food scientist being sent back from Delhi without allowing to take over as Secretary to GOI under mysterious circumstances and his going out of circulation for almost 6 months. Scientists are supposed to be humble with high humility and pursue truth even under adverse circumstances. Here we have examples in the field of food technology the very anti thesis of such virtues expected from a honest scientist. The credibility of food scientists and technologists is at stake and it is the collective responsibility of them to reassert and reclaim the lost ground because of the blemishes of a few amongst them who can go to any extent to turn focus on themselves sacrificing the interrests of their organization and colleagues.

Just like the 'beauties' being trained by many specialized schools for achieving the much coveted Miss World or Miss Universe titles, probably the pioneers like those mentioned above, with wealth of experience in notching up one award after another through their well horned skills can even think of setting up a training center at the evening of their life when no more awards are there for picking!. This Center can help future scientists with uncontrolled satiety for ' name and fame' through short cuts by transferring the art and skills they have in attracting international recognition at any 'cost'! Here are prayers for the redemption of Indian food science and technology from the clutches of "Award Seeking Pioneers".


Wednesday, December 24, 2008


It is fashionable to talk in platform speeches that world is facing a dark future because of the impending food shortages caused by the explosive population increase and there is no option but to go for another green revolution driven by biotechnology through genetically modified foods. The power of biotechnology is such that it is possible to achieve any thing by manipulating the genes from the same species or from other species through the recombinant DNA technology.It is this power that is being proposed to expand food production claimed to be necessary to meet the future demands that may emerge a few years from now. However what troubles the conscience of the world is whether resorting to gene modification is absolutely safe or not and whether the traditional breeding technology of 1000 year old history, cannot be improved to increase production dramatically if found necessary.

Foods that have had their DNA changed through genetic engineering technology are commonly referred to as GM foods. Combining genes from different organisms constitutes recombinant DNA technology and invariably these foods are also called GE foods or transgenic foods. The technology originated as a tool for microbiologists and found dramatic use in plant crops. GM technology is widely sought for imparting enhanced taste and quality for foods, reduced maturation time, increased nutrient density, better yields, higher stress tolerance, improved resistance to diseases, pests, herbicides and drought and many other desirable traits. First commercial GM food was Tomato developed by the US company Calgene in 1994 under the brand Flavr Savr with properties to resist rotting. However its commercial life was very short due to serious doubts about its safety by a U K scientist who reported that rats consuming the product under controlled conditions showed precancerous cell growth in the intestine, adverse effect on brain development, damages to liver, testicles, pancreas and immune system. Though the insecticide gene inserted into Tomato did not contribute to these adverse reactions, the genetic engineering process itself was found responsible. Even to day this study is the only conclusive findings accepted universally guiding the thought process regarding the vulnerability of GM foods.

Whether we like it or not GM crops have become omnipotent in to day's world which have been adopted for their recognized advantages like growing fast and bigger in more extreme temperatures, resistance to pests and diseases. As per the protocol of FDA of USA, 40 crops have completed the mandatory requirements for clearance. USA accounts for 83% of GM cotton, 61% GM corn and 89% of soybean produced in the world reflecting the growing confidence that country has in their safety. !3 countries market GM foods which include Argentina, Canada, China, Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain and Uruguay. It is believed that 75% of all the processed foods in USA contain GM ingredients. Time is not too far away when GM animals also will dominate the animal food sector because they grow faster, emit less phosphate and methane in their manure, are resistant to diseases like mastitis and mad cow disease or have high omega-3 fatty acids at levels similar to that in fish. Probably Atlantic salmon fish that fatten up to market weight in 18 months instead of traditional 30 months may be the first GM food from the animal species to reach the market soon.

Interestingly GM technology is tightly controlled by some of the major transnational companies which have registered unprecedented profits this year. Monsanto increased its profit by 100%, Cargill by 86% and Archer Daniels Midland by 86% while the world is facing an economic melt down affecting the livelihood of millions of people. Intellectual property restrictions will make this technology exclusive privilege of rich farmers while their counter parts in poor third world countries can never hope to be benefited by the new revolution, even if the GM technology is found to be absolutely safe in the long term.The safety issues are clouded by uncertainties and lack of unanimity amongst the scientists as to whether long term consumption of GM foods can contribute to life time disorders of unknown nature. Sufficient grounds do exist to suspect that some GM foods may be linked to allerginicity, toxicity, decreased nutrient value, antibiotic resistance, cancer, kidney damage, Alzheimer's disease and diabetes.

Final question is whether the world is really in need of GM technology for meeting any food contingency in future. It is a fact that GM technology has never shown to be capable of increasing the yield of any crops but it can increase the availability of food by cutting down food losses significantly. The world population which stands at about 7 billion to day is anticipated to reach 10 billion or less in another two decades. As per FAO statistics, to day's global food production can provide 2800 kC of energy per capita, if distributed equitably, sufficient to make a person obese! By 2030 the food production achieved, at to day's growth rate, can feed the entire world @ 3050 kC per capita if distributed uniformly. If this is so why does the world need GM foods? If there is even an iota of doubt regarding the safety, why cannot this technology be confined to non-food crops like cotton, jatropa, soft woods for paper industry, forest regeneration, jute crops, non-edible oils etc?

Nearer home the recent disclosure by GOI before the Supreme Court that GM foods have been imported into the country without any scientific examination of their impact on environment and human beings, is shocking. There are grave allegations that GM seeds of rice, brinjal, okhra and potato are being imported without any oversight since 2006 and if true it can have unpredictable consequences to the country. Mandatory clearance is required from the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee before imports of GM materials are permitted into the country but it is a mystery why this was not done in the above cases. Most countries involved in marketing of GM foods with the possible exception of USA insist on appropriate labeling to inform the consumer who then can exercise the option not to buy them if not acceptable. Even this enabling provision seems to have been ignored in India and in the absence of any traceability mechanism no one is sure where these imported, uncleared seeds have been cultivated and where the crops have been marketed. A sad reflection on the accountability of those who is supposed to "govern" this country!


Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Food is always associated with sensory satisfaction, nutrition and good health. Why any one should think of diseases when food is the subject matter for any consideration is beyond comprehension. The definition of good food is that it should provide all the nutrients in correct proportion to assure normal growth and maintain the health on an even keel. Nature has endowed mankind with a large variety of foods and with the available knowledge about health and nutrition, it is easy to choose a diet most satisfying from both sensory as well as optimum nutritional angles.

Diseases come in different forms due to different reasons. While infection is a major cause of many diseases others include genetic factors, food contaminations, environmental pollution, living style and unbalanced/nutrition deficient foods. These causative factors can influence the nature of diseases singly or synergistically resulting in complicated disorders of serious nature. The modern day health ailments in the form of diabetes, CVD, blood pressure, cancers, obesity etc are affecting more and more people and improper food selection and inappropriate eating habits including over eating do contribute to this epidemic. But it is not fair to blame the foods and give them tags like 'disease delaying foods', conveniently branded with the acronym-DDF,as being reported in a recent seminar on food challenges by one of the food pundits. For innovating on jargon, this takes the cake! If coining slogans, without contents is a solution for all the problems afflicting this country, we should have reached the top of the world long ago. It does not dawn on such slogan mongers that if a material is accepted as a food it is considered safe from the point of view of causing any disease if consumed properly. A nutritionist can never concede the point that a properly balanced food would ever cause any disease and therefore it is presumptuous to talk about a particular category of foods which can delay onset of any disease. In fact it is better to classify all good foods that meet with the nutritional standards as 'disease preventing foods'.

If any one particular group of foods can be categorized as health protectants, it is the horticultural crops which, taken regularly in adequate quantities, beginning from early childhood can pre-empt many modern day diseases helping to prolong good quality life. Fruits and vegetables play an important role in maintaining good health as they are low in calories, contain no cholesterol, rich in dietary fiber, folates, Vitamins A, E and C besides many phytochemicals with health protecting properties. Similarly many spice crops compliment their function. It is now well established that spices like turmeric, chilli, garlic, onion, fenugreek, cumin, coriander etc possess higher degree of disease preventing properties. Many of them are anti inflammatory, diuretic, laxative, liver protecting, pain relief, digestive, anti dyspeptic, anti flatulent, skin protecting, expectorant, emollient, heart protectants, antispasmodic, carminative and antiseptic. It is no wonder that the affluent countries, after experiencing the onslaught of many health disorders due to modern living styles, are aggressively taking up national campaigns under the slogan "5 a day" exhorting their people to consume fruits and vegetables five servings a day to escape from repercussions of serious health complications in later life.


Monday, December 22, 2008


With very low awareness about the multi disciplinarity of food we consume, most people consider it as essential for survival or sensory pleasure. When it comes to modern foods, western oriented products enjoy high esteem and demand especially amongst the educated classes of consumers but such trends do percolate down to low income groups also for aspiring to be equal. It is a sad situation where Indians themselves do not think much about their own heritage foods, some times even ridiculing these foods. Scientists do not want to take up research on Indian foods, probably apprehending that foreign journals with high citation index potential will not publish them and progress in their career is linked to number of publications they can boast of. During the early stages of development in India, a conscious effort was made by a few well meaning food scientists to work on traditional foods and technologies which existed in India for many years before independence. The early work on rice milling, pulse milling, parboiling, poha making, technologies for ready mixes to make products like idli, dosa, vada etc were indeed laudable. Unfortunately the interest has since waned and very little R & D is evident in this area to day. The traditional foods industry is still unable to stand on its own legs, remains awfully primitive, lack scientific bearings, is confined to micro enterprises level, unattended, unsung as a poor country cousin of the organized food processing sector.
The scorn for desi foods and technologies is reflected early in the second half of 20th century when the diploma programs in fruit and vegetable technology, transplanted from Lyallpur in Pakistan to India was jokingly being referred to as " chutni-putni technology" by those who were doing bachelor degree in food technology! Though this was done in a lighter vein, the underlying feelings of low opinion about the popular chutni preparation are discernible. After all chutni is a  truly Indian product consumed widely though the technology for its preparation was still primitive, almost being an artisan process. So are all the technologies involved in preparing most of the traditional foods of India. In stead of working on these products to bring them on par with western foods, we try to ignore them at our own peril. After all the sweet chutney preparations preserve well because of high sugar content and consequent osmotic pressure. With practically all fruits and vegetables, chutney can be made and the variety of flavors and tastes offered by these products are unparalleled.
The combination of Chutni- Bhaji is a discovery of the manthriji at Delhi, lording over the fortunes of the ministry of food processing industry (MFPI). What is common between these two grandma products is not very clear. One has heard of Poori-Bhaji but not Chutni -Bhaji. Probably the manthriji must have in mind the relatively low status of these two preparations in the hierarchy of foods and used them to express his apprehensions about the unimportance of the ministry as compared to other powerful ministries. The context in which he used this expressions was how his admirers including other ministers, MPs, MLAs ridiculed him when he was allotted the portfolio of MFPI during cabinet formation! It took lot of persuasion by the PM to drill into him the importance of food and its potential for national development, as revealed by the manthriji himself in one of his candid press interactions recently. Imagine the fate of the food industry in this country presided over by a minister who does not have conviction regarding the importance of the portfolio and it is a debating point as to what one can expect from such 'persuaded' ministers. Of course in the present political situations it may not make much of a difference who the minister is since the agenda is mostly set by the established bureaucrats who consider ministers as transit guests vulnerable to their bidding. But the the use of Chutni- Bhaji expression clearly brings out the mindset of people regarding the value of desi foods. How any one can expect MFPI with such an attitude to take up any desi foods for modernization or industrialization? If traditional food industry has been languishing for the last so many years the reason is not too far to seek!  
MFPI was set up in late eighties considering the need to give a boost to food processing industry in the country and ensure value addition to the agri-horticultural produce in order to bring better returns to the growers. As has been highlighted in many forums by the industry as well as the consumers, the ministry never could command the necessary clout that was necessary to make its presence felt amongst the stake holders probably due to pedestrian bureaucrats and politicians steering its destiny during the last two decades. Though the country has made significant progress in the food front in the recent past, it has happened in spite of the ministry and credit must go to the hard working growers and the far sighted processing industry. 

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Chocolates are based on the raw material Cocoa beans which are dried seeds of the plant Theobroma cocao L obtained from the ripe pods after fermentation. The process involves roasting of the seeds, breaking them into pieces, recovering the nibs, grinding the nibs into refined cocoa mass and compounding into chocolates with sugar, cocoa butter and other ingredients. There is a great attraction for chocolates for children, youngsters and grown ups because of the fine texture and delicate flavor. The characteristic melting profile of coco butter which becomes soft at body temperature gives the chocolates their unique sensory quality.

Chocolates are shunned by many consumers because of the presence of high levels of fat and sugar both implicated in life style disorders like obesity, cardiovascular ailments, diabetes etc when consumed in excess. Besides dental problems are also associated with high chocolate consumption. Though chocolates often symbolize happy occasions, regular consumption is discouraged amongst children by the parents due to the bad reputation these products have because of fat and sugar. More over cocoa butter is a saturated fat with potential for increasing serum triglyceride levels and consequently build up of low density cholesterol (LDL) leading to atherosclerosis. 45-55% fat present in cocoa mass has a restraining influence on consumers and naturally with such a reputation consumers cannot be faulted if they tend to avoid consumption of chocolates.

How far one can justify branding chocolate as a villain, given the scientific facts vis-a-vis chocolates.Cocoa is a rich source of flavonoids like epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins which are known to improve endothelial and platelet function as well as maintaining blood pressure. They are associated with acute elevation of circulating nitric oxide and enhance flow-mediated vasodilation. Catechins which are present in abundance in cocoa are good antioxidants that help protect the body against cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Theobromine, another phytochemical native to cocoa, is known to be a stimulant of Central Nervous System and it facilitates muscle function. Anandamide, a cannabinoid present in brain and responsible for the well being mood, is claimed to be present in cocoa also and acts on brain receptors to help promote the mood boost, enhancing the feelings of well being. Though the extremely small concentration of anandamide in cocoa may not be that effective, presence of two structurally related chemicals N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine could be responsible for the mood enhancing properties of cocoa as they are known to inhibit metabolism of naturally occurring anandamide in the brain, thus preserving its effect longer. Cocoa is also rich in potassium, Magnesium, Calcium, Iron, Vitamins A, B1, B2, D and E. Dark chocolates can reduce death due to heart attack by 50%. Chocolates are high in the amino acid Tryptophan that increases Serotonin which is known to reduce cravings for starch and sweet foods. Japanese scientists have recently come out with the amazing findings that regular consumption of cocoa every day boosts the beneficial HDL cholesterol.

Consumed in moderate amounts, chocolate, especially the bitter one, is a health promoter and deserves a place in the diet of normal healthy persons. Probably avoiding too much sugar and reducing the fat content to lowest level possible, cocoa based products can even claim the coveted role of a nutraceutical. Future R & D can further expand the use of cocoa through health-friendly formulated products which consumers may accept without reservation.


Thursday, December 18, 2008


Repacking and re-bottling are some times practiced for salvaging processed foods and beverages which are still quality conformed and safe for consumption. In the case of alcoholic beverages, greater the storage period better will be the quality of the product, often referred to as maturation. Same is true with wines also as maturation mellows the product removing the harsh note that is native to freshly made wines. But the expression 'old wine in new bottle' some how conveys a negative message implying that there is nothing new in what is being projected as original.

Here are some samples:

" along with growth in food industry, there is also need to meet safety standards---. that standard could be met only by improving harvesting and post harvesting technology. Cluster farming, no tax, exception from export duty and amendment to APMC act are some of issues---. 70% of population is involved in agricultural activities; it is only 4% in United States and 7% in European countries. ---they need to channelize it by adopting harvesting and post harvesting technology and value addition technique compulsorily." The IFCON inaugural address of the Minister of State for Food Processing Industry, GOI on Dec 16, 2008 at Mysore

Sounds familiar? Of course same words were heard since sixties and Dr H A B Parpia, the living symbol of food technology in India to day has been uttering these sentiments for almost 3 decades leading to the eventual setting up of the MFPI in late eighties! Even after two decades of existence of MFPI, nothing seems to have changed as reflected by the speech of the minister who heads the ministry, as quoted above.

" of late people are very choosy in selecting food and health conscious too. Indian traditional food has qualities that could keep diseases at bay. There was lot of scope for young food scientists to undertake a detailed research in this regard as it may benefit crores of people across the world. ---Value addition of fruits is only 7% in India and they need to take it to 20%. CFTRI was the first to come out with sugar cane beverages which could be sold across the table. People hesitate to drink sugar cane juice on road side but if the same juice is packed in bottles hygienically it may be consumed by every body." Special speech at IFCON 2008 by head of the food research institute at Mysore.

Sounds familiar? Of course, the subject of traditional foods has been thrashed in more than 20 seminars since 1985 with practically all aspects covered but no concrete action was forth coming to achieve results. Is it not a paradox to discover that same story is repeated to day with no hope of any action in the future also? Probably this will be repeated in the next IFCON also and promptly forgotten. What defies logic is that with more than 500 food scientists working under him in the premier food R & D agency since 1994 why nothing has been done there so far, in stead of coining new words like DDF for the very same traditional foods and the platitudes expressed in such public forums. As for sugar cane juice the product was available in many countries such as Singapore in tetra packs since nineties.

" Street foods will be safer to consume at Rama Vilas Road, Mysore, popularly known as Chaat Street after the vendor training program initiated as a part of IFCON 2008. The 'training" of one week duration has enabled the street vendors to prepare foods under hygienic condition and keep the environment clean to avoid infection and consequent diseases. The street will don a new look and script a new chapter in street food business. You will find them wearing aprons, caps and gloves. A model project taken up by the IFCON sponsors has educated food vendors of this road on these key issues. About 20 street vendors attended the 'workshop'. A test will be held and certificates will be issued to the participants" Report in print media under the title " Healthy stuff, environs await you on Chaat Street" reproducing the press release of IFCON sponsors.

Sounds familiar? Of course who has not heard of the pioneering efforts of Prof Indira Chakravorty of All India Institute of Public Health and Hygiene, Kolkatta, in modernizing street food sector in early nineties bringing her international laurels? Her subsequent mission to involve Kolkatta city authorities and the police force does not seem to have resulted in any dramatic changes in the city vis-a-vis street vendors. If this project was taken up as an all India mission on a long term duration by AFST instead of going through it as a one time attempt, the efforts would have been worth while.

It is time we replace the old 'wine' in the new bottle with fresh one so that it does not go sour! In the interest of the country let us be serious and not allow the youngsters to acquire the habit of recycling ideas in stead of striving for innovation, dedication and commitment. God bless India.



In the normal diet cane sugar and products containing sugar upwards of 10% provide pleasant taste and calories though corn based high fructose syrup(HFCS) has lately been finding increasing use in place of cane sugar. Since USA is not a major sugar cane grower, HFCS was developed there to encourage corn farmers and reduce dependence on imported sugar. Weight watchers and sugar compromised consumers strive hard to reduce sugar consumption as much as possible for obvious reasons. Besides dentists consider sugar as the biggest culprit for majority of tooth related problems and invariably advise people to shun sugar and if unavoidable to brush the teeth immediately to prevent proliferation of bacteria in the mouth. With the economy of many countries like Brazil, India, Mauritius and others depending heavily on sugar cane, it is difficult to stop world trade in sugar. The massive use of sugar cane in Brazil for ethanol production that can be an acceptable fuel singly or in blends with gasoline is a development fraught with implications for future and there is a possibility the world may see a slow fading of cane sugar into eventual oblivion.

The business opportunities offered by declining sugar consumption for health reasons have been grabbed with open arms by the chemical industry to develop synthetic sweteners like Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame Potassium, Neotame, Cyclamate, Sucralose etc which to day command significant patronage by sugar-wary consumers. An area of concern for the consumers of synthetic sweeteners is their safety for long term consumption. There is no uniform approach in the world as to how these food adjuncts have to be cleared to ensure consumer safety in absolute terms. Some are banned in some countries while others allow all the synthetic sweeteners except Cyclamate with intake restrictions. Accepted Daily Intake (ADI) levels for Aspartame (50mg/kg body weight), saccharin (5mg/kg), Acesulfame (15mg/kg) and Sucralose (5mg/kg) have been established. Since these are 200-600 times sweeter than cane sugar, their consumption can be considered reasonably safe.

Leaves of Stevia plant contain several glycosides, called steviosides sweet to taste and the species Stevia Rebaudiana yield almost 10% of these steviosides grown extensively in Paraguay, Japan and Brazil. World production of Stevia sugar is estimated at 1300 tons per year. These glycosides are about 500 times sweeter than cane sugar and are considered 100% safe because of the fact that stevia leaves were being consumed for centuries by the native population of Paraguay with no recorded adverse effect. ADI for Stevia sugar is determined to be 12 mg/kg body weight by the JEFCA of FAO?WHO. The process of making colorless and odorless product from the leaves is well known and pure steviosides are costly to make due to complexity of the technology. In India Touch Natural Pvt Ltd based in Mao in Manipur has ventured into Stevia sugar involving 300 farmers and setting up a plant in Kainu. Sun Fruits Ltd, Pune is reported to be taking up cultivation of the variety (SRB)128 for producing stevia sugar in India. 2-3 tons of dry leaves can be harvested with about 15-20% stevioside content from this variety which is expected to be grown in West Bengal and North East Region.

If stevia is a safe bet as a sugar substitute why is its consumption confined to a few countries, inspite of the fact that its cultivation is relatively simple? Why only Japan consumes more than 50% of the stevia sugar produced in the world? The answer is simple, the political intrigues amongst corporate bodies stradling the western world looking for greater and greater returns on their investments Otherwise how any sane person can justfy marketing of stevia sugar for table top use but not permitted in processed food products? Aspartame the most widely used artificial sweetener is associated with G D Searle and Monsanto Chemicals and they are bent on keeping their turf safe from competition. With the patent on Aspartame expiring and the prices tumbling down, Sucralose from Zydus Cadila, another corporate giant, is taking over the market as the new star and the combined efforts of this lobby is keeping Stevia out under one pretext or the other. Also in the news is the keen interest by Coca Cola and Cargil, the super giants, in Stevia sugar and their patents have not yet been cleared. They are already marketing table top sweeteners based on Stevia under the brands Rebiana and Truvia respectively. It is unlikely that Stevia will be cleared before the pending patents from the corporate giants are sealed. The recent announcement by Coca Cola to market beverages sweetened by Stevia sugar though not yet cleared by FDA, is a pointer that it will be approved as a safe industrial sweetener soon and in absence of any major manufacturers, industry will have to depend heavily on these multinational companies for years to come for supply of stevia sugar.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Cattle are known to be responsible for 18% of emission of green house gasses because of their consumption of large quantities of forage which anaerobically generates methane and other by products. Just as fossil fuels have become integral part of modern civilization without which life is difficult to be sustained, cattle also form an important player in human survival because of their contribution to the food basket in the form of dairy products and meat foods. Hence world has no option but to continue to depend on these animals for decades to come till viable alternatives are developed, possibly through the intervention of Biotechnology.

What is common between cattle and a convention unless it is convention of the Ranchers to discuss about issues concerning cattle? Not much except for producing of lot of 'gas' in the form of intangible outputs. Convention is a conference of professionals, politicians or others with a common interest. The most recent conventions which caught the attention of the world were the two mega events in USA, sponsored by the two political parties Democrats and Republicans to nominate their presidential candidates. Though the events passed off on familiar lines of speeches and resolutions, the single most visible out put was projecting their leader for the White House and to that extent it was a highly focused effort. Of course every body will forget every thing after the convention except the candidates behind whom the parties would coalesce for 'capturing' power. But most other conventions are just collection of people with same interest and invariably the 'hope' is that the organization will get some attention from the media and the public for a brief period before hibernating for rest of the time.

A convention of professionals is supposed to throw up a 'route map' for achieving the goals for which the conference is held. While a political convention can be seen as a propaganda venture for the political class, a professional convention must propagate the subject of its specialization and strive to bring in tangible results within a time frame. Unfortunately over the years most of the technical conventions are politicized with real professionals being sidelined and politicians and the politician-scientist hybrids taking the center stage with the result the out put from such meetings have very little technical value. It is a sad commentary on the scientific community that their agenda of propagating science is hijacked for self glorification and temporary attention, spanning a few days with no long term benefits. Other wise one cannot understand what is the logic for hoisting a dozen people on the Dias with innocuous assignments like invocation, welcome, comments, remarks, theme speech, special lecture, key note address, inaugural address, book release, presidential address, award presentation, vote of thanks etc? Why cannot these be business meetings, focussing on the technical agenda and bringing out actionable reports for concrete action, leaving aside all the frills and a concrete mechanism to pursue the goals with dedication and commitment? In the past 61 years of independence of this country, there must have been thousands of conventions organized by different bodies and can any one remember any one of them contributing to any tangible achievement in any areas of concern to the nation?

The usual practice in these conventions is to read 'papers' which any how are not peer reviewed, 'lecturing' by some favored experts', passing toothless resolutions, recording the proceedings in some cases and promptly forgetting everything within a matter of few days! It is a pity that many technical conventions are not planned properly, right people are not involved who could enrich the technical content and not organized to make them free from hassles. On top of it many peers brought to participate do not stay long enough to interact with the delegates, treating such occasions more like a tourism jaunt! Cannot we change these wasteful practices and be truthful in our thoughts and action? Why cannot we have truly technical events with least diversions for secondary and irrelevant activities on such occasions? Whether it is a food convention or wood convention, we must have it in a place which is accessible easily to one and all, instead of in a corner of the country and must involve scientists as well as entrepreneurs on whose shoulders technology must ride to bring in visible returns and perceptible impact. It must clearly bring out what the country needs in the chosen area and go all out to influence both policy makers and the industry in achieving the goals set forth by the convention. It should not be like a convention of politicians or trade unions or social organizations such as Rotarians, Lions, Round Table etc which are organized mostly for social net working.

Coming to the similarity between the cattle and the conventions, the ' gober gas' generated by cattle can at least be used as a fuel but in the case of most of the modern conventions, the output is worse than this as every thing is dissipated as soon as the convention is over, wasting the enormous human and financial inputs that go in organizing such 'show piece' events, which the country can ill afford.



Women amongst some tribals in Nigeria have been known to deliver twins in large numbers and precise reasons for this phenomenon are still obscure. Several questions remain unanswered as to whether the environment has any thing to do with it or whether local water sources are responsible or what role food plays in perpetuating this freak developments. One of the most guessed reasons is that these black women have high levels of follicle-stimulating hormones which could lead to multiple births. Why this happens is still a mystery. Same phenomenon has been reported in some parts of Spain with white women. In all these cases the twins are of dizygotic types or fraternal twins where 2 eggs get fertilized by two sperms each developing in separate sacs in the ovary. As against this monozygotic types result from one egg fertilized by one sperm and splitting into two eggs early in the gestation period within 12 days of conception, both the eggs developing in a single sac. Chances of identical twins are one in 285 and that for fraternal twins is one in 80.
Generally it is believed, though not scientifically proved, that consumption of ovulation-inducing drugs cause multiple births though these are confined to a minority of cases. Many theories, most of them not proven conclusively, float around amongst the fertility experts for explaining this freak phenomenon. Seasonality, maternal age, social class all are supposed to influence the chances for twins. For example In January least number of twins are born while it is highest in July in a country like USA. In some studies consumption of high levels of Vitamin A has been linked to multiple births. Excess consumption of vitamins and minerals by women of child bearing age is also cited as one of the causes. In the Togiak region of Alaska Cow moose are known to be giving birth of twin calves, almost 7 out of ten when they had access to plenty of foods and the rate of twin births declined when food became limited. Folic acid is another Vitamin which, whenever found in high levels in the blood, was implicated in twin births. Diets rich in estrogen like phytochemicals are also suggested as a possible contributing factor by nutritionists as this hormone has a vital role in conception.
If phytoestrogen contents do play a role what could be the make up of a diet ideal for giving birth to twins? There are many estrogen rich foods like yams, barley, some varieties of beans, flax seeds, oats, sesame seeds, soybean, rye, clover, millets, some herbs which are consumed but their relative levels in the regular diet may be the critical factor that may influence conception. It is time that this aspect is given more attention by multidisciplinary scientists so that the role of food is precisely brought out with least ambiguity.
High multiple births reported in Kodinhi, a village in Kerala caught the attention of many media persons and the reason for the presence of 150 twins in a population of 14600 is suspected to be the environment, though no absolute conclusion was possible with practically no scientific investigation. What lends credence to this assumption is that people migrating from other places to this village also showed tendency to conceive twins. Another reports some time back identified a village near Allahabad called Mohammad Umni where there were 33 pairs of twins amongst a population of just 600! According to some scientists who conducted limited studies here that a combination of food, living conditions and high consanguineous marriage could have resulted in such high twin births in this village.
Food scientists, nutritionists and fertility experts must put their heads together to bring out the role of food if any in this phenomenon. If definitive factors are known probably women can decide to go for two children in one go by choosing the right mix of foods instead of undergoing the trauma of child birth twice for the famous "we two and ours two" goal.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Living long and healthy is the dream of every human being born on this planet. What contributes to longevity is not exactly known though many theories and empirical observations are made at different times by knowledgeable as well as not so knowledgeable people. Food, environment, living styles, exercises, meditation, freedom from tension and anxiety, singly or in combination are supposed to help one to live long and healthy. The parentage also seems to count in determining longevity. The old biblical saying that 'threescore and ten years' alludes to man's life expectancy at 70 years but the oldest human being documented lived for 122 years from 1875 to 1997. While in the affluent countries average life expectancy is in the range 77-83 years, same in the third world countries is placed at 35-60 years. Okinawa in Japan, Hunza Valley in Pakistan, Vilcabamba in South America and Caucasus mountain regions have some of the highest living old age population. Andorra has the highest life expectancy of 83.5 years while Swaziland is on the other end with life expectancy of just 31.99 years. It is expected that at the current level of knowledge and medical technology, some countries may achieve longevity of about 95 years by 2050.

Azerbaijan has the highest density of centenarians in the world with 48.3 people crossing 100 years of life span per lakh of the population and there are about 15000 centenarians in that small country!. If one looks at their food consumption habits for a clue to their longevity, modern nutrition science will have to do a lot of explaining. They consume high levels of animal fat, the very antithesis of healthy living! But they also claim that lot of vegetables and yogurt are consumed by the local population which is supposed to help to deal with the deleterious effects of animal fats. Old age population generally are deficient in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine, Iron and Zinc which are not available in adequate amounts from the diets they consume, requiring supplementation. Some time Selenium is mentioned as a critical trace mineral involved in longer life span due to its role as an antioxidant and in many enzyme reactions. Chromium, Manganese, Molybdenum, Vanadium and Copper are also implicated in longevity. Calorie restriction and low food intake have been propagated for extending the human life significantly. Unfortunately no consensus or unanimity exists regarding the most desirable diet that can contribute to achieve longevity.

If historically the population in Azerbaijan have been living long, it may be logical to infer that genetics might be playing a part in this phenomenon as their number is either maintained or must have increased over the past many years. This is more or less confirmed by scientific findings emanating in the western world in recent times. Most striking observation was that the offsprings of centenarians live longer than others because they have lower risk of heart diseases, stroke and diabetes, the three major killer diseases of modern era. It was further confirmed that the children from these old age people were less likely to die early, compared to those from parents dying relatively younger. The significant findings that the offsprings of centenarians have 78% lower risk for heart attack, 83% lesser chances of stroke and 86% reduced risk of developing diabetes mellitus tell its own story. In animals it was proved that the length of telemers at either ends of DNA can be increased using telomerase enzyme resulting in 20% longer life span.

While genes that contribute to longevity may have a strong influence in passing on undamaged DNA to the next generation, food must be playing a critical role in influencing the optimum performance of these genes besides other factors. Probably Azerbaijan people can provide the clue regarding the type of foods that can help to protect the longevity genes from mutation and mutilation responsible for shortening of life span.


Monday, December 8, 2008


If food, clothing and shelter are considered the fundamental pre-requisites for decent living, industrialized world has added another fundamental need in the form of gasoline without which their population cannot manage their life. The quality of life is intimately dependent on automobiles and cheap gasoline. The over dependence on fossil fuel and the oil shocks of sixties and 2008 when crude oil prices registered uncontrolled escalation made the world think of alternate energy options with renewable potential. One of the alternatives was use of ethanol as a substitute or supplement to fossil fuel so that the over dependence on the latter can be brought down progressively. Ethanol can be made from a number of carbon sources like sugar cane, cereals like corn or cellulosic substrates through bio-tech route.

Corn, also known as Maize is one of the most commercialized crops in the history of mankind and its cultivation is universally practiced in all the continents. World-wide production is estimated at around 770 million tons with US alone contributing about 40%. While it is used both as a human food as well as animal feed, it has many other non-food uses which makes it unique in some way. The US society is so dependent on corn even small price fluctuations in the commodity market can reflect on the lives of the citizens. Nearly all the chickens and 93% of beef reared in USA are fed corn exclusively. Hamburger, chicken sandwich and french fries have corn connection. Almost all sweetened beverages are based on High Fructose Syrup derived from corn solids. Corn starch is an important food adjunct that finds hundreds of uses in food as well as non-food industries. French fries are made using corn oil as the frying medium. The over dependence of the US food industry on corn is reflected in the fact that three major food chains Wendy's, McDonald's and Burger King, account for more than half the restaurants in the country with sales of more than $100 billion a year and their main menu is built around hamburger, chicken sandwich and fries. A customer who consumes a combination of the above three items in any fast food outlet derives 50% of daily calories, 80% of carbohydrate, 75% of protein and 100% of fat requirements a day!

Though solar energy, wind power, wave energy, geothermal energy, ocean current energy etc have been often talked about as renewable energy options, practical constraints make their global adoption beset with logistical and economic road blocks. Nuclear energy is lately coming into play and can be a potential source of unlimited energy but the problem of radiation hazard posed by the spent fuel is yet to be fully addressed. The dual use of atomic reactors and fuels for both energy and nuclear bombs poses further restrictions on their application world-wide. Most popular choice so far has been ethanol that is used in blends with gasoline. Brazil uses 100% sugar cane derived ethanol in 50% of the automobiles in that country while others run on flexi engines which can use both blends and as well as ethanol alone. In USA and many other countries 10% ethanol blended gasoline is progressively replacing 100% gasoline in order to reduce the dependence on non-renewable petroleum fuels. In 2004 USA used 3.5 billion gallons of corn ethanol for fuel blending and mandated the petroleum industry to use 9 billion gallons in 2009 and 36 billion gallons by 2022. Since 2004 corn production increased globally by 51 million tons of which 98% was used up for producing ethanol for automobile industry. The paradox was that food demand during the same period increased by 30 million tons causing significant supply demand distortions in global markets.
What is galling is that energy dynamics do not favor corn as an efficient converter as energy yield in the form of ethanol from this food grain is less than one third of the energy input needed to raise, process and convert it to energy! It is unfortunate that at a critical time in the fight for survival by the mankind, a few nations indulge in such profligacy and ostentatious wastage. But for the massive subsidy provided to the rich farming communities, corn would never have been able to exert the influence it enjoys to day in deciding on the destiny of nations like USA and push the world to the brink of a disaster that is waiting to happen.

There was a time when affluent countries like USA used to ridicule small countries depending on one or two commodities for survival and the term "Banana Republic" was liberally used to club these countries. Probably countries like Malaysia (Palm Oil), Philippines ( Coconut and Pineapple), Colombia(Coffee), Ivory Coast (Cocoa), Mauritius (Sugar) etc all fall into this category. It is the sign of changing time that USA to day has joined this club by its over dependence on corn, deserving the epithet " Corny Country". India and China are fortunate in having a diversified basket of agricultural, horticultural, livestock and fishery commodities, not too much depending on one or the other and enjoying the position in the top five producers of the world. The food consumption habits are also so diversified that the staples are based on a variety of cereals, pulses and oil seeds, fruits and vegetables and others produced within the country.


Sunday, December 7, 2008


Escherichia coli is normally a benign gram negative bacterium, found in the lower intestines of warm blooded creatures including humans and often considered beneficial because of its ability to synthesize Vitamin K2 and keeping out pathogens from the body. The famous pediatrician and microbiologist Theodor Escherich of Germany, after whom the bacterium has taken its name, might never have thought, when he discovered it in 1885, that this ubiquitous organism would play a vital role in human health one day. A new born child gets E.coli within 40 hours of its birth through water, food and the persons handling it. There are 700 stereotypes of E.coli identified so far and a few of them can be virulent in causing serious food poisoning. For food scientists E.coli is a critical marker for assessing the microbiological safety of foods and its presence in water or foods is taken as indication of contamination with fecal matter and consequent possibility of presence of pathogenic organisms. Unhygienic food preparations, farm contamination due to manuring, irrigation of crops with contaminated water or raw sewage, all can result in food contamination with unpredictable adverse consequences. Raw ground beef which finds many use in processed foods, raw seed sprouts, spinach, raw milk, unpasteurized juice and foods handled by unhygienic workers under insanitary conditions will invariably be contaminated with E.coli and such foods can pose risks to consumers.

Virulent strains of E.coli include O157:H7 and O121:H19 capable of excreting Shigatoxins, similar to toxins from Shigella; there are also others like O111:B4, O104:H21 etc which are not as dangerous as them. A pin head can hold about 2.5 lakh cells of these microbes, as they are hardly 0.5-2 microns in size and just about 10-50 cells can be fatal to a child or old age person if not treated properly. An estimated 1 lakh cases of human infection with E.coli O157:H7 are reported annually in the Americas with 2-7% developing serious haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) causing damage to kidney, intestine, liver and pancreas, eventually leading to coma. 5% of HUS patients, mainly children and old folks die because of higher sensitivity to the toxins. 44 million pounds of beef were recalled in 25 episodes of contamination in the year 2007 alone in USA. The economic burden in treating the affected population is estimated at $ 400 million per year. Why no cases have been reported from India is a mystery though the traditional cooking habits and shunning of cold foods like salads could be the main reasons. Or could it be that such cases are not diagnosed properly and therefore go unreported?.

Cows are known to carry E.coli 0157:H7 but they do not get sick due to their presence in their guts. Contamination usually takes place through contact with cow dung. The cells get attached to the mucus walls of the GI tract and they are regularly shed along with the excreta. The severe damage potential of this pathogen attracted attention of the scientific community and a vaccine has since been developed in Canada being marketed under the brand name Econiche for use amongst the cattle reared in open as well as in restrained environment. The vaccine has already been approved for unrestricted use in Canada and USA for immunizing beef and dairy cattle which significantly reduces shedding of E.coli O157:H7 cells into the environment and consequent lesser risk to human health. Effectively the vaccine prevents the cells of the microbe from attaching to the intestine of the cattle, thereby reducing their reproduction within the animal.

Can E.coli O157:H7 be a serious health hazard ever in India? A difficult question considering that millions of domesticated cows live happily with the human beings at close proximity and cow is an integral part of the rural economy. Either Indian cows do not harbor this virulent type in their body or Indians must have developed high degree of immunity to them over years of close contact and personalized rearing system. Or the habit of Indian population to eat mostly well cooked hot foods and drink boiled milk might be preventing wide scale occurrence of E.coli infection. Or the E.coli strains present in Indian cattle are highly resistant to mutation into virulent forms under Indian conditions and feeding regimen. Nonetheless it is prudent to put in place a national monitoring system, probably under the aegis of National Dairy Research Institute/Indian Veterinary Institute under the ICAR so that the country is well prepared to manage such an epidemic if and when it occurs.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Biotechnology is touted to be the key to the future of mankind and it is supposed to spearhead the second Green Revolution to achieve quantum increase in food production to feed the ever expanding population, especially in the Third World. Some critiques argue that the current food production is adequate to feed every human being on this planet with 2800 kC equivalent of food which if really eaten can be a right recipe for obesity! As against this UN agencies like FAO and many rich countries are pitching for genetic engineering to increase the food availability with the presumption that the main reason for 800 million people going hungry is due to inability of the food production to achieve growth rates in keeping with the population growth.

Biotechnology which started with the traditional hybridization techniques in fifties and sixties has assumed high degree of sophistication with sustained R & D inputs during the last 3 decades. Tissue culture, cell culture, genetic modification all have increased the capability of mankind to evolve better quality seeds and planting materials with different desirable characteristics. Thousands of Biotechnology companies and public funded breeding organizations were actively pursuing R & D and production of biotechnology based products. In early nineties there were about 1000 biotech upstarts trying their hand on commercial application of biotechnology in agriculture but to day a dozen big companies have cornered more than 75% of revenue, remaining being shared by hundreds of smaller firms still engaged in this business. Becoming big and bigger and edging out small ones have resulted in cartelization and monopolistic vice grip on the agriculture, agri-chemicals and pharmaceutical areas. Top 10 companies globally control 55% of drug market. Similarly 10 top companies account for more than 90% sales of agri-chemicals.

What is worrisome is not the profits earned by these monopolists but how the world resources get concentrated in a few private players edging out millions of small and marginal farmers, besides propagating systems that consume more fossil fuels and cause uncontrolled green house gas emissions. Almost 30% of worlds biomass has already been 'commodified' to earn greater returns for the speculators and major biotech players. It is a question of time before the rest is also commodified by deploying high end genetic engineering and new corporate strategies by the biotech monoliths. With fossil fuel future uncertain, major efforts will be mounted in the coming years to create designer microorganisms based on synthetic DNA and such biological manufacturing platforms can make fuels, chemicals, drugs and high value products using plant derived sugars. One of the predictions being made so often these days is that the 21st century will see the sugar economy taking over the primary responsibility for industrial production based on biological feed stocks such as agricultural crops, grasses, forest residues, plant oils, algae etc. Synthetic microbes will become 'living chemical factories" that require massive quantities of plant biomass which will be generated using energy intensive technologies by giant corporates with unlimited resources.

It is well known that 25% of the proprietary seeds marketed to day comes from single US-based company, Monsanto Chemicals. Though remaining 75% are raised locally by millions of farmers in their impoverished lands, the declining productivity is bound to push these farmers into the fold of GM giants like Monsanto in the coming years enabling the latter to control the nature the way they want. In the retail sector the consumers in developed countries are patronizing big players like Wal Marts controlling about 15% of the food market. But fortunately 85% of the remaining foods are consumed close to the areas where they are grown. It is unlikely that big retailers will be able to emulate the records of their counterparts in the production front in view of the new focus on local foods globally. Probably the modern food technology may have to take part of the blame because technologies such as controlled atmosphere storage and transport systems have enabled the big industry to move the perishable foods over long distances for selling at far away markets with high margins.

If Biotechnological power does not percolate down to the farmimg community in poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America and if rich countries promote the interests of the large biotech companies ignoring the human catastrophic consequences that will follow, the future of mankind is indeed bleak. It is unfair to use WTO to harm the interests of poor farming nations by bringing agricultural production under its purview. It must confine itself to only trade related portfolio.


Friday, November 28, 2008


More than 78 million cases of illness caused by microbiological infection of foods are reported per year from all over the world and the economic damage to deal with them is estimated at about US $ 10 billion besides loss of several valuable lives which could have been saved if timely detection measures were available. Many strains of Salmonella, Clostridium, Bacillus, E.coli and Listeria are the major culprits responsible for these havoc. The manifested symptoms can be diarrhea of varying severity, GI discomforts, vomiting, stomach flu, induced paralysis, etc, some time even leading to fatality. One of the practical constraints is the time lag between occurrence of the symptoms after food consumption and confirmation of food poisoning as the universally accepted diagnostic methods are time consuming, requiring at least 48 hours time in the Laboratory. Of course there are DNA based and anti-body based methods which are relatively quick but they can only identify specific bacteria but cannot indicate the presence of toxicity or anticipate the potential for causing serious harm to the consumers.

The encouraging work from a group of microbiologists from USA in identifying certain chromatophore or pigment bearing cells called erythrophores as potential detectors of microbial toxins gives hope that many lives can be saved by early confirmation of infections in suspected foods and prompt treatment. Siamese fighting fish are known to carry these cells which can be seen through their transparent body. In response to stimulation by the presence of toxic chemicals in the suspected foods, the pigmented cells move in a characteristic pattern specific to different chemical moieties. These patterns can be seen under low power microscopes and can even be quantified numerically to describe the intensity of the situation. If the claims are true the results can be made available in minutes, saving considerable time for initiating preventive measures.

As the method is still under development, it could take time to evolve affordable and reliable portable kits that can be used under field conditions. Such kits as and when they are ready can serve admirably the interests processors, distributors, retailers and even consumers. It is a laudable effort by the scientists with global relevance and WHO must pitch in to take it forward to its logical conclusion by organized manufacture of the proven kits for supply to highly vulnerable countries in Asia, Africa and South America.