Sunday, August 31, 2008


Green revolution of sixties seems to have lulled countries like India into a false sense of security and inadequate efforts to achieve incremental production through sustained inputs have led to a situation of food shortages to day. In spite of reams of reports produced by so called experts and specialists, India is sliding into a deeper and deeper abyss especially with regard to oil seeds and pulses. Passing the buck for this tragedy is a national past time and cannot retrieve the situation. Many reasons, some logical and some only excuses, have been attributed to this sorry state of agriculture in the first decade of 21st century. Fragmented land holdings, archaic agri practices, unpredictable rain patterns, interstate water disputes, improper and 'not in time' inputs to the farmers, eternal rural debt burden all play a role in not allowing the country to reap the full potential for food production. Even the massive debt redemption policies
announced in the 2008-09 budget might not improve the situation.

India is a rural country with about 70% of its population concentrated in 5,00,000 and odd villages with very rudimentary infrastructure and low literacy. Though the agricultural production has increased considerably, the net per capita availability of all foods except milk and sugar has been declining due to faster population growth than that in agriculture. Cooperative movement which was successful in the milk sector but failed in other areas could have consolidated fragmented land holdings into viable entities capable of applying modern input intensive technologies but over attachment to land, both sentimentally and for financial security, makes it difficult for the owner-farmers to take up collective farming. The excellent example of the Tibetan refugee settlement in Karnataka in setting up a collective farming system for maize with 5000 acres of land alloted to them is worth following by the indigenous farmers through out the country. If India has a place amongst the top maize productivity countries in the world, it is due to the poineering efforts of these farmers. On the other hand contract farming has taken a root in the country, especially in certain commercial crops, thanks to the processing and export industry. This has established beyond doubt that market pull, ready resource availability at critical time and remunerative prices can still make the farmer produce at levels higher than that presently achieved.

The urban-rural divide is pronounced when it comes to wealth which is concentrated in the towns and cities that make up the urban landscape. Excess wealth in urban areas is invariably invested in many forms expecting highest possible returns. Why not such wealth be directed to the agricultural sector? Why not think of a scenario where viable alliances are forged between urban households and rural folks in agriculture or horticulture by evolving workable models to ensure mutual confidence? There was a time not long ago when private enterprises were soliciting urban customers to support production of rice which is the staple in exchange for regular supply of rice to them at prices significantly less than that prevailing in the market. Insufficient confidence on the private players and operations by some unscrupulous elements did not allow this experiment to succeed. However involvement of big companies backed by government, similar to the banking industry, can revive this concept.

ITC Ltd has shown that organizationally mobilization of farmers can be easily achieved as they have done with wheat and soybean. If this logic is further extended ITC could be allowed to launch schemes that will attract urban funds in exchange of assured delivery of the staples at reasonable prices. For this necessary infrastructure for procurement, processing, storage and distribution will have to be put in place. There can be many companies who may be willing to invest on this model and their investment into active agriculture can be beneficial to the farmers as well as the urban consumers. There are models else where in the world involving urban dwellers even investing their spare time, besides capital for production of vegetables and fruits in the suburban areas nearby in return for a share of the crops for their self consumption. The concept will have to be worked out further to evolve a model that can have most chances of success under Indian conditions.



There are many debunkers of science invariably casting aspersions on the findings and conclusions arising out of vast studies authored by reputed scientists with excellent credentials. The foundation of modern food science and human nutrition is based on more than a century of findings by biochemists and nutritionists and what a normal adult needs to maintain good health is well established, accepted universally by all countries. A daily requirement of 2000 kC energy through carbohydrates and 50-60 g each of proteins and fats, 25-30g of dietary fiber and minimum levels of essential vitamins and minerals, essential amino acids and essential fatty acids will have come from the diet consumed. Of course these figures can vary depending on the climate, physical activity and age of the individuals.

Modern societies' curse in the form of various health disorders caused by improper eating, imbalanced foods and excessive indulgence in foods some times is attributed to inadequate understanding of the human nutrition and commercial interests find a loophole to exploit these sentiments to advocate out of the way solutions to establish new foods with new claims. The famous( or infamous?) Atkins diet targeted at people desperately trying to reduce their body weights ( at times at any cost) is such a classical example. The Atkins diet is founded on the concept that a low carbohydrate and high protein diet can help reduce weight with fat playing no critical role. As recently as five years ago,1 out of 11 Americans was on this diet believing they can improve their quality of life through low carb diets as recommended by Atkins Foundation. Though the objective of weight reduction was achieved through this diet administered under medical supervision, the phenomenon did not last long and to day the business has plummetted reducing the clientele to less than 2%. It is another matter the company filed for bankurrupcy in July 2005 and realization has dawned on many consumers about the risks involved in adopting such radical changes in basics of human nutrition.

Low carb diets do reduce body weght during the initial phase and this is attributed more to loss of water or/and rapid glycogen reduction rather than fat. Most shocking was the vulnerability of people on low carb diet to heart diseases, accumulation of acetone leading to life threatening situations, diarhea, general debility and weakness, skin rashes and muscle cramps. It is amazing how scientific studies can be tailor made to get results supporting unorthodox ideas like low carb diets. A group of scientists in Israel report their findings that a diet containing low carbohydrates, even in presence of high fats, showed better cholesterol and triglyceride profile as compared to high carbohydrate diets implying that carbohydrate is the only culprit causing overweight. This probably may give new impetus to the industry to come out with products low in carbohydrates but high in fats with disatrous consequences. It is true that excess carbohydrates in the diet can lead to fat accumulation through formation of pyruvates which happen to be the feedstock for fatty acid synthesis. While carbohydrates can generate lipids, reverse does not take place and excess fat will have to be metabolized into energy or stored in adipose tissues.

One of the fundamentals of weight control is that unless intake calories are less than basal metabolic rate, weight loss cannot take place and carbohydrate level has to be above the levels that causes ketosis, an undesirable event in daily life. Fat burning produces acetone which is excreted from the body through urine. While photosynthesis, glycolysis, lipolysis and pyruvate flow into Kreb's Cycle, pentose phosphate pathway, glycogenesis, glycogenolysis, amino acid conversion to glucose under some conditions, glucoreulation for steady maintenance of glucose as a part of homeostasis to conserve the internal environment around the cell are all well established basics of natural metabolism and any challenge to these facts will have to be mounted on solid science, insulated from commercial interests. For normal population there is does not seem to be any alternative to diet control and active life for maintaining ideal body weight. Going for short cuts can be disastrous in the long term.


Saturday, August 30, 2008


Indian Railways (IR) is the second biggest people transporter in the world and renders yeomen service to the nation as a vital integrator of the diverse cultures that co-exist for centuries. Though the ambiance, that is the hall mark of railway services in many other countries, is some what lacking, that is more than made up by the vast infrastructure and relatively low cost of rail travel in India. Whatever faults one may find with British colonialist who ruled India till 1947, credit has to go to them for putting in place a good railway network 150 years ago before abandoning their rule. To day IR carries more than 5000 million passengers every year, employs 1.6 million people, has 11000 km long tracks and generate an annual revenue of Rs 370000 million.

Food service is an important component of any travel program and better the quality more enjoyable is the journey. The old saying that the route to man's heart is through the stomach is highly relevant to IR. People use trains for traveling for a variety of purposes like visiting home, pilgrimages, conducting business, attending to official work, pleasure especially during vacation times and visiting relatives during ceremonies like marriages and other family functions. The travel time can be as brief as less than an hour to more than 48 hours. While short trips of an hour or two duration may not call for elaborate food service, longer duration trips exceeding 5 hours will obviously require some provisions for food most preferably within the train without alighting at intermediate stations.

It was in 1999 IR floated the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) with a stated vision of quality, service, cleanliness and value. The service during the last 5 years has shown some distinctive improvement compared to the earlier 35 years since independence. As with any government agency, IRCTC also has a plan on paper which envisages setting up of 3 sets of catering establishments which include static units at stations, mobile units like pantry cars and base kitchens to supply foods to trains in different regions. Besides it is also setting up food plazas in many major stations. With a staff strength of 7000 IRCTC has a turn over of about Rs 500 crores or just Re 1 per passenger per year which shows the immense potential for growth. It is claimed that IRCTC serves 230 trains through 12000 units across 1350 stations. The proposal to offer specialty foods to those looking for low calories, low carbohydrates, low fats, low sugar and low salt may not be workable as this can lead to unnecessary controversies and may need costly infrastructure to implement.

One of the imponderable issues is whether as a public undertaking IRCTC can shoulder this enormous responsibility or it is better to involve private sector in this area of service for better efficiency and accountability. Recent policy decision to at least source good branded packed water and processed foods from reputed Indian companies is a welcome move. But IR has to go much beyond that if railway passengers are to benefit from the new developments in food technology offering far superior foods and make the ravel a memorable experience. One of the possibilities is to involve large reputed food companies like ITC, Britannia, MTR Foods, Haldirams, Priya Foods and many others in a totally new concept of serving branded foods hot to the passengers in specially designed pantry cars leased to them. Such units should have facilities like frozen storage, heating modules, refrigerated storage etc. For the lessees it will provide vast opportunities for promoting their products with exposure to millions of captive audience travelling in the train, saving large sums in advertisement expenditure.

One of the most critical pre-requisites will be quality and safety protocols that will have to be laid for regular implementation and monitoring. This cannot be done by the current crop of personnel most of whom have only administrative or catering background. What is needed is a core group of food technologists who can design foods with optimum quality and nutrition, get them prepared and packaged in easily deliverable and usable units for supply to the trains and manage quality monitoring tasks based on modern systems. While private players will supply food, the quality and safety responsibility will lie with IRCTC to generate the much needed confidence amongst the traveling public. The shining example provided by the aviation sector is worth simulating in the railway sector also. Many people are known to prefer to travel by Air India because of the good food offered by the national carrier in contrast to its sloppy ground
service. Interaction and cooperation by IRCTC with Air India in the catering area may be desirable for the benefit of millions of passengers using the railway system.


Friday, August 29, 2008


The operation flood projects pioneered by Dr V Kurien made India self sufficient in Milk production, though it is a debatable point whether it was achieved with universal accessibility of all population to easily affordable milk, vital nutritionally in a predominantly vegetarian country (at least due to economic compulsion). But the architects of white revolution cannot be faulted for our societal inequity inherited from the past.

Affordability is a sensitive issue and all discussions often ends up with a demand for subsidizing the milk supply, adding to the growing subsidy burden to the country. While providing milk to poor at a lower rate, by itself is a good idea, there is no practical way to ensure only deserving people get it without the scheme becoming a rip off for unscrupulous elements to hijack the scheme for siphoning off public funds. The recent Karnataka scheme to give Rs 2 per liter of milk as a subsidy to producers, which in turn will inevitably increase the price of milk to consumers, is a case worth watching. Though this scheme may lead to increased production, there is bound to be a shrinking of consumption mostly caused by very low income population shying away from the milk market with some catastrophic consequences.

Synthetic Bovine Somato Tropine (BST) is a hormone recommended for administration to cows to increase the milk yield significantly and it is reported to be widely being used in many countries, probably the consumer never knowing about it. In some countries there are regulations requiring the packers to declare on the label the use of such hormones but there are others getting away with it due to lax food safety vigilant system. It has been claimed that use of hormones such as BST is safe, though this contention is not beyond challenge. The validity of claims of safety of this product is supported by clearances by WHO, American Medical Association and FDA of USA. Of course one of the justifications in allowing such milk boosting technologies is that less number of cows needs to be maintained and this can reduce significantly emission of green house gases by these animals!

BST occurs naturally in bovine pituitary gland of cattle and is thought to be associated with milk production. Using this logic a synthetic version of this hormone was evolved by recombinant DNA technique using a genetically modified bacteria and the commercial product, usually referred to as rbST or rBGH, is being used as an injection once in two weeks in milk yielding cows to get on an average 17% more yield of milk. The new GM based hormone was being produced by Monsanto Chemicals of USA under the brand name Posilac and was first approved in 1993 by FDA of USA. Now it is being used in 20 countries, the hormone directly injected into the udder. Recent sale of the Posilac business portfolio by Monsanto has generated fresh discussion regarding the long term viability of the product in the light of very significant consumer resistance in some countries and prominent label declarations by the competitors that their milk is 'untreated with hormone'

rBGH when injected causes painful udder diseases like mastitis and clinical lameness. There were reports that pus and bacteria formed after the injection contaminate the milk and the conventional pasteurization might not be adequate to ensure safety. To complicate the problem high doses of antibiotics often used by the producers to suppress infection find their way into the milk from such animals posing risks to the consumers. The Insulin Growth Hormone (IGF-1) formed in the mammary glands at higher levels as a result of rBGH injection and actually responsible for the milk yield increase, is also is a matter of concern. IGF-1 is secreted at levels five times higher than that in normal cows when rBGH is used and it is not digested in human GI tract. IGF-1 is implicated in cancers affecting breast, pancreas and colon. rBGH by itself is destroyed during thermal processing in the dairy and in the digestive tract of humans and as such might not be a hazard. Probably some more studies are necessary for creating adequate consumer confidence regarding adverse consequences of consumption of milk from hormone treated cows.

Another approach for increased milk production involves suppression of serotonin in the mammalian glands using drugs. Preliminary studies indicate 15% increase in yield can be achieved. However there is a long way to go for this concept to get established with out any adverse consequences. As serotonin level in brain is associated with depression, whether the cows will become 'depressed' by this treatment may pose problems from animal activists regarding such 'inhuman' treatment.

India has a vital stake in this development as milk productivity is still well below the yields achieved in dairy countries like New Zealand and safe ways for boosting yield can have far reaching beneficial impact on the livelihood of dairy farmers in the country.



Maintaining the desired 'Body Mass Index' (BMI) is considered the best way to avoid health afflictions that affect millions of people engaged leading active as well as sedentary lives. BMI links body weight to the height and short people will invariably have more difficulties in controlling the BMI, especially when there is not much control on food intake. A net calorie intake caused by less depletion due to less physical activity will have to be reflected in increased weight consequent to increased tendency for the fat to be stored rather than burning it for physical activity. While a BMI value of 25 is often considered desirable increased weight can elevate this value to 30 or more when the overweight syndrome sets in.  

People like athletes, sportsmen, hard working labor population and all others doing regular exercise involving regular body movements are well placed to maintain their BMI without much concern. Those affected by disorders like diabetes and others suffering from physical immobilization are constrained to restrict body movements to a minimum. They tend to put on weight unless severe food intake restrictions are imposed which is not possible in many cases. While supervised exercises can maintain the tone of muscles and joints, weight gain is a real danger in such cases. Hospitals and nursing homes are concerned with this situation and the crisis is now affecting ordinary house holds where the proportion of old age populations continue to rise with the responsibility for ensuring a good quality life to them rests on the younger generation with government pitching in for orphaned elders as a part of the societal commitment.

Sach Institute in San Diego CA, in USA takes its name from the famous scientist who discovered polio vaccine, has a way to deal with this problem, found suitable, at least in animal testing. Of course finding some thing exciting in animals need not transfer into reality for human beings but at least it offers hope. The rationale for the excitement is the finding of the effectiveness of a drug discovered in 1994 called Aicar used to treat other ailments but without any connection to weight control. The observation that in athletes the muscle fibers (Type I) contain more mitochondria which are resistant to fatigue as compared to Type II present in others have less mitochondria, more vulnerable to fatigue, led the scientists to explore ways and means to spur the fat burning by manipulation at the gene level. Aicar activates the PPAD-delta protein which signals to the cell that it has burned off more energy and needs to generate more energy. The
drug pushes the genome towards a more enhanced genetic tone that impacts metabolism and muscle function. In other words the drug moves the genetics to a more activated metabolic state. This is similar to mimicking the effect of exercise without actually moving the limbs.

Diet and exercise are still the pillars of any ameliorative regime to control weight and prevent obesity and by no stretch of imagination one can even think of substituting it with a pill like Aicar. If at all these findings are validated in human beings, the medical world will have a tool to deal with severely affected obesity cases and patients not able to move much due to various reasons. From an ethical angle, use of such drugs for regular weight control purposes, in place of well proven exercise protocol for normal people is fraught with many uncontrolled consequences to the society.  

Sunday, August 24, 2008


In the Union Budget of 2006-07 a provision of Rs 244.6 crore was made for setting up a public funded institute under the administrative control of the ministry for food processing industries with the stated objective of conducting 'world' class research and training in food technology, in the the north for serving the interest of the industry in the region.

Obviously the imputation is that the existing institute under CSIR at Mysore set up in 1950 with similar objectives was not serving the purpose. If this logic is extended to other areas, many ministries will be setting up more research institutes on subjects on which they have the administrative control under this pretext. It is tragic that the country's scarce resources are being frittered away on such politically motivated projects. How can such an action on the part of a responsible government be justified? If there are genuine concerns about the functioning of existing institutions of international repute, the proper way is to look into the problems and address them boldly to improve their functioning. India is not a rich country that can afford to build public institutions of doubtful impact with large investments, capital as well as recurring, committing the future generations to carry the burden.

It all started with a news report during late 2005 that Union Government was setting up a food technology research center some where in the north and in early 2006 very innocuous feelers were sent from the MFPI inviting comments and suggestions on a flimsy scheme with very bare bone details. In spite of the short time window offered for submitting suggestions, meaningful comments were made by the 50 year old AFST(I), the largest body of food scientists and technologists in Asia and other concerned food professionals and a fully transparent open discussion was sought with MFPI. Needless to say there were no takers for any suggestions as a political decision was already taken at the highest level and the prime movers of this ridiculous proposition did not want their apple cart to be upset by silly food technologists!

Union Finance Minister perfunctorily announced government's decision with necessary budgetary provision for the project in an innocuous corner of his 2006-07 budget document. Then we heard 100 acres land was offered by Haryana for this world shaking project. No one is sure as to the architect of this crazy project and it is not known whether the exalted office of Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister was even consulted. In October 2007 the foundation stone was laid for the infrastructure for NIFTEM in Kundli in Haryana, signifying the start of the project. Most surprising element of this project is the collaboration offered by Cornel University and University of California(Davies) and support extended by a little known private organization, Cornell-Sathguru Foundation based in Hyderabad as if India needed foreign expertise in carrying out research on Indian foods and train technologists for Indian industry from a foreign country!

The objectives of NIFTEM are claimed to be to produce world class business leaders, as if we are lacking such specimens in our own country and develop globally competitive technology as if India has a great agenda in exporting technologies for food processing on a global scale! In this entire exercise in self deception, government conveniently forgot that the country was a global leader in training of food technologists since 1964, first under an FAO financed program and strengthening that capability with UNU and Roller Flour Millers Federation support in 1984. Thousands of technologists trained by the Mysore Center serve in more the 30 countries in senior positioins. The proposed NIFTEM is supposed to be offering courses in Food Technology, Business Administration, Food Technogy Management at Bachelor's, Master's amd Doctorate levels for about 430 students annually with a staff compliment of 240.

It is beyond comprehension, from where these experts are going to come and how relevant their teachings will be in the Indian context. CFTRI under CSIR is able to train only about 40-50 persons in an year with all the concentrated expertise and high quality infrastructure built over 5 decades of pioneering efforts. What is not clear is where these NIFTEM graduates, when and if they come out, will go for placements as Indian food industry is not in a position to absorb them. Are they for exports to Europe and USA? Are we investing on a 'brain drain' project like IITs and IIMs?

As for technology development credentials of NIFTEM, MFPI is day dreaming that this organization will churn out world class technologies after it opens its door in 2009. It is ironical that there is no clear perception in the country regarding the meaning of 'world class technology', mouthed so frequently by the sponsors of this 'pie in the sky' project. The present system of project identification in most of the R & D agencies, where so called peers review new projects, formulated by the scientists with very little feed back from the user industries, is sham of an exercise and that is why the out put and reach of these institutions never flow to or benefit the targeted users.

NIFTEM will also depend on the same so called 'pundits' to sit on judgement regarding the relevance of projects identified by the scientists under same system that has failed the country in the past and obviously the results can not be different too. No thought has been given to existing institutions in the country like CFTRI, DFRL etc as to whether they will be wound up or allowed to wither away with progressive attrition and economic choking. It is worth recalling that during late Rajiv Gandhi era, an active proposal was on the table to bring CFTRI under the MFPI with guaranteed autonomy under the Society's Act but frequent churning of Secretaries in MFPI did not help in pushing that idea beyond suggestion stage.

No doubt the NIFTEM 'circus' will go on in spite of all reservations raised by many knowledgeable people because it is a political project of the politicians, for politicians and by politicians, of course articulated by the unobtrusive bureaucratic system in the country. But guess who is the 'joker' in the circus ring. Some of the self proclaimed food technology 'pundits' always willing to play second fiddle at Delhi or the vast body of genuinely concerned food professionals who made feeble attempts to make themselves heard on the subject but ignored totally? Delhi thinks both fit the bill. Long live food technology in the country!


Saturday, August 23, 2008


Research in pursuit of excellence in all fields distinguish achievers from pedestrian performers and this is true in all spheres of science including food science. Scientific pursuit requires intellect, enthusiasm, drive, commitment and hard work. In India there are excellent scientists who have performed well in their chosen fields of work but the output from their research efforts does not seem to be very much relevant to the needs of a nation on the threshold of development to catch up with the years lost under the colonial rule till 1947. Thanks to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, country has built up a reasonably good infrastructure for scientific research under the government aegis supported by public funding. To day the country can boast of a scientific cadre strength that will be the envy of others and 'science' is supposed to be flourishing in agencies like CSIR, DRDO, DAE, ICAR, DST, DBT, Dept of Space Research, and a multitude of Universities spread across the country. It is another matter that these establishments were not able to produce a Noble Laureate since the days of late Sir C V Raman.

In the food area we have over 3000 food scientists working mostly in institutions under CSIR, DRDO, DAE and ICAR and on an average 600-700 research and development projects with investments estimated at more than Rs 200 crore, are undertaken every year with almost 100% public finance. A look back at the achievements of these institutions and asking a single question as to what they have contributed to the industrial and societal developments during the last 6 decades reflect concerns regarding the opportunities lost in taking the country to a strong position in the field of food science and technology vying with top notch nations for a honored place in the world. Baby foods from buffalo milk, energy food for school children, instant mixes for some foods, retort pouch foods, irradiation of Indian foods and many such accomplishments in the past are not to be belittled here. More challenging areas are either ignored or lost sight of resulting in a situation where the food industry is depending more on foreign players to meet their needs to fight obsolescence, making the indigenous R & D establishments more and more irrelevant with each passing day.

Many reasons can be attributed to this decline of the stature of food scientists for which all stake holders have to bear the responsibility. Scientific community in India does not lag behind others intellectually or innovation potentiality but the cash crunch, frustrating working environment, bureaucratic management, uninspiring politically tuned leadership, inverted pyramid like personnel structure and above all suffering from lack of confidence from the industry have made them a non-performing asset. The dismal story unfolds when one surveys the food panorama that exists to day. Extruded foods were made and consumed for ages but the pasta plant and cooker extruders are imported even to day. Vada and roti making equipment come from Taiwan. Flour mills are sourced from Switzerland. Spice cleaning and grinding plants are obtained from Turkey. Efficient and large scale dal mills are still to be imported though dal is a staple in the country. Frying plants with any reasonable control features are not yet being made in the country though we are a major 'snacking' nation. Papads are still made mostly by women manually though it is a unique Indian product consumed for ages here. Are not these the missed opportunities for which scientists have to bear the responsibility squarely though there can be many excuses?

The situation is not helped by the government which has no clue as to what needs to be done in food research. There appears to be more interest in engaging consultants to prepare voluminous reports on pet schemes like mega parks and unimaginative projects with practically no resources allocated for meaningful R & D in foods that are liked and consumed by Indian population. It is foolish to build a super structure without a strong foundation and same holds good in building the industry for which a strong technological foundation is a pre-requisite. Industry is guilty of playing second fiddle to the government by paying obeisance to politician ministers and administrative czars, not forcefully orchestrating its needs and shunning the scientists thereby preempting any bridge between these two well meaning partners. Research efforts must be planned and coordinated with the user agency and the industry, if tangible gains are to be achieved. Unless there is a co-habitation and synergy between them the prevailing chaos are bound to continue and no 'vision' by the government whether for 2025 or 2050 is going to be realized.

As a beginning the gates of the R & D agencies have to be thrown open for attracting entrepreneurs into the imposing concrete buildings where hallowed research is being carried out and to encourage interaction with scientist pioneers for building up mutually respecting relationship, bringing down all the barriers. The present 'patent' hugging managers must be sent home for fostering a culture of secrecy in a sector like food which plays a critical role in the survival of the nation itself. Charmimg words, deceitful claims and pious platitudes are no substitute to ground level tangible achievements that touch the day to day life of the citizens in a meaningful way. Let us start a chapter of solidarity and camaraderie that will include scientists, administrators, entrepreneurs and the industry for regaining the momentum of growth and help the food industry in the country to realize its potential as a sun-rise sector.


Food technologists of Atomic Energy Commission are happy that they have done pioneering research on food irradiation technology to suit Indian conditions, government is happy that it does not have to take a bold decision in clearing the use of this technology in the country and consumer is happy his food is not subjected to the same 'bombing' process similar to those hapless people in Hiroshima in Japan who were the first guinea pigs for confirming the lethal potential of the first atomic bomb during World War II. But the one who is not happy is the industry who feels that a powerful weapon to make foods safer has been denied for no logical reason. It is no body's business to prove that irradiation technology is as safe as any other processing technologies deployed by the industry to day to conserve and preserve foods, make them safer to the consumer and reduce spoilage and consequent avoidable wastage. This technology has been approved as safe by no less an authority than World Health Organization based on voluminous data generated by many countries during the last 4-5 decades. It is by now well established beyond a shadow of doubt that irradiation does not do any harm to the consumer though all countries are cautious in deploying the same on a wide scale. To day use of radiation or ionizing energy is approved by more than 40 countries including USA, Japan, China, France and Holland. Some countries like Australia do not permit food to be irradiated fearing consumer back lash. The advantages are many fold, most significant being the ability of radiation to kill dangerous bacteria like Salmonella, Campylobacter, Escherichia coli 0157 H7, Listeria, Staphylococcus aureus, and Toxoplasma which are known to be causing over 76 million illnesses, 3.25 lakh hospitalization and 5000 deaths across the globe.

Most commonly irradiation is used to process fruits, vegetables, grains, spices, meat, fish and poultry meat. A low dose of radiation well below the universally accepted safe level of 10 kilo Gray can bring about drastic reduction in the number of bacteria in many food products. Only for spices a higher dose of 30 kGy is required for complete dis infestation and sterilization. Irradiation also destroys the Trichina parasite in pork products effectively with no adverse effect on its sensory quality. Irradiation is the most effective technology to inhibit sprouting in potato and onion and increasingly being adopted by the major producing countries. One limitation is that irradiation adversely affects the flavor or texture in some products like dairy foods and eggs. Worldwide there are more than 170 irradiators working since last 40 years treating pharma and food products successfully with no known adverse consequences. Also many electron accelerators are deployed for same purpose in many countries. The fact that practically all ground beef produced in USA and over 90000 tons of spices and dried vegetable seasonings are regularly being irradiated annually since 2005 is a telling evidence of the coming up of age for this awesome technology.

Continuous struggle by the food industry to get approval for the use of irradiation technology has evoked little response from government agencies. The 2006 food poisoning episode sending hundreds to hospital and killing 3 people due to E.coli contamination of spinach woke up FDA of US to allow irradiation of spinach and lettuce, two salad materials consumed cold without any processing, effective from to day. The 2008 episode of Salmonella tainted tomato and Jalapeno pepper affecting more than 1000 people may yet open the eyes of regulatory authorities to the advantages offered by irradiation technology and review the policy to support industry efforts to deliver safer foods to their consumers. The underlying apprehension is that industry may lower its guard if such a powerful technology is allowed to be used compromising on good handling, packing and storage practices. This is misplaced as no responsible industry will compromise on their reputation, jeopardizing their business interests.


Friday, August 22, 2008


As mentioned in one of the earlier notes in this blog, reliable information on any aspects of food is hard to come by though from time to time figures are thrown around under the guise of real time statistics. Unfortunately there are no ways to ascertain that these figures do represent the ground realities prevailing in the country. Though we have one of the most visible planning bodies in the world, supposed to be looking ahead for future developments and laying down route maps for sustainable and equitable growth in all areas with the resources available, successive five year plans were not able to solve the country's food problems like uneven production, food scarcity and limited value addition through processing. Agricultural and Food processing are considered as vital areas to generate employment but what we are seeing to day is dismal situations on both the fronts. This may be due to poor data base in the country and not much being is being done to improve the data collection and computation regime under the government aegis.

The above thoughts are provoked by a recent report put out by the US Embassy in India projecting some achievable goals for the food processing sector in India obviously to advice their industry regarding the big market in India waiting to be tapped. According to their projections Indians consume over 1000 snacks and 300 savories and their out put is placed at $3 billion, growing @15-20%. What is intriguing is a perceptible trend reported by them amongst Indians in replacing meals with snacks opening up vast marketing opportunities for new snacks and savories in the near future. What is lost in this line of thinking is the type of foods Indians prefer and whether American companies have the wherewithal to comprehend and satisfy Indian palatial preferences with their experience in mild flavored or almost bland products popular in their country. Also lost on them is the stark reality that urban consumption of snacks is 10 times more than their counter parts in rural areas and whether they can go rural in a cost effective way to realize this vast market in the country side. While $3 billion is not a big market considering the size of Indian population, presence of thousands of minor players in the unorganized sector makes it difficult for large industries to monopolize the market.

Further dissection of the salty savories market figures reveals that almost 85% is contributed by potato chips alone, all others playing a minor role probably due to saturation advertising strategy of the industry like Frito Lay. Standard technology, long experience in wafer making and enormous marketing resources have combined to make this single product dominating industry click to a large extent. How far the industry will be successful in promoting other savories on par with potato chips remains to be seen. Other local players like Haldirams, Bikaner Bacall etc do have a portfolio of products that will be the envy of any global snack company but their volume is inconsequential considering the population of India. Also notable is that the snack industry constitutes a bare 2% of the $155 billion food market in India underscoring the inability of the industry to come up with right product mixes and marketing strategies to exploit the market. Will American companies do what local industry has not been able to do during the last two decades?. The appetite for explosive efforts is there as the projected food market in 2025 is estimated at $344 billion.

Southern United States Trade Association (SUSTA), based in New Orleans, did make an effort 5 years ago to link up food industries in that part of the country with Indian market with the avowed objective of increasing their exports of finished food products manufactured by industries located in the region. With Indian economy opening up under WTO guided trade liberalization regime, there were hopes that Indian would patronize American products enthusiastically. However the large price differential between locally processed and American made products and the high freight costs did not help to realize the plans at that time.

Operation Research Group at Baroda was one of the pioneering agencies in India bringing out useful information on food processing and consumption but the info flow is not regular as they cover all sectors of industry. Inability of data generation and management organizations in India to grow into big time projects leave the space open for a free run for foreign players like McKinskey, Anderson Consulting etc. It is time this gap in our capabilities is addressed by the domestic data management companies. Probably a change in the mindset at government level to rely more on foreign consultants will give a boost to such an effort.



Food safety management is an onerous task every country is concerned with, to prevent risks to life through food borne contamination and epidemics. With millions of foods raw, cooked, preserved and processed flooding the market place, the logistics of evolving safety standards and their enforcement can be a nightmarish experience. The system of management revolves around experienced technical personnel, well versed with all branches of food science, chemists familiar with analytical techniques and managers with administrative insight. While in capitalistic countries many functions of safety and quality monitoring are left to private players, there are many countries which take up these activities under the government aegis. In democratic societies the functioning of safety managers is highly transparent with all citizens having a right to challenge those actions considered not consumer friendly. Separation of judiciary and the executive arms in most of the democracies make it possible to avoid high handed executive actions not in the interests of the consumer. This is not possible in autocratic societies ruled by dictators and monopolistic parties, though the enforcement regime is much more effective in many cases where consumer interest is sacrificed by the industry.
In India the food standards and safety management at the macro level is mostly vested with the ministry of health at the federal level and logistics of enforcement are decentralized so that local state machinery can keep vigilance on a day to day basis. While a fair amount of democratic procedures are enshrined in the system, prosecutions and punishments for violation are far and few with extended legal wrangles and delays at the judiciary level. At the ground level, the system is heavily loaded against the consumer with rampant corruption and Wheeling and dealings often  taking place between the offenders and the prosecuting officials. It is a common knowledge that the power to prosecute is invariably a weapon to favor resourceful large industry and big traders to the detriment of small scale and micro enterprises. It may be too much to expect that any thing can be done to arrest this trend unless an equitable and transparent dispute settlement mechanism is created enjoying the confidence of government, industry and the consumer.
In contrast Communist China, a highly authoritarian country with no democratic pretensions, can afford strict and severe punishments for violations that will be deterrent for other perpetrators of similar crimes. While awarding punishments, one has to be absolutely sure that the guilt of the accused is proved beyond a shade of doubt. Probably for the Chines, sacrificing one innocent person is acceptable for the general good of the society. On the contrary in India the cardinal principle of justice is to give the benefit of doubt to the accused so that an innocent person is never punished. This is responsible for low levels of prosecutions and still lower levels of convictions in spite of the fact that wide spread adulteration, especially by traders and unorganized food industry is rampant.
This topic of food safety was discussed here in the light of recent developments in China where there were upheavals amongst the food quality management fraternity that were startling. During the last two years Chines government have convicted a number of high ranking officials of its Food & Drug Administration to long prison terms after finding them guilty of corruption. Last July the government executed Mr Zheng Xianoyu, head of another regulatory agency for failing to supervise the food and drug market and accusing him of taking bribes for granting special favors to some. On August 2 this year another high official Mr Wu Jianping, head of food production supervision at the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine committed suicide, after he was questioned as a part of corruption investigation. It is very difficult to make a judgment regarding the fairness or otherwise of these cases in the absence of lack of transparency in the system. Whether actions like these make the consumers safer from unsafe foods is also a matter of conjecture.
In contrast, the recent reports of salmonella contamination of Tomato/Jalapeno Peppers and E.Coli infection in ground beef in USA were widely circulated all over the world. The inept handling by FDA of USA, one of the most reputed organizations in the field was also widely criticized. FDA was even held responsible for raising false alarm in the case of tomatoes and causing losses, more than $100 million to the industry. The above two extremities speak for the dangers inherent in managing such systems, efficiently and without hurting the consumer or the industry.
It is interesting to hazard a guess whether there would have been such a frenzy amongst the bureaucrats to wangle the Chairmanship of the Food Standards and Safety Authority, if Chinese example was followed in India also!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


The way to the stomach is through the oral system where food is masticated and predigested initially before passing into the GI tract for further processing. The taste buds present on the toungue helps to decide whether the food is palatable or desirable and this taste perception influences to some extent the quantity of any prepared food consumed. The influence of brain in hunger sensation is also a factor that regulates food consumption. The role of teeth is well defined and universally it is considered as a tool to reduce the particle size of food that enters the body. But recently it has been felt that the extent of deterioration of the gums and teeth probably reflects the health of the heart and other organs. Strong gums and teeth make the heart less prone to diseases that afflict a sizable population. Poor oral health can be a clear indication of possible afflictions like diabetes, kidney diseases, preterm labor, osteoporosis, Alzheimer's disease and some forms of cancer.

Bad breath, often referred to as halitosis, is attributed to bad dental hygiene. The practice of cleaning the teeth as a first chore of the day is ingrained in the customs and traditions of all populations and in India there are many ways of doing this like use of neem stalks and similar medicinal plant parts, ayurvedic formulations in powder form, carbonized rice husk, modern day cleaning powders, tooth brushes and pastes etc. According to dentists brushing after each meal is ideal but at least twice a day brushing is absolutely necessary to avoid dental decay. Gargling of mouth after meals also is helpful in loosening and evicting food residues from the oral cavity. Mild brushing of tongue is also recommended to remove microscopic particles of food trapped on the rough surface of the tongue. Many traditional foods and food consumption habits are known to protect the oral system from priodontal diseases and a detailed assessment may throw up clues as to how food itself can be an effective deterent against human ailments.

Gum diseases like gingivitis and more serious periodontal problems could be a part of an early warning system nature has endowed on mankind which need to be taken seriously. Some relationship between gum infection and atherosclerosis is suspected for long and it is now known that more severe one's gum disease, narrower will be the arteries due to build up of plaque. In some cases treatment of oral diseases with intense therapy resulted in improved endothelial function and better performance of the linings of the blood vessels.

Infection and inflammation of gums affect the tissues supporting the teeth and the bacteria and toxins formed due to this get circulated through out the body destroying the bone and affecting various organs. Preterm births are also linked to poor oral health conditions though the link is not scientifically explained. some scientists are emphatic in their view regarding a positive linkage between poorly maintained oral system and diseases like cancers of lung, kidney, pancreas and blood but hard evidence is still lacking to confirm them. Same is true regarding link between gum infection and disease affecting kidney and Alzheimer's disease. The body- mouth connection is much more evident in the case of diabetes and it has been established unequivocally that uncontrolled gum disease make it difficult for the affected people to have any meaningful control of blood sugar. of course reverse is also true with uncontrolled diabetics experiencing severe periodontal problems. The embirical observations such as the above cannot rubbished and more scientific studies are necessary before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

Development of modern medical system is heavily biased in favor of ever narrowing specialization with each super specialist concerned only with his own field of specialization ignoring tell tale signs of other symptoms of other diseases. Unless human body is considered holistically, the travails of the patients groping for answers to his health problems are bound to be aggravated. In the context of the above random observations, dentists have increased responsibility cast on them to be more critical while diagnozing oral health disorders, promptly referring suspected cases to specialists. In the interest of mankind in general, physicians of all background must collaborate and interact amongst themselves to extend most effective treatment to the patients to prevent avoidable misery and preventable mortality.


Wednesday, August 20, 2008


One often wonders why the milk and edible oils are generally fortified with Vitamins A & D in many parts of the World. Association of Vit A with health of the eyes has been well established and concentrated annual administration is often recommended as an intervention program to children coming from poor families to protect them from losing eye sight and prevent blindness. Cod liver oil, a rich source of Vit A was used years ago to prevent any such deficiency in children, especially those hailing from vegetarian families and encapsulated cod liver oil was available in the market for a while to help people swallow them without experiencing the fishy odor. Vitamin D has a stellar role in bone formation and its deficiency has been implicated in bone related diseases and other ailments. A unique feature of Vit D is its formation under the skin from precursors already present by exposure to sun light(UV radiation 270-300 nm) and it is difficult to imagine how deficiency can develop with so much sun light available. Still we are told that almost 1 billion people are currently under Vit D deficient category.

Ergosterol (Vit D2) and cholecalciferol (Vit D3) are the most commonly found bio active forms that work in mediating metabolic functions related to bone and skeleton. The optimum level in blood is considered to be about 35-55 nanogram per ml while experts recommend a daily intake of 5 micro-gram(ug) for adults up to the age of 50 years, 10 ug for 51-69 years and 15 uc beyond 70 years. Some experts feel a daily intake of 1000 international units(IU) of Vit D equivalent to 25 ug for normal adults and 2000 IU for pregnant women and lactating mothers. Probably higher intake may be advisable as no overdose toxicity is known. Interestingly exposure to sun for 30 minutes thrice a week is adequate to generate the needed Vit D under the skin, from the precursor 7 dehydrocholesterol, while excess formed is always metabolized by the body with no ill effects. People living in tropical regions are better placed in this context but enough exposure of a major portion of the body to sun rays is necessary to Vit D generation. Darker the skin color higher will be exposure time required and those in temperate regions, especially during winter might not have adequate exposure for natural Vit D development. Deficiency syndrome usually develop only during winter times and in summer due to over protection against sun burn by using sun screen lotions.

Recent startling revelation that Vit D deficiency is associated with many deaths indicates a much wider role than its influence on bone development. According to most recent scientific findings, those with even marginal deficiency of Vit D have 26% more chance of death. This is attributed to the distinct possibility that Vit D is associated with influencing blood pressure, insulin response, obesity and other unknown areas of human health. The fact that increased human mortality occurs during winter due to cardiac problems and cancer survival rate is higher when it is detected and treated during summer support the above hypothesis of a more critical role for Vit D in maintaining good health. However confirmation of the above can come only from more elaborate scientific studies involving large number of volunteers. Even if there is some justification for Vit D fortification, milk and edible oils are not the right vehicles. Milk consumption per capita in India is very low while edible oils, besides being costly, are invariably used for high temperature frying. Probably encapsulation and mixing with any foods regularly consumed by the entire population, must be identified.

In India no reliable data is available regarding any wide spread Vit D deficiency and probably it might not be as prevalent as many think due to all year round sun shine in major part of the country and extended exposure of the population during day time doing their daily chores. God seems to be on the side of people from developing countries, most of them located in the tropical region, where abundance of 'free' sun shine is available to make them at least Vit D self sufficient!


Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Saffron is one of the flavor ingredients for food, cherished for its color, aroma and some health attributes. The alpha crocin and picrocrocin present in this highly valued spice give it the distinct orange color and flavor respectively. Though its use in the orient is manly for its distinct culinary qualities, saffron is also steeped in history with many ancient civilizations recognizing its value for a variety of purposes including as a medicine. The exorbitant price that saffron commands varying from $ 1000 to $ 10000 per kg is more due to the poor yield from organized cultivation and labor intensive nature of the agricultural operations. Leading growers like Spain, Italy, Greece, India, Iran, Morocco report yields between 2 to 29 kg per acre in terms of flowers. Some of the medicinal properties attributed to saffron include increased immunity, resistance to cold and asthma, maintaining skin health, protection against such ailments as Alzheimer's disease, cancer, cardiac problems, etc. Many of these claims are not backed by irrefutable scientific proof though many firmly believe them. In countries like India there is prevailing belief that consumption of saffron by pregnant women assures birth of babies with light skin color. Saffron, known locally as kesar along with almond (badam) is a sure combination for good health, especially for aged people of the upper income group. It is unfortunate that saffron still boasts of its ancient history to bolster its claim instead of scientifically tenable supportive findings. What will kindle the interest of the scientific community in saffron is a million dollar question.

One of the reasons for absence of reliable scientific data could be the relatively small production, almost stagnating for years and the narrow clientele that patronizes its consumption. Added to this is the high cost that discourages many from using it in culinary preparations. Probably this situation may change if saffron production picks up in an area not known so far as a saffron country. Afghanistan, in south Asia is known to day, more for the Taliban insurgency and Poppy cultivation and it is considered as the biggest source of psychotropic drugs produced from Poppy clandestinely, being traded all over the world. The drug money so generated are fueling the war currently raging in that country. 90% of opium and heroin production comes from Afghanistan. In a recent move the government in Afghanistan is actively encouraging the Poppy farmers to switch over to saffron which can be very lucrative at to day's market prices. Being Islamic in beliefs, the farmers consider profit from saffron cultivation is 'halal'and there fore does not violate the religious sentiments. In its well thought out strategy government is distributing saffron bulbs to those farmers agreeing to uproot their Poppy plants with technical assistance to obtain good yield. With a program to distribute 49 tons of bulbs this year and more than 1000 farmers registered for taking up saffron cultivation, it is a matter of time before Afghanistan can show the world the resilience of its farming community in no uncertain terms. The yield is as high as 12 kg per hectare which fetches $1500 in the market in Herat. With financial assistance from UK, new entrepreneurs are emerging to set up processing, packing and branding the saffron produced for large scale export. Only uncertainty is how far the drug cartels who are holding the country to ransom will permit this transition to take place though government protection.

Incidentally there is a connection between saffron cloths worn by Buddist Monks and Hindu Priests, which has to day become a political symbol of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. Much before the advent of modern day dyes, saffron cloths were thought to have been colored using saffron from which this distinct dress material derived its name. Rising cost of saffron led to use of turmeric, a low cost plant material, to dye such cloths which were less'orangy'in appearance but still accepted readily by the monks and priests. Of course to day almost all saffron cloths including BJP's flags are mill printed to give lustrous fast orange color which do not fade easily.

In a lighter vain, if saffron cultivation takes off in Afghanistan and that country does as well as it is doing with popy, it will truly be saffronization of the country literally.



Food security is an integral part of modern governing as it is the responsibility of any government to insulate its citizens from food scarcity at times of stressful situations. There are international norms recommended by FAO of United Nations and many countries follow this regimen for food security. Recent initiatives by the group of countries coming under South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to set up a Regional Food Bank, if materializes will be a wonderful model worth simulation by other countries of the world. It was at the recent 15th summit meeting of SAARC at Colombo, Sri Lanka that the member countries arrived at this epoch making decision unanimously. This move will benefit 1.5 billion people in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The Bank is conceived on the basis of contributions from these countries to a food pool varying in size from 180 tons to 1,53,200 tons aggregating to a total of 242560 tons. Each country will set apart its share over and above the national stocks and make it available to any country under the SAARC, at times of distress. The administrative HQ is expected to be in Dacca, Bangladesh for planning, monitoring and execution. Regional Food Bank is a part of the long term visionary program that will ensure food and nutritional security with cooperation within the region and other counties internationally. The joint projects envisage augmentation of food production, investing in agriculture and related industries, carrying out agricultural research and sharing of technologies. The Regional Food Bank will have dedicated new ware houses in member countries and programs of local procurement as well as international purchase of extra food grains if necessary.

At a macro level the program looks very attractive and timely. The political will of the nations concerned has been unequivocally established and the success of the program will depend on planning at the micro level. Though no time limit has been set up for translating the plan into concrete action at the ground level, it is expected to take considerable time to work out the logistics involved in such an inter country operation getting of the ground. It is not clear how the figure 2.43 lakh tons was arrived at for a population of 1.5 billion. Probably this quantity is hardly sufficient to meet the needs of a population of the size of 110 million for 10 days which could be adequate in times of emergency in a particular area but considering the history of this region vis-a-vis droughts, famines, floods etc a much larger target needs to be set. As a beginning this is a good effort that must be expanded further in future after gaining sufficient experience.

What is worrying is the mode of storage that is being considered for safe keeping of the grains for periods greater than one year. The bad experience of FCI in India, during eighties and nineties when infested grains were left in their god downs for public distribution must be kept in mind. Whether it is going to be bag storage or silo storage also needs in-depth consideration. From logistics view bag storage lends itself to easy handling and even small quantities can be transferred at short notice at least cost. Also important is the location of storage structures since it will have a bearing on the time taken to deliver the grains to the point of use under emergency conditions. The dynamics of management will be a great challenge as the stored grains must be rotated as frequently as possible to prevent spoilage. Cool and dry climates with minimum rains will be another added advantage for the location of the warehouses.

Since Dacca is slated to be the HQ of the proposed SAARC Regional Food Bank, there may not be any rush for bureaucrats to seek vantage positions in the organization and the fact that remunerations will not be on UN scales and Dacca is often considered a punishment posting station, providing another dampener. This leaves the field open to good technocrats, knowledgeable and experienced, to head this new venture and achieve the objectives with minimum hiccups.


Sunday, August 17, 2008


Chillies with varying capsaicin contents, responsible for their 'heat' value or the burning sensation are unique and why nature has endowed this crop with such a property has been debated amongst scientists. Generally such extraordinary properties are linked to survival of the species in a wild world where there are more enemies than friends. Could it be that chillies have not become extinct because of the presence of capsaicin inside which many living creatures including some segments of human population cannot tolerate? It is nature's way of ensuring that all living creatures live in harmony that many such weaklings are endowed with survival kits helping them to ward off indiscriminate destruction by pests and hostile microbes.

It has now been confirmed by some scientists that capsaicin does confer protection to chillies. In many growing areas fungal attack on chillies makes the seeds unviable, incapable of germination and multiplication. The fungus Fusarium, most commonly present in chilies was found to be affected adversely by capsaicin and consequently the growth of this destructive microorganism is considerably slowed down. While many predators like mammals and other species are repelled by chillies' hotness experience on the palate, birds are known to be insensitive to the heat sensation when chillies are consumed. The birds thus help to disperse chili seeds and help their propagation. Capsaicin present in the desippament, not in the seeds, varies in concentration in different varieties of chillies. Some have practically no capsaicin while most others boast of heat values estimated at several million Scoville units. The scientific observation that lower the Scoville value more vulnerable are the chillies to Fusarium attack confirms the conclusion that capsaicin is a potent weapon in the armory of chilies to fight for survival.

Chili, with its capsaicin content, also provides humans with a food ingredient that helps to fight many diseases afflicting them. The populations in regions lying within 20 degrees of the equator on either side are prolific consumers of chilies and they are not known to be affected by many diseases that are common beyond the tropics. While very little work is going on to elucidate many beneficial claims attributed to chili, occasional studies like the above are compelling to invest more on research in this area. India is one of the countries where chili is a part and parcel of the diets and the older generations still are free of many of the health ailments the present generation is facing. This can be attributed massive shift in consumption habits influenced by western influences where chili never finds a place. Aversion to Chillies in the country amongst younger generation is a disturbing phenomenon and probably more parental efforts are called for to reinvent the 'Chili Culture' for the benefit of the future generation.


Friday, August 15, 2008


Inadequate understanding of the basic concepts of food and nutrition can be cited as one of the major reasons for many of the diseases and health disorders both amongst the poor as well as the rich. Food consumption habits which are formed early in life get ingrained into the life styles of people as they grow and it becomes impossible to change them unless forced due to unavoidable circumstances later in life. India has the typical example of how the population in the south was forced to shift to wheat slowly during sixties and seventies because of large scale shortage of rice which is the staple. The yeomen effort by GOI to make rice like products from tapioca and supplement the natural rice supply to cater to the palates of southern population had to be abandoned because of less than satisfactory consumer acceptability. It took more than two decades of promotion and easy supply to popularize wheat and to day wheat based products like chapathi and allied products and bread have become significant components of regular diet in majority of households in this region. However even to day the preferred choice for many, especially from earlier generation is rice given an option. Another example is that of South Korea which historically was a rice eating country with wheat practically not consumed before the Korean war and arrival of American troops in late forties. Exposed to the influence of the Americans and through a subtle campaign for promoting imported American wheat, that country imports large quantity of wheat from USA with very little local production. Thus critical importance of eating nutritionally balanced food early in life cannot be overstated

In India nutrition labeling is being made compulsory on all packed foods presumably to enable the consumer to understand the value of food purchased or to have multiple options in buying any food in the market. However what is not clear is how many consumers can understand the significance of nutrients like proteins, sodium, potassium, trans fats, dietary fiber or carbohydrates, all of which have important roles to play in maintaining good health. Some awareness seems to be existing regarding cholesterol though many have little clue regarding the exact implications of this component on human health. Many misapprehensions exist regarding bad effects of consuming oils like that from coconut and palm fruits, many falsely imagining they are rich sources of cholesterol. There are so many other misapprehensions and erroneous beliefs that will be difficult to erase unless nutrition education becomes an integral part of formal childhood education system. While positive aspects of nutrition is slowly gaining attention at some of the educational institutions, the importance of hygiene and sanitation also needs to stressed to prevent negative consequences of infection and infestation of foods.

Association of Food Scientists and Technologists(India), during their annual Convention in Hyderabad in 2006 made a beginning with assistance from UNICEF in experimenting with a model for educating children from rural areas regarding the concepts of nutrition and food but it was not pursued further to evolve a national consensus for organizing programs on a wider scale. Country is not short of experts and surely they will be willing to contribute intellectually to put in place a practical education program right from the first grade level. Education being a state subject, it is imperative that the program is made in consultation with the authorities there if to be implemented all over the country. NCERT also needs to be roped in as the educationists in this organization have lot of expertize and experience in the field.

Industry can work at a different level to educate the parents who after all have great influence on the behavior of their children. It may be too much to expect that industry would abandon their business for the sake of education but an enlightened parent is always a better client to appreciate the quality and safety of the foods the industry produces and markets. A simple way to spread nutrition information is to introduce slogans that will catch the notice of the consumers and remind them often, becoming a part of their day to day activities. How can this be done? Many foods are packed in cartons and the outside is invariably printed attractively carrying essential information on the contents. However inside of the carton presents a great opportunity for the industry to print information regarding nutrition and the design should be such that consumers will keep them at least for some time for the message to sink in. Or calendar type cards can be included in the pack containing such information. Industry can also create separate sections on nutrition in their web sites highlighting nutritional information. Same is true with commercial advertisements where at least one or two fundamental messages can be included. There are so many other ways of putting across messages targeting the consumers and over a period of time greater awareness is generated amongst the population.

Industry associations like AIFPA, PFNDAI, etc, food technology professionals in AFST(I), IDA, etc, nutritionists from organizations like Nutrition Society, Society of Biochemists, NIN etc, representatives from Health Ministry and Food Processing Ministry(MFPI) administrators can make the above possible if a concerted effort is made. Years ago when the MFPI was born, one of the priority areas was promotion of processed foods though nothing concrete has been done during the last two decades of its existence. It is better late than never and this is the time for earnest action to achieve universal nutritional literacy in the country.


Thursday, August 14, 2008


Water, manure and sun enable man to grow all the food that is needed to survive ever since the onset of human civilization in this planet. It is amazing how, even to day the food production is governed by favorable weather conditions, especially with respect to rains. Even in advanced countries, in spite of high investments on agricultural infrastructure the crop estimates go awry many times because of weather. Recent floods in the mid west regions of USA may significantly reduce the out put estimates of commercial food crops like corn and soybean. Nearer home, rain or drought has commanding role to play on production of every crop grown in the country. While water is a critical input, energy plays some role in water extraction, irrigation, harvesting, transportation, storage and processing. In India many states provide electrical energy from the grid to the farmers free or at heavily subsidized cost to make the agricultural operations more productive and reduce the prices of the produce to make them affordable to the consumers. With increasing cost of fossil fuels, energy costs are running haywire and it is time that such cost escalations are controlled without affecting the food production.

Man has a great capacity to out live crises and best in him comes out when challenges are severe. Present non renewable energy crisis also offers an opportunity to meet the crunch situation with alternate strategies. Organic food movement beginning in early nineties is gaining increasing traction and more than 10% of world agricultural produce is expected to be organic before the end of this decade. Same is true with CO2 emission and its devastating effect on the very survival this planet. It is incumbent upon the comity of nations that constitute the civilization to day to cut down or reduce emissions drastically in the coming years. Fossil fuels constitute the biggest threat to the global environment and progressive reduction in their consumption is a universal goal. India can make significant contributions in this area by drastically curtailing the use of non renewable sources of energy, especially in areas like agriculture, even if this sector is not a major pollution source.

The terminology 'Windy Foods' is used here to cover foods produced predominantly using wind energy which can be tapped easily in India. A subtle change in the policy will enable the farming community to go in for wind energy in a big way in future. It is true that initial capital investment is high for installing wind turbine system and how far it is capable of being scaled down to the level of small farmers is a relevant issue to be considered. Wind energy to day accounts for 1% of world energy which is growing @30%per year,expected to reach 100 giga watts by end of 2008, enough for meeting the needs of 150 million homes. The world potential is estimated to be 235 giga watts on shore and 750 giga watts off shore while another estimate puts it at 72 trillion giga watts. The potential in India is projected at 45 giga watts out of which 8 giga watts have already been tapped, giving the country fourth place globally. Denmark is the pioneer in the area and about 20% of their total energy needs come from wind generators. They also supply state of the art technology and equipment for wind energy turbines, with more than 70% of the currently operating plants in the world originating from this country.

China is reported to have about 60 wind farms with 2000 wind turbines generating 1300 mega watts of energy and a rapid growth to 30 giga watts is being planned. Largest wind farm in the world generates 5 mega watts of energy and one of the most ambitious development programs has just been announced by the Mesa Power Company of Texas owned by the energy czar T Bone Pickens covering an area of 200000 acres of land capable of generating 4 giga watts of energy. About 12000 barrels of crude oil correspond to a 3 mega watt wind generated energy. The cost of wind power is variously estimated to be 2-3 times higher than conventional power but the financial cost due to initial high capital input for land and machinery is the major cost component and unless governments provide financial incentives to off set this disadvantage, there might not be any rush to embrace this clean energy system in many countries.

In India the government has to evolve a policy that will encourage farmers to install wind mills in contiguous areas so that the power so generated can be used by them for their own use without depending on the power grid. It is time integrated farms are set up by the private sector players with wind mills as an inevitable part of the landscape to generate and supply power for different functions as lighting, water extraction, water storage, irrigation, processing and cold stores. Foods coming out of such agricultural complexes can rightly be called windy foods to denote its environment friendly nature. The present policies on SEZs, Food Parks and Mega Parks can include a Wind Food Park component also which can be located in selected areas where both wind power and agri-horticultural resources are available. Even fresh land can be allotted for such parks for integrated farms that will make a qualitative change in the food landscape of the country.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Over the centuries, the human civilization progressed from an era of limited wants and means to the modern times when food is available plenty with enormous choices thanks to the ingenuity and technological prowess that distinguished the mankind from other living creatures. While under nutrition and malnutrition marked the early phases of development of the planet, over nutrition is increasingly being blamed to day for a plethora of evils that plague populations in many regions of the world, especially those enjoying prosperity and comforts in some of the developed countries. It is not that every man, women and child that dot this planet are well fed, considering the vast population numbering billions who have no access or no means to get what they need for keeping their body and soul together. During fifties and sixties lot was said and written about calorie-protein malnutrition in India, both due to imbalances in distribution and ignorance of basic principles of human nutrition. Contributions from stalwarts like late Patwardhan, late V Subramanyan, C Gopalan, M Swaminathan, HAB Parpia and few others to the knowledge base of food and nutrition in India are well known.

The influence of the mother on the health of her off springs has always been a fascinating subject of study both by medical as well as the nutrition communities. Fundamentally a healthy mother ( pregnant women) gives birth to a healthy child. But deviation from the normal can have short term as well as long term implications. This is where there are lot of uncertainties and lack of a consensus does not help the prospective mothers with different schools having different interpretations of such variations. It is not very clear whether a particular diet will have advantage over another one and if so in what way this advantage will be manifested in the child deriving nutrition from such a mother having this special diet. Nonetheless the role of food in seeing through a normal conception and delivery is undisputed.

There are many cases when parents with small physical features having children with larger body frame and higher than average birth weight. This is often attributed to the diets regime adopted during the pregnancy period. Reverse also is true when large sized parents have under sized off springs with absolutely normal health. Does food have such a critical role to play in influencing the health of the child, at least during birth? There is universal agreement that the genetic make up of parents does have an important influence on the life span of the children they bear but the role of food is rather obscure. A critical look at the health of populations in many impoverished communities gives a clue to the development dynamics of the children borne to them. In spite of a mother looking famished, the child borne to them appears to be far more healthy and resilient, probably due to the ability of the child to satisfy its normal nutrition requirements from its mother's system while still in the womb. What if the mother is super healthy with an abundance of food during pregnancy? Will the child be normal or super healthy like its mother?

Animals provide many clues regarding the influence of food intake on their health and behavior and mice, guinea pigs, rabbits, rhesus monkeys, beagle dogs all have helped mankind to unravel the mysteries of life during the last one and half centuries. But in many cases animal models do not translate into real time results in humans due to many reasons but such animal models can always forewarn us regarding any possibility of aberrations that can happen under certain set of conditions. In a recent report on obesity it was stated that over abundance of food to the fetus through an over eating mother can change the eating behavior of the off spring during its entire life. Of course this was found in mice and no definite conclusion can be drawn regarding such a possibility in humans. The mother mouse when grown in an environment of abundant food over ate 40% more in weight and 56% more in terms of calories. It gave birth to off springs which ate still more as compared to its mother and this trend continued generation after generation. Probably natures conservation principle goes haywire when the fetus grows in an environment rich in sugars and fats. What is intriguing is that the off springs of obese mothers had lower basal metabolism in general channeling the excess food for storage in the form of fat. Modification of their appetite centers in the brain gives them urge to eat more and unrestricted food availability makes the situation ideal for unrestrained eating.

Imagine what will happen if this translates into reality in human beings. Over generations, the humans with bulging waist lines and enormous physical dimensions, looking more like aliens will predominate the planet. Already obesity accounts for more than 400 million people across the globe, more than half being in the American continent. What is critical is the health status of the child bearing populations between the age 20 and 40 years and if disciplined eating is practiced at least for some time before and during pregnancy, there will be hope that mother earth can be saved the burden of carrying more over weight but sickly population in the coming decades.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008


The remarkable technological achievements of IT sector and space exploration world over have created a euphoria that technology can do any thing man wishes. To some extent it is true but many a time the limitations of modern technologies are glossed over. It is rarely realized that technology is like a double edged sword and its use is often governed by the user. It can be very destructive when used in wars and human conflicts but can perform a variety of functions beneficial to mankind. Just like atomic research which led to development of lethal atomic and hydrogen bombs as well as fission controlled reactors to generate power that drives the industrial society of to day to a very significant extent. Same is true of food processing technologies too. Tremendous technological developments in the last 4-5 decades have changed the life style of the people all over the world by providing a host of convenient and new products with high palate gratification. Technologies like canning, modified atmosphere storage, transport and packing, freezing, retort pouch processing, freeze drying, mechanized baking and frying and many others have placed in the hands of the industry unlimited power to provide foods the way the consumer wants.

Having said this, can the food technologists, the torch bearers of new technological innovations and driving force behind the modern food processing wonders, look back with satisfaction that they are doing what is good for the society? To day's consumer is often confused regarding the health implications that emerge by application of technologies in every sphere of food he consumes. Application of chemical fertilizers in the production field, wide scale use of poisonous protecting chemicals, enhancement of production using hormones and other biological stimulants, genetic modification of plant foods for increasing the yield, pre-harvest spraying practices to control harvesting time, washing and cleaning chemicals in the packing sheds, pretreatment of crops like fruits, vegetables, and many other easily perishable horticultural produce, use of synthetic packaging materials for food contact applications, use of many chemicals during processing, incorporation of processing aids in the product for a variety of end results, etc may be justifiable purely from a practical angle. Consumers often ignore that there is an overseeing agency with required competence and authority to ensure the foods produced by the industry are safe. The entire food technology is based on the perception that food needs to be preserved minimizing the wastage at least cost and most effectively without risking the health of the consumer.

Different consumers have different perceptions regarding the role of food technology and increasingly negative images about processed foods are emerging without any reason. Globalization of foods, crossing national barriers and faster and wider dissemination of news regarding some of the undesirable aspects of food handling could be contributing to the above trend. The emergence of 'green' movement which advocates environment friendly actions by all the industry created an entirely new class of foods called organic foods which are raised in natural conditions without using any chemicals and consumers are increasingly flocking over to this segment of foods because of fear about health hazards associated with modern technological prowess. Added to this is the wide spread adulteration of foods mostly by unscrupulous traders which also raised fears in the minds of consumers regarding the safety of packed foods. Ignorance about the benefits of modern technologies is widespread and the MoFPI of GOI could have done much better by creating such awareness at least in the urban areas where people are more receptive to logic and reasoning.

Consumer may be justified in raising the eye brows about the impact of food technology because of many health scare concerns raised by nutritionists regarding the health implications of many processes that are in vogue to day. In search of more appealing foods grain milling has ended up making less nutritious white flours leaving the vital bran, one of the good sources of dietary fiber, to the cattle. Same is true with many other areas like edible oil extraction and refining, white rice, refined white sugar and products based on it, HFCS based products, use of chemicals and antibiotics as processing aids, artificial colors and flavors, toxic artifacts like trans fats and acrilamides, white bread and maida based products, variety of junk foods, high fat containing foods, etc. The feeling that health value of a food is inversely proportional to the development of technology is slowly emerging and this needs to be arrested.

To the defense of food technology it must be said that it offers what the market demands. To day new and better foods are being created which are also health supporting. The commercial production of atta, the whole wheat flour is an excellent example. There are a number of foods in the market with low calories or low carbohydrates or high proteins or fortified with dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids like w-3 acids, predigested forms of foods, range of products without use of preservatives and others that are health-friendly and can be consumed with absolute safety and assured health benefits. If many of the health compromised population is living a normal life to day, the credit goes to food technology which has created specialty foods targeting these consumers. Low calorie and low fat foods against obesity, sugar free products for diabetics, low sodium items for hypertension segment, parenteral emulsions for GI tract ailments, allergy free foods are some of the examples of food technology earning its right as the savior of humanity. Salute the food scientists, technologists and engineers who made this possible.


Monday, August 11, 2008


Irrespective of religion, feasting or mass feeding is a phenomenon well entrenched in the Psyche of Indian society. From time immemorial, through the eras of mythologies and puranas, Hindus have practiced mass feeding as a part of the rituals associated with many occasions. Same is true with Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others who form the cultural panorama of the country. The occasions such as marriage, birth anniversary, religious festivals, religious practices and others are invariably linked to feasts for relatives and friends. Of course when it comes to VIPs and super rich people, ostentatious spending on food is more a rule than exception. Such functions are organized at homes, hotels, temples, mosques, churches, public halls, specially built temporary structures, ships etc depending on the resourcefulness and depth of the pocket of those organizing such functions.

Another category of mass feeding is noticed in big temples like Tirupathi, Dharmasthala, Mantralaya, those in Udipi and other places and hundreds of similar institutions across the country,catering mainly to the pilgrims or devotees who throng such places in thousands every day. Though this practice had relevance once upon a time when catering facilities were not available near the worship centers and visiting temples involved long trekking over difficult terrains in the absence of good transportation infrastructure, this is no more true to day. Accessibility to many temples has become easy and less time consuming and In many places there are reasonably good restaurants and small scale eateries that can easily serve the visiting pilgrims. If at all they have not developed to the extent they should have, the reason is the continued catering practices by the temples themselves where food is free.

From an economic point of view this may not be justifiable because most of the pilgrims will not consider an additional financial burden on good food if they have to eat on their own. The fact that big temples at Guruvayur and Sabarimalai which do not have any free foods program, happen to be two of the most popular temples in India if the crowds there are any indications, proves the above point. In fact Guruvayur is an excellent example how private food catering can flourish around a pilgrim center as it has one of the highest concentration of food vendors in India generating huge economic turn over with large employment content. Can't we repeat this model all over the country provided there are no religious susceptibilities on this count? One of the dangers is about the quality and safety of foods served in small joints which require strict monitoring.

Mass feeding also takes place under the societal projects of governments most prominent being the mid-day school programs being run in schools obviously to improve school attendance under the national literacy program of compulsory schooling for all children. But it is sad that the authorities laid more emphasis on taste forgetting that program provided them with a golden opportunity to improve the nutrition and health of the children, especially from rural areas.The well designed CFTRI product, popularly known as 'Energy Food', capable of mass production and high quality with a calorie content of 300 kC and 16% proteins per serving were ignored by many states, for considerations other than scientific in favor of fresh foods to be prepared and served in the school premises. It is tragic that thousands of children are exposed to food safety risks inherent in using indifferent raw materials and unhygienic cooking environment. The program also suffered from lack of adequate financial provisions to deliver optimum nutrition to the beneficiaries of this program. Wastage and pilferage are other problems when it comes to use of commercially valuable raw materials like rice and other inputs in such public programs.

Coming back to the traditions and customs of community feasts the Indian society as a whole has to debate whether continuing with them is in tune with modern life styles and societal changes taking place on account of ever increasing prosperity due to fast growth of the Indian economy. Can there be any other way of celebrating special occasions other than feasting? Why not arrange for feeding in thousands of orphanages and other institutions for destitute that dot most of the cities? Why not confine the celebrations or other functions to the house holds involving near and ear ones instead of making them mass participated events?

One is reminded of the old days of 'guest control order,'which was promulgated when country faced food shortages during sixties, especially rice. But it is not fair to depend on government to force such measures and only a mass awakening can bring about a transformation that will benefit the country. The unpredictable terrorism risks, high petrol prices, over eating on such occasions, potential risk of food poisoning, enormous wastage inherent in mass cooking and dangers from unexpected calamities, all will justify a re-look at these practices, normally considered by many as unavoidable commitments of a society with rich cultural heritage. Sooner we do better it will be for the country.