Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Threat of food contamination from the field or due to processing artifacts has been exercising the minds of the consumer ever since food production and processing became more organized and commercialized. With increasing demand for better quality food in sufficient quantities, the agrofood industry has not spared any efforts to meet the challenges by deploying many new technologies to improve quality, safety and nutrition. But there are many imponderables and contingencies that affect the safety of foods from time to time. The undesirable effect of trans fats which was never anticipated when hydrogenation technology was adopted is an example of how newer knowledge helps to unravel threats from unexpected quarters requiring timely and adequate precautions to overcome them.

A potential threat of recent origin is that posed by Acrylamide ( also known as acrylic amide or 2-propenamide) which has become an international issue with many countries trying to assess the damage it can do to their consumers. Thanks to the diligence of Swedish food scientists, many foods were found to be containing high amounts of the chemical Acrylamide, an artifact generated in the food due to thermal processing at temperatures beyond 120 Celsius. Higher the temperature of processing, larger will be the levels of this chemical present in the final product. In the migration test for food grade plastics, an upper limit of 0.01 mg /kg of food is accepted internationally and in water a maximum of 0.5 parts per billion (ppb) is allowed as an inadvertent contamination from the polyacrylamide resins used for purification. So far these are the standards in force but with foods reported to contain levels several fold higher, it has become a vexing problem for food safety agencies to come up with a figure as safe limit that can be permitted in foods. The problem assumes critical importance as 30% of calories derived by an average consumer in Europe and USA come from foods containing acrylamide.

There is no unanimity regarding the levels of Acrylamide that can be consumed and the figures vary from 1.2 ug to 41 ug per day per person. It is estimated that acrylamide causes several thousand deaths every year though such claims are not substantiated by authentic documentation. What is known is that this chemical at 0.5 mg per kg of food taken causes neuropathy and at 2 mg level leads to infertility as reported by FAO-WHO. Acrylamide is implicated in diseases like cancer in rats and tumors in nervous system, oral cavity peritoneum, thyroid gland, uterus and mammary glands. Foods like potato chips contain Acrylamide at levels varying from 1096 ppb to 3700 ppb while in French Fries levels of 216-606 ppb Acrylamide are reported. Some of the popular foods in developing countries were reported to contain Acrylamide as high as 5000-6000 ppb. The presence of this chemical is reported in baked foods, cereals, coffee and others also, though the concentration is not very high. Use of excessively heated oils for frying and higher pH foods develop increased levels of Acrylamide and these findings are highly relevant to India where hundreds of traditional sweets and snacks are prepared under uncontrolled heating regimes. Unfortunately no reliable data is available in India regarding Acrylamide in these foods. All foods containing the amino acid Aspargine and Glucose are vulnerable to formation of acrylamide during cooking at temperatures above 120C.

The State of California in the US, recently indicted four major snack makers-Heinz, Frito Lay, Kettle foods and Lance Inc for $ 3 million for marketing their products containing high levels of acrylamide and is forcing the industry to reduce the level of acrylamide to safer limits in the interest of the consumers. Such efforts are likely to be emulated by others and eventually new technologies may emerge to make food products free from this undesirable artifact. Already it is known that in Fries made at 175C, the acrylamide concentration was only 300 ppb which increased to 1100 ppb when frying temperature was raised by just 5C to 180C. The Chinese scientists found that a pre-frying step of dipping in bamboo extracts dramatically reduced formation of acrylamide while use of commercial enzymes like 'Acrylaway' and 'PreventAse', two enzymes capable of converting Aspargine into aspartic acid and consequently preventing the amide formation, are being recommended. Use of fresh potatoes or curing of cold stored potatoes or washing of cut potatoes before frying reduces glucose content and consequently the acrylamide formation also.

Whether it is in the house holds or in the commercial kitchens, there is always a tendency to fry at high temperatures, the major objectives being, faster frying, lesser oil uptake and crisper texture. Now one can understand clearly the consequences of fast frying at high temperatures which, besides causing increase in Acrylamide in many foods, can also cause oil deterioration contributing to generation of oxidized and polymerized break down products considered undesirable for health. Though it is scary to think of an Acrylamide driven catastrophe, one can derive some solace from the fact that the threat perception is based on animal experiments using Acrylamide at doses 100000 times higher than the levels found in foods and hope Acrylamide may not be as dangerous as imagined in human system


Friday, October 24, 2008


Healthy living means different things to different people. But quality of life every human being has to strive for is decided by the type of food eaten and the daily regimens followed in managing the day to day stresses. But all said, the cells which make up the tissues in the body are governed by the well established Hayflick limit which restricts the multiplication by division to roughly about 50 cycles where after they die. In contrast an equally stunning discovery revealed how cancerous cells are not constrained by the above limit, being able to multiply rapidly ad libitum and stay young. It was only recently the real reason for such anomalies of cell multiplication was understood and the role of the enzyme telomerase was discovered in influencing cell division. Telomeres, occurring at both ends of chromosomes contain condensed DNA material and almost like a cap (similar to the two capped ends of a shoe lace) it gives stability to the chromosomes. Repeated cell divisions via mitosis reduces the telomere length and after about 50 divisions they practically disappear.

Nature has endowed the cells undergoing regular division such as those in the immune system with the enzyme telomerase to replace the lost bits of telomeres while in most somatic cells this enzyme, even if present, is not active. Embryonic cells express telomerase because of the necessity for fast growth of all cells. Telomerase enzyme is a reverse transcriptase that carries its own RNA molecule which is used as a template for elongation of telomeres which normally get shortened after each replication cycle. Thus telomerase is like a double edged sword because of its positive role in preserving the cells on one hand and the destructive role in helping the cancerous cells to grow unlimited on the other hand.

The Preventive Medicine Research Institute in California, USA came out with the startling findings that the telomerase activity in normal and healthy human beings can be enhanced through a regime of healthy diet, regular exercise and relaxation and cell damage responsible for aging can be slowed down significantly for a longer life. Though this study cannot be considered adequate to arrive at a firm conclusion due to the limited number of volunteers involved, it does give an indication of future direction of endeavors attempting to push life expectancy further and increase longevity. The life style changes used in the study involved consuming for 3 months a diet high in fruits and vegetables, supplements of vitamins and fish oils, adopting an exercise regimen and stress avoidance and it was found that the blood levels of telomerase in these subjects increased by a whopping 29% compared to the levels before the study. As anti-aging foods, drugs and therapies are increasingly becoming popular amongst consumers, this line of investigations will eventually bring about commercially viable technologies based on the telomerase system. Already the Swiss pharma giant Roche has the license to make a unique kit for testing for hard-to-detect cancers like bladder cancer through the telomerase enzyme assay in urine.

The larger question is whether human beings, when they are in the prime of their life, will ever pay attention to the fact that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, when they can afford, will be the biggest investment which will bring returns in later years in the form of longevity and freedom from some of the debilitating diseases that confront the society. It is unfortunate that wisdom dawns only at the old age when it is too late to recover from the past sins of over eating, sedentary living and stressful daily chores.


Thursday, October 23, 2008


Synthetic plastic materials, most of them derived from petroleum by-products, are widely used for handling of foods whether for packing, storing, cooking or equipment fabrication. Since they are made using a number of organic and inorganic ingredients, many of them with harmful effects at higher concentrations, their safety for food contact applications is of paramount importance. In India the BIS specifications for food grade plastics are mandatory to be followed by the fabricators/converters and there are well defined testing procedures to assess the suitability of these man made materials by food industry and the consumers. Global migration tests using simulating solvent systems like water, acetic acid, alcohol and heptane at different temperatures and concentrations provide vital data based on which the suitability of different plastic materials is determined.
The safety of the plastics is premised on the basis of a positive list of chemicals that are allowed in plastics and combined with the limits of migration specified, plastics are cleared for food contact applications. Specific migration limits are also set for monomers like vinyl chloride, styrene, acrylonitrile, caprolactum etc from which polymers are manufactured. Migration of color into the simulating solvents also is taken into consideration. How far this testing methods are realistic for Indian products is a moot question as these have been designed in western countries for assessing their foods. Probably they may be the best bet under the prevailing conditions in absence of any worth while data specifically on Indian foods. More uncertainty is evident when India specific foods are cooked with  microwave energy where migration as well as artifacts cannot be predicted.
Bis-Phenol A (BPA) is a chemical used in the manufacture of some plastics like poly carbonates and epoxy resins, a coating material for Aluminum and Steel cans to prevent surface reaction with the food contents. Polycarbonate has excellent clarity and transparency, almost resembling glass and was being manufactured by a small company in Canada for making laboratory wares like burrets, pippets, beakers etc. Over the years it became the most preferred plastic for making feeding bottles for infants. It was recently that traces of BPA were detected in the milk in such bottles. FDA of USA admits that small quantities are leached out into the food or milk when the polycarbonate feeding bottles are used but claims that at the concentration detected it is not dangerous. However National Toxicology Program, the Federal Agency for Toxicological Research categorically claims that BPA can adversely affect the brain development and behavior of fetuses and children. Further Yale School of Medicine showed BPA causing loss of connection between brain cells leading to memory loss, learning problems and depression in children. In rats BPA caused tumors, urinary tract problem and early puberty. Most recent studies have linked BPA to diabetes, heart disease and liver abnormalities in adults.
While alternative and safer materials will emerge eventually in place of poly carbonates for feeding bottles, the can industry finds itself in a blind to replace epoxy resins containing BPA. Tritan copolyester is now being suggested as an alternative which does not need BPA. The larger question is what ever has happened to millions of infants fed in poly carbonate bottles during the last few years who must be in the age group between 1 and 15 years by now? Probably one may never know.   


Before the advent of modern industrialized society, man must have been much more happier than to day as the maxim goes "ignorance is bliss"! The science of health, nutrition and food has thrown up massive information and newer knowledge about the intimate connection amongst the three branches and it is debatable whether this has made man happier. The pundits do not feel tired blaring out what is good and bad for you though they never have unanimity, often contradicting each other. If one goes by the current perception, what is left behind after castigating all known foods in one way or the other, for the man to derive his 2000 calories, 50g each of proteins and fats and carbohydrates that is needed to sustain the life?. Too much protein is not good, fats are to be strictly moderated, high carbohydrates are to be avoided, sugar consumption is dangerous and salt is white poison, all being propagated by knowledgeable as well as not-so-much knowledgeable pundits. The only things left are grass and some fish which have not yet been implicated in any health disorders so far!
Salt, which is chemically Sodium Chloride (NaCl), is an essential nutrient and without it in the body, life can be extinguished within 48 hours. It helps to maintain right balance of fluids necessary for homeostasis, aids transmission of nerve impulses and influences contraction and relaxation of muscles. Kidneys have the vital function to regulate the sodium content (Na) in the blood by retaining it when there is a shortage and excreting it through urine under excess conditions. If kidneys cannot eliminate enough Na, it starts to accumulate in the blood. Since Na attracts water, blood volume increases putting a strain on the heart in pumping the blood and consequently increasing the pressure on the arteries. High blood pressure in turn can damage kidneys. Ideally, the optimum Na concentration in blood should be 135-145 mEq/l. High levels of Na can cause hypernatremia when blood pressure increases abnormally. Low levels less than 135 mEq/l leads to hyponatremia, causing muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and eventually shock, coma and death. Of course this happens only with acute gastroenteritis or severe sweating or water intoxication.
There is no universal agreement on optimum salt intake in a diet amongst experts. Average Indian consumes about 10g of salt daily, equivalent to about 4000 mg of Na while ICMR recommendation is only 4g. But some reports put the figure as high as 12kg per year. In contrast an American consumes 5000 mg Na though American Heart Association recommends a daily intake of only 2400 mg of Na. There are experts who feel that just 500 mg Na is sufficient for vital body functions though there are also contrary views that high salt consumption is good for longevity, especially if more than 800 mg Calcium is also taken through the diet. USA, Canada, Australia, UK and Portugal have 2400 mg Na as safe limit, while the Netherlands with 3600 mg of Na per day, Belgium with 3500 mg, Germany with 4000mg and Sweden with 800mg have different standards. In a typical diet in rich countries 10% of of total Na ingested comes from natural foods, 15% from added salt and 75% from processed/packed foods. Probably in India also this may be true since consumption of namkins (snacks and savories) is very high amongst Indian population.
Many doctors feel reducing daily salt consumption by 3 g could result in a 20% reduction in mortality due to strokes and controlling the salt intake by restricting its level in the diet at 5-6g or a teaspoon a day can be highly beneficial to every body in the long run. Salt substitutes are mostly based on Potassium Chloride, presumably due to the ability of the human body to manage this salt better but those affected by kidney diseases, too much Potassium can also be risky. Recent development of taste boosters that enable dramatic reduction of salt in foods without affecting the taste, may yet be the ultimate answer for controlling the salt dependent epidemic like blood pressure with least pain.
As of now it is advisable to control salt intake if the recent findings of American Society of Hypertension are taken seriously. The essence of the finding is that lower the salt intake lower will be the blood pressure without any adverse effect on other systems in the body. Being a well organized study, the above guideline can be followed till any contrary reports supported by scientific data appear on the horizon.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Codex Alimentarius in Latin means food code which has its origin in 1873 in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which had evolved it as a specific set of guidelines by which the courts could rule on cases dealing with food. The code was effectively implemented till the fall of the Empire in 1918. It was in 1962 this was revived under the UNO and Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was created with two third funding coming from World Health Organization (WHO) and the rest shared by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). CAC standards cover all raw, semi processed and fully processed foods and over 200 food standards have been codified so far. It also covers food labeling, food hygiene, food additives, pesticide residues and procedures for safety assessment. Guidelines for import, export and certification system are also laid down for universal adoption. In its first 20 years of existence CAC compiled hundreds of definitions of food stuffs and additives in 120 member countries.
Though harmonization of all national standards with those of CAC is a desirable development for a smooth global trade regime, there are many criticisms against this body for being pro- industry and pro-rich countries, ignoring the realities that exist in many less developed countries. Most controversial issue now being discussed is about fortification of foods with vitamin and food supplements which some consider as drugs while many others feel they are part of foods requiring no separate treatment. Pharmaceutical industry with many multinational giants leading the pack seems to have great influence on CAC on this issue and with rich nations on their side the outcome of CAC can be disadvantageous to the poorer countries. There are grave allegations that some of the critics of CAC like South Africa, Swaziland, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Cameroon, Sudan, Nigeria etc are finding it difficult o attend CAC meetings, presently being chaired by USA. A lopsided agenda and any system of global quality and safety standards not based on consensus cannot be forced on the world by a few powerful countries to maintain their monopoly on trading in foods.
There are grave apprehensions that if some of the CAC standards become mandatory, as being proposed by December 31, 2009 under WTO, the trade interests of many countries may be adversely affected. To day WTO is using CAC standards for dispute resolution as international reference standards. If exporting countries do not follow mandatory CAC standards, WTO has the power to impose sanctions against them which will have debilitating effect on global trade. Is the world moving towards a regime where every food including water will be controlled by Codex and the maxim that he who controls food will control the entire world will be a reality?
As for India the repercussions for its exports can be catastrophic if we lower our guards against unjust technical barriers which should be fought tooth and nail at the appropriate forums. Effective technical interventions are possible only if the country takes up this challenge by creating a brain trust consisting of top experts experienced in food related technical matters to provide the necessary inputs to fight attempts by the dominating nations, that try to control CAC.        

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


The Kyoto Protocol, aimed at reducing green gas emissions to arrest the fast deteriorating climate changes, might not be popular with some countries which find it difficult to moderate the lives of their citizens through cutting down on fossil fuel use and ostentatious style of consumption. But world in general seems to be grasping the significance of such measures as switching over to alternate renewable energy sources and countries like Norway are taking up the leadership in this noble endeavor. To day energy is being generated from diverse sources such as Sun, Wind, Atoms, Ocean Waves and the Earth.

Solar energy was touted as the best alternate option because it is the cleanest energy with unlimited potential that can be obtained easily from solar radiation through photovoltaic cells. However the investment per kilowatt of energy captured from the sun is exorbitant, making it difficult to promote on a large scale. Even in the house holds the initial cost works out to more than Rs 3 lakh per kw energy generated and it can never compete favorably with inverters which can be installed at less than Rs 25000 per kw power. Probably heavy subsidization and other economic incentives combined with uncontrollable escalation of the cost of fossil fuels may still rescue solar power from oblivion. Scarcity and unpredictability of power from hydroelectric sources and other conventional power plants will also compel large players to turn to solar power and capitalize the initial cost of building such power packs in newer facilities.

Wind mills are increasingly becoming part of the landscape in many countries including India, China, Germany, Norway, USA etc but here again the initial cost is considered very high and unaffordable for the industry. Governments can think of investing in such power plants for supplementing the grid power, the high generation cost being evened out by the low cost conventional power. Similarly Wave energy now being made technologically feasible may yet emerge as a serious contender as a future source if the initial capital cost comes down significantly. Geothermal energy using heat sinks is being tried out in a limited way to augment domestic power needs and the possibility of further technological break-through to reduce the cost and develop larger versions cannot be ruled out. Nuclear energy is a class by itself and is a zero polluting industry though disposal of waste fuel still poses enormous environmental problems.

The dramatic growth of the green energy sector is reflected by the fact that there are to day about 400 fabricators of power plants based on renewable sources with no environmental hazards, doing business worth $300 billion which is considered bigger than the IT and Bio tech industry put together. From 160 manufacturers in 2004 and 300 in 2007, the present scenario is reassuring and the growth is expected to be phenomenal in the coming years. While majors like L & T, Suzlon, Vestas will redouble their efforts to promote green energy in a big way, many small start up companies will find sufficient space for snatching a piece of cake through innovative and cost effective services.

Considering that food and beverage industry is one of the major CO2 emitting culprits right from production through processing, packing, storage, distribution and retailing, it is time that conscious efforts are made to cut down use of fossil fuels drastically by tapping alternate sources of power in a big way. It is ridiculous that on an average food industry invests 10 kC energy at various stages till consumption to get less than 2 kC of biologically usable energy! Why not assess future food projects more critically in terms of energy consumption, qualitatively and quantitatively and extend initiatives to those with most favorable ratings? In all the proposed Mega Food Parks a larger proportion of power must be generated from alternate sources limiting fossil fuel to absolute minimum. Through policy initiatives, all existing food industry must be given financial incentives to establish power packs based on non-conventional sources over a period of time.


Monday, October 20, 2008


In to day's world the consumer is constantly being bombarded by the government, industry, marketeers, retailers, consumer activists, news media and scientific community with tons of information and advice, many of them often conflicting putting him in real danger of losing his balance in taking right eating decisions. There are Recommended Dietary Allowances(RDA) based on which governments try to protect the consumers through national policies and various intervention modes besides ensuring safety of foods that emanate from the farms and processing industry. The aggressive salt restriction policy in UK and other countries is a classical example as to how governments try to induce changes in the diets for the sake of protecting consumers from diseases such as hypertension. The policy initiatives in California to ban setting up of fast food joints near some residential areas are meant to arrest the trend of growing obesity attributed to the fast foods rich in fats including trans fats.

With food sourcing from different parts of the world becoming a norm for the processing industry, accountability for quality and safety is becoming increasingly complicated and this has led a country like USA to insist on including information about the "country of origin" on the label with the hope that consumers will pick and choose products from countries with established safety credentials and thus indirectly put pressure on exporting countries to tighten their regulatory regimes over a period of time to face competition. Green food/organic food movements also originated precisely to help consumers to pick up absolutely safe foods though how far practical it is if the entire world's food needs are to be met through this mode, remains to be seen. Even after two decades since the trend became discernible, the share of organic foods is less than 2% of the marketed foods.

Local produce movement started in USA wants preference to be given to locally grown food produce by the retailers, the presumption being that they are free from chemicals and less CO2 is emitted by the operations like growing, cleaning, packing, storing and distribution. The protagonists of this approach also seem to believe that locally grown produce is more reliable and dependable as the farms are nearby and consumers can also feel being a part of the farming community approachable easily from the marketing centers. The fact that the retailing giant Wall-marts is investing $400 million for a program to procure and stock local produce in some of their outlets, has given some respectability to the concept of local produce consumption. It is not clear whether the movement is driven by a genuine aspiration by the consumers for more fresh foods, made possible by minimum lapse of time between harvesting and putting on the market shelves or by social awareness about carbon prints with local produce scoring over produce grown at far away places. It also has a built in bias against imported food produce and if the movement gains momentum, the repercussions on the international trade in foods can be very significant. Globalization will have very little meaning if such sentiments become prevalent posing another trade barrier against the developing countries.

A crucial question is whether this movement is sustainable in the long term and how the logistics of growing near urban consumption centers can be managed. What will happen to the enormous investments that have gone into creating infrastructure for transportation of perishables by air, road, rail and ships world over? Probably it will turn out to be an Utopian dream with no chance of success beyond a few pockets here and there.


Sunday, October 19, 2008


How can one explain the reality to day that the global food grain yield grew by 4% while the food prices registered a staggering 22%?. The 2007 food grain production of 2.3 billion tons, mathematically speaking must satisfy the needs of the current world population and hunger should not be as critical as being experienced at present. The classical demand-supply nexus should have brought down the prices instead of showing dramatic upward swing!

According the World Bank Report of September 2, 2008, 3.14 billion people lived in 2005 with less than $ 2.50 a day of which 44% had less than $ 1.25 income per day. A larger question is whether these statistics tell the real story or it is making hunger a sensational news. When one talks about average values, there are many who may be getting much less than this amount and unless a stratification of income at different levels is done a clear picture of the extent of real destitute that live in this world cannot be correctly estimated. The value of $ 1.25 is not too low to be decried and in terms of rupees it can fetch about Rs 70 which can definitely buy foods that will keep the body and soul together. Even at to day's costs 400g of Ragi or wheat or any other grain, 200 ml of milk, 50g of dal, 200g of vegetables and 30g of oil can be purchased at Rs 20-24, at least in India. Of course this needs to be cooked before consumption for which fuel and a roof over the head are required. Expenditure on clothing and other needs also will cost money. The per capita figure indicates that in a family of 2 the income becomes Rs 140 which is not a small amount to be frowned upon.But all said and done hunger cannot be an issue at such income levels.

Mal nutrition is another thing which should not be confused with hunger. The World Bank report says 30000 people die every day because of mal nutrition, curable diseases and severe starvation of which 85% are children and in the last 40 years more than 300 million deaths that occurred were avoidable. One of the anomalies of wealth distribution is reflected by the fact that top 10% of the world own 84% of wealth while bottom half of the population barely owns 1% of the wealth. It may not be correct to point an accusing finger to more than 1000 billionaires who straddle this world as most of them became what they are to day due to their enterprising and intense efforts, though opportunities must have played a key role. The question for which a ready answer cannot be found is how such a situation can be handled globally and how such distortions set right? The millennium goals, more talked about than acted upon, give some hope as the rich nations pledged economic help to their poor counterparts. The world must change the philosophy of gifting food grains to poor countries and instead concentrate on building infrastructure and technological foundation for agriculture which only can bring about changes in the global environment and ensure social equity.

Coming back to the food grain prices, can one blame the operation of the commodity futures system for such distortions as was claimed in the recent dramatic spike in crude oil prices? More than $ 175 billion is invested in commodity futures and such a staggering flow of money may bring in price instability making mockery of any planning. Added to this, the stubborn stand of USA and Europe in stopping the current practice of doling out huge subsidies to their super rich farmers also contribute to unstable prices in the global food grain trading. It is time WTO and FAO give serious considerations as to how hunger, if it is really a serious problem as is being made out,can be banished from the face of this planet within a time frame through sustained cooperation between the rich and the poor and save humanity from self destruction.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008


There was a time when consumers used to depend on the neighborhood grocery shops for ensuring supply of dependable quality of food but the emphasis was on trust and transparent communication between them with heavy emphasis on reasonableness of the price and unwritten guarantee of overall quality of items supplied by the grocer with a proviso to return if not satisfied. With the advent of modern retailing where the buying environment has lot of ambiance and consumer has the power to pick and choose whatever he likes, the sales personnel becoming highly impersonal and ignorant about the details of products displayed, there is a heavy dependence on the labels on the packages which for many are 'Greek and Latin' making little sense! Of course the super markets are supposed to create an image that would attract the customers repeatedly through ' quality and dependability'. Under Indian conditions this is not found to be happening with the customer being herded to buy only selected brands or the in-house brands which are on the shelves. It is here that consumers need a reliable tool to discriminate between products based on price, quality and the nutritional value of the products offered by the retailer.
Consumer awareness about nutrition is rather foggy with many misconceptions prevailing amongst common man especially regarding processed foods and only an authentic nutrition based guide can help him to buy products with highest nutritional quality. How can this be done when subject of nutrition is a complex one defying simplistic interpretation? Thanks to the innovative approach by Yale University in USA a new 'algorithm' has been developed to generate a simple summative score for the overall nutritional quality of a food based on its micro nutrient and macro nutrient composition and several other nutritional properties. The spark for evolving such a tool came from the Department of Health of US government, National Institute of Health and 15 academic centers in 2003 to counteract the deteriorating health scenario amongst its population and improve dietary intake pattern with emphasis on curtailing spread of obesity. The Griffith Hospital of Yale University started the project in late 2005 and a working version for Overall Nutritional Quality Index(ONQI) was made available for more than 1000 foods being retailed in that country. Most of the major food retailing chains are expected to introduce ONQI during this year across USA.
ONQI is designed to grade the foods on a scale of 1-100 giving a definitive ranking to each food and thus indicate the relative nutritional quality of foods across all food category or within specific food categories like bread, cereals, frozen desserts etc. It is bound to have applications at point of purchase in retail super markets, on food packaging, in restaurants, in print materials and on-line. On this scale items like mustard greens, raw broccoli, orange, fresh strawberries, raw spinach and several others, mostly fresh, will have a score of 100. The ONQI score goes down with processing to varying extent depending on the contents of natural components. While fresh orange enjoys a score of 100. orange juice slides down on the scale to just 39. 1% fat milk hos a score of 81.
Though no scheme can be 100% perfect, the ONQI is a welcome beginning for bringing some relief to the much harried consumer, especially those with least awareness about food and its nutritional implications.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


How about handing over your land to some body for cultivation for a consideration though you are starving because of shortage of food and your inability to buy the minimum food required to keep body and soul together? If the leasing is for a limited period, lease amounts are attractive and you are trained on modern farming technology, probably the deal may be worth while in the long run. The days of land tenancy and share cropping have gone long ago as far as India is concerned, at least on paper. Contract growing is becoming the norm now with large players providing some critical inputs to the growers in return for an assured price pre-negotiated. APMC Acts at the state levels are amended to allow private market yards to come up hoping that growers will get better returns under such a system besides assuring the food processors to ensure regular supply of raw materials for their manufacturing operations.

The African governments are learning that leasing land to foreign companies can be beneficial in many ways though in the short term they face starvation situation with no financial or technological means to raise agricultural productivity. Ethically it may be wrong for any country to allow foreign companies to use their land to raise economic crops for export to the global markets while a segment of the population is starving for want of foods and many of them surviving on donated foods from out side. Africa is invariably described as the epicenter of malnutrition and under nutrition and the exhausted land devoid of nutrients due to years of cultivation without replenishment is just not able to produce enough to feed the growing population.

As is said aptly, hunger is a life and death question for starving population but a golden opportunity to make money for those having the wherewithal to invest. History is replete with instances when rich nations from other continents stripped Africa of its gold and diamonds for generations, then its oil and rubber and even people were imported from Africa as slaves to do menial work under bondage. Now comes the new development where the vast land, some highly fertile, in Africa is being walloped by some of the richest countries on earth for raising food crops using the cheap labor so easily available there to meet the food needs of the people of those countries. Sudan and Saudi Arabia are striking a deal worth $ 95 million to lease out 25000 acres near Nile River, north of the capital Khartoum. UAE is going for 70000 acres of land in Sudan, south of Khartoum. Sudan seems to be the leader in this new game as it has already leased out more than 2 million acres to foreign investors since June 2008. Qatar investors are using Sudan for fattening sheep for export back to their country. Egypt and Ethiopia are offering agricultural land to prospective foreign investors to earn foreign exchange. Kuwait is reported to be eying South Asia as possible destination for investment in agriculture. Pakistan is supposed to be in line to get $500 million for similar deals. Libya, not to be left behind, is planning to get land in Ukraine

To their defense it can be said that the money earned by leasing land, if properly utilized to feed those facing starvation, strengthening technological base and building infrastructure, can go ma long way to bring these countries out of poverty and destitution. The deals will have to be fashioned in such a way that at the end of the lease period there should be self sufficiency as far as agricultural technology is concerned. Other wise it can end up as a mockery of the fundamental rights of the unfortunate people who inhabit this hapless continent.and whose land is mortgaged for the benefit of a few at the helm of affairs. Can an international agency like FAO or WTO step in to help these countries to negotiate with prospective investors on an equitable basis? Other wise such developments will only lead to restoration of colonialism of yesteryears in some form with all its accompanying consequences.

Friday, October 10, 2008


The term 'small' is not referring to the scale of operation. Neither it is about the turnover of the business. The focus here is to the pack size that is becoming smaller and smaller every day as the business finds it much more profitable to introduce single use packs instead of larger packs in the retail market. To day, go to any small vendor in your town and you will be greeted by a plethora of products hanging in front of the shop with the shop owner literally trying to peer through the maze of hanging packets to attend to your needs. This trend first introduced by tobacco products like pan parag, gutka etc has taken root in the country and other industries are following this trend mainly to expand their consumer base. One of the major reasons for down sizing the pack size is to offer the products at rates varying from Re 1 to Rs 10 and thereby enticing the low income consumers to buy them with their limited purchasing power. According to market pundits this strategy also serves to meet the aspirational goals of economically weaker populations by making such products affordable to them. It is amazing how 'one- time' use products are to day in the market in foods, candies, biscuits, cosmetics, spices, pickles, personal hygiene products, beverages etc at prices as low as 50 paise to a more decent Rs five per packet.

What are the logic and logistics in such a strategy? Why it has taken such a long time for the industry to embrace this concept? Is it unique to India or such 'innovative' marketing practices exist in other countries also? Is it a consumer friendly practice? All these questions must have been considered by the management Gurus who are constantly working for the business to maximize the profit through physical as well as psychological techniques.

There was a time in India when packaging cost accounted for almost 40% of the consumer price due to heavy imposts of taxes by the government and the consequent cascading effect. But over the years the packaging material costs to the industry dropped dramatically while improved technology helped to effectively reduce the quantity of packing materials used in a pack significantly, without adversely affecting their functional performance. Packing equipment capacity and cost also came down to affordable levels, due to small fabricators taking up their manufacture and FFS machines costing less than a lakh of rupees became a reality, making small size packing a viable operation. The classical concept of lowering of prices per unit as the pack size increases still holds true to day though the difference might not be high but still small sized packing configurations do generate more profits besides increasing the volume of business. Consumer may find it difficult to calculate the economic impact of such practices since declaration of unit prize on the label is not mandatory in India.

The current international trend seems to be to reduce the content size to cope up with the rising cost of manufacture due to all round inflation and increased fuel costs. Big players like Krafts invested in package re-design without decreasing the content and maintaining the price line, so that their profitability is maintained through savings in input costs. Many others are subtly reducing the contents without the consumer perceiving about it to protect their margins. Such examples include Tropicana's orange juice pack changing the volume from from 96 ounce(oz) to 89 oz, Kellogg reducing the contents of its breakfast packets from 19-24.3 oz to 18-24 oz, Unilever packing 1.7 oz less in Breyers ice-cream packs, Peanut butter packs bringing down the contents from 18 oz to 16.3 oz or 32 oz to 30 oz while prices are kept same levels. On an average 10% of the products in the market change their packing configurations primarily to reduce the contents without appearing to do so, giving the impression that prices are not increased to keep with rising input costs. Though it may sound unethical, industry considers it a painless process for the consumers as the marginal reduction in the contents may be less painful than paying a higher price.


Thursday, October 9, 2008


In the 2008 Farm Bill, the US Government included a measure that mandates the retailers to declare prominently on the label of some of the food materials the name of the country from where these have been procured. The items covered include meat, chicken, poultry, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, ginseng, macadamia nuts, pecans and peanuts. One fails to understand the logic of this law especially in a world trade regime supposed to be working with no trade barriers. If the imports of food products into USA are governed by strict protocols of quality and safety, why should there be another barrier such as this which will penalize exports from many countries in Asia and Africa in the form of consumer discrimination as these countries cannot compete with US products even if the quality and safety standards are same. The in-built prejudice in the minds of consumers against developing countries is based on the surmise that they are technically inferior to USA in terms of maintaining cleanliness and ensuring freedom from disease causing vectors.

The move in USA will hit badly Indian processors who make products under contract for US retailers under third party labeling and this will tell on the export of the products covered under the new labeling law. With more and more intrusive regimes and protocols like ISO, Organic Food Certification systems and SAP management being used these days in many food processing units, it is not justifiable to insist on declaring the country of origin in the label which has adverse implications on the trade portfolios of many countries. Already the hope for a universally acceptable barrier free trade regime, being negotiated under WTO is fading and the developing countries will have to evolve new strategies to counter such trends in putting unnecessary road blocks for unhindered trade in foods under one pretext or the other. Even in India, the consumer if given a choice, may naturally opt for a 'Made in USA' labeled product in preference to the desi one provided the there is no undue price distortion.

One of the reasons for the above move could be frequent incidences of food poisoning and epidemics reported in many developing countries which have created an image of unreliable safety regimes operating in such countries. Again what justification is there to treat a good processor in India, run by an American company, using American technology and using resources raised as per American standards differently and be categorized as 'Made in India' ? What is the meaning of calling the world a global village if such discriminatory practices are followed by rich nations depriving the poor countries of their export earnings? Is this practice an exercise to flex the muscles of rich nations through their superiority in technology and infrastructure built during colonial days? What is wrong if a country like India demands abolition of the obnoxious and obscene practice of agricultural subsidies to rich grower families, widely prevalent in USA and Europe for obtaining a level playing ground?

The claim that such labeling would help tracing future food safety problems is hollow because even other wise it could fix responsibility on the exporter and the importer having recognizable identities. Even within USA, the recent Salmonella and E.Coli poisoning episodes remain unresolved in spite of their enormous expertise, experience and infrastructure, proving how futile it is to pretend that other countries are inferior and irresponsible in food safety related matters. In stead of declaring on the label, the onus should have been on the importers to keep documentation regarding the origin of the food and it would be his responsibility to provide information regarding the source of imports for taking action whenever necessary. This is a typical example of the so called 'Technical Barrier to Trade' (TBT), the WTO is supposed to eradicate and protect the interests of developing countries!


Wednesday, October 8, 2008


World consumes 300 million tons of paper annually, all coming from the green forests straddling the world and about 30 million forest acres are lost per year for satisfying this ever increasing hunger for paper. Imagine 2-4 tons of trees are required to produce a ton of paper and 40% of the trees felled end up in the paper mills to make papers and boards to meet the needs from different sectors. Each ton of paper produced generates 20 kg of water borne waste, 75 kg of solid waste, requires 30000 liters of water and 25 million BTU energy besides emitting 100 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Per capita consumption of paper is generally proportional to the income levels of the population and higher the income more will be the consumption. While in USA the paper consumption is very high estimated at 350 kg per capita per year, in India and China combined with a population of more than 2.5 billion the corresponding figure is just 27 kg. Fortunately Indians do not come any where near the toppers in this category of 'performers' as an average citizen consumes hardly 6.4 kg of paper per year which is good considering that the forests are not denuded at least for making papers though the pull from the fuel sector is high especially by human settlements near the forests. What is alarming is that the paper consumption is expected to double from the present level of 7 million tons by the year 2015 demanding more and more clearance of the green cover, affecting the global weather adversely. World-wide the paper consumption increased six fold during the last 50 years. Is there any way mankind can save itself by stopping the indiscriminate felling of trees for paper?
Many alternate sources have been suggested from time to time to save trees and papers from kenaf, bamboo, hemp are all considered suitable but how far such alternatives will be practical remains to be seen. Recycling of used paper does provide some relief but the progressive reduction in the strength of recycled paper and limitations of quality achievable pose some problems in universal adoption of recycling. Depending on the country, extent of recycling may vary from nil in some countries to as high as 52% in the US.
If the claims by a Chicago company, the GPA, reputed for its paper products globally, are real, time is not too far away when treeless paper will emerge as a suitable and desirable alternative to the conventional paper. As the technology has been patented, there is real hope that there could be a way out of the dilemma world is facing vis-a-vis paper. The product touted as ultra green paper, denoting non-use of organic materials like pulp fibers, is made from lime powder and calcium carbonate as the main base and small quantities of non-toxic resins and HDPE are used as binding materials. The paper so made has same quality as conventional product in terms of printability and does not require any special inks for printing. Use of HDPE imparts the quality of plastics while the product does not age or weather with time, the yellowing phenomenon being a non-issue. The product is supposed to be resistant to sunlight, scuffing, water, grease and oils with no risk of decomposing, especially by microbial action. Added to this FDA is reported to have given clearance for its use in food contact applications making it a good packaging materials for a number of food products. Cost-wise it is expected o be 30-40% cheaper than conventional paper but one will know the truth only when commercial production starts and the product is in the market.
One critical issue is whether Mother Earth has so much lime deposits and enough Calcium carbonate can be generated to meet the demand from the paper sector when the possibility of treeless paper becomes a reality.

Friday, October 3, 2008


Indians, 1.1 billion in number, are yearning for international glory through trail blazing achievements, be in sports or science or any other fields where giants like USA, China, Russia and EU have established near monopoly. Nobel Prize is one award the scientific community considers as the ultimate reward for high quality research and development. Probably this coveted award may yet come to India if some of the recent scientific endeavors confirm what is claimed to have been achieved as reported in the media.
Food has always been cited as the major culprit in many epidemic health disorders like myocardial infarction, type II diabetes, hyper tension and even some types of cancers. Almost like an astrological prediction, the findings by a group of scientists in Hyderabad, claim that 5% of Indians are susceptible to die out of cardiac arrest between the age of 45 and 60 years, not because of their fault but due to the genes they inherited from their parents. More painful is the possibility that one can predict one's own death by just analyzing a particular gene and currently there is no way to stop the catastrophic event through any known medical intervention. It is not much of a relief to know that food is not the culprit in such types of cardiac failures
According to the scientists of the only 5-star R & D Laboratory in the country, Centre for Chemical and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad depending on whether the embryo inherits homozygous or heterozygous chromosomes,the fate of the offspring born will be decided. Their findings that missing of a part of a particular gene, the myosin-binding protein C3 (myBPC3) is responsible for 45% of cardiac arrests reported in India, could revolutionize the understanding about this phenomenon and gear up for potential palliative measures. This defective gene causes formation of disorganized cardiac muscles eventually leading to cardiac arrests over a period of time. More alarming is the finding that 5% of Indian population suffer from this type of gene deficiency, with more concentration in southern India. If the embryo inherits such defective genes through the chromosomes from both the parents, called homozygous conditions, the offspring cannot be expected to survive the birth. But if one of the parents only has the defective gene which is passed on to the offspring, causing the heterozygous condition, the life expectancy is in the 45-60 years range, death occurring suddenly due to unpredictable cardiac arrest.   
Though there is no way one can prevent such deaths, even if the genomic study reveals the danger, the ever expanding knowledge about genetics and molecular biology may eventually find out a solution to this historical tragedy. The current hope is that if the gene defect is diagnosed at the fetus level, the parents have the choice of abortion in case of homozygous situation and if heterozygous condition is detected, the chord blood can be saved at birth for use in gene therapy to extend the life beyond 60 years, as and when such treatments become reliable in future. A social consequence of this startling discovery is the possibility of brides and bridegrooms in future asking for gene profiling to see whether they have the defective myBPC3 genes in them before agreeing for marriage and whether an HIV epidemic like situation is going to emerge where people with this particular defective gene are shunned by the society.  
If the above trail blazing research is truly original, the scientists deserve full credits and a Nobel Prize may not be too high a 'Prize' for this stellar achievement. The only lingering reservation is whether what has been reported is a replication of studies conducted with other populations else where in the world with research tools being same but subjects different. Even if this is a replicated study, as far as India is concerned the findings have sterling value and still deserves applause. 


One common component in all the three stimulant beverage crops is caffeine which is present in different levels in the final product. While coffee and tea are consumed with or without milk, cocoa is invariably an adjunct to milk giving fine aroma, color and taste. Besides cocoa also is consumed after processing it into different types of chocolates by making finely ground cocoa mass which is blended with ingredients like sugar, milk, dry fruits and nuts and molded. Tons of published data eulogizes the goodness and health protecting properties of  green and black tea preparations. Same is true with cocoa also. But coffee is invariably depicted as a villain, barred for consumption by children, growing adults, expectant mothers, geriatric population and others affected by one or the other health disorders. Many ill effects have been attributed to coffee consumption and most of them do not stand strict scientific scrutiny but still continue to deter potential consumers from patronizing this refreshing beverage. Despite this, in America alone, on an average, more than 200 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year and Coffee chains like Starbucks, Barista, Cafe Coffee Day and others are still doing roaring business 
If caffeine is the causative factor, as being felt by many consumers, tea should be a greater villain as its leaves contain 2-4.4% caffeine on dry weight basis whereas coffee has only 1-2% caffeine. Of course in the final beverage caffeine can vary depending on brewing conditions and the brew strength achieved. But generally brewed coffee contains 75-150 mg of caffeine per 150 ml compared to 30 to 45 mg in light tea brew. Cocoa beverage has still lower caffeine content, about 30-35 mg. However, daily intake of tea beverage by many consumers is often more than that taken by coffee connoisseurs and as such caffeine may not be considered the determining factor in deriding coffee in favor of tea.
In order to put to rest any misgivings about the imagined ill effects consequent to regular consumption of coffee an international investigational endeavor was undertaken by the Centre for Science in Public Interest, USA and the results are indeed astonishing. The reported diuretic effect of coffee was debunked as up to 550 mg of caffeine do not increase the urine out put beyond the normal limits. Heart patients and hyper tension patients for whom coffee is generally forbidden, were not found to have any adverse effect by drinking coffee in more than 4 lakh subjects tested in 10 different studies. Linking coffee drinking with pancreatic cancer, first reported in 1981 by Harvard University scientists has also been conclusively disproved. Calcium mal absorption and calcium loss from the bones in coffee drinkers, as claimed by some, are also not true. The claim that coffee can aid weight control has not been found to be true though for every 100 mg caffeine intake an extra 100 calories of energy is burned in the body.
On the positive side coffee may yet turn out to be a hero, if some of the recent reports are taken into consideration. Colo-rectal, liver and breast cancers most commonly occurring to day seem to have an inverse relationship with coffee drinking, probably due to high levels of antioxidants present in roasted coffee. The life time risks for developing these cancers are considerably reduced by increased consumption of coffee as confirmed by studies using 60,323 subjects in the age group 25-75 over a period of 19 years. This is further confirmed by a Japanese study involving 90,000 subjects. A Norwegian study reported a strong negative association between coffee drinking and non-melanoma skin cancer. Similarly there are many reports supporting the beneficial role of coffee in affording protection against Type II diabetes, the Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.  
If even a part of what has been said about the benign nature of coffee is true, it is time the unjust image of a villain, imposed on coffee is removed from the minds of one and all and more consumers start enjoying this delicious beverage without any inhibition, experiencing the ability of this 'gift of the nature' crop to enhance the mood and boost mental and physical performance. The health advantage will be a bonus!


Why is that some are known commonly as Junk foods while foods of almost same composition and sensory characteristics do not attract this negative image? The answer is, no one knows. It is believed that the term  originally used, more or less casually in 1972 by Mr Michael Jacobson of Center for Science and Public Health, got stuck and was picked up by many public interest NGOs for branding all those foods containing high sugar, fat and salt, with high visibility in the market shelves as Junk foods, ostensibly to promote consumption of more nutritious foods. The so called Junk foods, since then have been implicated as the villain in the modern day epidemics like obesity, diabetes and hyper tension amongst the population world over. It is unfair to single out some foods as junk while many others escape such a negative image. According to Websters Dictionary, junk is synonymous with rubbish, useless or worthless stuff and one can imagine the travesty of truth when some foods are branded junk ignoring their food value as edible materials.  
The pundits who propagate the concept of Junk foods use this term to describe a variety of food products, invariably high in sugar and low in nutritional value and the underlying assumption is that when these foods are consumed,  the extent of good foods containing high nutrient levels and their benefits are diluted. In this argument it is forgotten that the food industry makes these products to meet a demand already existing and by no means they can be blamed for the habits cultivated by the consumers in their own homes. No food except water can be described as without nutrition and whether it is sugar, fat or salt, all have definite roles to play in human nutrition. It is not the presence of a particular component which causes health problems but excessive consumption which causes undesirable consequences. Even 'Amrut', the heavenly elixir of Gods is considered a poison if consumed beyond a limit and same equally applies to any food also! If the logic of Junk foods is extended practically every food available in the market or public eateries has to be branded as junk food. Highly polished rice, maida devoid of fiber and germs, white sugar, hundreds of traditional fried snacks, almost all sweet meat items, the entire product range served in restaurants all end up in the 'junk' yard! 
The approach of Food Standards Agency in UK is commendable as they have created a separate category of foods under High Fat, Sugar, Salt (HFSS) group , resisting the temptation of using the populist term Junk foods and it is up to the consumer to decide whether to consume them or not depending on the individual health status. Besides HFSS branding does not discriminate based on the manufacturers as there are definite standards for foods coming under HFSS. The consumer mind is very fickle and based on improper, incomplete and illogical information undesirable impressions should not be created which is not good for either the industry or the consumers. A food is a food irrespective of what you call and whether it is good or bad for you depends your health status. A normal healthy person can eat all foods as long as it is adequate to meet the minimum RDA of the micro- and macro nutrients and with the industry putting on the label lot of information about the contents in a transparent manner, buying a food is no more the hide and seek game it used to be 2-3 decades ago. We can do without an 'apartheid' amongst foods, based on flimsy considerations.    

Thursday, October 2, 2008


India is celebrating Gandhi Jayanti to day, an occasion to recall the sacrifices this great soul made to liberate the country from colonial yolk and uphold the ideals propounded by him. Gautama Buddha and Mahavir Jain, the apostles of peace and ahimsa gave India a distinct cultural and philosophical foundation, which was put into practice by Mahatma Gandhi in the 20th century, showing the world the irrelevance of conflicts, arrogance and inhuman traits that afflict the modern society and how peace and non-violence can overcome all the ills that confront mankind. On this occasion it is worth while to consider whether the concept of non-violence can really be practiced when it comes to food production and processing.

Violent acts like slavery for enforced labor are things of the past and with ILO setting standards for labor management whether in agriculture or manufacturing, very little coercion is discernible in many parts of the world. But child labor, obviously of a forced nature, still continues in some regions in India, in spite of stringent laws on paper. In a civil society there is no place for committing atrocities by one person or a group of persons against others and gentle persuasion with patience can bring about changes in attitudes even amongst die-hard dissenters. At the same time the collective bargaining strength the unionized labor forces have should not be misused for violent actions, destruction of properties, anarchy, forceful dharnas and gheraos, harming the fellow workers and above all inconveniencing the common citizens through forceful bandhs. The recent lynching of a CEO of a multinational firm in Delhi cannot be condoned in this country of Buddha, Jain and Gandhi.

As for food technology it is a tool to convert any raw food into an edible form and to conserve the food for as long as possible for uniform availability. The debate about vegetarianism often centers around the need for killing animals while plenty of food is available in this planet and sky is the limit to increase production to meet every body's needs. Marvelous technology basket at the disposal of the mankind to day like high yielding seed materials, production enhancing methods, tissue culture, cell culture, genetic engineering and a host of others to cut down pre- and post harvest losses can ensure adequate food supply for one and all perpetually. The only hitch in converting the consumers of animal foods to shun such foods, is the ingrained habit cultivated since childhood and attachment to the unique texture and flavor provided by animal foods, whether meat, poultry or fish. The evolution of mankind is closely linked to the philosophy of survival of the fittest and man, being the most intelligent and cunning creature has had upper hand in the ladder of evolution. But in modern society, unlike the wild environments of ancient civilizations, man's future is not threatened by any other living creature except man himself !. The need for animal food therefore may not be justifiable as other alternate sources are easily available.

Contrary to the common impression prevalent to day, hardly 25% of population in India shun animal foods, remaining wanting to consume them if economic plight permits. Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and UP are dominated by vegetarian population, while in Kerala, Orissa and West Bengal 94% of the population consume animal foods. It may be difficult to convince life time consumers of animal foods to switch to complete vegetarian foods, in spite of the voluminous evidence that most animal foods tend to affect the heath adversely and production of animal foods is energy and input intensive. It takes more than 7 tons of food grains to get 1 ton of beef and cattle populations constitute one of the worst green house gas emitters polluting the environment. There are fish varieties like anchovies on the verge of exinction due to over fishing.

Animal slaughter to day is based on sound scientific principles, giving minimum discomfort to the animals though animal lovers do not concur with this claim. The stunning technology momentarily makes the animals feel practically no pain during subsequent processing. Still taking a life for satisfying an avoidable pecuniary pleasure might be conflicting with the maxim 'live and let live' which governs human behavior as far as fellow human beings are concerned. Is it possible to develop technologies that will avoid violence against animals but also will satisfy human hunger for nutritious animal foods? "In vitro meat", a new concept being touted as feasible approach to produce meat muscles in bio-reactors under controlled conditions holds some promise for future to avoid raising meat animals with all accompanying problems and the 2001 worldwide patent for a process to produce in vitro meat shows the way. At current costs it may not be economically viable but under mass production conditions the cost will come down dramatically. Of course live animals will still play a role in donating embryonic stem cells or specialized stem cells in the muscle tissues for initiating the production just like the inoculum in microbiological fermentation but they will not have to be slaughtered.

Soy protein and gluten based meat analogs marketed since last two decades still serve a purpose as poor man's meat since the cooker extrusion technology has been able to simulate the meat texture to a great extent. What is needed is further improvements in flavor to meet the taste expectations of connoisseurs of various meats like beef, mutton, pork and chicken. With millions of flavor and booster chemicals available to day the above task may be achievable within a relatively short time. Gandhi's dream of a non-violent world is still valid and the day may not be far off when man learns to respect the right for life for all creatures on earth.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Prevalence of life style disorders like diabetes, heart ailments, hypertension and others have created enormous opportunities to innovating food technologists to work for the affected population in designing and developing newly engineered food products which can bring great relief to these unfortunate consumers, helping them to lead almost normal life. Nutritionists of yesteryears deserve all kudos for unraveling the basics of human nutrition during the last century and bringing out the connections between various micro nutrients and deficiency diseases. The multi billion food supplements and pharmaceutical industries are churning out literally hundreds of products to meet the challenges posed by nutrient stress conditions and ensure human well being.
It was a remarkable transition, in many parts of the world where affluence increased the affordability factor, from a nutrient-deficit to a nutrient-plenty situation which resulted in disorders like Type II diabetes, obesity and other afflictions linked to regular consumption of improper and imbalanced foods. The exact scientific causes that are responsible for these disorders are still not completely understood. With plethora of information, often contradictory in nature, available to the consumer, what foods are ideal for different ailments remain a matter of conjecture. Prevailing confusion is exploited by many commercial organizations to make unsustainable and tall claims for their foods in maintaining good health.
Nutrigenomics is a new emerging science that offers lot of hopes to future generations in understanding what foods are best for them based on genomic studies. It is a study of molecular relationship between nutrition and the response of genes. The interaction of nutrition and genetics is found to influence the choice of foods for each individual with distinct genetic make up. A disease like Alzheimer's is widely prevalent in USA, affecting 3.1% of its population and similarly the population in Southern India is reported to be most susceptible to heart diseases, probably indicating the role of genes in manifesting such diseases. World wide the food industry brings out hundreds of specialty health products, 54.9% being heart-health foods, 25.4% for diabetes and 19.7% for bone and joint health.  
The study of the effect of nutrients on the genome, proteome and metabolme forms the core agenda of Nutrigenomics. This naturally is causing a shift in the nutrition research from epidemiology and physiology to molecular biology and genetics. Nutrigenomics seeks to describe the patterns of effects of various food components on the genes, referred to as dietary signatures. Different diets elicit different patterns of gene and protein expression and metabolic production. It also seeks to study the influence of nutrition on homeostasis.
Diet is a determined by the specific demands of an individual's genetic signature which balances the micro and macro nutrient needs of that individual. It is a fact that diet is a critical factor in chronic diseases and has been found to be responsible for a third of all cancers. Dietary chemicals change the expression of one's genes and even the genome itself. "Eat right for your genotype" may well be the slogan within a decade's time.
It is in the realm of possibility that in the not too distant future, all an individual has to do is to send his blood sample to one of the many genomic laboratories expected to be established where it will be analyzed in a mass spectro photometer for the protein make up and cross referenced to his DNA profile. The results will be the basis for a recommended diet most suited to that person. A handful of such laboratories in USA are currently providing the service for genomic profiling and advice for nutritional supplements and it costs $1500 for getting a preventive health profile.



Of course shape counts especially if you are in Karnataka, not in an aesthetic sense but for inviting the taxman to your door! It is amazing that the country is so much obsessed with taxation of the industry, both at the state and central levels that the larger and long term national interests are ignored. This culture has a chain effect, with the industry virtually coming to a stand still during the budget presentation every year, dreading the prospects of more financial burden for themselves as well as the consumers. True, excise duties are reduced or done away with for some time for some products but such action is more of a casual nature with no long lasting impacts on the price front. Repeated pleas from the industry as well as food technologists community to the governments to concede tax exemption for all food products for at least 10 years which would give sufficient time for building the processing sector into viable entity and some consolidation, have so far fallen on deaf ears. The nascent Indian food processing industry is singularly unfortunate in having administrative regimes, not responsive to the varied problems faced by them. It is not that governments do not know how to go about in supporting and boosting the business sector as reflected by the massive incentives being doled out to IT industry year after year which is responsible for the pre-eminence India enjoys to day in this field amongst the comity of nations. But some how their radar does not register other sectors like food processing for attention and action.
The provocation for this piece of critique is the tussle between TTK Healthcare and Karnataka government on Value Added Tax (VAT) to be imposed on Fryum, a dried product ready for frying and making a snack. The government appears to be aggressively fighting with the manufacturer, firm on its stand that Fryum is not like a papad but a different product because it is not 'circular', flat and thin in shape and appearance. Therefore it wants to collect 12.5% VAT, not prepared to entertain exemption under Entry 40 of the First Schedule of Karnataka Vat Act which grants tax free status to papads and similar products. Strangely the High Court concurred with the stand of the state without any technical consultation with experts which now is being challenged in the Supreme Court. It is a tragedy for a country like India that judicial system meant to bring succor to the common man is being used to burden the consumer with more taxes and higher product prices. There are millions of cases, mostly civil, pending since last two decades for which the judiciary could have paid more attention bringing relief to the litigants in stead of frittering away its energy on such silly cases. This action by the government is doubly obnoxious considering that the Apex Court had already ruled earlier in the Gold Finger product marketed by Shivsakthi company, that shape was not a criterion for interpreting taxation rules.   
Examining the case further one cannot escape from the conclusion that the state has erred in pursuing the case further expending public funds, benefiting a few lawyers and its own babus in the process. Assuming that the case is won, the tax so collected will be a peanut compared to the cost of this misadventure while consumer will have to shell out at least 12.5% more to buy the product in the market. If this trend is allowed to continue, the industry in Karnataka will have to pay a heavy price for future innovations, knowing well the attitude of the state administration. If some one produces a square, rectangular, triangular or thick papad, same fate awaits them also. In stead of hand rolled papad, if machine made papads using laminar or extrusion sheeting or pressing technology are marketed, they also will have to face the consequences. Why such a simple common sense does not percolate down the sarkari babudom is beyond comprehension. Situations like this, if allowed to continue, can create a 'Singur' syndrome as being faced by Tata's Nano car project in West Bengal leading to exodus by many of the established food companies from Karnataka.
It is time for Government of India to make a bold declaration that all foods would be exempted from all taxes for 10 years through consensus with states through a policy frame work not disturbed by succeeding governments in future. Redemption of Indian food sector is assured only if such a change in mindset takes place. No glossy reports, no mega parks, no SEZs, no cash dole outs, no platitudes, no back slapping, no incentive schemes and no platform declarations can do what a long term tax exemption policy can achieve within a short period.



It may appear ludicrous to look at the sea as a source of renewable energy as it is associated more with Tsunami and frolicking beaches. Sea is also the ultimate resting place for many big rivers as well as final destination of industrial and domestic effluents, treated or not. The faster melting of polar ice burgs due to global warming is predicted to cause a rise in the sea level significantly submerging many coastal areas permanently shrinking overall the land mass in not too distant future. Some geologists even predict submerging of many coastal towns in India by 2020!  Doomsday predictions apart, the vast coast line in India can still be 'farmed' for energy harvesting to supplement the power needs of the country by systematic investments.
Portugal is considered the leader in harnessing energy from the sea and its first commercial scale wave power station is expected to go on stream soon. Sufficient electricity is anticipated to be generated, adequate for 1000 homes. The technology is simple converting the wave motion into electricity. Companies like Pelamis of Scotland are offering 2.25 MW plants with three generators each, sufficient for 1500 homes. 25 such plants can generate 21 MW of power which conventionally, if fossil fuel is used, would have caused emission of 60000 tons of CO2, the most dangerous green house gas responsible for adverse climatic changes being felt now. The plant in Agucadoura in northern Portugal consists of 140 meters of plastic tubes with 3.5 meter diameter floating 3 miles from the coast with 3 cylindrical wave energy converters made up of 700 tons of carbon steel  The wave motions produce electricity through a 'hinges and hydraulic ram' system which is fed into a sub station on the land, through underwater cables and integrated with the power grid. Portuguese is planning to raise the share of power from renewable energy sources from 20% currently to 60% by 2020. Though government is subsidizing the program by assured buying of the power for the national grid @ 25 cents per kWh, it is a worth while long term investment considering the multifaceted advantages inherent in this visionary effort.
The potential for wave energy in India is very high considering that it has a coastal area of 7517 km and 1197 islands, most of then uninhabited. Locating the wave generators at regular intervals on the coast, avoiding big ports and harbors and major fishing centers can produce sufficient energy to meet the needs of millions of house holds at least near the coastal areas with minimum investments on distribution. There can even be SEZs and food parks with lower power requirements that can be located in coastal areas as they can capitalize the investments  on wave energy projects and meet a major part of their power needs from the sea nearby.  


Alcohol consumption is increasingly becoming popular in the country, in spite of these products being highly taxed in the hands of the governments. The ostensible reason for high taxes is attributed to governments 'desire' to curb consumption as it is considered a social evil as far as poor people are concerned and many deaths occurring with sickening regularity in different parts of the country due to consumption of illicit brooch, often unsafe and adulterated, due to the mismatch in the prices of 'lawful' liquor and its 'under ground' cousin. In contrast drinking amongst rich and the influential is considered fashionable and imperative for social networking and business promotion. One of the most flourishing industries in the country is liquor business monopolized by political and well connected classes who have the knack and wherewithal to wangle out lucrative licenses for operating liquor outlets like bars, parlors etc from the government. Of course alcohol in moderate quantities have positive effect on the health while over doses can damage the liver, especially when the consumers are nutrition stressed.

The lure for alcohol drives the industry to greater heights and most of the global liquor making and marketing giants have successful operations in India. The Indian liquor Barron Vijay Mallya is one of world's most successful industrialists who has used his financial clout to diversify into other areas like civil aviation with remarkable success. The present thinking to de-license vending of beers and wines will see further boost to this industry in the coming years. The relatively low per capita consumption of alcohol in the country at present offers further opportunities to the industry to look for dramatic growth ahead. India ranks 150th in per capita alcohol consumption with about 0.86 liter per year while Uganda tops the list with 19 liters!

There is a widespread impression that in order to be successful in business, alcohol has an inevitable role. Also being said is that drinking buddies have greater and stronger kinship. Business and other deals are more easily sealed over pegs of this inebriating drink, is also a prevalent view amongst the layman. But contrary to this impression is the revelation of a survey conducted by Assocham, the eminent body of business people, which
brought out the fact that majority of employers prefer to recruit teetotalers for their organizations. They feel that teetotalers are generally more efficient and productive while intake of alcoholic beverages adversely affect the efficiency, productivity and punctuality. Teetotalers of both sexes are highly prolific, creative and fastidious in work, achieving the targets set for them but they do not have the necessary rapport to strike business deals. Probably teetotalers who enter a company climbs the ladder with tremendous work out put and at a certain stage there could be transformation as responsible senior management professionals into alcohol-tolerant, though not necessarily alcohol-loving, go getter for the sake of the company. What is missing from the data is how many CEOs, with high business performances at stake, are teetotalers; probably very few!

Spirituality, the very anti-thesis of alcohol culture involves a whole series of activities centering around controlling of the mind to attain greater performance levels through practices like yoga, meditation, etc. There are many companies promoting this approach to ensure serenity, composure, patience and perseverance that are needed for business promotion through constructive dialogs and engagements. Many institutions offering condensed courses in yoga and meditation have senior management professionals from the business enrolled regularly reflecting the growing importance of this practice for better performance and employee heath.

In a lighter vein spirits and spirituality converge when one is intoxicated by too much of alcohol because the mind and body become supine, edging out all tensions and worries! This should not be construed, by any stretch of imagination as an endorsement for binging on alcohol. On the other hand one must realize that effect of alchol has an incremental negative health impact while spirituality will have an incremental positive effect on health and quality of life for the practioners.