Saturday, February 28, 2009


A major effort on the part of food scientists revolves around keeping the food safe from pathogenic microorganisms that compete with man for available food in this planet. Development of food preservation technologies is based on the vulnerability of microbes to treatments like thermal, chemical, physical and other methods, not injurious to man. How ever efficient the concept of technology may be, in real time practice there are uncertainties and unintentional slip-ups which must be checked before products are released to the market. There is no dearth of reliable analytical tools, with which microbiologists are familiar, that can statistically determine the safety of processed foods but most of them require a few hours to a few days to confirm safety or other wise of the products from infection before releasing to the market.

Any detection platform that is acceptable to the industry as well as the enforcement agencies must not only be sensitive and specific but also be able to accurately detect a variety of pathogens including modified or previously uncharacteristic agents directly from the complex sample matrices. There are many methods currently in vogue using biochemical, immunological, nucleic acid, bio-luminescence, aptamers, bio-chips, evanescent wave bio-sensors, cantilevers, living cells etc. Over 500 companies in the world are working on development of molecular diagnostic systems though only a handful have succeeded in commercializing their innovations in this area. Polymerase based chain reaction (PCR) is a DNA-based detection system that has been found to be efficient and reliable in assessing contamination from a variety of pathogens in raw materials as well as in the finished products. Real time PCR system is claimed to be sensitive to the presence of even less than 10 microorganisms in a complex food material in a very short time.

The Scorpion diagnostic platform being readied by DuPont Qualcom, the joint venture firm between two global giants, each pioneers in their own fields, is being considered as an important break through in food safety monitoring and there will be more such new innovative and fast techniques to reduce the time of detection and increase in the reliability of the results in the near future. The technology is claimed to provide accurate fluorescence based signal generation system with application for in vitro diagnostic, bio-threat detection, genetic analyses, environmental utility and most important in testing of foods and beverages for microbial contamination. It is also possible using this technology to detect difficult to find microbes with high sensitivity, reliability and much less time. Already adopted by USDA for food safety inspection in meat and poultry, this technology is also certified by AOAC International and the French Association of Normalization (AFNOR) for detecting pathogens like E.coli O157:H7, Listeria and other major pathogens affecting food products. The versatility is such that even molds and yeast are detected by the system in small concentrations.

Scorpion Technology and other similar systems are bound to be a very expensive, not within the reach of most of the food industry in India. Any such technology must be cost effective under Indian conditions, if wide spread use is to be ensured. While quality control and food safety assessment facilities available with many food manufacturing units are either nil or very primitive, expecting them to invest heavily on such modern technologies, may be too far-fetched. This is where the GOI MFPI must step in by importing a few such systems into India for use in some of the centrally located food laboratories to begin with and sponsoring development studies in Indian R & D Institutions with the necessary competence and experience to come up with an indigenous design for such a technology at low cost, affordable to the industry.


Thursday, February 26, 2009


Food industry in India has achieved significant strides during the last 2 decades and food exports are increasing with more and more access to new markets, earning valuable foreign exchange. Quality and safety problems pose serious threats to smooth exports and frequent rejections of Indian foods in foreign ports are routine. Advent of protocols under ISO, HACCP, SAP etc was expected to help instill confidence amongst the buyers regarding the quality of food manufactured by the licensed production units. But this has not worked the way it was expected to do if we go by the records of the industry so far. The Salmonella scare of 2008 affecting tomatoes and jalapeno pepper, the latest involving peanut butter in USA and melamine tainted milk powder in China conclusively prove that there is no substitute to honest and conscientious efforts by the industry to discipline itself by eternal vigilance and uncompromising approach vis-a-vis safety and quality.

On an earlier occasion this blog had commented on the steps taken by FDA of USA to open offices in some parts of China, obvious intention being to pre-empt safety related problems affecting imports into USA. This action is on the premise that active involvement of the importer in the operations of the manufacturer would some how ensure strict compliance. Same approach was evident when FDA announced setting up of two offices in Delhi and Mumbai under the impression that every thing will be alright now on wards. But if the past records are any indication, it is doubtful if such intrusive steps can deliver the expected results.

FDA, which is under fire in its own country for its failure to protect the consumers due to the inefficient surveillance system in place, is burdened with both drug and food portfolios and it is not able to do justice to either of them. The open letter addressed by 100 scientists to the new President highlighting the corruption in FDA is still fresh in our memory. There is clamor for splitting FDA into two separate bodies, each devoting to drugs and foods exclusively. Added to this is the split responsibilities for food safety between USDA and FDA, former looking after meat and poultry regulation, rest being under FDA.

The current controversy on peanut contamination with Salmonella, originating in a plant in Georgia, was glaring at the regulators since 2001 but still no concrete action was taken to bring them to books. Interestingly this particular plant was regularly inspected by USDA personnel since the peanut butter supplied by this firm is distributed to school children under the national feeding program and still the culprit was not hauled up for violation of good manufacturing practices! This has caused recall of 1550 products in 45 states in the US because of the 575 illnesses reported due to peanut consumption. More scandalous is the fact that the peanut butter consignment rejected by the Canadian food authorities reentered USA through a border bridge between New York State and Canada though it was found to contain "filthy, putrid or decomposed substances unfit for food". The plant that manufactured the peanut butter under cloud in Atlanta, GA, was inspected by FDA authorities in 2001 and indicted for presence of cockroaches, molds, leaking roof and other sanitation problems but no follow up action was taken. USDA inspectors visited this plant routinely there after since peanut butter from this plant is regularly supplied for the school feeding programs across the country. A typical example of right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing!

If this is the efficiency of their surveillance program within USA, what a few officers, operating from the embassy in Delhi and consular office from Mumbai can achieve is a matter of conjecture. Probably the intrusive action may only delay shipments creating further problems to the Indian industry. It may justifiable for our industry to demand that once FDA clears their shipments in India there should not be any further time consuming procedural delays at the importing points. If this happens, some of the uncertainties associated with food exports to USA can be avoided. Since consumer is the king the seller may not have such a leverage with buyers under to day's economic scenario. At least Indian food industry can try striking a deal mutually acceptable to both the parties.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Lot has been written about the promise of bio-fuels which are considered sustainable as compared to the non-renewable fossil fuels. Food technologists have profound interest in this area due to two reasons. First as a citizen there is grave concern regarding the deteriorating climatic changes attending relentless burning of fossil fuels and global warming that is changing the very face of this planet. Then comes the critical shortages experienced in the edible oil availability as there is a growing tendency, especially in many developed countries to divert edible oils for automobiles. In India almost 40% of vegetable oil requirements are met out of imports and any fluctuations in global prices of oils, especially Palm oil is bound to have serious repercussions on its economy.

Bio-fuel can be in solid, liquid or gaseous form derived from relatively recently dead biological materials and it can be produced from any carbon sources, most common being photosynthetic plants which fix solar light and atmospheric carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates in abundance. Two strategies which can help in bio-fuel production are: (a) conversion of carbohydrates and sugars into alcohol for use singly or in combination with fossil fuel and (b) use of plant oils which are triglycerides. According to the National Bio-fuel Policy of GOI (NBFP), announced on September 11, 2008 the current E5 fuel (5% ethanol) regime will move to E10 regime by 2012 and then to E20 regime by 2017. Bio-diesel fuel will be mostly from plants like Jatropa to be taken up in waste lands and marginal lands across the country through long term leasing arrangements. Minimum Support Price also is expected to be worked out to stimulate growing of these plants.

As the country is facing a sugar glut, sugar cane juice conversion to alcohol is likely to be encouraged so as to reduce the stock by 2 million tons. As a short measure alcohol import from Brazil is also on the horizon. Many of the sugar factories already have facilities to ferment molasses into ethanol and no extra investment will be required for augmenting the production. Probably sugar being a politically sensitive commodity, GOI is treading a cautious path as far as this route to fuel self sufficiency is concerned because of the apparent nexus between the sugar business and the political landscape that prevail in the country. Besides sugarcane is a water intensive crops precluding its cultivation on more lands. There are other carbon sources which can be converted into ethanol, the most abundant being cellulosic materials which have no food value for human beings. But they also have other uses like feeding the livestock and burning for generating heat for day to day life. Bagasse is already being used for co-generation in many sugar mills and as such it is not a material of preferred choice. Conversion of Corn or Tapioca into glucose through amylase/mineral acid technology does not lend itself to any massive operations because of their prevailing uses as food and industrial source of starch.

Use of plant oils, some of which also are consumed as a source of biological energy in human diets, is fraught with some grave consequences. India consumes about 15 million tons of plant oils for food and non-food purposes. Any diversion is bound to tell on the edible oil prices which will create further imbalances in availability of this crucial diet constituent. Thus oils from Oil Palm, Soybean, Sesame, Mustard etc rule themselves out on this account. Other sources such as jatropa, pongamia, algae etc may be of some promise but how far their supply line can be assured is a million dollar question. The NBFP document does mention about these non edible oil sources and offers some incentives for farmers to raise these crops in government lands, guaranteeing minimum support prices but there is no definite road map as to achieving any significant targets that will reduce our fossil fuel imports substantially. IT is time that GOI approaches this issue in a holistic way by revisiting out agricultural policy to integrate food and fuel needs of the nation on a long term basis instead of treating bio-fuels separately. Prima facie bio-fuels from non-edible sources of oil looks as most promising sustainable source of energy, not the gasohol project. Large scale cultivation of these plants will also help controlling CO2 build up to some extent.

With the crude oil imports crossing 120 million tons in 2007-08 and the domestic production stagnating at 32 million tons, there is a sense of urgency in finding a long term solution to the energy crunch that is facing the country. The market situation is such that 80% of the fossil fuel is processed into diesel which is used extensively for transportation and power generation. Under these circumstances will the NBFP, as being enunciated, really help to save the situation in the foreseeable future. Unlikely.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Why is that soft drinks have become the most criticized products in the food and beverage category, for one reason or the other? If this trend continues, probably the day may not be far when mandatory labeling becomes necessary to warn the consumers about the adverse consequences of drinking these beverages on health like the one prevailing now regarding smoking! It is known that smoking leads to lung cancer but no one has thought of banning smoking through ban on cultivation of tobacco or manufacture of beedis, cigarettes and cheroots. Same is true with chewing of tobacco which goes on unhindered without even a warning! What about alcohol? Every body knows that it is a habit forming beverage product and it can harm the liver leading to serious consequences. Except imposing higher duties and taxes to make them costlier, nothing much is done to stem the onslaught of alcoholism.

Coming to soft drinks, the industry was first blamed for including ingredients which are habit forming which did not cut much ice with the consumers. Then came the pesticide 'insinuations' creating a scare about these products in the consumer mind, at least for some time. The accusation that soft drinks, especially the cola drinks that contain phosphoric acid, are corrosive and hence harmful still lingers to day in spite of lack of scientific data on this score. Women have been warned that if they consume cola drinks, they may end up with osteoporosis because of 'draining' of calcium from their bones and this theory has not yet been proved beyond a shadow of doubt. The HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) story is still fresh in our memory and the claim that this sweetener is responsible for obesity all over the world has not been confirmed still, though some scientists do believe HFCS has a role in the secretion of two hormones linked to eating and appetite viz Leptin and Ghrelin and the consequent influence on gluttony. Probably no scientists seem to be certain how HFCS, a source of energy, can behave differently from glucose in inducing obesity. There is a marked reluctance to admit that over weight is simply the result of eating more than what the body needs whether it is carbohydrate or fat. Besides there are a few reports implicating HFCS in many diseases like diabetes, kidney damage, etc without adequate clinical data.

The latest sharp shooter comes from a group of scientists who found higher levels of albuminoids in the urine of women taking two or more bottles of soft drinks. Albuminuria in urine is supposed to be a marker for kidney malfunction. The underlying assumption is that properly functioning kidneys do not permit passage of large molecules like albumin through, to be part of the urine and therefore kidney function is adversely affected. Statistically speaking such women have 1.86 times more chances to be affected by kidney damage. These findings were based on an analysis of data of about 10000 people in a data base in USA. About 17% of women taking more than 2 bottles of soft drinks had higher levels of albuminuria indicating the early stages of onset of kidney damage. Interestingly men and those who took diet drinks did not show such a vulnerability leading them to suspect that the culprit could be HFCS, though other unknown factors were not ruled out. It is incumbent upon the soft drink industry to engage reputed scientific groups with unimpeachable integrity to dwell upon such damaging findings and reassure the consumers about the safety of their products, especially for long term consumption.


Monday, February 23, 2009


Pickles are considered delicious in the Indian cuisine system and there are hundreds of varieties of pickles generally based on green fruits and firm vegetables. Thus we have pickles made from green mango, lime/lemon, karonda, cucumber, green chillies, Indian gooseberry (Amla) etc either singly or in combinations called mixed pickles. Similarly we have a slightly different product concept from pickle called Thokku which are made by grinding the materials and cooking with red chilli, salt, tamarind pulp and sesame oil. Invariably the pickles and thokkus contain high salt content which along with acidity, preserves them for long. There are some pickle products with shelf life more than 2 years and surprisingly even to day the traditional technology for making them remains almost the same, though considerable improvements have been seen in the handling operations to make them more hygienic and safer. According to Fruit Products Order (FPO) regulations, a pickle should have a minimum of 12% salt and 1.2% acidity. Generally commercial products contain 13-19% salts as industry does not want to take risks of spoilage. Individual pickle consumption is about 5-10g which delivers a salt level of 1g and multiple servings can dramatically increase salt intake at least for some people.

Soups are important part of western cuisine and are made from juices and pulps of fruits, vegetables, lentils and animal food raw materials. During early part of twentieth Century, soups were made from fresh raw materials as the food industry had not developed well then but modern soup products are made from canned materials which are invariably processed adding lot of salts. While freshly made vegetable soups do not need too much salt for the required taste, those prepared from canned materials contain unacceptable salt levels at modern nutrition yardsticks. The quantity of soups consumed varies between 250 ml and 500 ml depending on the preferences of individuals. The concern here is the amount of salt ingested in a single serving which can be 1/3 to 1/2 of the RDA! Since over consumption of salt is implicated in hyper tension disorders, it is a relevant question whether soup consumption calls for moderation.

Implication of soups in developing stomach cancer is a serious matter worthy of investigation further. The mechanism as to how salt induces stomach cancer is yet to be elucidated. But like any other foods the answer lies in moderating the consumption rather than indicting the product. What is forgotten in this cacophony is that many soups are rich sources of cancer fighting phytochemicals like lycopenes, flavonoids etc and more frequent consumption of such vegetable soups based on carrot, tomato, cabbage, broccoli, some herbs can be more beneficial. Though salt does pose a risk, fresh vegetable soups require much less salt and can be consumed safely in moderate quantities. Probably people seem to be aware of the dangers lurking behind the bowl of soup, that in many parties the quantity of soups served is going down progressively. In most of the places the soup size does not exceed 120 to 180 ml and this is naturally an encouraging development from the health perspective. It is not to be forgotten that soup is one of the most refreshing appetizer and it does offer a convenient medium for delivery of many natural health friendly phytochemicals with vast choices.

Though pickle and soup have salt as the common denominator, the former does not pose much of a risk since it is a self-limiting adjunct, the quantity that can be consumed being limited by its high salty and 'hot' taste notes. In contrast there is a tendency to consume soups in larger quantities delivering higher salt levels in the process. Probably some basic sensory studies are called for in coming up with the possibility of newer soup formulations with lesser salt levels but without compromising the salty taste to any significant extent. Normal healthy adult should not be scared of consuming both pickles and soups in moderate quantities, though developing aptitude for foods with less and less salt may be rewarding in the long run.


Friday, February 20, 2009


In the modern world, driven helter skelter by the cholesterol 'scare', eating egg and egg products has become a highly controversial subject of passionate arguments both for as well as against. The nutritionists recommend limited consumption of 3-4 eggs a week for a normal adult person, though many shun eggs under the belief that it can cause a plethora of life style diseases including CVD and diabetes. The latest to join this perennial debate is a group of scientists who propound regular consumption of eggs based on their experience. Their study has found that some of the important nutrients contained in the egg can reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects and in fact it can promote development of healthy eyes. This is attributed to the high quality of proteins present in egg which helps faster growing, increased muscle strength, improved energy mobilization and higher weight gain amongst children. Of course these findings fly in the face of some reports linking egg consumption to Type II diabetes, high BMI, hypertension, higher cholesterol levels etc but the variables that influence the overall health index of a person are so many which can vitiate many studies involving egg consumption. If some one is consuming egg along with alcohol, high salt, high sugar, high fat including saturated and trans fats, the disorders that manifest cannot be attributed to egg alone.

To be fair, egg is one of the most complete foods man has known because one egg has just 80 kC of energy mostly derived from proteins and fat, 6.3% very high quality proteins, just 5% of fat out of which 2% is saturated fat and rest MUFA and PUFA, 220 mg of cholesterol, ,125 mg of choline, 170 micrograms of Lutein and Zeaxanthine besides nutrients like Vitamin A and D, Folates, Iron and Zinc. The amount of protein in medium size egg meets 12% of RDA of an adult. Egg is also found to be involved in weight management, muscle strength and maintenance, healthy pregnancy, brain functions, heart health, methylation at cellular levels, inflammatory control and eye health and all these qualities are rarely present in any single food.

Choline present in egg providing 25% of RDA for this essential nutrient, has several functions in human body. During pregnancy choline helps proper development of fetal brain and ensures freedom from birth defects in the child. It helps to maintain the membrane structure of brain cells in adults. It is a key component in neuro transmitters that help relaying messages through nerves and muscles. Methylation at cellular levels, especially the genes, is facilitated by Choline and this is an important process of sending messages between the cells.

Lutein and Zeaxanthine, present in egg are important antioxidants that prevent macular degeneration and age related blindness. Interestingly, though these chemicals are present in other sources like Spinach, Algae etc, egg provides the best bio-available version of them. Leucine, one of the amino acids present in egg protein, helps the muscles to utilize the energy efficiently besides helping the muscles to recover from rigorous exercise regimens. Eating eggs as the first food in the day, instead of other foods, increases satiety and decrease hunger which in turn reduces net food consumption and helps in reducing body weight consistently. The cholesterol in eggs is falsely being accused of increased cholesterol build up whereas in truth, egg increases the friendly HDL, improving the HDL/LDL Ratio and reducing the risk of plaque formation in arteries. Generally it is recognized that diet cholesterol does not increase blood cholesterol in every body. In fact cholesterol is an important chemical that serves to insulate nerve fibers, maintain cell walls, produce Vitamin D, various hormones and digestion juices. There is a difference between diet cholesterol and blood cholesterol and former is not automatically converted to the latter on consumption. Recommended RDA is 300 mg per day which is likely to be raised in the light of newer findings now available to the policy makers.

Another improper understanding regarding the egg causing heart attack needs to be corrected. Egg protein present in the yolk is a potent inhibitor of human platelet aggregation and prolong the time for transformation of Fibrinogen to Fibrin which serves as a scaffold for platelets to form clumps for eventual narrowing of the arteries. There appears to be an inverse relation between egg consumption and heart attack, if some recent surveys are to be believed. Also reported is the formation of several short chain peptides during boiling or frying of eggs which have strong ACE inhibitor activity and consequently are helpful in preventing heart attacks amongst regular egg consumers..

The above critique is not to promote egg as a " must eat" healthy food but only to put the scientific facts in their right perspectives. It is true that vegetarians live without eggs, and live well too. But the range of nutrients and wide benefits of eggs can be found only in multiple sources of plant origin, requiring careful menu planning. Choice is yours!



The consumer-industry-government triangle based on which healthy industrial development takes place, must be equitable to all the three stake holders. While consumer is indisputably the King, industry must have qualities of courting while governments should play the part of a facilitator. In India such a relationship is still in its infancy and mutual mistrust rules the roost constraining the realization of the full potential of the food processing sector to reach commanding heights through significant value addition to the enormous agri-livestock resources this country enjoys.

While industry depends too much on the government to get freebies, governments, both Central and States, often treat the industry as the proverbial 'cash milking cow' to extract revenues through fiscal impositions. Consumer has a grouse against the government that his constitutional right to access to safe foods is invariably violated by lack of adequate policy initiatives and effective control on rogue elements in the food processing and trading sectors. An area of least concern seems to be consumer education regarding various complex issues concerning food, nutrition, health and diseases. While the governments have their extension and promotion programs for consumer education, their spread, out reach and effect are limited. The most appropriate player is the industry which has direct linkages to the consumer through the products manufactured by them. But the potential for this strategy is not yet recognized in India.

The excellent model that highlights the capability of industry in building up consumer awareness is the one provided by The Grocery Manufacturers Association in USA which is aggressive in promoting sound public policies, championing productivity and growth initiatives and helping to protect the safety and security of food supply through scientific excellence. The $ 2.1 trillion industry in that country, employing 14 million workers, contributes annually more than $ 1 trillion in value addition to its economy. Where it scores over others is its initiative to compile and publish highly informative science policy papers containing unbiased current and scientifically accurate information and resources on critical subjects. The latest offering from this trade body on " Sodium & Salt-A Guide for Consumers, Policy Makers and the Media" is highly informative and revealing with right perspectives.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this model before us? Probably yes. The Confederation of Indian Food Trade and Industry (CIFTI), All India Food Processors Association (AIFPA), Protein Foods and Nutrition Development Association of India (PFNDAI) and Association of Food Scientists and Technologists(India)[AFST(I)] are eminent organizations with commitments to the welfare of the industry as well as the consumers. It is time they get their acts to gether to emulate the model being seen else where. Indian food industry must focus its attention to address various technical issues that confront the country, besides providing workable road maps to governments for achieving the supreme goal of consumer prosperity and well being which in turn will lead to a real partnership amongst the stake holders. It is not that nothing is being done by these organizations but what they are doing through seminars, conventions and workshops have no impact at all. AFST(I) has two journals with contributed articles, PFNDAI has a news letter with limited circulation, AIFPA has a journal and maintains a Technical Advisory Committee for namesake and CIFTI, as a minor associate of the Confederation of Indian Industry does not do enough to influence neither GOI nor the consumer.

What is needed is a professionally competent and coherent scientific group with independent views to address burning problems in different areas of food and project unbiased and uncompromising view for the benefit of one and all. These scientifically sound reports must be of highest technical value, well understood, appreciated and respected by fellow industries, consumers and policy makers and should have permanent reference value. If the organizations mentioned above can put their heads together and raise sufficient resources to maintain such a technical body, there are enough retired scientists in the country, with extra ordinary knowledge, experience, wisdom, intelligence, plenty of time on their hands, inclination and commitment to work for them. In stead of blaming GOI for every ills that face the industry, let us show what citizens can do to push the agenda for development on their own without any crutches from the government. A venture of this dimension is bound to be a good "Confidence Building Measure" between the industry and the consumer.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


The infamous letter bomb episodes in USA using Anthrax spores are still fresh in the memory of the public though the origin of the crime was never satisfactorily traced. Research on Anthrax spores was known to be one of the priority areas of research in Defense laboratories of some countries though internationally these activities were frowned upon and criticized by the world community at large. It is only after the 9/11 attack in USA in 2001 that the area of bio-terrorism was formally considered as potential threat to all countries from fanatics and terrorists trying to impose their beliefs on others by threats and coercion.

What is bio-terrorism? It can be described as intentional release or spreading of biological agents such as bacteria, viruses or toxins, either in their natural form or in modified forms developed through man's intervention which causes illness or death to people, animals and plants. The intention is to cause immeasurable causalities and spread panic amongst the targeted population. Romans were known to have used dead and rotting animals to poison water bodies on the enemy lines to disable their opponents' capacity to fight. In the 14th century bubonic plague was used to infiltrate enemy lines and disable them. Anthrax emerged as the most preferred bio-terrorism agent since early 19th century because it can be easily transferred, has high mortality rate but limited ability to spread beyond the targeted population area. The fact that it still retains its potential is reflected by the most recent scare in the US where Anthrax spores from a Defense Laboratory working on biological warfare were smuggled out and sent to scores of offices through the postal mail delivery system. It took more than 5 years to solve this case ending in the suicide of the person, a Defense Scientist who was suspected for the crime.

There are three categories of biological agents based on some parameters. Group A has some of the most lethal agents such as Anthrax, Botulinum toxin, Virus responsible for hemorrhagic fever and Tularemia responsible for Rabbit fever. Group B has Brucellosis, small pox virus, Epsilon toxin, Viral encephalitis, Q fever etc. Group C has various pathogens modified to enhance their destructive power. Though UNO wants biological warfare to be shunned by all member countries, very little is done to eliminate these agents of terror and stop research on them.

It is in this context western countries, mortally afraid of the consequences of bio-terrorism, are developing antidotes and preemptive steps to counter act the designs of terrorists in using biological agents against their population. Latest endeavor is the development of a vaccine to neutralize the effect of botulinum toxin if used as a weapon for mass killing of innocent people. Clostridium botulinum(Cb) is a food spoilage bacteria, found in improperly processed canned foods of low acid types. Since it is an anaerobic bacteria, it grows in evacuated and aseptically sealed can containers if processing parameters are not adequate. The vegetative cells are killed at 60C but the spores can survive extreme processing temperatures and germinate subsequently under favorable conditions. The toxin excreted by Cb called Botulinum Neuro Toxin (BoNTs), causes paralysis and invariably deaths as the muscles controlling breathing fail. Though death toll due to botulism is less than 150 cases an year, what causes alarm is the fact that only 15% of these deaths were traced to food poisoning while the rest were due to inhalation. Infants are specially vulnerable to Cb spore dusts as their intestines are critically affected.

Botulinum toxin became famous when it was discovered that minute concentrations can have beneficial effects in cosmetic surgery. Though it has an LD50 value as low as 0.005-0.05 micro gram per kg body weight when ingested, external application through surgery causes decreased muscle activity locally by blocking the release of acetyl choline at the neuro muscular junction. 'Botox' procedure, as it is popularly known, can ensure freedom from wrinkles in the face for a period of 3-4 months. World over more than 5 million botox procedures have been performed for improved facial appearance by women.

In the preparation for defense against botulism, injectible vaccines have been developed containing detoxified versions of 5 types of BoNTs (serotypes A,B,C,D and E) but the dangerous procedure involved while handling active bacteria is a major constraint. Recent development of a nose-spray vaccine against botulism has many features that make it universally acceptable. They are made from non-toxic proteins that resemble those created by the bacteria. The preparedness for eventualities like this is the hall mark of countries who value life of their citizens and spares no efforts to invest on preventive measures to meet the challenge of terrorism, no matter how minor it may turn out to be.


Saturday, February 14, 2009


"Seeing is believing" seems to be the universally acceptable norm when it comes to taking any thing "without a pinch of salt"! But this adage may not be true always and there are many instances when there is a third dimension to this perception. One can be wrong even after seeing and believing in certain things which forms the foundation of modern marketing strategies. Seeing, believing and getting convinced should be the motto because one can believe but still can be cheated in many cases. The management courses all over the world teach various techniques of capturing the market by exploiting the psychology of the consumers. Many marketing pundits believe in the maxim that 'consumer is a fool' rather than the platitudinal claim of 'consumer being the king'! This is not to belittle the innovative efforts of this tribe to establish lasting consumer loyalty to the products of their clients.

Looking at the Indian food market one can come across many classical examples of use of consumer psychology to capture the attention and expand the market out reach. As it is said figuratively consumer usually 'eats' a food through his eyes and once he is impressed by the facts as absorbed by his eyes, acceptance of the product becomes almost a certainty. Only few consumers will dwell upon other factors such as intrinsic quality and value content of the product before deciding on buying the same. Of course brand reputation and the credibility of the manufacturer are important even for having a look at the product.

A case study taken up here will reveal the extent of influence product appearance has on selection of the product if there are more than one manufacturer. Two powerful brands of Glucose biscuits currently vying for leadership in this product category highlight this issue. Both use almost same recipe, same technology and the product characteristics are indistinguishable but they differ in packaging and presentation. The size of one brand is about 15% longer and has 16 biscuits of slightly smaller size compared to its competitor's product which has only 14 pieces. Any consumer will naturally go for the bigger looking pack because his eyes have conveyed to the brain the impression that bigger pack is of a better value. However the consumer will actually lose 4.2 g of the product in the bargain as the bigger looking pack has only 78 g compared to 82.5g in the smaller looking pack! Probably a discerning consumer would be able to notice this 'optical' trick by reading in detail all the declarations on the label. Unfortunately the statement that this is not a standard pack as per the provisions of 'Weights and Measures Act is printed in such small fonts that most of the consumers will not be able to read them.

Same illusionary trick is deployed by many manufacturers for attracting new consumers in an expanding market or to persuade them to shift their loyalty. Take the case of white oats. There are three brands with different packaging configurations. While one brand uses a round bottle with 23 cm height and 11 cm diameter, the second one a bottle with 27 cm height and 13 cm diameter, the third one sports a rectangular bottle of 20 cm by 10 cm by 8.5 cm. Probably ordinary consumer will go for the second brand because it looks much bigger than the other two though the first one offers 1.2 kg product while the others contain only one kg material! Where the competition is not stiff, manufacturers some times try to reduce the packing material used as a measure of cost cutting exercise. This is evident in the case of a popular Badam drink powder where the new pack looks smaller compared to the earlier one and obviously it has not affected the sales as there is no competitor in this field to challenge the front runner.

By no means it is implied here that what is being done is illegal or unethical. Package size optimization is a powerful tool that is exploited to promote a product and cut packing cost. But when the cost of packing increases for the same contents for creating an optical illusion conveying a message that its value is higher, though not really so, some questions are bound to be raised regarding the justification for such actions. .



People of Indian origin are one of the most widely traveled national groups, with their presence spanning all the continents. While intellectually people move towards western countries seeking greener pastures, others settle for less remunerative skill based positions in Middle East, South Asian and African countries. By far most affluent NRI population can be seen in United States and many of them have made that country practically their home, though keep some roots back in India. In almost all states in the US one can come across Temples, Restaurants and Grocery Stores specializing in Indian customs, traditions and foods. Increasing popularity of Indian foods can be gauged by the fact that the proportion of local population eating in these places is on the rise. Practically all ethnic foods of origin from different regions in India are offered in these eateries to meet the demands of people hailing from there. A case for institutionalizing and promoting Indian foods through branded chain out lets similar to Taco Bell (Mexican Foods) was made earlier by this blogger realizing the potential for such a venture.

Many Indian restaurants do offer 'take out' type of service where unitized, disposable, microwave-safe and insulated containers are used to supply the products to take home. But no one had thought of home delivery mode like Pizza delivery system well established in the US. Probably the relatively low cost of Indian foods compared to American foods might be the constraining factor coming the way of such new services. Besides Indian foods usually are very messy to handle, too diverse for standardization and made up of too many varieties. In India street foods, mobile canteens, home delivery service are in vogue bringing the customers nearer to the caterer. Relatively low cost of labor in India is one possible reason why such practices become prevalent in the country.

In many towns and cities in India people going to work in distant places either carry with them packed lunch or arrange for picking up freshly cooked foods by delivery personnel from their home and deliver to the work place. The most organized delivery service in the country exists in Mumbai where thousands of people are involved like in an assembly line taking foods in well designed tiffin boxes from thousands of homes, travel through the suburban trains, carry the tiffin boxes to different offices and deliver to the right person without any mix up. The wonderful system also brings the tiffin box of each individual back to the home from where it was picked up before evening. It is almost like the postal system of assembling, sorting and delivering the mails from different destinations. Probably this is a unique institution not found any where else in the world.

Recently one of the groups specialized in Indian cuisines in the US is reported to have started a lunch delivery service that supplies a standardized meal in unitized containers after getting on-line orders from offices or homes in some areas in the US, modeled on the delivery system by Pizza Hut and other Pizza makers. Interestingly the standard meal offered for both vegetarian and non-veg clients has typical preparations like soup,curries and subjis, rice, nan, dal and chutney for a reasonable price of $ 7.50 to 8.50 which average NRI can afford easily. Extra delicacies like Samosa , Pakoda, Beverages and desserts are also supplied at extra cost. Since this new concept is being taken up by one of the most reputed caterers in the East Coast, there is every chance that the venture will succeed. More such ventures in other areas are likely to emerge depending on the success of this endeavor. One can also expect such services to be available for breakfast and dinner too.

What about such services in India? In some cities and towns a primitive delivery system do exist but not in an organized fashion. Grocery delivery through telephone orders is already popular in many places and even super market players are providing such a service if the order value is above a particular bench mark. May be, the time is ripe now for organized caterers also to get into this act and provide the consumers the delivery service which will help them to establish loyalty and increased frequency of visits to their establishments.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The reported role of citrulline which is present in small concentrations in Water Melon ( Citrullus lanatus) in fighting obesity has some interesting implications. This fruit finding mention in Egyptian history almost 5000 years ago has suddenly shot into fame because of some heath attributes assigned to it by a recent scientific study. Considered as a native of South America, Water Melon has a special type of fruit known as a pepo with thick rind (exocarp) and a fleshy center (mesocarp and endocarp), derived from an inferior ovary which is characteristic of the cucurbitaceae family. It is puzzling as to how this crop with 92% water can be an effective fighter against over weight syndrome in human beings. What ever be the active principle that may be responsible for the claimed advantages of consuming this fruit must be present in small concentrations.

100 g of edible portion of the fruit has about 6-7% sugar, 0.4% dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals providing 1-4% of RDA except for Vitamin C estimated at 8 mg (14% of RDA). Though it is claimed that Water Melon is rich in Citrulline one of the 20 amino acids of biological significance, the effective concentration does not exceed 150 mg per 100 g. Citrulline is converted in the body to Arginine which is supposed to be active principle that is implicated in some of the beneficial effects attributed to Water Melon. Arginine is one of the essential amino acids human body is incapable of making it on its own depending on supply through the diet. This chemical, first isolated in 1886 by Swiss scientist Ernst Schultze, is a 4-carbon aliphatic straight chain amino acid and plays important role in many body functions including cell division, healing wounds, removal of Ammonia from the body, maintaining immune functions and release of hormones. There is still some doubt regarding the essentiality of Arginine as body is known to synthesize this amino acid to a limited extent not considered adequate to meet the demand. But for growing infants it is an essential nutrient as they are not equipped to make the same during early stages of development.

Arginine is considered a precursor to nitric oxide which is known to help boost blood vessel dilation and consequently preventing blood pressure built up. Same principle is cited to suggest Arginine as an intervention agent in erectile dysfunction disabilities though no conclusive scientific evidence has been forthcoming except for indirect deductions. Dietary Arginine was also found to reduce serum concentration of branched chain amino acids which are known to cause insulin resistance in obese individuals. How come it can fight obesity itself? According some published scientific published works, if diets are supplemented with Arginine, it shifts 'nutrient partitioning' to promote skeleton-muscle growth and preempts body fat gains by as much as 65% in studies on mice. Whether same results will hold good remains to be seen by clinical trials with human subjects. How ever any dietary supplementation will have to keep in mind the some of the adverse consequences of arginine on some people as reported from some quarters. These include increased risk of heart diseases, altering Potassium levels in the blood, upsetting electrolyte balance, tendency to elevate blood sugar levels, lowering of BP and causing indigestion, nausea and head ache.

Some of the good food sources of Arginine include Sea foods, meat, nuts, algae, soy protein isolate, dairy foods, wheat germ, oat meal, sesame, sunflower seed, pumpkin seed, chick peas, etc. Water Melon obviously does not figure in the above list probably because Arginine is present in this fruit in the form of Citrulline. It is a debatable point whether Water Melon which is more than 90% water or comparatively drier sources like nuts and seeds would be a better option if the benefits of arginine are to be tapped for better health. For example sesame seeds contain more than 4000 mg of Arginine per a 200 kC serving size ( about 40 g) or 3800 mg from peanuts (40 g) while a Water Melon can yield only 1200 mg from more than 1 kg of edible portion. The only difference is that in Water Melon has the precursor Citrulline rather than in the form of Arginine itself and whether this confers any special benefit is not yet known.


Monday, February 9, 2009


During times of plenty there is a wide choice regarding the type of foods consumers wish to buy suiting the needs and palates of every body in the family. To add to this, there is always the option of 'eating out' in places where wide variety of foods are served on a platter. In the western world food sector was relatively insulated from inflation till recently and spurt in prices became discernible only during early 2008 when fossil fuel cost shot through the roof touching $147 a barrel with the attendant fall out on almost all aspects of daily life. The spiraling price situation is further aggravated by ever increasing land prices and cost of staple food grains, fruits, vegetables and other foods. Some of the basic foods like milk, butter, bread and meat are likely to continue to register higher prices as the input costs for their production also have risen sharply.

It is irrational to divert almost 40% of the grain grown in a country like UK as feed material and naturally meat prices are bound to go up in sympathy with that of the grains. Same is true with dairy products also. The economic melt down being experienced across the globe is bound to exert pressure on the disposable income of middle class families and the choices vis-a-vis purchase of foods are likely to shift to more basic foods putting the future of the processed foods industry at stake. Already there are signs that many American families are resorting to home baking pushing bakery products sales down. Same trend could become perceptible in other sectors also as people become more and more cost conscious with shrinking incomes. Unemployment figures in many countries are reaching staggering proportions, adding further to the human misery. Super markets are being forced to expand their portfolio of budget foods while demand for premium, value based and niche foods declines. Biggest casualty may be the organic food industry as their products are always priced significantly higher than the main stream products.

An unintended consequence of the deteriorating economic scenario may be a renewed interest in GM foods as they can be cheaper than the conventionally raised crops. While GM crops are cleared in some countries, many others view these foods with lot of reservation due to insufficient data on safety of consumption and environmental hazards in wide scale adoption of this technology. The debate about the safety of these foods is most likely to be won by the pro-GM lobby because of the latest economic compulsions. Those sitting on the fence are likely to go for GM foods which only can, probably, offer cheap staple foods in the coming years. If that happens one can expect spurt in investment on GM crops and stimulate their production on a scale not seen so far. It is another matter that GM technological knowledge is monopolized by a handful of transnational companies with very little available through public funded institutions. Besides, most of the technological know how is confined to a few crops of commercial importance. Probably the present economic down turn may give more impetus to develop appropriate GM technologies for some of the important staple crops. Similarly many consumers may be won over by the irradiation technology which is still viewed with suspicion because irradiation will cut down food spoilage very significantly making the food cheaper. While this may be good news for common man from the economic point of view, whether it it desirable from the health angle is a million dollar question!


Sunday, February 8, 2009


Rain water harvesting has become a fashionable topic for discussion and scores of seminars and workshops are being held frequently to persuade the general citizenry to invest in establishing the required infrastructure in their premises. In some states rain harvesting is made compulsory before construction license is issued. While conservation of water is a top priority area that calls for taking any and every conceivable action by one and all, the economic dimension of programs advocated for rain water harvesting must be critically considered. We know that despite two third of our planet's surface being covered with water, there are many places where water shortage is common place. The old saying that "water, water every where but not a drop to drink" is literally true in many places. Places abutting the Arabian sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and innumerable backwater bodies, all suffer from water shortages, especially for human consumption and the technology for desalination may be investment intensive and less cost effective compared to current cost of water from other sources. Added to the misery of Indian population, the water table in many places in the country is fast receding and bore-wells, indiscriminately being drilled, are progressively getting dry necessitating deeper and deeper boring. On an average the water tables in the country are dipping by 40 cm but in many areas due to over exploitation the table is dipping further at a much faster rate.

A major portion of water precipitated through rains flow through rivers to end up in the sea though construction of dams salvage some of these run offs. Evaporation from the surface of water bodies and the ground water also result in net water loss. Use of evaporation retarding agents like long chain alcohols was advocated for some time but found impractical on a large scale. Under such a situation, with demand for water increasing daily because of population expansion, ground water conservation becomes indeed critical. Is it fair to impose the burden of water conservation on individuals when governments at the state and central levels are shirking their responsibility? In stead of planning the residential settlements providing the required infrastructure for ground water recharging, houses coming up on 600 to 2400 s.ft size land sites are forced to set up rain water harvesting facilities entailing large investment with practically no benefits to the individual. Even a small facility will cost not less than Rs 25000 which probably will provide a months supply for a family of three. The microbiological quality of water harvested and stored for months together may be an area of concern if it is to be used for potable purpose. As for ground water recharging, it may be necessary to spend at least Rs 8000 to put a recharge bore of 50 ft by each house owner for the sake of the neighborhood. Is this socially equitable? If each section of the urban settlement has storm water drains, is it not expedient to plan using this water during rainy season for local ground water recharging?

Out of the estimated 4 trillion cubic meter(CM) rain water received, less than 50% ends up in the rivers and only 35% of this is effectively utilized. Half a trillion CM of ground water available in the country accumulated over thousands of years is recklessly being exploited without allowing it to be replenished. Millions of wells, innumerable tanks, lakes and water bodies are not being maintained properly and resultant loss of storage capacity adds to the water woes. It is a sad commentary on the efficiency and commitments of the ruling class that none of the 50 and odd cities get water supply for more than a few hours a day! Rs 0.5 trillion Inter Linking of Canals (ILR) project connecting 37 major rivers through thousands of canals and many large dams, due for completion in 2016 may not be a reality because of a lack of vision and will to pursue this dream project.

While thousands of crores of rupees are spent under the guise of social equity through subsidization route, enough resources are not provided for water conservation measures. Water augmentation projects are conceived, planned, implemented at snail's space and in ordinate delays make these schemes, when they are commissioned, grossly inadequate to meet the emerging demands for water. In stead citizens, especially those belonging to low and middle income groups are unfairly being penalized through coercion to part with their precious earnings to do what the governments were supposed to do. Even if citizens have to pitch in, their involvement will have to be 'collectivized' with 100% participation. As Indians are the most patient people in the world, they will continue to take the water crisis facing the country with stoic silence! And continue to suffer in the process!


Saturday, February 7, 2009


Science is considered truth based and scientific findings are always respected except in a few cases where integrity of some findings is questioned. There is a feeling that lately truth is being sacrificed for publicity and sensationalism and many 'findings' and reports splashed in news papers and other media are retracted or found not true as claimed. Only recently a serious case of scientific misdemeanor was reported in this blog itself, that too in an internationally reputed scientific journal. What action the organization under whose name the paper was published has taken is still a mystery and scientific dishonesty can only prosper if such criminal action is condoned or brushed under the carpet. Such cases do happen in other countries also and it may be difficult for the publishers to really assess the truth in spite of battery of peers assisting them.

The provocation for this blog to raise this crucial subject is the big hue and cry being orchestrated all over the world regarding salt and its harmful effect on health. This may not be due to any vested interest or deliberate distortion of truth but still a misplaced zeal for saving the mankind. While advocacy of action in certain direction may be justifiable if it does not harm the people but if at a future time such actions become regrettable, abundant caution is always the best policy. In an earlier blog the bad side of salt consumption was highlighted because majority of reports on the subject bring out the harmful effects it can have in human system. While over consumption of any thing is not good for any body, salt alone cannot be blamed for many of the ills supposed to be caused by it. Therefore, like all foods salt usage also must be moderated but unlike sugar most people do not like any product over salted, providing an in-built safety cover. What is forgotten is that all human beings are not equal and salt intake precaution is more appropriate for only those with some health problems. Sodium is an important nutrient involved in a variety of body functions and depletion of sodium can have catastrophic consequences. The latest aggressive campaign for achieving targeted reduction of use of salt by the food processing industry is reported in New York which aims to reduce average intake per day per ca pita by 40% in 10 years. UK already has a national program to force industry to reduce salt in their products so that average per ca pita consumption is brought down to 6 g a day. Unless more definitive data are obtained regarding the minimum and maximum salt levels that man needs or can tolerate, such campaigns are ill- advised and ill-conceived and the very credibility of scientists is at stake.

It is not easy to forget those days decades back when every pregnant woman was advised with conviction that weight increase during pregnancy was risky for the mother (preeclampsia) as well as the child (under weight). The result was that child mortality went up while babies born were grossly under weight jeopardizing the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of children when they grew up. Can scientists who propagated such a strategy, obviously based on their scientific studies then, compensate for the lives lost and the sufferings of people on account of such practices? Here again the lesson to be learnt is that only multi group studies keeping in view the diverse background, ethnicity, environments and genetic make up, can end up in a rational scientific conclusion and any particular finding with one population cannot be applied universally to whole of the world.

Most recently, a nutritional controversy is being raked up by the American Heart Association (AHA) which has reversed the hitherto view, widely held by the experts that consumption of too much of Omega-6 fatty acids (n-6 acids) in the diet causes inflammation leading to many diseases and the ratio of Omega-6 acids to Omega-3 acids should not be more than 4 to 1. In reality average ratio is 10:1 to 30:1, especially amongst meat eating populations. In a 180 degree turn around AHA now recommends consumption of n-6 acids to the equivalent of 5-10% of daily calories working to about 12-22 g a day for a healthy adult. Where does the truth lie? No one knows for sure!

This is not to decry science or the scientists but to focus on the uncertainties concerning health, food and nutrition faced by the common man and unless there is unanimity amongst the scientists in what they say concerning life and death issues, confidence in them by the society will be progressively diluted. This must not be allowed to happen for which responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the scientists.


Friday, February 6, 2009


Over weight, obesity, BMI and similar words always instill a sense of fear amongst people, especially those self conscious of their body weight changes at different phases of their life. No matter what doctors and nutritionists say about the connection between heart diseases and food consumption, very few take them seriously as the repercussions are not immediate to be perceptible on a day to day basis. Every body must be aware that over eating is the major reason for life style disorders like Cardio Vascular Disease (CVD) but still indulge in calorie rich foods because either such foods are easily available or they do not have the ability to gauge the caloric load and high fat contents in many foods. Intervention in States like California in the US is some times criticized because many think it is infringing on individuals' right to eat what he needs or likes. But is this stand sustainable when the whole nation's health is affected by injudicious consumption habits fostered by the environment, the State itself has created in the name of value addition and industrial development under a free economy? California, a progressive State gained attention recently because of its two actions in disciplining the food sector and restraining them from making available unbalanced foods through state policies. First it proposed to bring in zoning regulations to ban setting up of fast food out lets near newly laid residential lay outs so that the residents will have to travel some distance before gaining access to so called junk foods with empty calories. Second, the insistence on declaring nutritional composition of every food served in the restaurants is intended to sensitize the consumer regarding high calories and high fats.

According to a new study at the famous DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center in Houston, many people can be saved from heart diseases if a conscious attempt is made even to reduce some weight instead of aiming to reach ideal BMI through rigorous dieting which puts off many people from even trying. For example if a person's ideal weight is 60 kg and the actual weight is 75 kg, the 20% weight reduction to be achieved probably would never be feasible unless very rigorous diet and exercise regimes are imposed. But the new study gives great hope to such persons to save themselves from CVD and other diseases through a limited attempt to reduce their weight by as little as 6.5% to get significant benefits. What are these so called benefits? If the report from this Center is to be believed, such benefits include substantial reductions in blood pressure, triglycerides and total cholesterol, which in turn will reduce dramatically the risks associated with CVD. More significantly these impressive results occur early in the weight loss regime, well before the individuals even begin to approach their ideal body weight. Since this study was done in the internationally reputed heart institute, millions of people may derive solace and relief by raising their spirit and getting into modest weight losing programs.

Restaurants in India are being pulled from two directions, one from the consumers and the other from the nutritionists. Their reputation lies in serving best tasting foods in their out lets which obviously is possible only by using high fats and lot of frying, both considered dangerous from the health point of view. But nutritionists want them to design balanced preparations, avoid trans fats, saturated fats, acrylamides etc. With keen competition for the attention of the customers, many caterers are reluctant to modify their traditional recipes and cooking modes and this ensues a vicious cycle trapping both the consumers and the hoteliers. With eating out practice not widely prevalent now, the role of eateries in aggravating the current over weight traits in people is rather limited but in future such a situation may arise especially in metro regions where high family income and time constraints will drive customers in droves to restaurants. If proper strategy is drawn now to pre-empt serving of high fat, high calorie, less fiber foods in public eateries, the nation can avoid uncontrolled growth of obesity and accompanying morbidity in coming years. Restaurant sector must be forced to include at least 20% of their offerings with low fats, low sugar, trans fat free, high fiber, low sodium and other beneficial plant ingredients. Agencies like MFPI, Ministry of Health, DST, DBT, ICAR, National Horticulture Board and National Dairy Development Board must pool their resources to help the hoteliers by sponsoring R & D in competent organizations for developing healthy foods and making the recipes available to them.


Thursday, February 5, 2009


Ever since the advent of 'Talkies' which evolved from the old silent movies, the dialogs and songs picturised in the cinemas have made them one of the most popular entertainment media without which life can be very boring. The movies to day are either highly actor oriented or music-driven. In India popular songs can carry the picture all the way as a commercial success. In what way cinema and food are inter-connected? Though cinema has nothing to do with food, the analogy of picturization that goes with its production has some commonalities. The play back singers who lend their voice to heroes and heroines have their counter parts in the food sector. The group of technical people who lend their expertise and efforts from behind the scene, unknown and unnoticed, form the backbone of food industry and the food quality enforcement agencies, instilling the much needed confidence amongst the consumers regarding the safety of foods they consume. Of course consumer is well informed about brands, the manufacturers, retailers and data printed on the labels which enable them to make choices based on their past experiences.

Who are these people behind the industry who provide such a vital service? They are collectively called Chemists which is misnomer since food quality is much more than mere chemistry but involves microbiology, physics, biology, toxicology, nutrition and other disciplines of science. Quality is not measured in terms of its chemical composition alone but other parameters that can influence the health of the consumer. A mere degree in chemistry was adequate earlier to determine the proximate composition of foods but specialized knowledge about other branches of science has become crucial for assessing the overall quality and safety of any food. Personnel involved in quality assurance function are called upon to day to shoulder many responsibilities which include raw material suitability for processing, deciding about process control adequacy, finished product assessment, sanitation and hygiene of the processing facilities, food spoilage diagnosis and complaints analysis. With ISO and HACCP certifications becoming standard norms in the food industry, the functions and responsibilities quality control (QC) personnel have become multi dimensional which a conventional chemist is not equipped to handle. Under the new FSSA regime, hundreds of "qualified" food testing personnel will be required to man the food safety monitoring responsibilities while industry will also need same personnel for functions like quality control, process control and quality auditing. Is this country really equipped to meet such a demand, current as well as future?

There are many institutions in India offering courses in food science, food technology, home science, food and nutrition etc and most of these courses have a small program concerning food analysis. But the coverage is so small that the graduates coming out cannot take up the role of a QC professional and the food technology graduates rarely go for a laboratory job unless it is R & D oriented with sufficient challenges. That leaves the field open to graduates in chemistry or microbiology who are ill-equipped to look at food quality in a holistic way. The mechanical approach by these graduates does not solve many problems faced in the production floor because they do not have adequate and fundamental knowledge about food chemistry and the process dynamics.

The only program that is tailor made for food analysis tasks is offered by the Defense Food Research Laboratory at Mysore which is a 10 month post graduate diploma course for chemistry or biology graduates. Even this program suffers from inadequate exposure of the trainees to modern techniques and instruments as well as the contextual relationship between food composition in general and the various process technologies employed by the industry. Besides they are also not familiar with production floor operations and hands-on training at industrial level. Probably with a little reorientation and expansion of the course, this could be the best bet for the industry. Instead of 10 months the course could be extended to 18 months with a 6 months compulsory factory training in collaboration with the industry. There must be at least two dozen such courses spread across the country to meet the needs of Public Health Laboratories and the QC Laboratories in the industry.

Most important pre-requisite for the success of such a course is the need to put in place a career track for these personnel to climb up the ladder to reach respectable positions in the organizations they serve in the span of 30 years, instead of being branded as chemists for ever. Recognition of the critical role played by these 'sentinels' of food quality will give them satisfaction and motivation to do a job beyond the expectations of the consumers. Long live this tribe!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


After the great admiration and eulogies showered on Gujarat by the captains of big industries because of the rapid strides made by that state in bringing and nurturing investors from inside and out side the country, lot was expected from Karnataka where same political outfit is at the helm of affairs. The breath taking speed with which Tata Motors shifted their Nano Car project from West Bengal to Gujarat is an abject lesson as to how industry loves to be wooed for loosening their purse strings. On top of it the Indian industry even expressed their views that the head of Gujarat government is a role model for becoming Prime Minister of the country! True, Bangalore is often claimed as the Silicon Valley of India though in terms of living index it can be any thing but a livable place for people due to many adverse factors.

It is the usual practice for politicians to lead large teams to foreign countries with the obvious intention of wooing NRI entrepreneurs for investment in their states. Karnataka is no exception to this 'investment tourism' jaunts. The State boasts of an 'infrastructure development corporation' supposed to be 'helping' new entrepreneurs to locate their production facilities in designated industrial areas. There is also the 'Single Window' magic which is supposed to cut through the red tapes and hassles of bureaucratic corruption. While these are all excellent claims on paper to lure the entrepreneurs, here is a typical example of the travails of a young techno savvy investor who heeded to the call of his state and ventured to set up a high tech manufacturing facility in the heritage city of Mysore. His only drawback was his honest character which was a hindrance at every level.

This entrepreneur, leading a brand of young and enthusiastic band of technically experienced professionals, left highly lucrative positions in internationally reputed giants like General Electric Company, drawing fabulous salaries and ventured to start their industry to manufacture HF X-Ray instruments based on a unique technology, available only in 2-3 countries of the First World. Their products developed with the aim of providing diagnostic tools to rural areas at a fraction of the cost of those being imported, should have been in the market in early 2008, if their project was 'allowed' to come into being without political interference and bureaucratic indifference. After allotting only less than 50% of the land they had asked for during July 2007, they were asked to move out to another site and then again to another site in the course of less than an year jeopardizing all their plans and targets. Absorbing all the humiliations suffered by them at the hands of local saboteurs, they initiated building construction twice to be frustrated by local goons under one pretext or the other. The enormous financial strain faced by the group, with huge demand for their products in their order book and no means of starting regular production, would have turned away any ordinary mortal by now. But these youngsters, capable of drawing salaries between Rs 6 lakh to Rs 36 lakh annually with any good company but drawing no salary from their fledgling project voluntarily, with the hope of riding out the set backs caused by an indifferent bureaucracy, are committed to go forward to achieve their cherished goals in the larger interest of the state and the country.

Last week some senior citizens, scientists, industrialists and a few concerned citizens in the city made a fervent appeal to the District Administration to break this griddle lock and provide them with an environment conducive to allow setting up and commissioning the facilities which will bring laurels to the state and the country. Only time will tell whether our rulers really mean what they promise and the credibility of the state as an investment destination is sure to take a beating if such instances are allowed to occur frequently. While the patriotic entrepreneur with his unlimited enthusiasm, patience and perseverance may still be able to go ahead with his project, is there no way to bring to books all those goons who were instrumental in causing agony, anguish and economic losses to the entrepreneur and irreparable damage to the image of the State? The short answer is to round up these miscreants, brand them as economic offenders, perpetrators of violence and extortionists and punish all of them severely, irrespective of their political affiliations.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009


Any safety issue raised, if it pertains to damning the industry, must be put under a thorough scanner to get at the truth. This is especially true after the unnecessary noise raised against soft drink manufacturers in India regarding high pesticide content in their products. All that has happened due to the episode was considerable market flak for their products for some time. Many pointed out at that time how our very own government is indifferent in its constitutional obligation to provide the citizens with clean and safe water which is basic for survival. More than 90% of water supplied through the so called protected water supply schemes in the country does not meet with global standards for potable water and it is only the helplessness of the people that ensures continuation of such a pitiable conditions in this country. Well to do citizenry can afford to spend what it takes to get pure water through treatment or buying treated water from bottled water industry. The latest safety issue that has hit food industry is the reported presence of mercury in some foods and the potential risks to human life.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), also referred to as Isoglucose or glucose-fructose in some countries, already being blamed for the obesity epidemic in the western world, is again in the focus because of some reports detecting mercury in many food and beverage products manufactured and marketed by the industry. Further investigation has turned the spot light on HFCS which is made from corn starch using alkali at one stage. Mercury contamination is thought to be occurring during the conversion of starch to glucose through hydrolysis where alkali is used to neutralize the acid after the hydrolysis. Glucose syrup is then treated with glucose isomerase enzyme to get HFCS-42 containing 42% fructose which is then concentrated to HFCS-90 by liquid chromatography. From HFCS-90 is made HFCS-55 containing 55% fructose and rest glucose. This product is equal to sucrose or cane sugar in sweetness and is most commonly used in soft drinks manufacture. HFCS-42 finds extensive use in other foods including baked goods. Food industry world over prefers HFCS to cane sugar because of cost and user convenience.

If one cares to look at the alkali manufacturing process, some processors make alkali in mercury cells and if the technology is not proper, there is possibility of mercury contamination in the product. In the age old Mercury Cell process sodium ions are reduced to metallic sodium which then forms amalgam with mercury cathode and reacting with water generates sodium hydroxide. Use of mercury tainted alkali when used in processing of foods, can transfer a part of the mercury into the foods. But use of mercury cells has been declining with the advent of processes using Diaphragm Cells and Membrane Cells, both not using mercury cathodes. Therefore how serious this problem is difficult to gauge.

Average consumption of HFCS in USA is estimated at 12 teaspoons a day for adults but it could be more with teen agers who consume soft drinks based on HFCS. The mercury content in HFCS found in some samples was about 0.57 micro gram per gram (ug/g) and this works out to 34.2 ug in 12 tea spoons of HFCS which is much beyond the safety limit of 5.5 ug per day. Mercury is linked to learning disabilities in children and heart diseases in adults. Many products in the western markets containing HFCS as first or second highest ingredient tested positive for presence of mercury and these include Quaker, Hershey's, Kraft and Smuckers, all popular brands in that country.

Should we be too much concerned about mercury ingestion via HFCS in India? Probably not because HFCS use by Indian food processing industry is practically nil since this is a country of cane sugar which is available in plenty. But we must have concern about use of alkali in some processes like chemical peeling of fruits and vegetables, alkalization of cocoa, caramel production, poultry scalding, ice cream production etc. However here also the production of the above type of food products is not considered high warranting an alarm. It may be prudent to keep in mind the potential for such risks in future when the processing sector achieves high growth in the coming years.


Monday, February 2, 2009


Laughing invariably conveys a feeling of happiness and it is an expression of merriment or an inward feeling of joy and pleasure. It involves complex and elaborate neurophysiological and physiological process, humans are blessed with. Some believe that even a child, as young as 17 days, has vocal laughing chords and spontaneous laughter can be discerned in these babies. But 4 months old babies can definitely laugh though the reasons are not very easily understood. This reminds one of a joke when the reason for a baby's facial changes resembling a laughter was interpreted by some one as due to colic symptoms! Some psychologists claim that even animals like guerrillas can laugh but no scientific evidence is forthcoming to prove such claims. Many pet owners swear to the ability of their pets to laugh which, probably, only they would be able to discern.

Jokes, cartoons, tickling and many other stimuli evoke laughter. Natural laughing can be self-induced or due to external stimuli. The laughing gas, Nitric Oxide, also induces laughter when inhaled. Drugs like cannabis are known to provoke laughter. Laughter can some time bring tears and may cause mild muscular pain. Geletology deals with studies involving humor, laughter and their psychological and physiological effects on human beings. Laughing is also contagious and if one in a group is more tuned to grasp the humor in a particular laughing situation, others also follow the suit with uncontrolled laughing! The role of jokers in a circus is precisely this and the laughter they evoke through their action is so infectious that the entire audience are provoked to laugh with children. Who will forget R K Laxman's 'common man' carton in the front page of the Times of India or the famous 'Boban and Moly' carton in the Malayalam weekly Malayala Manorama which kept millions of readers laughing at least for a few minutes. The famous western comedians Charlie Chaplin, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and a host of comedians in Indian film world all immortalize laughing. 'Yeh Jo Hai Jindagi', the comedy show in Hindi in the eighties were eagerly being awaited by millions of small screen audience. It is unfortunate that most of the present day soap operas are tear jerkers, adding to the miseries of every day life in the present day world.

Many beneficial effects have been attributed to laughing if indulged in regularly. The mild analgesic effect of laughing is considered good for relieving chronic pain in people suffering from arthritis, spinal lesions and some neurological diseases. Besides it has a strong muscle relaxing effect. These beneficial effects are most probably due to increased secretion of endomorphins into the circulating blood. It is also believed that laughter fights stress through inhibiting secretion of several stress hormones and influencing the blood glucose levels. Recently it has been found that laughing can significantly influence the body weight if regularly practiced. Laughing for one hour is estimated to burn 100-120 kC and boost the energy level of a person by 20%. Walking for 15 minutes or resorting to weight lifting for 18-27 minutes is considered equivalent to an hour's laughing. During laughing the heart beats faster, boosting the flow of blood and as one giggles and gasps for air more oxygen enters the blood through lungs. Slimming experts even advocate using the laughter route to slimming. There are dedicated laughing clubs in many cities and towns and one can see the members assembling in the morning in parks and other public places to practice laughing on a regular basis in order to derive full benefits from this mode of exercise. There are over 6000 laughing clubs in 63 countries providing avenues for indulging in laughing to realize the full potential inherent in this form of exercise. There is even a special type of yoga dedicated to laughing called "Hasyayoga" which is practiced by many people.

There are some unanswered questions vis-a-vis laughing. Is there any difference between a hearty laugh and a mechanical laugh as is being done in laughing clubs? Is it necessary to involve brain and emotions in laughing to achieve good results? What about the laugh induced by Nitrous Oxide or cannabis and whether laughter under their influence can have same effect? There are many sitcoms and soap operas sponsored on the small screen and laughter arising out of these entertainment programs probably may be the best way to indulge in laughing on a daily basis. If so why not there be a 24 hour laughter channel in different languages? What about setting up a 'central laughing institute' that can help people to laugh more often and more extensively or GOI can earmark one of the institutions under its aegis which has outlived its utility as a laughing institute! Just like crocodile tears which is not natural, laughing also must be 'hearty' not artificial as some do. Foods that can induce laughter are yet to be discovered and any scientific endeavor in this direction is most welcome


Sunday, February 1, 2009


'What is in a name?" This is a question asked often when people start losing sleep over the names they or their offsprings should have. Same dilemma bothers new companies, new products, new house owners and many believe success or failure is deeply linked to the name and its spelling. One has heard about politicians changing the spelling in their names to make them luckier and avoid political set backs. Many parents give names starting with the first alphabet so that their children will be seated in the front bench when joining the school. There are old timers who give their children the names of various Gods and Goddesses so that calling them by name every day will be like chanting the name of Almighty. Western countries repeat the names of grand parents and forefathers to the younger generation and differentiate by affixing the tags "Junior" or Greek numerals I, II, III etc.

The feuds in many rich and influential families regarding the daughters using the family name even after marriage are common, the underlying motive being their desire to bask in the glory of their parents.Those opposing use of family names by married daughters quote tradition to justify their view where as many new generation women refuse dropping the family name after marriage. There are also unique instances when husband affixes his wife's name to his own name sending a strong message of equal partnership once married. Thus there is a strong connection between a name and its implications within the family or in public.

Most important, a distinct name gives every individual an identity and through out the childhood, the name gets imprinted in the mind of the child. Of course in this digital age a distinct number is more relevant than a name if to live in the society. But still calling an individual by the name, especially the first name, symbolizes a relationship or kinship and an emotional synergy. Is this confined to human beings only or does this phenomenon extend to animals also? It is usual for pet owners to give names to their dogs or cats and it is amazing to see them responding to their names, especially when the owners call them. Strangers do not evoke the same degree of response as the their tone of calling does not resonate with the animal. The fierce loyalty a dog has, is generally attributed to the bonding between the master and the animal though some feel that the food they get from their owners make them behave like this.

In a novel twist to this perception, many owners of milch cows in UK claim that by giving distinct names to their cows, they are able to make them friendlier, each one of them developing their own personalities. If such a practice is followed right from the calf stage, the adult cows yield more milk on an annual basis. As much as 250-300 liters of more milk are obtained from cows given familiar names. Frequent interactions with such domesticated animals evoke affection and induce relaxation in them. Some farmers even address them as ladies in the firm belief that a respected and loved cow is more profitable to own. In cases where cows are not treated well the yield can go down by about 10%. It is unimaginable how large farms where hundreds of cows are stabled, individual names can be given and the logistics of giving attention to each and every one are mind boggling. Probably in countries like India this approach is more feasible as dairy farms are relatively small in size and rural families do not own more than a dozen cows at the most. One has heard of music being played in cattle sheds under the belief that this increases the milk yield though no scientific data exists regarding this.

It is known that milk flow is emotionally linked and even in human beings a distraught mother finds it difficult to give milk to her child. In many rural areas dead calves are stuffed and placed before the mother cow before milking to ensure uninterrupted flow of milk. Therefore it is possible that the affection and touch of humans could create a favorable emotion in the cows facilitating increased milk flow. Instead of personally going to each cow, is it possible audio channels beam out human voices to each cow to create the same effect? What about grazing cows? A daily schedule of "petting" when they come home may possibly have same effect. Some reports in India indicate many cruel methods also being used to extract more milk with less feed material without considering the trauma the animals undergo. It is time such practices are stopped and more humane approach is used to cajole the cow to give as milk as possible. We are not sure whether what works with cows will be effective with buffaloes also which abound in Asian continent. Scientific studies are needed to establish the usefulness of such off beat methods to optimize milk yield from cattle.