Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Can you imagine any restaurant charging Rs 10000 for a meal and Rs 7000 for an 'a la carte' service in India? There is a restaurant in UK located in Berkshire which is normally deluged with customers for their mouth watering offerings. This restaurant was touted as the best eating place in the world in 2005. Unfortunately they got more publicity internationally for the food 'poisoning' episode in February 2009 when 529 customers became ill after consuming the food served by this eating joint. Though the management has the responsibility to ensure the safety of its customers, situations like this do develop unexpectedly is spite of a slew of precautions taken by such high end public eateries. Probably this could be a wake up call for the food service industry to be more alert to preempt such calamities affecting the unsuspecting customers who put complete trust on them to safeguard their health.

The Berkshire episode was attributed to transmission of viral infection from workers who were carrying them during handling of foods at the restaurant, though food poisoning was first suspected. Norovirus causes stomach flu or gastroenteritis, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps, lasting for a couple of days. Detailed investigations revealed that six of the staff members and eight of the diners tested positive for Norovirus infection which is much less serious than food poisoning. Norovirus infection spreads through eating faecally contaminated foods, touching contaminated surfaces, putting hands in the mouth or direct contact with an infected person. It is a tribute to the management that they were able to get to the root of the problem, take remedial measures and reopen the restaurant in about two weeks' time.

Norovirus, an RNA virus, earlier known as Norwalk virus because of the first known outbreak occurring in Norwalk, Ohio, USA in 1968, accounts for almost 90% of epidemic non-bacterial gastroenteritis around the world, affecting people of all ages. Individuals with 'O' type blood are more vulnerable to Norovirus infection while 'B' and 'AB' types confer partial protection against symptomatic infection which generally occurs in closed communities like long term care facilities, hospitals, prisons, dormitories, cruise ships etc. Also known as stomach flu or winter vomiting disease, the biggest epidemic occurred in UK in 2007-08 when 3 million people were infected with Norovirus. Since it does not cause serious damage, unless the affected person has weak immune system, only around 300 deaths are reported world-wide, though about a million people cases are known to occur each year. According to WHO, the best precaution against spread of Norovirus infection is washing hands as frequently as possible so that the level of contamination is reduced continuously. Each infected person can transmit the disease to 14 people on an average. Since this virus particle has no lipid envelop, it is practically immune to action by alcohol and detergents, though chlorine based disinfectants are very effective against this vector.

Shell-fish and salad ingredients are most often implicated in Norovirus episodes. Fat Duck restaurant serves eccentric delicacies like snail porridge, salmon poached in licorice gel, scrambled egg and bacon on ice cream and investigation has not been able to find out which foods were responsible for transmitting the infection. Allowing infected workers with fever above 100 F, with minor noticeable symptoms, could have caused the foods served, to get infected and pass on the same to the customers. It is imperative that besides scrupulous hygiene parameters being maintained as a part of any safety regime, the food service industry must pay more attention to the health of the workers who handle food, through regular check up and close monitoring to prevent Norovirus and similar infection of the foods prepared and served that can cause serious consequences to their patrons and compromise seriously their own credibility.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Whoever has not heard of 'Sambar', the famous South Indian food accompaniment consumed with rice and other main dishes like Idli, Vada, Dosa, Poori and Chapathi. Till 5 decades ago this preparation was practically unknown to people in the North but the cosmopolitan transformation taking place over the past few years has made the description of people in terms of South, North, East or West lose its meaning and Sambar has become a symbol of national integration just like the 'Northern' Chapathi which has crept into the regular diets of South Indians. Why pick on Sambar and what is so special about it? There are strong reasons to pay tribute to this humble product with manifold contributions to the welfare of a significant segment of Indian population for centuries.

There was a time not too distant in the past that a particular community populating in Mylapore in Chennai, Tanjavur in Tamilnadu and Palghat in Kerala was identified closely with Sambar, Curd and freshly brewed coffee. Coincidentally this community also produced a large number of brilliant intellectuals that served well the cause of the Nation during colonial days as well as post-independent era. In Kerala school children often used to mock at those hailing from this community as 'Sambar Kudiyans', of course in a lighter vein, literally implying that they have the habit of drinking sambar every day! But who would have thought that this humble preparation would spread like a wild fire in the years to come? To day there are a number of variants of sambar prepared by different communities in different regions, though basically the ingredients are tur dal and spices like coriander, red chilli, fenugreek and cumin. There are Madras Sambar, Mysore Sambar, Udipi Sambar etc each one having its own characteristic flavor and taste using varying mix of ingredients with minor changes in the cooking mode.

The remarkable feature of sambar is that it is basically a gravy and almost all vegetables can be used singly or in combinations. Thus sambar preparations are made commonly with onion, potato, pumpkin, ash gourd, okra, colacasia root, spinach, brinjal, bitter gourd, beans, ridge gourd, bottle gourd, drumstick, cauli flower, cabbage, radish, knol kol, etc singly or in different combinations. While some use ground paste of grated coconut and spices and condiments for getting a better body and taste, others make sambar based on only tur dal and/or other dals. Sambar is also made without coconut or dals when a vegetable like brinjal, colacasia stems, okra, red spinach or beetroot is the choice and green chilli, asafoetida, tamarind and coriander leaves provide the typical flavor to these preparations. Nutritionally sambar provides vital proteins from the dal and/or coconut component with plenty of fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins and trace minerals coming from different vegetables and spices. A typical 200 gm serving of Sambar contains about 8-10 gm of proteins and depending on the vegetables used provide about 2-3 gm dietary fiber, 2-3 gm of minerals and other useful nutrients. Inclusion of ingredients like black pepper, turmeric, asafoetida, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, curry leaves, coriander leaves confers special advantages from the health perspectives and make sambar a truly versatile side preparation that can be termed the life-sustaining dietary component for many an Indian.

During nineteen fifties food scientists used to deride diets based on rice in southern parts of the country as 'poor' because polished rice can provide only starch as the major source of nutrient yielding the so called empty calories. But looking back one may not agree with such a conclusion because of the consumption of a variety of accompaniments, the leading one being sambar. Others like 'Kootu' in Tamilnadu, 'Majjike Huli' in Karnataka and 'Avial' in Kerala are similar accompaniments making the diet healthier than what it was thought to be. Development of macaroni type synthetic rice based on tapioca in fifties by CFTRI was aimed at enriching this carbohydrate rich food with proteins from vegetable sources like peanuts and coincidentally to overcome the shortage of rice during fifties, though the project was a disaster, seen from any angle due to its poor acceptability at the consumer end. The current efforts to evolve high protein rice varieties are still in a nascent stage but acceptability by the consumer is going to be a critical factor that will decide the fate of such new varieties.

Food processing industry, realizing the potential for business, came out with many sambar products which include spice mixes, spice+dal mixes, RTE sambar in retort pouches etc which are available in the market shelves commanding considerable demand. RTE sambar rice and its Bisibele bhath version in retort pouches provide great convenience and comforts to the consumers, especially for the immigrant populations out side India. A few years ago CFTRI, Mysore did develop a dehydration technology for ready made sambar which only needed water to be added for reconstitution before consumption. Unfortunately the product did not click in the market for unknown reasons. What is missing in the Indian scenario is the frozen version of sambar probably due to limited cold chain infrastructure existing in the country that comes in the way of country-wide distribution. Possibility of a POSI version needs to be explored so that with a few basic and stable ingredients, one can assemble a sambar variant meeting the flavor, taste and nutrition demands of individual consumer at the point of sale.


Sunday, April 26, 2009


According to Hindu belief the fate of a person is written on his head and this is the basis of the fatalistic disposition of many people in India. The science of Astrology defines the horoscope of a person based on time, date and the geography of the place of birth detailing the planetary positions. Similarly the Palmistry is supposed to tell about the past, present and future of human beings based on a reading of the lines on the palm and millions of people have faith in this subjective science. Who can resist the temptation of showing his or her hand in front of any one with a rudimentary knowledge of Palmistry in great anticipation of things to come in future? A totally different concept which emerged recently is claimed to predict the fate of one's heart through diagnostic science.

It is known that oral cavity is home to millions of bacteria which can cause harm to the body if not controlled properly. Over 700 species have been reported to be present in the mouth out of which 92 species belong to bacterial kingdom. In any given individual there could be about 100 different species of microbes. Even amongst the bacteria, man does not know anything about 29 species that exist in the mouth as many of them are difficult to grow outside the mouth. A simple toothpick when used to clean up the teeth can hold 10-100 million bacterial cells. Streptococci, Lactobacilli, Staphylococci, Corynebacterium and bacteriodes predominate the population. The multi billion rupees oral hygiene industry banks on the perpetual need for human beings to clean up their teeth and gums in the mouth through orthodontically designed brushes, a variety of cleaning aids like pastes, gels and powders and mouth wash preparations.

Gums are supposed to be the gate way for pathogenic microbes into organs like heart, liver and others and if these organs are to be protected the gum health has to be maintained without giving any scope for infections. Periodonditis, as manifested by erosion of tissues and bones that support the teeth, is a major disease condition in many people and regular chewing and brushing of teeth can release millions of bacteria into the blood stream. Streptococcus salivus, S.sanguis, Porphyromona gingivalis, Treponema denticola and T.forsythia are the major pathogenic bacteria that cause periodontitis in humans.

Recently it has been found that the extent of microbial load in the mouth can affect the condition of the heart which implies that by monitoring the status of these microbes in terms of their number can give an insight into the condition of the heart. Relationship between periodentitis and acute Coronary Syndrome (ACS) is suspected for long based on many studies, though it is yet to be confirmed. Amount of bacteria is two times higher in ACS patients for the above mix of bacteria compared to that in healthy persons. Similarly alveolar bone loss was significantly higher in patients with ACS. The inflammatory response due to the presence these bacteria elevates the white blood cell counts and high sensitivity C-reactive protein levels, linked to heart disease. Oral bacteria, after entering the blood stream can also attach itself to fatty plaques in the coronary arteries and contribute to clot formation. Debris of oral bacteria detected in atherosclerotic plaques lends credence to this theory though none has been isolated so far under laboratory conditions. It is possible that the inflammation caused by periodontitis disease increases plaque build up and swelling of arteries, both with potential for heart attack. Oral bacteria gaining entry into blood can generate toxins that resemble proteins found in artery walls or blood stream and can cause clotting in and/or harm the blood vessels.

Can the above information be a basis for evolving diagnostic tools that can predict the condition of the heart during regular check ups? So far no empirical relationship has been established quantitatively but there is scope to collect viable data on quantity of bacteria in the mouth and symptoms of changing heart conditions as manifested by chest pain and ECG profile and evolve a reliable yardstick to predict health of the heart. This will enable the vulnerable population to adopt more aggressive approach to oral hygiene through brushing, flossing and mouth wash regimes and protect their hearts. Even the possibility of a right mix of foods in the daily diet that may prevent too much build up of undesirable bacterial load in the oral cavity cannot be ruled out. Traditional chewing of arecanut and or betel leaves or taking saumpf after a meal or consuming yogurt as the last course during a meal, could also have influence on the profile of microbial load in the mouth which needs elucidation through multidisciplinary studies by food scientists, microbiologists and health professionals like physicians and cardiologists.


Friday, April 24, 2009


It was striking to read a claim in the print media recently that a scientific group in India was able to get an international patent covering 120 countries for a process "sterilization of liquid foods by pulsed electric fields". If technically and commercially feasible, beyond any shadow of doubt, this process can revolutionize the milk and juice industry in the country. What practical problems that may arise can be known only when the process is scaled up into a fully baked industrial scale technology with necessary engineering designs for the critical original equipment necessary for its success. According to the claims by the Indian scientists a liquid food like juice or sauce, when passed through a specially designed fluid treatment chamber with provision for generating a short pulse at very high voltage, it was able to kill bacteria, molds and their spores and viruses. Basically the high voltage is supposed to disrupt the cell membrane through the phenomenon of electroporation.

In Pulsed Electric Field processing (PEF), a substance is placed between two electrodes and pulsed electric field is applied. The effect is to enlarge the pores on the cell membrane which kills the cells and releases their contents into the environment. All cells have pores which control the flow of nutrients into, and metabolic wastes out of, the cell. If these pores become wider and larger, the contents can leak into the medium, eventually killing the cell. The temperature rise in such a system due to the electric field is less than 30C and therefore the material treated does not even attain the pasteurization temperature sufficient to kill pathogens by heat alone, The voltage applied can be between 15000 to 30000 volts, where the lower voltage can kill plant cells while the higher voltage brings about the death of bacterial and fungal cells. How this technology can immobilize viruses, as claimed by the Indian scientists is not clear. Also in doubt is the ability of this process to obtain 100% kill of the spores which have very tough membranes that can survive high voltages.

Though useful information about PEF technology started emerging in 1991 and early patents on pulse electric field for sterilization and preservation of liquid foods (US Patents5235905, 5690978 and 6746613) were already granted in the US, it has failed to take off due to certain practical problems when tried on a commercial scale. This technology is used to a very limited extent by the fruit juice industry in the US. Most enzymes are not affected by pulsed electric field which can cause deterioration in the juice under ambient conditions and therefore to preserve the organoleptic quality, the treated products will have to be refrigerated during marketing, up to the point of consumption. Gas bubbles which are trapped in the juice during extraction tend to allow electric arcing between the electrodes causing burning of the substances being processed and consequent generation of potential carcinogenic artifacts.

The media reports convey the impression that PEF technology has been perfected for the first time in India and is ready for commercial use. On the contrary much more work needs to be done to standardize the process for tropical fruit and vegetable products popular in the country. Milk could be the most eligible candidate for mass application of this technology but practically no information is available regarding its suitability in a complex protein-fat matrix like milk. Stray reports do indicate that application of PEF in tandem with heating can extend shelf life of milk up to 24 days. Imagine the advantages for a middle class consumer when the milk sachet which arrives unfailingly every day in front of his house, can be kept under ambient condition or even in a refrigerator for at least a week or more. This is where efforts are called for as India is world's largest milk producer and a major portion is consumed as fluid milk in millions of house holds across the country. Here is a typical example of a patent being touted as the ultimate in non-thermal sterilization but with out any solid data regarding its applicability, efficacy and safety on Indian products. It is sad that good scientific work like this, with potential for far reaching benefits to the society, gets trivialized by premature publicity and bloated claims.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009


According to the Board of Science and Technology for International Development, USNRC, Neem of plant has the potential to usher in a new era in pest control, provide millions with inexpensive medicines, cut down the rate of population growth, reduce soil erosion, slow down the deforestation mania and checking global warming. The origin of Neem is traced to Burma (Myanmar) and there exists (not cultivated) more than 60 million tress in the world with China and India accounting for more than 47 million of them. Till recently India was the leading country in propagation of Neem but China has taken over the lead with an estimated 25 million trees in that country. Why should Neem get the attention it has received and whether all the claims about its omnipotent power are realistic are worth considering.

Traditionally Neem leaves were being used as an insect repellent at the household level which is practiced in many rural areas even to day. Keeping Neem leaves with grains to protect them from insects or using these leaves to repel silverfish that can destroy cloths or heating water with the leaves for bathing can be seen in the rural backyard of the country. Neem is claimed to contain about 100 bioactive compounds but only a few have been researched thoroughly regarding their identity and efficacy as pesticides or medicine. The miraculous attributes to Neem can be gauged from the fact that it is called 'Mwarobaini' in Africa, meaning Tree of 40 that can cure 40 different types of diseases in Man. In India Neem is also referred to as 'Divine Tree', 'Heal All', 'Nature's Drugstore', 'Village Pharmacy' and 'Panacea for All Diseases'. Different parts of Neem plant are effective against 537 species of insects that include Ostracods, mites and ticks, nematodes, some species of snails and fungi. It does not kill the insects unlike the synthetic pesticides but incapacitates them. Neem oil is in great demand for treating skin infection, ring worm infestation, foot rot, scabies, lice, burn wounds, bruises etc.

The bioactive chemicals that make Neem command the attention world over include Nimbin, Nimbudin, Nimbidol, Gedunin, Quercetin, Salannin, Vepol, Meliantriol, Azadirachtan and others. About 40 of these chemical constituents act synergistically to confer on Neem the unique ability as antiviral, antifungal, antimicrobial, antipyretic, antiinflammatory, antitumor, analgestic, immune stimulating, alterative to restore heath, anthelmintic and anti-emitic agent. Seeds, leaves, flowers and bark are commonly used for achieving different results. Tetranortriterpenoids or liminoids which are similar to steroids in nature are the most effective components present in Neem. Azadirachtan, the most studied chemical constituent, is available in concentrated forms for varied applications. Neem oil which is rich in this chemical is widely available in India for use for external application against skin ailments. The pesticidal activity of Neem is due to the interference of the bioactive chemicals in the hormonal functions in the insect resulting in depressed feeding, cutting down on breeding and metamorphosing. Neem is harmless to friendly vectors like spiders, butterflies, bees, ladybirds and earthworms that populate agricultural lands.

It is difficult to imagine Neem as a food material because of its intense bitterness but tender leaves are some times consumed just like a green vegetable in some parts of India. Neem leaves preparations in dried powder form and encapsulated are also available for use as a general Ayurvedic tonic with several benefits attributed to it. In some states like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh , during the new year festival Neem leaves and Flowers are consumed with jaggery, probably signifying that life can be bitter as well as sweet and resolving to face both with equanimity is inevitable. A flourishing trade exists with regard to neem oil and deoiled neem seed residue, widely used as natural pesticides and manure, especially for organic food cultivation. It is predicted that the global trade in Neem may exceed $500 million within the next 5 years and India will have to go in for organized cultivation on a massive scale to tap this emerging market.

A pro-active policy to popularize Neem cultivation in the country can have far reaching implications to the health of its population. The Forest Departments in various states are already propagating its planting along with many other fast growing species of perennial trees by distributing saplings free and providing useful information for their tending. Probably a conscious decision to plant this miracle tree on both sides of thousands of kilometers of Federal and State Highways will go a long way in creating an environment that is protective to the public as well as deriving economic benefits to the nation. On a conservative estimate, more than a billion trees can be planted within the next 10 years under a National Plan involving panchayats, urban bodies, NGOs, District Administrations, State Governments and Central Ministries. Food Industry can play a role in this by consciously planting Neem in and around their processing facilities which can ensure a much cleaner environment for handling foods.


Monday, April 20, 2009


TV viewing by children is sought to be regulated through mandatory control by the GOI as well as voluntary restrictions by the media industry. Screen violence, indecent images and dialogs and content language
can have far reaching influence on the tender minds of children who cannot exercise viewer discretion unlike the adults. The very fact that TV medium has access to millions of homes make it a powerful communicator with potential for harm as well as benefits, depending on how it is harnessed. Depicting smoking or drinking on the screen, especially by familiar personalities with name and fame can have an "imitating" influence on youngsters, aspiring to become some body in life.

When it comes to promotion of food products on the small screen, very little restraint seems to be in place, looking at hundreds of advertisements sponsored by manufacturers of processed foods. In the absence of food and nutrition experts working with the monitoring authorities, many advertisers get away with ludicrous claims of benefits in consuming their products. In a startling observation in the UK it was found that kids spending hours in front of the TV end up with bad eating habits by unconsciously believing that those appearing on the ads are good for them. It is a common knowledge that mostly less healthy food products are advertised in the TV while healthy foods rarely receive any publicity at all. There are isolated instances of industries collectively taking up nutritional causes that may benefit their range of products collectively. Promotion of milk and egg is a typical example but these days these ads are becoming conspicuous by their rare appearances.

How can any one blame the kids when their favorite actor sips a fizz drink in style, singing virtues about the product? Can we find fault with the mothers if they believe in the ads that emphatically proclaims about growing tall, sharp and smart if a particular beverage is consumed? Branded potato chips have become the standard bearer as far as the youths are concerned, thanks mainly to the near saturation advertisements in almost all TV channels. RTE breakfast cereals, most of them loaded with sugar appear every day tempting the kids as well as the mothers to replace traditional foods like Idli, Vada, Dosa, Uppuma, Poori or Chapathi. Is there no way out of this quagmire we see ourselves in? Voluntary restraint by the industry is more easily said than done because business has no human face or social commitment, being driven relentlessly by profit motives and one cannot blame them entirely for this as their investments are at stake. If ads about cigarettes and liquors can be banned, why not apply the same yardstick to those food ads which are misleading? Why cant we have a "TRUTH PANEL" consisting of nutritionists and food scientists to arbitrate on ads which do not reflect reality vis-a-vis foods? At least such ads should have nutritional warnings that consuming them can have negative consequences also.

ICMR, under the Ministry of Health, should take the lead in evolving a practical code for food advertisements and evaluation of outlandish claims with practically no scientific basis. Also for consideration is whether to insist on including a nutritional message with each food ad that appears on the small screen. For example when a cola drink is promoted why not include a message that natural fruit juices are best for the health, or including a message about virtues of fresh vegetables in ads promoting potato chips or highlighting the goodness of milk in ads promoting instant coffee. The MFPI of GOI must take up on a priority development of promotional capsules that will stress on good eating habits, nutritional advantages of traditional foods, superiority of fresh fruits and vegetables for good health, virtues of taking milk regularly and similar causes. Promoting food industry at any cost should not be the motto of the GOI and State Governments but how best it can be done, without compromising on the health of the population, should be upper most in their mind while evolving any future strategy.


Sunday, April 19, 2009


One of the signs of old age is progressive loss of memory that invariably reduces the quality of life and eventually leads to development of diseases like Alzheimer's amongst some old age people. Shrinking of the brain is an indication of its ability to remember and greater the shrinkage, higher will be the neurological damage that leads to dementia like situation. Scientific findings do indicate that if such damages can be prevented or reduced, the cognitive decline due to old age can be prevented to a great extent. The ability of Vitamin B12 to arrest or slow down the process of memory decline is a relatively new finding that can go a long way to address the alarming situation faced by the old age population which does not realize the deficiency of this vitamin in the diet and its serious consequences. In a country like USA, mandatory as well as voluntary fortification and enrichment of processed foods may reduce the chances of deficiency to a greater extent than what we face in India. Even then serious consideration is required regarding the effectiveness of synthetic vitamins, especially their absorption and biological efficacy.

B12 deficiency is commonly asymptomatic and only when anemia is precipitated one becomes aware of the low levels of this vitamin in the body. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is in the range of 0.3 to 2 microgram, depending on the age of the population under consideration. Neurological signs of B12 deficiency can occur without any symptoms of anemia which can manifest in sensory disturbances due to damage to peripheral nerves and eventual irreversible death of nerve cells, It is claimed that almost 40% of world population suffer from low values of B12 below 350 pg/liter in blood but even those with 600 pg/liter may also come under deficiency category. In a typical western diet, B12 level is as high as 5-7 microgram per day but the uncertainties regarding absorption can cause serious imbalances in the body which is influenced by pepsin, hydrochloric acid, R-protein, pancreatic enzymes, intrinsic factor, calcium and cell receptors. During old age due to atrophic changes in GI tract, B12 absorption can decrease significantly and more than one third of world population above 60 years are reported to be affected by this syndrome. About 1-5% of free B12 are absorbed by passive diffusion. One worry that haunts vegetarians is the loss of B12 swept away by the high fiber content in their diet and practically no absorption of B12 produced by the intestinal flora in the Colon. According to one estimate 92% of vegans, 64% of lactovegetarians and 47% of lacto-ovovegetarians suffer from B12 deficiency.

It was erroneously believed that with high meat consumption that is prevalent in many affluent countries, Vit B12 deficiency should not be a major cause of worry since animal based foods, especially red meat are rich in this vitamin. But this belief is seriously being challenged by the reported findings that B12 contained in these foods are poorly absorbed by the body thereby creating deficiency situation, not noticed under normal conditions. As low levels of B12 deficiency are not manifested readily in many people, sub-optimal concentrations in the blood can go unnoticed for long that can cause irreparable damage to the brain resulting in progressive development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. It is a startling revelation that old age population with low levels of B12 suffer twice as much shrinkage of the brain as those with highest levels of this vitamin.

If the above conclusions, vis-a-vis B12, are true, is there no way one can prevent the onslaught of dementia and related diseases as a consequence of the relentless process of aging?. One suggestion that is worth considering calls for increasing the intake of milk as one ages to meet the optimal need of B12. With millions of processed products available in the markets world over, milk consumption is declining and this is true especially with younger population which does not imbibe the habit of drinking milk regularly. The life style changes taking place at young age, involving replacement of milk with foods which are not as complete in nutrition as milk, continues during old age also that has serious health consequences as brought out by these studies. A daily consumption of half a liter of milk is considered adequate to keep the B12 levels at a safe range and keep at bay dementia and Alzheimer's. More encouraging is the ability of human body to store 2-7 mg of B12 and regular consumption of milk during young age can help to build up this storage to maximum levels.

Milk contains about 7 microgram B12 per liter and daily consumption of two cups of milk will provide more than the RDA of B12 for an adult. One uncertainty with regard to milk is the stability of B12 during processing with some claiming that more than 10% is destroyed even under the comparatively milder pasteurization temperature and what would be the consequences of repeated boiling as practiced in India. But this is not supported by any substantial data and for the time being one can feel comfortable with the fact that B12 resists boiling temperature conditions and it is unstable only under alkaline conditions. As pH of milk is invariably less than 7, unless it is adulterated with sodium carbonate or alkali, significant destruction of B12 is unlikely to happen during boiling. 'Milking' the goodness of the milk should be the motto as one reconciles to the process of aging with grace and serenity!


Saturday, April 18, 2009


Proteins are always considered as a friendly food component by the layman as well as the nutritionists. Millions of words have been spoken and written about the bad effects of carbohydrates and fats, the other two bulk nutrients in foods we consume. While protein has a vital role in body building through tissue development and maintenance through replacement due to aging and normal attrition, carbohydrates and fats are sources of biological energy required to fuel the metabolism that drives life. By now it is very clear that over consumption of these two energy sources can lead to over weight and health disorders that are prevalent to day. How about proteins? Do they have any adverse effects on body if not properly balanced in the diet? If current trend of scientific investigations is taken at their face value, proteins can cause imbalances in body metabolism similar to fats under certain circumstances.

Twenty amino acids, contained in proteins, are the building blocks of all tissues and are involved in a variety of body functions vital for life sustenance. Out of these nine are considered essential as the human body does not have the capacity to make them and are to be supplied through the diet. Others are formed in the body through inter conversions by the mediation of a plethora of enzymes. There are three 'special' amino acids called Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) Leucine. Isoleucine and Valine which are concentrated in muscle tissues and have very important role in muscle formation and physical activity. The two characteristic proteins actin and myosin contained in the muscles have BCAAs up to 35% and therefore they have critical role as raw materials for muscle tissue building. Strenuous exercise for lengthy periods causes break down of muscle tissues and consequently depletion of BCAAs which provides quick energy as other sources become insufficient. BCAAs can decrease up to 20% after intense physical activity in athletes and other heavy workers. BCAAs also help to suppress lactic acid produced during muscular activity which otherwise can lower the pH causing muscle fatigue.and adversely affect muscle contraction. This is one of the reasons why BCAA supplements are taken by athletes and sports persons whose need for these amino acids far exceeds that for a normal person.

BCAAs are components in most proteins and deficiency of these amino acids is not very common. If adequate recommended amount of proteins are not provided through the diet, there can be deficiency of BCAAs also. Most diets for normal persons provide 55-140 mg of BCAAs per kg body weight but for athletes undergoing intense training take supplements containing 5 gm leucine, 4 gm of valine and 2 gm of isoleucine per day to compensate for muscle loss and increased muscle mass, though benefits of such supplementation has not been conclusively proved so far. High intake of BCAAs is not considered harmful as they are converted to other amino acids or used as an energy source or converted to fat for storage. Liver has limited capacity to metabolize BCAAs which pass through it practically unchanged to be preferentially metabolized in muscle cells.

Chance observation that obese people have high BCAA level attracted attention of the nutritionists and any association between excess BCAA and over weight became focus of investigation by some groups of scientists working on obesity problem. High fat content in the diet is certainly a cause for worry because of the attendant consequences but high fat with high BCAA levels in the diet constitutes a much bigger threat in the form of faster development of insulin resistance leading to diabetes. Animal studies show that feeding high fat diets supplemented with BCAAs results in development of insulin resistance with much lesser amount of food consumed. Parallel rise in levels of BCAAs and insulin resistance in over weight individuals is an indicator for likely development of Type II diabetes in the not too distant future. BCAAs, in presence of high fat, seem to be working at the molecular level in the insulin pathway and cause a build up of acyl carnitine involved in fat transportation, at least in animals, that affects the glucose absorption at the cellular level. BCAAs may also be working by chronically activating mTOR, a signaling protein that regulates cell growth and survival and functions as a sensor of cellular nutrition and energy levels. Last word has not yet been said about ill effects of BCAAs as all the above studies were in rats, requiring validation by human studies. But caution is called for while consuming diets rich in fat as well as proteins because of the possibility of developing insulin resistance with even lesser amount of food consumed.


Friday, April 17, 2009


"Consumer is the King" is the slogan by which modern marketing pundits swear by unfailingly to come up with new products with novel profiles and USP features. Convenience at the point of consumption has been the single most driving force in evolving new products that require minimum physical effort to prepare and consume within the confines of the house holds. If frozen food products and stabilized RTE preparations are occupying strategic position in super markets, it is because of the convenience factor. Within this group of products, competitors score over each other based on features like organoleptic quality, safety, nutritional superiority or organic credentials.

Mass customization, a relatively new concept was evolved to satisfy individual needs and wants of each customer at the point of sales. The present manufacturing infrastructure is tuned to mass production of products with some common acceptable denominators and is based largely on scale of economy. Fitting this concept calls for innovative thinking and interdisciplinary efforts. Success of such a concept will depend on the adaptability of the existing manufacturing systems to serve the new paradigm of mass customization. It is not that the concept is absolutely new because in many catering centers sufficient flexibility exists to assemble products from several individual ingredients to prepare, within a few minutes, RTE products with varying taste and flavor profiles. Subway chain, flourishing in the US and other developed countries, uses this concept in offering many products based on a dozen pre-processed ingredients, right in front of the customer after eliciting their preferences. There are many others who have adopted this logic and are doing well.

When mass customization is to be taken up by the processing industry, there is the challenge for producing a series of prefabricated components that can be purchased by the customer, taken home and make his own product for immediate consumption giving a greater sense of satisfaction than buying the packed foods with monotonous taste profiles from the markets. As human beings crave for variety in all spheres of activity, food is no exception and therefore the concept of mass customization could revolutionize the food industry in the coming years. Any such system when marketed, must give the customer a wide choice, based on the large multiplicity of combinations that can be obtained from a relatively modest range of components. Both sensory performance and functional diversity will determine the success of this approach. Prefabricated components like grated cheese, sliced cheese, cheese cubes, spreadable cheese, sliced meat, pickled vegetables, frozen precooked vegetables, precooked legumes etc are some examples of such components.

The acronym 'POSI' foods (point of sales individual), coined by one of the major players in the field even caters to individual health needs of the consumer. Using smart ingredients and special software and hardware programs it is possible to design and manufacture a customized food product on the spot for the customer who has keyed in a one-time entry of all the necessary health and preference data. The built-in health and nutritional guidelines, embedded recipes for food formulations and algorithms for delivery that align the composition with the health needs, enable the consumer to get the product within minutes at the point of delivery for consumption later.

It is doubtful whether Indian foods will be amenable to such high tech changes due to their very nature involving extensive cooking, use of a variety of spice ingredients and non-availability of pre-fabricated food components. The Chaat Foods, a truly indigenous system that is widely popular in India, is a rudimentary example of assembling RTE foods from individual preformed ingredients but it has not yet assumed any industrial proportion because of limited life of the components that go in creating the final product. The development of food processing in the country is still limited with small scale processors having scarce financial and technical resources dominating the industrial landscape. The freezing technology which holds so much promise is a non-starter with hardly any major player in the national scene. Retort pouch technology could be a possible route for creating POSI foods which only may be able to expand the market to any significant extent. A combination of a range of retorted component foods and a vast array dry mixes can provide a fillip for such futuristic food products in the country.


Sunday, April 12, 2009


In any industrial process certain amount of waste is inevitable and food processing is no exception. Wastes from food processing, restaurant industry, municipal garbage and house holds contain energy which can be extracted through thermal process or fermentation using mixed cultures. Methane generation through fermentation is by now well established and thousands of such small scale gas plants are working especially based on cow dung and other wastes containing utilizable carbon sources. However from the pollution angle methane does produce green house gas CO2, when burned to derive energy, contributing to global warming. Innovative scientific developments in the field of biotechnology have raised the possibility of using carbon contents in the waste products for generating a much cleaner energy source, the Hydrogen which, when used as a fuel, produces only water as the end product of combustion.

Bio-hydrogen is a term extensively used to describe the hydrogen produced through microbiological fermentation process different from that produced from natural gas, coal and water through thermal and electric separation or in the nuclear reactors as a by-product. Most of the hydrogen produced to day is from natural gas by thermal process. Till date no process either biological or thermal or electric has been able to separate hydrogen economically as the energy used to produce this fuel is much more than that used in the production process. Still hydrogen from natural gas or coal does not make much sense because both these sources are not sustainable or renewable though environmentally hydrogen is a cleaner fuel at the consumption point.

Bacteria and Algae are attracting the attention of the scientists as tools for hydrogen separation from complex organic molecules containing this element. Bio-hydrogen gas has been produced, though on a limited scale by dark fermentation ( absence of light), thermophilic fermentation and photo fermentation in presence of light using microbes such as Rhodobacter sphaeroides, Enterobacter cloacae and mixed cultures containing hydrogen producing as well as methane producing organisms. Methane produced in anaerobic digestion of wastes can be steam reformed to give hydrogen. Organic wastes, presently used for land refills and treated to reduce BOD before sending out as safe effluent can become the most sustainable energy source in the coming decades. Pilot plant projects have proved that technically this is a feasible process and there are several such projects working in some countries as living example of the feasibility of bio-hydrogen as a source of renewable energy.

Some of the feed stock suitable for bio-hydrogen generation include wastes from cattle farms, dairy industry, starch industry, paper mills, domestic source, restaurants, distillery, oil refinery, food processing etc. Efficacy of the bio-hydrogen fermentation is generally low with one mole of glucose yielding hardly 1-2 moles of hydrogen. Factors such as pretreatment of the culture, pH of the system, organic loading, temperature and waste water characteristics have critical influence on the process. For successful H2 production, the seed culture has to be pretreated at high temperature and low pH to bring about inhibition of methanogens allowing spore forming Clostridium to dominate in the mixed culture. Efficiency can be increased if a 3 step process is deployed where, after the first stage hydrogen generation by dark fermentation, the residue is integrated with photofermentation and then with methanogenesis which will ensure maximum utilization of the latent energy contained in the feedstock. Algae is another promising biological tool and the microorganism C.reinhardtii, when grown under sulfur starvation, produces hydrogen instead of O2 as the by-product of photosynthesis.

"Garbage is Gold" seems to be the modern slogan and most of the on going projects in many municipal towns in some countries use the garbage for burning in heavy incinerators to raise steam and power generation. Plants with capacities as high as 3000 tons trash/day, generated in urban areas, are in operation. A 700 tons/day "trash to power" plant is believed to be able to generate power equivalent to burning of 120, 000 tons of coal an year in a thermal plant. In a country like the US sufficient waste is generated to produce power which otherwise would need 2 million barrels of fossil fuel per day! It is time for the planners world over to think of bio-hydrogen production from these wastes as it is relatively a clean and green energy source causing no adverse effect to the environment unlike the non-renewable sources of energy..


Saturday, April 11, 2009


It is well known that increased consumption of sugar and fat is a major dietary change brought about by the plethora of products offered by the industry, playing to the uncontrollable sensory desires of the consumer who can afford, being more and more affluent with higher disposable incomes. Scientific endeavors in the field of nutrition and health were always focused more on relation between food and over weight syndromes than the potential for food to influence the aging process. Preventing on-set of diseases like CVD, BP, Diabetes, Cancer and others through optimal and balanced diets, will of course ensure normal progress to old age. Similarly food can also hasten aging if not properly balanced or the diet is not moderated preventing excess consumption of some food components. Longevity depends on many factors and no single explanation can bring clarity to this issue.

Implication of sugars in health disorders is by now well established. Role of liquid calories in weight control was discussed in an earlier blog. Similarly wide spread consumption of corn based HFCS through a plethora of formulated food and beverages is widely believed to be one of the important causative factors for obesity. Maintaining blood sugar levels, even for a normal healthy person, free from diseases, is considered critical for preserving cognitive health. Hippocampically challenged state can develop during progressive aging, causing lapses in memory and rising blood sugar level during aging process is partly responsible for this phenomenon. Decreasing brain function in one area of hippocampus called dentate gyrus is the main contributor for declining memory condition and its connection with rising blood sugar level is well established. A decline in blood glucose can increase dentate gyrus function and consequently improve the cognitive function.

In simulation studies using yeast cells it has been found that over consumption of sugar is directly linked to aging. The life span of these cells was adversely affected by their ability to sense the presence of sugar in the medium. The specific gene responsible for the glucose sensor, when removed from the cells, they lived longer, similar to those cells which grow under glucose starved conditions (calorie restriction regime). In all higher living beings calorie uptake involves two aspects viz tasting and digestion. Before nutrients can reach the cells, there is an analogous process in which sensors on the surface of the cell detect the presence of glucose where upon the glucose inside the cell is broken down. The by-products of such break- down process are believed to be responsible, at least partly for aging. In humans when sugar is consumed, the absorbed sugar rushes to through the blood stream and insulin is promptly released in an attempt to keep the blood sugar level stable. Excess insulin is known to cause fat storage besides contributing to diseases like asthma, arthritis, gallstone, tooth decay, elevated triglycerides linked to CVD and suppression of immune system.

Higher levels of sugar in the blood eventually make proteins stick to gether thereby damaging the function of the proteins. Excess sugar can react, especially with proteins such as Collagen in the skin which may lead to brown "splotches" or age spots on the skin as well as loss of elasticity causing premature wrinkling . Sugar damaged, dangerously cross-linked proteins known as Advanced Glycation End products (AGE) can wreak havoc in all body tissues and lead to untimely aging. There are special enzymes in the body which do break down such potentially dangerous mattrix of glycated proteins continuously up to a limit but when glucose levels attain high values in the blood, equilibrium shifts to more AGE products formation. Use of Alpha Lipoic Acid, Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Chromium and Taurine are claimed o be effective to varying extent in preventing AGE formation through different mechanisms. But the most effective way of preventing premature aging is through exercising self-control on high sugar consumption in the daily diet. It is not for nothing that the health experts preach replacement of simple sugars in the food with complex carbohydrates which prevent sudden glucose build up in the blood and help keeping the relentless onslaught of aging at bay.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009


The Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) Program, with a massive funding of Rs 6500 crore from Government of India and spanning all the states in the country, is considered the largest child feeding project in the world with a net-work of kitchens equipped with the barest of bare paraphernalia to serve warm foods to children and vulnerable women. The beneficiaries include 6.86 crore children of age up to 6 years and 1.45 crore pregnant and lactating mothers. It is a tragedy of monumental proportion that the resources earmarked for this noble cause have not made any dent on the targeted group of children and nothing seems to have changed even after a decade of operation of this much touted development program. No less an authority than the very Ministry for Women and Child development admitted that the program had very slow impact on physical growth and development of children and found that lack of provision for incorporating micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals in the prepared foods supplied at the feeding centers as a reason for under performance of this well intentioned scheme.

According to the reputed International Food Policy Research Institute in USA, while China has been able to reduce sharply the extent of child malnutrition during nineteen nineties, India lags behind even the sub-Saharan poor nations, in terms of the number of impoverished children left behind in our relentless pursuit of wealth. Despite the robust economic growth, 42.5% of the child population under the age of 5 years in the country remain under weight, a true reflection of the magnitude of malnutrition prevailing that has disastrous consequences in terms of illness, morbidity, stunted growth and vulnerability to death. World Food Program claims that a quarter of world's hungry people live in India, a national shame brought upon ourselves by the human failure in managing our own affairs logically, rationally and honestly.

The present system of providing some staples like rice, dal etc to the kitchens under the ICDS program and 'hoping' that every thing will be alright is just not working, if we go by the results achieved so far. Do we need more time to come to a conclusion that the present 'hot' food concept just will not work in a country like India where corruption knows no boundaries and pilferage is rampant, the sufferers being the poor beneficiaries in whose name unscrupulous 'managers' are lining their pockets? Country must wake up and force the governments to rework out the strategy to ensure 100% of the beneficiaries targeted are physically covered without any diversion of funds or input materials provided. How can this be achieved?

The processed food industry in India can provide the right answer. It has the technologies, resources and infrastructure required for manufacture and necessary distribution network to deliver the foods to every nook and corner of the country. If there is a lack of appropriate technological wherewithal, the two food research and development institutions, DFRL and CFTRI, funded fully by the taxpayer of this country must be asked to shut down all their existing projects and take up a 'mission mode' endeavor to evolve appropriate products and processes for meeting the needs of the ICDS and midday school feeding programs. The famous ENERGY FOOD product developed and productionized in seventies was unjustifiably side lined due to political considerations though it happened to be the most balanced and lowest costing food product in the world. Which food can deliver 16 g of proteins and 360 kC of energy plus the micro nutrients for a meager cost of Rs 2, as was done with energy food earlier, when subsidized input materials from the PDS were provided? What about the indirect benefits flowing out of a program of this dimension, based on industry processed products proven for their organoleptic and nutritional qualities, such as opportunities for employment, expansion of industrial base, more hygienic food, elimination of hazards of food contamination and poisoning, lesser wastage, saving of water and many others?

The criticism that Energy Food was a dry product and beneficiaries were 'bored' with its monotonous taste can be avoided to a great extent by diversifying the product profile and opting for different products and technologies. In a country like the US, subsidized canteens provide snacks and meals operated by private caterers but the school system there is more organized and dispersed with school transportation facilities provided by the county administration making the system work efficiently. The burden of cooking on the school staff must be avoided as teaching is the task entrusted to them which will get hijacked if non-teaching work load is thrust on them. A 3-party joint strategy involving government, industry and the R & D organizations must be evolved to put on track the derailed feeding program and make sure the investments lead to tangible long term results. performance of the Industry, if roped into the school feeding program, must be measured in terms of well defined development yardsticks vis-a-vis the beneficiaries coming under their area of operation. The onus will be on it to show results, in stead of the teachers or the school management. Let us strive to achieve our full potential and climb out of the bottom basket of those nations with highest Global Hunger Index where India is presently consigned based on its past performance, along with some of the poorest countries in the world in sub-Saharan Africa.This is the least we owe to the fellow citizens of this country who are unfavorably placed in life due to circumstances, not of their choice.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Considering that man needs about 3 liters of water every day for maintaining the moisture balance in the body, food and beverages provide a major part of this through the diet, rest coming from drinking water. While water by itself does not contribute to any calories, foods and beverages contain calories contributed by carbohydrates, fat and proteins to varying extent depending on their concentration. Beverages based on fruits, vegetables, herbs, sugar, alcohol and milk offer a wide variety competing for the minds of the consumer. The calorie contents in these beverages are influenced by the extent of metabolizable carbohydrates like sucrose, high fructose syrup or other natural sweeteners. Sugar content in most of the beverages can vary from 10% to 20% depending on the source or the recipe. Alcoholic beverages like wine derive the calories from sugar as well as alcohol while others like hard liquor or beer have only alcohol to contribute to calories.

Soft drinks including aerated beverages are usually based on white sugar or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and are at the center of controversy regarding their role in uncontrolled weight gain. HFCS is increasingly being implicated in obesity in the US probably because of the large consumption base for such drinks in that country. Compared to India where the per capita soft drink consumption is a "healthy" 2 liters per year, corresponding figure for the US is around 190 liters in 2005 and shockingly this figure is almost 100% jump from that in 1980. In contrast total milk intake dropped from 95 liters per capita per year in 1980 to less than 70 liters in 2005! How far this shift in consumption pattern is responsible for the current day health problems in that country is a matter of conjecture. How ever it is well recognized that soft drinks are high in Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL)while milk has significantly lower values for GI and GL.

The caloric density and quantum of foods consumed determine the extent of calories ingested and unless calorie intake is balanced with its expenditure through physical activity, excess will invariably cause body weight increase. Though pure sugar and pure fat, when taken directly will have highest caloric density (CD), products containing these ingredients in varying proportions can have different CD values. Theoretically solid foods should always be high in CD values because of higher metabolizable solids but their consumption is self limiting due to satiety factor and limitations vis-a-vis oral cavity, moisture content and gastrointestinal capacity. In comparison liquid foods are easily consumed and metabolized fast in the body creating more cravings for beverages. It is believed that fluid calories do not give a strong feeling of fullness and consequently more food is consumed to get the satiety resulting in higher consumption of calories unintentionally. A person drinking an alcoholic beverage or a soft drink before a meal usually does not compensate for these extra calories by consuming less food at the table, a major reason for higher calorie intake.

Looking into the development of soft drink industry world over, 4 out of 10 top selling grocery items in most of the developed countries belong to the beverage category which includes soft drinks, juices, milk and beer and sugar sweetened juices account for more than 35% of the beverages on the market shelves. Though both 'solid' and 'liquid' calories are associated with weight changes, only reduction in the intake of sugar sweetened beverages is translated into significant weight loss in many cases. The logical question that arises is whether one can lead a healthy life without the fear of gaining undue body weight by avoiding regular consumption of sugar sweetened drinks? Many experts think so and advocate drinks which are not sweetened like unsweetened versions of juices, coffee and tea, low calorie beverages or plain water when ever necessary. Drinking 1 or 2 glasses of water before a meal also reduces the quantity of food eaten resulting in lesser calorie intake and better health in the long run.


Monday, April 6, 2009


Fructose, Galactose and Glucose happen to be the three important mono saccharides found in nature and play crucial roles in the human metabolic system. The great blame game centered around Fructose, also known widely as fruit sugar since it is present naturally in many fruits, does not seem to be abating amongst the food and health experts, many of whom feel, rightly or wrongly that fructose is the main cause of epidemic obesity being faced by the population in some affluent countries. To the classical food scientists it does not make any sense as to why Fructose should cause obesity while Glucose, its more famous hexose isomer is the main source of biological energy produced through the TCA Cycle at the cellular level. But there appears to be substantial support to the theory that corn based High Fructose Syrup and its omnipotent presence in most of the foods consumed by the Americans could be a major contributing factor for obesity in that country.
Tomato, an inconsequential vegetable in the daily lives of many population, has come to the rescue of Fructose by showing the latter in a better light because of the reported beneficial effect of tomato products in protecting humans from some types of cancers. This phenomenon was first observed when scientists found such an effect with dehydrated product but not with fresh tomatoes. It is true that FDA of USA permits declaring claims for tomato in reducing the risk of cancers like prostate, gastric, ovarian and pancreas. Though lycopene, a major constituent in Tomato, was thought to be the active substance responsible for this effect, in actual experiments pure lycopene did not show the same result as tomato products. This led to the hypothesis that anti-cancer property of tomato is due to the combine action of carotenoids, vitamin C and poly phenols. That fresh tomato did not had the same effect as reconstituted products from dehydrated tomato provided the vital clue that some artifacts formed during the dehydration process could be the real active principle for the anti-cancer property.
Fructose has a ketone functional group and when dissolved in water it forms a ring structure like that of glucose. It undergoes Maillard reaction or non-enzymatic browning as Glucose does by combining with amino acids present in the food at high temperatures. As fructose exists to greater extent in the open-chain form than does glucose, the initial stages of the Maillard reaction occurs more rapidly than with glucose. An understanding of the role of fructose in the Maillard reaction products helped scientists to isolate several ketosamines, reaction products between fructose and different amino acids and further studies zeroed on one compound, the reaction product with histidine amino acid, as responsible for the beneficial effect of tomato products against cancer. Further proof arrived when this ketosamine, in presence of lycopene was found to stop cancerous growth more than 98% of the time. In rat experiments 45% fewer animals died of prostate cancer. Being an Amadori compound, fructose ketosamine is present in many dry fruits but the significance of dehydrated tomato products being effective is possibly because of presence of lycopene and vitamin also as believed by many.
Fructose thus has a positive role in human diet and if at all it is involved in some way in obesity, it must be due to over consumption by the unsuspecting consumers, affecting their normal glucose-centric metabolism.   

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Chinese scientists have made a splash in the international circuit recently by claiming the development of a technology to make low carbohydrate juice products from vegetables like carrot using lactic acid fermentation and further claiming that these products are good for diabetic people. What is not clear in this claim is whether they have found a new strain of microorganism that will 'eat up' complex carbohydrates like starch present in many vegetables. Use of Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) in many traditional vegetable products is ancient dating back to centuries and many traditional foods in Asian and African continents are based on this fermentation. Professor Steinkraus, an internationally acclaimed and highly knowledgeable microbiologist, has brought out an epic book on the fermented foods which is virtually an encyclopedia on the subject. It is difficult to understand what is new in the present findings reported by Chinese scientists. Lack of any substantial data on their study makes it difficult to come to any meaningful conclusion.

To begin with most vegetables are low in carbohydrates including sugars and their consumption is recommended because of this reason. Besides they are rich in dietary fiber, several vitamins and essential minerals. The carbohydrate content in most of the vegetables vary from 2.5% in bitter gourd to 9.7% in carrot but is high in some like Peas (14.4%) potato (22.1%), Yam (18.4%), Breadfruit (15.8%) and Plantain (14%). There are many vegetables grown in India with low carbohydrate content like bottle gourd (2.5%), brinjal (4%), squash (3.4%), okra (6.4%), snake gourd (3.3%), pumpkin (4.6%), ridge gourd (3.4%), spinach (4.3%), radish (3.4%), and tomato (4.7%). More over the glycemic index (GI) of of most of the vegetables is very low because whatever little carbohydrates present in them, are encased in so much cellulosic material that they cause practically no rise in blood sugar even if consumed in large quantities. Only some like Potato ( GI 80+), Peas (GI 48), Corn (GI 53) and Carrot (GI 47) are considered having some what higher GI values. Vegetables are rich sources of dietary fiber, both soluble as well as insoluble and many of them contain 2-6% fiber, considered vital for good health. If this is so where is the need to reduce the carbohydrate involving costly technological intervention which will also remove the beneficial dietary fiber and other nutrients in the process? Nonetheless LAB fermentation process does not involve heating of the raw material and there fore the products may contain some health protecting phytonutrients like isothiocyanates in significant quantities generated by live enzymes like myrosinase.

If the purpose is to make drinkable juice products, use of pectinase can serve the same purpose faster. Subjecting vegetable pulps to LAB fermentation is time consuming and cumbersome and the products will have a distinct acidic taste which has to be adjusted to suit the palates of the consumers that calls for significant dilution. Again addition of salt or sugar may be necessary to make the product palatable especially to young age consumers. A 3/4 cup juice is supposed to be equivalent to one serving of vegetables and if 5 servings are to be made, almost 4 cups of juice will have to be consumed requiring at least 4 g of salt to make them palatable! It is true that health freaks are already consuming such juices from many vegetables and herbs but their number and quantities consumed are rather limited raising a question regarding the commercial viability of these LAB fermented vegetable juices.

LAB group consists of homofermentors and heterofermentors, converting sugar to lactic acid and CO2 or a mixture of lactic acid, acetic acid, ethyl alcohol and CO2 respectively. These include Lactobacillus acidophilus, L.bulgaricus, L.plantarum, L.caret, L.pentoaceticus, L.brevis and L.thermophilus. Streptococcus and Leuconostoc species also produce lactic acid but much less than that produced by Lactobacillus species. They are all microaerophilic organisms requiring no oxygen for their growth and metabolism. Traditional sauerkraut fermentation of cabbage brought about by Leuconostoc mesenteroides is a classical example of lactic acid preserved vegetable, consumed widely by Europeans. There are typical traditional fermented products in many countries, almost all of them preserved by lactic acid fermentation in presence of salt. Kimchi of Korea, Gundruk of Nepal, Kocho of Ethiopia, Pak-gard-dong, Hum-dong, Hua-chai po and Naw-mai-dong of Thailand, Hum choy and Tai-tan-tsoi of China, Tempoyak of Malaysia, dozens of pickles from mango, lime, gooseberry etc in India, are all LAB mediated preserved foods that have stood the test of time for centuries.

The critical substrate for LAB is sugar and only in case of vegetables that contain small concentration of sugar can initiate fermentation. The role of the salt is primarily to bring out the juice and subsequent liberation of sugar for further action by the microbes. During LAB action glucose is broken down mainly to lactic acid and lactate which enters the blood when pickles are consumed is converted to pyruvate in the liver for deriving energy through the Kreb's Cycle. Excess accumulation of lactate in the blood can end up as glucose through the pyruvate route. Though lactic acid fermentation does bring down carbohydrate load, it does not guarantee against rise in blood sugar in the blood under certain conditions. While LAB fermented vegetable juice products can be a separate category of newly developed beverages which should stand scrutiny of the consumer for its acceptability, claiming it to be a panacea for diabetic people is some what far-fetched!


Friday, April 3, 2009


A recent finding that mineral water packed in plastic bottles can extract dangerous chemicals from the container which will exert estrogenic functions, when consumed regularly, cannot be easily dismissed. The conclusion was drawn based on the observation that the chemicals isolated from such water samples caused an increase in the development of embryos in some species of mud snails. How far this evidence translates into any potential threat to human beings who consume water packed in plastic bottles cannot be ascertained with any certainty because of insufficient data to support such a possibility.Use of plastic bottles especially PET for disposable type of containers and Poly carbonates for reusable purpose is widely prevalent in India and therefore it must get the attention of scientists as well as the authorities concerned with this product. While small containers of capacity 500 ml to 2 liter are in use in the retail market, bulk supply with reusable containers with capacities 5 liters to 20 liters is common at the house hold level and in mass catering places.

There is a strong group of activists who feel that water packed in plastic bottles entails heavy health risks because during their manufacture a cocktail of chemicals are used for imparting various properties to the plastics. Environmentalists oppose use of plastics because for making every bottle of 1 liter capacity, 3-5 liters of water is used which is considered as wasteful. Also cited is the reported presence of Antimony, a heavy metal, in water packed in plastics, leached out from the container. Alarming picture is painted to show that water stored in plastic containers leaches more and more Antimony with time and temperature but maximum reported was less than 700 parts per trillion (ppt) while up to 20000 ppt is considered safe in potable water by international safety organizations. In another study some commercial samples of bottled water reportedly contained 38 different pollutants like Bacteria, fertilizers and industrial chemicals though many of these pollutants could have come from the source from where the water originated. The Bisphenol A (BPA) episode of recent origin is still fresh in the minds of the consumers but water is generally not bottled in polycarbonates from where BPA can be leached out. Polycarbonate bottles are popular amongst consumers as reusable water bottles but realizing the risks of BPA, polycarbonate is being shunned by all major retailers across the world.

Use of Polyvinyl chloride pipes for transport of water also is under scrutiny as it is likely to release trace chemicals like BPA, phthalates, organotin etc all with estrogenic activity. Relatively safe plastics like HDPE are increasingly being preferred for piping and storage of water for the households as well as commercial purpose. While those who consume bottled water occasionally may face relatively lesser risk of health hazards, if the house hold plastics being extensively used to store and supply water were found to be leaching out such chemicals, there is bound to be some concern. Fortunately, as of now, such fears may be misplaced, though what future holds is not certain. Going back to cement or steel storage tanks and GI pipes for water supply may yet be a safer bet in the long run.

The mud snail story from Germany may provide some grist for the anti-plastic groups to denigrate bottled water industry for some time but a critical scrutiny of the data brings out the startling fact that even in snails bred in glass bottles there were abnormal embryo development. Probably this indicates that the original water used itself had some xenoestrogen chemicals and extractive from the plastic bottles only increased the incidence. Also to be noted is that the German study was on bottled mineral water, not on normal potable water and whether the cocktail of minerals present had any role needs to be checked. Further study is warranted to come to a definitive conclusion that plastic bottles are risky to be used for packing water and damning an industry based on such scanty studies is not justified. Globally drinking water industry made 115. 4 billion liters of water in 2006 worth about $ 60.9 billion. By 2011 world will witness a production of 174.3 billion liters valued at $ 86.4 billion.

In a country like India where millions of people travel 365 days an year, bottled water is only the dependable source of bacteria-free water. Similarly millions of people gather in thousands of venues across the country for religious, social and professional meetings and bottled water is the major source of safe drinking water. Suggesting alternate containers like cans and bottles is not practical considering the cost and availability. If there is a risk proven beyond doubt through scientific evaluation, ways and means will have to be found to make the containers safer through better manufacturing technologies.


Thursday, April 2, 2009


One out of 5 calories consumed by humans comes through liquid foods that include beverages also, highlighting the crucial importance of water for life sustenance. Water needs vary from person to person, the nature of foods consumed and the environmental conditions. Too much water intake can also cause water 'intoxication' resulting in excess sodium drain and consequent effect on electrolyte balance. Juices extracted from fruits and vegetables are major carriers of water though they also contain many valuable nutrients. Conventionally juice from any fruit is made by removing so called inedible portions like peel and seeds, thermal inactivation of native enzymes, coarse and fine filtration steps, clarification by pectinase enzyme in some cases and sterilization. The juice is packed aseptically or canned or concentrated and frozen for marketing. Sugar preserved products like squashes and syrups are made by comparatively inexpensive process. Ready To Serve Beverages (RTS) made with fruit pulp, water, sugar and added flavors and citric acid are packed in returnable glass bottles or tetra pack cartons. Nutritionally RTS beverages are just a source of sugar with very low nutrient density as the fruit pulp content can be as low as 10% in many cases. Why such products with almost empty calories are permitted, targeted especially against younger consumers, is beyond one's comprehension. Why do we blame soft drink industry for doing precisely the same through their syrup based carbonated drinks?
Advent of Tetrapack technology has encouraged a couple of processors to introduce 100% juices from fruits like orange, guava etc but due to cost factor they are yet to take off. Considering that the yield of juice from a fruit like orange is less than 50%, the final cost of the end product is bound to be on the higher side, especially when the processors have no control on the raw material price as the fruits are sourced at prevailing wholesale market prices. There is a possibility of reducing the prices if yield can be increased, thus diluting the cost component from the fruit in the final production cost. Food technology must take the blame for playing to the illogical demands of consumers when it comes to juice products. Use of pectinase to clarify fruit juices is a classical example of this trend. Fruit juices are invariably made to look thin or clear and consumer is under the mistaken impression that clear juices are better ignoring the reality that the suspended insoluble matter removed during clarification is rich in dietary fiber and many phytonutrients. There is an urgent need to revisit the juice making technology as it is practiced to day to make the products more health friendly.
Comminuted fruit juices, containing almost all the goodness present in the whole fruit, can be made adapting the existing technology. Whole fruit is crushed and comminuted to reduce the particle size of the pulp to about 100-500 micron levels and the yield can be as high as 97% in a fruit like orange or grapefruit, only residue rejected being the seeds. The product so obtained is a highly concentrated beverage base which can be diluted to the desired taste threshold to get RTS drinks. Major advantages for such a product include lower cost of the finished product and significantly higher health benefits. Probably other fruits like apple, guava, plums, peaches, etc also could be processed into comminuted beverage base for preparing more healthy RTS drinks. The process for comminuted beverage type of products involves selecting fully ripe fruits, their washing, steaming, cutting into pieces, mixing with sugar solution, blending, pulping and making a homogeneous product which can then be formulated into RTS drinks.
A fruit like orange has more than 170 different phytonutrients and 60 flavonoids, all considered good for protection against diseases like low blood pressure, high cholesterol, inflammation, many types of cancers, heart disease, strokes, cardiac arrhythmia, arthritis, asthma, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Diabetes and Chrohn's disease. Orange fruit has two distinct parts, Pericarp consisting of Flavedo, the outer colored peel layer and Albedo, the inner white portion of the peel and Endocarp made of segments and juice vesicles containing the juice. Pericarp, which is normally thrown away is the repository of essential oils rich in terpenes and oxygenated terpenes, bicyclic terpenes, sesquiterpenes, aliphatic compounds, aromatic hydrocarbons, esters containing nitrogen, paraffin wax, steroids, triterpenes, fatty acids, coumarins, psoralins, flavones such as hesperetin and naringenin, anthocyanins, hydroxy cinnamic acid, polyphenols, pigments, carotenoids, chloroplasts, pectin, fiber etc. Gallic acid, a polyphenol and hesperidin, a polymethoxylated flavone are considered highly beneficial in maintaining good health if regularly consumed. These phytonutrients in presence of Vitamin C, contained in the juice exert high antioxidant effect at the cellular level. 
Citrus fruits like orange, lemon and grapefruit typically yield 22-38% peel, 34-78% pulp and 22-51% juice. Presence of limonin does impart some bitterness in the concentrated base but this is diluted when RTS drinks are formulated and masked in presence of sugar. The superior flavor due to higher content of oxygenated terpenes in comminuted juice, as compared to thin and clear juices is another feature deserving consideration. There is every justification for encouraging manufacture and consumption of comminuted fruit drinks considering the enormous health benefits such products can confer on the consumers.