Thursday, May 21, 2009


India is the only country where numerous packing materials are available, traditional as well as modern. Used news papers and magazines, plantain leaves, colacasia leaves, teak wood leaves and many other leafy materials are used by groceries and take away food vendors. Fresh meat is invariably wrapped in locally available leaves though lately plastic films and carry bags are replacing them in many places. Stitched leaves from perennial trees like teak, tendu etc are also used in some parts of the country for wrapping foods. The leaf cup making cups, designed by CFTRI in nineteen eighties, are mechanically being produced from arecanut sheath, dry banana leaves, etc and find favor with many consumers. Combinations of leaves, paper and polyethylene, give better packing material with water-proof properties.

Modern packaging materials used widely by today's food processing industry include metal cans and tins of different shapes, glass bottles, rigid and flexible plastics, laminates of different types, paper bags, cartons and corrugated boxes. While large sized metal tins are routinely used for packing many food materials like edible oils, cashew nuts, biscuits etc, Open top Sanitary cans and tagger top cans, fabricated from tin coated steel sheets and aluminum sheets find extensive use for many processed foods and beverages. There are specially designed machinery that can accomplish tasks like filling, evacuation, gas flushing and closing for almost all modern packaging materials. Form-Fill-Seal machines are in wide use for packing liquid as well as free flowing solid food materials. Aseptic packaging system, involving filling of pre-sterilized liquid products, has been widely adopted for milk, beverages and many other popular fluid foods. As most of the flexible packaging materials cannot stand high temperatures of food sterilization, products have to be pre-sterilized before filling and packed under hygienic conditions for good shelf-life. There are special laminates with polyester with or without Aluminum that go for packing of retortable foods which have found a prominent place in the Indian Market.

The packaging industry and the food industry are supposed to be complimentary with the former tuning its ears to the requirements of the latter. Unfortunately in many cases such synergy is conspicuous by its absence and food industry has to be satisfied by what is "offered" by the packaging industry. Spoilage that originates from the packaging materials used by processors is never recognized. Invariably many small scale processors do not even sanitize the packaging materials before use for packing their food products and the cross contamination can cause spoilage of the contents in many cases. It is not known how many packaging material suppliers sanitize their products before dispatching to the processors. There are well defined chemical and physical specifications for food packing materials, be it cans or bottles or synthetic products but rarely one comes across the third dimension in packing, which is the microbiological status of the supplies that are received by the processor. It is understandable that all these packaging materials undergo thermal processing during manufacture and therefore can be assumed to be free from microbes. But the storage and transportation environment can cause serious cross contamination of the surface which is rarely recognized.

Ultraviolet(UV) disinfection technology, which is basically a surface treatment technique is excellently suited for sanitizing packaging materials used for foods, Widely used by the water industry for bottling of water as well as bulk supply and distribution of water for potable purpose, UV-C in the wave length region of 100-280 nm has been found to be most effective in killing microorganisms such as bacteria, mold, yeast and viruses. UV disinfection equipment, currently available are designed mainly for free flowing fluids like water but can be suitably modified to surface sterilize packaging materials in the form of sheets before fabrication into containers or pouches. Dosage in the range of 0.4 to 30 nm/cm2 can achieve total kill of all bacteria and enteroviruses. UV rays affect many chemicals present in the microbial cell including its DNA virtually making it inactive any more. Such types of equipment must be a part of the packing ,material manufacturing systems and once treated they must be hermetically sealed to prevent cross infection during further handling. Alternatively, processors should have these facilities, especially for flexible packaging materials which cannot be washed or sterilized before filling like cans.

The manufacturers of traditional packing materials also must be sensitized regarding the need for sanitizing their products before retailing in the market. Small scale devices at affordable price is the need of the hour and appropriate procedures will have to be worked out for these entrepreneurs who must be persuaded to stream line their production and delivery mode so that their materials are safe for food contact application, including packing of solid as well as liquid foods.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Though peanut is considered a wholesome food rich in proteins, fats and many nutrients vital to the body, it was shunned for some time by the international buyers, because of the presence of mycotoxins, the hazardous metabolic product of the mold belonging to Aspergillus species which contaminates the crop mostly in the field due to improper drying. Its good thermal stability at high temperatures make it hard to destroy during processing and mold infected raw material if used will taint the final product also. Non-availability of an acceptable process to decontaminate peanuts and bring down the aflatoxin content to safe levels is a constraint coming in the way of development of this agricultural crop, competing effectively against soybean, considered its rival in the international market. While decorticated nut is a versatile food material for humans both for direct consumption as well as for providing edible oil, the protein rich deoiled residues are much sought after as an ingredient for animal feeds. In contrast soybean is mostly used for oil extraction, soy flour and processed products based it and as a component in animal feeds.

Peanut seeds can be blanched to remove cuticles if white kernel is desired or can be roasted, boiled, fried or coated to get different consumer products. Peanut butter, a highly popular product in western countries is made by grinding decuticled and roasted kernels through a process that ensures no separation of oil during packing and storage. Nutritionally shelled peanut seeds contain good quality oil to the extent of 50% while its protein content is around 25%. Bold seeds are in good demand and hand picked bold seeds fetch premium price in the export market. In India peanuts are processed in oil mills using ghani type rotary presses, screw expellers and solvent extraction plants to recover as much oil as possible. Since oil recovery is the major goal, very little attention is paid to the quality of the deoiled residue which generally contains high levels of husk and cuticles besides other undesirable contaminants. Edible quality peanut cake can be made if the seeds are precleaned before pressing for oil and during nineteen fifties and sixties, peanut protein isolate made from the deoiled cake was touted as a concentrated protein source with 90-93% protein content. Deficiency of amino acid lysine is considered as a drawback when peanut protein isolate is compared with that from soybean. Even a milk like product was developed from the peanut 4 decades ago in India as a cheap substitute to dairy milk.

Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, the two organisms that grow on moist peanut seeds containing more than 7% moisture, excrete aflatoxins of different types which if consumed have been found to cause acute hepatic necrosis, liver cirrhosis and eventually carcinoma. There are 13 different types of aflatoxins identified so far and the most potent is aflatoxin B1. Global standards do not permit aflatoxin presence in peanut or any preparations derived from it beyond 4-20 parts per billion (ppb) and unless very high precaution is taken it will not be possible to restrict the aflatoxin to the stringent standard that exists to day. However in a country like USA, aflatoxin up to 300 ppb is permitted in domestic corn for feeding beef cattle, swines and mature poultry birds. It was in 1960 that the first out break of aflatoxin poisoning was encountered in UK killing more than 1 lakh turkey poults and subsequently several such incidences were reported from different parts of the world due to feeding aflatoxin contaminated feeds.

Aflatoxins belong to the difurocoumarolactone group of chemicals with molecular weights ranging from 312 to 346 with melting points in the range of 190-299C. Neither heat processing as encountered in frying or baking nor any other known method can destroy the toxin very significantly. Toxins present in oil fraction are not affected by the conventional alkali refining process but special filtration system can remove the particulates of aflatoxin satisfactorily. Ammoniation (0.5-2% ammonia) at room temperature or at elevated temperature and pressure can bring down the toxin level considerably but whether it can be deployed commercially is not certain. Use of Flavobacterium auranatiacum bacteria to destroy aflatoxin has been found to be technically feasible but the limitation is that such biological system can work only in aqueous medium calling for expensive process technologies and long processing time. Gamma irradiation at a level of 5-20kGy dose has been reported to be effective in detoxification but limited facilities available for irradiation makes this technology impractical on a large scale.

In spite of 4 decades of scientific endeavor a satisfactory method of detoxification is still eluding the peanut industry. Preempting development of mold infection through prompt drying of the crop to less than 7% moisture, careful handling and storage at low temperature and humidity may be the best option. Use of electronic sorters to sort the seeds based on color development caused by the growth of the mold was explored without success. Considering the practical constraints in changing the prevalent agricultural practices, the best way to eliminate aflatoxin problem seems to be manual sorting of the seeds which has been accepted by many importing countries.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009


A mirror is an inseparable part of any house-hold the world over and if one does not use it at least once in a day, it must be a sign of renunciation of all that is materialistic, symbolizing an ascetic style of living. Self inspection before a mirror has many dimensions for men as well as women. The very shape of the body as reflected in the mirror can reveal lot of things, some desirable and others not liked much by many. Both men, women and children spend significant time before the mirror as a part of their routine sartorial activities to make themselves presentable in the public. In fact a mirror generates more self confidence amongst people regarding their personal appearance and facing the challenges ahead each day. If one has the inclination, mirror images can also reveal signs of decline in body conditions, provided the occasion is used for critical self appraisal.
One of the most prevalent epidemic to day is over weight and the consequent falling health conditions. A mirror is the best tool to monitor one's body development for taking appropriate changes in the living style involving diets and exercises. There are two types of over weight persons when it comes to appearance. One is pear-shaped while the other is apple shaped. When fat accumulates around the hip one gets the pear shape while those with fat in the upper part of the body assume apple shape. Gut fat or the visceral fat has been one of the critical parameters that served the purpose of assessing the heart conditions. Standard way of assessing risk factors for CVD has been to measure the waist line and Body Mass Index (BMI) of an individual which is determined as a ratio of weight to the square of height and BMI values less than 25 are considered healthy. 
Waist to hip ratio (WHR) is also related to risks associated with CVD. A healthy man is supposed to have a WHR value of 0.9 or less while for a healthy woman the value should be less than 0.7. Women with less than 0.7 WHR have optimum estrogen levels and are less vulnerable to diabetes, CVD and ovarian malignancy type of disorders. Men with less than 0.9 WHR are considered more fertile and less prone to prostate and testicular cancers. Top 20% of men with high WHR have 55% higher risk of CVD while top 20% of women in that category have 91% more risk for developing heart diseases. Modern dressing style involving jeans and pants invariably uses the belt which can reveal the extent of bulge caused by excess fat and expanding waist will naturally demand a longer belt or using the next notch on the belt, raising the alarm signal.
Recent reports linking CVD with neck fat highlight the possibility of using neck circumference (NC) as a tool to assess CVD risk. The sub-cutaneous adipose tissue around the neck appears to be closely linked to cholesterol levels in the blood and metabolic syndrome. Those wearing the neck-ties must be alive to the dangers of tighter neck-ties which is an indication of the increasing NC, calling for timely life style corrections.  For every 3 cm increase of NC, a reduction of 2.1-2.2 mg per dL of serum HDL cholesterol was noticed while blood sugar levels increased significantly in both men and women. People in general with more weight concentrated on the upper part of the body tend to be more vulnerable to CVD. Average NC is 34.2 cm for women and 40.5 cm in men but maintaining the levels at < 34 and < 37 respectively are ideal to keep away diseases like CVD and metabolic syndrome. 
Keeping handy a measuring tape to monitor neck circumference and WHR, a weighing scale to check body weight regularly and a mirror to trace the changes in the body shape, could be more rewarding than frequent visits to the family physicians!    

Monday, May 18, 2009


Human body has remarkable ability to metabolize a vast array of chemicals gaining entry through food and medicines because of the activity of the omnipotent organ, Liver which has a plethora of enzymes to deal with many toxins and unwanted substances. But there are some foods with strong aroma, when consumed, can contribute to smell in the breath, sweat, urine and feces because of the passage of the constituents through digestive system, blood stream and kidneys, practically unaltered to be excreted from the body. As these aromatic substances are volatile in nature, those who consume become literally an "odorant" contaminating the environment around for some time. Consuming such foods in summer can enhance the dissemination of the aroma while in winter the effect will last longer.

It is rightly said that 'one man's food is another one's poison' and this is literally true in the case of several 'smelly' or 'stinking foods' like Durian, Jack fruit and Garlic. Those who like these foods are emotionally attached to them. swearing by the 'delicacy' of their flavor while those detesting them cannot stand these foods which evoke strong adverse reactions including nausea. vomiting and diarrhea. The strong aroma emanating from such strong-smelling products is mostly due to sulfur compounds present in them which are volatile in nature, though non-sulfur containing chemicals also contribute in some cases. Though advanced analytical techniques and sophisticated instruments are now available to unravel the chemical nature of these aromatic substances, not much is known about how they are metabolized by the body once ingested through the food.

Durian is often termed as King of Fruits in South East Asian Countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia (just like mango in India) and the population there love these fruits in spite of the strong smell associated with the ripe fruit. Durian is a fruit, 'non grata' for those out side this region because of its very strong aroma which does not leave the body for some time once consumed. Sulfur containing compounds like 3,5 dimethyl-1,2,4-trithiotane and 5-ethyl thioacetate and non-sulfur compound ethyl-2-methylbutanoate contribute significantly to the smell characteristic of Durian. Probably these substances are not metabolized in the body to make them odorless and find their way into excretory system unchanged. Nutritionally 243 gm of edible part of Durian provides 360 kC of energy, 66 gm of carbohydrates, 3.6 gm of protein, 9.2 gm of dietary fiber and 13 gm of fat, and a score of vitamins and minerals making it an impressively nutritious fruit.

Jack fruit, more popular in India and other south Asian countries, is another strongly smelling fruit liked and hated by people with different eating habits. It is a common sight in these countries to see street vendors offering peeled and cleaned fruit bulbs after deseeding during the season, May to August. Unlike Durian, this fruit does not have very heavy notes in its aromatic chemical make up but still it is a strong smelling food. Isopentyl isovalerate, butyl isovalerate, butyl acetate, ethyl isovalerate and 2-methylbutylactetate, all non-sulfur containing chemicals make up the aroma of jack fruit. As these are simple chemicals, they get easy entry into the blood, are circulated and excreted more or less unchanged giving the excretory and secretory substances from the body the typical aroma of Jack fruit. Unlike Durian eating, normal quantities of jack fruit generally do not cause any body odor and being heavy to the stomach because of its texture and composition, the serving size is invariably self-limited. More ripe the fruit, higher will be the intensity of the aroma and peeling such fruits can disseminate the smell into the environment more rapidly. Products like preserves, jams, syrups, fruit bar and others made from jack fruit through thermal processing, have more intense odor and consumption of these processed products can cause very strong pollution of the environment.

Garlic, considered more a condiment, is a strong smelling food adjunct possessing a wide array of beneficial properties for human beings. Diallyl sulfide, Alliin, Ajoene and s-Allyl cysteine are considered responsible for the strong aromatic note associated with it. Allicin, the most famous active principle for which garlic is well known, is responsible for the 'hot' sensation experienced on its consumption. Allixin, a non-sulfur containing substance, present in garlic, confers on it the unique health promoting properties as an antioxidant, microbicide, anti-tumor agent, anti-aflatoxin binder to DNA and neurotrophic substance. The sulfur compounds in garlic when consumed get converted to Allyl Methyl Sulfide (AMS), the typical smell associated with sweating and breathing of those consuming garlic.

No wonder these smelly products, besides being liked for their typical aroma, are also nutritious foods in their own right. Unfortunately, human beings diverse in their food preferences differ in their perception of foods and there is a substantial population who shun such smelly foods to avoid polluting the environment with such odors through their body secretions and do not become a social nuisance to others. Immigrant populations in western countries who are used to these foods, consciously abstain from eating them regularly, confining consumption during week ends, appreciating the potential for discomfort to their fellow workers during week days. In the case of garlic there are odorless preparations available in the market in the form of encapsulated products which can be swallowed without experiencing the smell in the olfactory system. With the reach of biotechnology sparing no area of human endeavor, is there a possibility that new versions of these foods may appear devoid of the odor but preserving all the goodness for which they are known, through intervention of biotechnology? Very little chance indeed!


Sunday, May 17, 2009


National Technology Day was 'celebrated' on Monday, May 11. 2009 in India and many functions were organized to remind us that technology has done wonders for the country, to confer honors on so called 'achievers' and make grandiose declarations without any intention to implement the same. No doubt scientific institutions like Atomic Energy Commission, ISRO and a few others have creditable achievements to show for the large investments made on their projects with tax payers' money. But a major part of the scientific establishment has not covered themselves with glory by their pedestrian work and mediocre achievements. Why GOI wants a day to be set apart in the name of technology defies any rationality. Probably GOI thinks that earmarking one day in an year for eulogizing about technology in many platform speeches will make up for the lack of solid achievements this country can boast of. The word technology means different things to different people and there is not much awareness about the role technology has played in shaping human society as we to day, let alone appreciate what potential technology has in improving the quality of life on earth.

Besides National Technology Day which falls on the day in May 1998 when India declared its entry into the exclusive Nuclear Nations Club through the Pokhran explosion of the ingeniously developed atomic device, there are 16 more earmarked days in an year to celebrate various events including Army Day, Central Excise Day, Science Day, Sports Day, Air force Day, Farmers Day and others. Globally there are 44 designated days by different world bodies to commemorate different events and India has thus 61 special days, including its own, to "celebrate" providing scope for many 'photo-op' occasions for people to indulge in verbosity. No body has any quarrel regarding such events provided they are used for introspection, review of past achievements, identify shortfalls of targets and initiate action to achieve well laid objectives, in stead of indulging in self glorification and self congratulation for under performance.

According to a recent report Indian science and technology community is sliding into a state of utter despair with the politics and corruption gnawing at its seams. Public funded scientific and technological institutions, controlled by Delhi, invariably play the political game forgetting their core constituency, viz scientific endeavor. Appointments to head S & T Institutions are no more based on merits and performance but by sycophancy and wire-pulling. Political indecision seem to have made several such institutions headless during the last six months! Awards, Rewards, Incentives, Promotions and Compensation are not decided through rational and logical selection procedures but by 'net-working' and appropriate 'connections' at Delhi. The S & T Ministry is invariably headed by any one but a scientist or a technologist!

Against such a background there are glimpses of hope when one comes across some of the programs in place to encourage excellence in S & T in the country. The National Innovation Foundation (NIF) is endowed with Rs 1.5 crore per year for bringing to surface innovative ideas from the grass-root level. Of course this is a minuscule provision for a country of the size of India but still can be a spark for much bigger programs later. Unfortunately these funds remain frozen for the last 9 years for reasons not very clear. NIF started well and its early endeavor was able to identify 10000 new ideas, new innovations and traditional knowledge of significance. It is estimated that the large population of technology students in various Schools, Institutions and Universities work on thousands of technology projects every year as a part of their courses but there is no mechanism by which these projects can be upgraded into workable innovations that would have benefited the country. Even 1% of this idea pool, if pursued could have resulted in thousands of new products. During the celebration of Technology Day in the past, firm resolutions and declarations were made to increase the S & T expenditure equal to 0.5% to 2% of GDP by those heading the ministry but pathetically it remains still at less than 0.1% of GDP, indicating the lack of commitment to S & T by the country. It is time that those at the helm of affairs think beyond Pokhran and Chandrayan and put in action concrete plans to energize grass-root scientific workers to achieve quantum jump in our performance in this field and be counted as a formidable force in S & T in the global landscape.


Saturday, May 16, 2009


One of the major issues regarding the safety of soft drinks is their adverse effect on teeth due to the acids present as well as the sugar content in them. While frequent mouth washing can remove most of the sugar adhering to the gums and the teeth, acids are supposed to be corrosive causing tooth erosion and hyper sensitivity. Many campaigns of the past against Cola giants Coke and Pepsi were based on the presence of the mineral acid phosphoric acid in the formula which is considered one of the most corrosive chemicals. In other synthetic flavored drinks, organic acids like citric, malic etc are used and many feel comfortable because of their belief that these acids are mild and non-corrosive. But this may be a misplaced hope if the findings by some researchers are taken at their face value.

Carbonated non-alcoholic beverages are generally sweetened, flavored, acidified, colored, artificially, carbonated and some times chemically preserved. In such beverages sugar concentration can be between 8-14% while acid levels may vary from 0.1% to 0.2%, the pH range being 2.6-4.0. In aerated drinks CO2 itself lowers the pH by dissolving in the syrup at the low temperature used in processing while addition of acids like phosphoric, citric,fumaric, tartaric and malic acids, is common. Sports drinks are specialty products targeted at athletes and other personnel engaged in heavy exercises regularly for more than an hour each day. They are mostly isotonic solutions containing 5-7% glucose and optimal levels of electrolytes designed to recoup water and nutrients lost through sweating during the work out. Some drinks are hypotonic while few hypertonic drinks are also available for use under certain conditions. Sweating is a natural phenomenon that is intended to maintain the body temperature constantly at 37 C and significant amounts of water and nutrients are lost during sweating. 2% loss in body weight during sweating can cause impaired performance, 4% loss reduces work capacity, 5% loss results in heat exhaustion, 7% loss can create hallucination and 10% loss leads to circulatory collapse and heat stroke.

A typical male athlete has 90 gm of glycogen stored in the liver while the muscle stores another 400 gm of glycogen. During vigorous exercise body loses 3-4 gm of glucose per minute and prolonged exercise an deplete the glycogen level severely which may take 24-48 hours to replenish. Normally 300-400 ml of sports drink is consumed in a day with 5-6 sips every 15 minutes, creating a situation where the teeth are in constant contact with the beverage for prolonged time and their consequent erosion over a period. Erosive Tooth Wear (ETW) is a common dental disease condition, different from caries as the former affects only the enameled surface of the teeth. Appearing as a yellow patch at first ETW can dissolve the minerals in the dendrite underneath and cause considerable damage, eventually leading to loss of the tooth, unless treated properly. The reported finding that citric acid present in the sports drink can cause ETW is based on studies conducted on Cow teeth which was immersed in sports drink for 75-90 minutes and evaluating its impact. Whether these results can be applied to human beings and how far they will be realistic require deeper consideration. It is debatable whether any athlete will keep the drinks in the mouth for such a long time to have ETW and validation is necessary through actual human studies to subscribe to such a conclusion.

It is rather scary when one hears that 45.9% of American children have ETW of varying severity and such tooth ailments in early phase of growing, can have serious health consequences at later stages in life. As a precaution drinking soft drinks or juices with a straw and not swirling the drink in the mouth before swallowing will reduce the chances of prolonged contact with the teeth significantly. Brushing immediately after drinking a beverage can cause further damage as most tooth pastes are abrasive in nature. Frequent consumers of soft drinks, who cannot chuck this undesirable practice, are better advised to use neutralizing/remineralizing tooth paste to help re-hardening of the soft enamel.


Friday, May 15, 2009


Sale of cut fruits through push carts near many schools across the country is a common sight and many parents try to prevent their children from patronizing such road side vendors fearing its potential for diseases like diarrhea caused by microbial contamination. Many schools restrict the operation of such vendors near their premises though without much success. Lately such vendors seem to be spreading in many urban areas offering cut fruits from Papaya, Guava, Water Melon, Pineapple, Jack fruits, Green mango etc during the fruit seasons. Generally the cut fruits are laced with a mixture of salt and chilli powder to make them tastier. Fruit chat preparations popular in northern parts of India use black salt on cut fruits including banana, sapota, apple and other seasonal fruits. In all these cases the cut fruits are prepared on the spot in front of the consumer and are not kept for more than a few minutes that ensures minimum microbial contamination. However the personal hygiene of the vendor, cleanliness of the utensils and knives used, safety of the plates in which it is served are all risks one has to take when patronizing such road side preparations in India.

The dangers inherent in road side vending is too well known to be discussed and the clientele consists of mostly school children near the teaching institutions and lower middle class population having good immunity to infections commonly encountered in public place eating. If a more decent and better product is available with assured safety, the clientele can be expanded and sky is the limit for developing this line of business. True, hotels and restaurants do serve fruit salads based on seasonal fruits, but it is unlikely any one will visit such joints only for fruit preparations and generally they are part of the meal, being a dessert preparation. Besides the very concept of a fruit preparation, being all natural and healthy, is compromised by serving them with ice cream or custard. In such a situation products like fresh cut fruits with longer shelf life and easy delivery mode, can fill a vacuum in the market and provide incentives to the consumer to eat fruits more regularly to meet with the recommended dietary guidelines for consuming 4-6 servings of fruits and vegetables daily by normal healthy persons.

Fruits are biologically respiring and transpiring materials taking in oxygen and giving out CO2 and water at ambient temperatures. Even as a whole fruit, its life is limited and its quality can slide down rapidly losing its characteristic texture and flavor with time. Cold stores with appropriate low temperature conditions and controlled atmosphere storage technology can extend the life by a few days though there is a limit for its ultimate life. Some fruits like mango have very short life while others like apple stay well for months together under ideal conditions. When fruits are cut, the quality deteriorates rapidly due to release of destructive enzymes which can impart discoloration, textural changes and off flavor if not properly processed. Poly Phenol Oxidase (PPO) is the most destructive enzyme which produces ortho quinones on the cut surface, a highly reactive substance capable of further reaction non-enzymatically with other quinones, phenolic compounds, thiol compounds, proteins, peptides and amino acids etc to produce brown, blue-grayish and black colors on the cut surface.

Fruits after cleaning, peeling and removal of inedible parts are cut into cubes or chunks of desired size, washed well, spin dried to remove adhering water and shrink wrapped for display and retailing under low temperature conditions, 4-8C with a limited life of 2 days beyond which they cannot be sold. These preparation steps and cutting introduce a series of physiological disorders like softening, browning and microbial infection, all considered undesirable from consumer perspectives. To prevent or lessen the undesirable changes, treatments with ascorbic acid (Vit C), its isomer erythorbic acid, edible organic acids, sodium phosphate, sulfites etc are resorted to by the processors. Though sulfiting is one of the most effective pretreatment procedures practiced by the industry, severe allergy to SO2 by many consumers makes this less and less acceptable as a universal practice. As freshly cut fruits are physiologically still active, the tissues being alive and respiring all the time and requires about 2% oxygen in the atmosphere surrounding them. Use of sodium alginate, gellan gum, modified starch, pectic substances, carrageenans etc as a coating reduces surface enzyme and non-enzymatic activities significantly. pH being less than 3 on the cut surface also helps slowing down the enzymatic reactions. Infusion of O2 containing gas mixture maintains the Kreb's Cycle biochemical reactions generating CO2 which protects the fruit surface from microbial spoilage.

It is intriguing as to why the coin operated vending machines widely used for dispensing products like soft drinks, chocolate candies, snacks etc are not adopted for cut fruit vending also. The technology of extending the life of cut fruits to 7-30 days is readily available for the industry to introduce such vending system in a massive way and popularize its consumption especially amongst the youngsters. The Singapore experience where vending machines are being tried in a limited way to dispense chilled and diced fruit chunks under refrigerated conditions at an affordable price of S$ 1-1.8 per cup, transparent and sealed, has already shown the business viability of such an approach. Each vending machine with a capacity to store 180 cups can be left unattended for two days unless refilling is called for, since the products have at least 5 days life once loaded into the machine. It should be possible to design larger capacity machines, if the response and demand increase for the products amongst the consumers. It is time such retailing format is thought of in India also where a fantastic range of fruits are available all around the year.


Thursday, May 14, 2009


Modern world depends on 'air conditioning' technology to get relief from cold or hot weather conditions and dramatic developments have taken place over the years in the design of such systems both at the house-hold level as well as industrial scale. Basically the objective is to reduce the temperature of an enclosed space through production of 'refrigerated' air and its circulation. Cost of air conditioning is mainly for the power the system uses for the compressor and the diffuser and is considered a disincentive for many people to go for investment in this area. Continuous developments are taking place in improving the efficiency of air conditioners and to day's air cooling technology is far superior to what it was even a decade ago. One of the drawbacks of air conditioning for use in preserving food is the tendency for it to reduce the humidity leading to unwanted dehydration over a period of time. Of course there are special systems that can also compensate for humidity loss. As the temperature range for an air conditioner is 15-23 C, it can extend the life of perishable foods for only a couple of days at the most.

The "controlled air" technology is the core of Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CAS) and packing (MAP) where the air composition is changed to reduce oxygen and increase CO2 so that the microbicidal property of CO2 is exploited. In respiring and transpiring materials like fresh produce, the air composition is continuously manipulated to keep the material fresh without "aging" by removing gases like ethylene, excess CO2 and infusing oxygen at optimum levels. Combined with refrigeration, MAP and CAS can extend the shelf life of perishables like fish, meat, fruits, vegetables and flowers significantly. High capital investment and large scale systems that are available to day make it difficult for this technology to be adopted in countries like India in a massive way.

It was the food science group in University of Wisconsin which developed an effective technology for NASA in nineteen nineties for extending the life of fruits and vegetables taken in the space vehicles under the space exploration projects for scientific studies. Though the rarefied atmosphere in the outer space cannot support any life including that of spoilage microorganisms, the oxygen enriched environment within the space craft, created for the comfort of the astronauts was ideal for microorganisms to thrive. As it was difficult to maintain any CAP or MAP system that could have extended the life of perishable materials like fruits and vegetables, NASA was forced to look out for alternative technology for achieving the purpose. Limited room available in the spacecraft called for a system that does not need much space, light in weight and low on energy consumption. Out of this necessity was born the NASA technology for food preservation using "conditioned" air aptly called AeroCide technology or 'enconditioning technology' which involves using air to kill microorganisms in the environment where food is kept. The scientific principle behind the technology is based on the ability of ultra violet rays (UV) to generate hydroxy radicals over a Titanium dioxide(TiO2) surface which kills all microorganisms including bacteria, mold, yeast and virus.

The system generally consists of a chamber containing thousands of tiny glass tubes coated with TiO2 on which UV light is shone and all air borne particles become surface bound, not being able to float around. Particles like bacteria get disintegrated and are no more viable to be of any harm. The air passed through the chamber is sterile and can be used for preservation of food products. During conditioning of the air, hydroxy radicals and super-oxide ions also react with volatile organic compounds that can taint foods. Removal of ethylene in the AeroCide chamber delays ripening and senescence, extending the effective life of cut flowers, fruits and vegetables for 2-3 weeks. The technology is widely being used in the last two years by the horticulture, floriculture and health care industries. Major food players like Del Monte, Coke and many hospitals in the US are already using the system for some of their operations. High refraction rate and photo catalytic reactions help to reduce the power consumption dramatically. The low maintenance cost is another USP of the system as it requires only a bulb to be replaced occasionally. Absence of air filters and no necessity to clean up the system periodically further recommend this technology for food industry. Enconditioners are available in India in capacities varying from 3000 cubic feet of air to 20000 cubic feet air treatment. According to the dealers in India a 5000 cubic feet air treatment capacity enconditioner will cost just Rs 1 lakh which can be installed easily in a few minutes in the room where air is to be sterilized.

While enconditioners can be had for a small investment, deploying it for food preservation calls for design of treatment systems for different foods. While for general air sterilization the compact units are suitable for protecting environment in houses, offices, factories, store houses, restaurants etc and cutting down over all microbial load, combination of CAS and AeroCide technologies can be much more effective than either of them singly when it comes to food preservation on a large scale. Probably passing the gas mix in CAS system through the enconditioner before entering the storage chamber may provide a better hygienic atmosphere in such ware houses supplementing the efficiency of CO2 as a germ killer. It has also the added advantage of removing ethylene from the circulated air, retarding ripening and senescence significantly and destroying product specific aromatic volatiles that emanate from different sored products in a mixed CAS ware house.



More or less all agree that the health crisis facing the world to day is brought about by uncontrolled consumerism, thoughtless product expansion favoring obesity and CVD and mindless life style changes consequent to plenty of money in the hands of the consumers who do not exercise discretion in choosing foods that are good for them. From food industry's perspectives, the portfolio of products offered by them is based on their "saleability", not their health boosting ability and invariably these products have excellent organoleptic profiles liked and craved for by a majority of the consumers. It is true that a healthy product can never be as appealing as those rich in fat, sugar, carbohydrates, functional additives, natural or synthetic and made by not necessarily optimum processing conditions from health angle. A 100% nutritionally literate population can only demand healthy foods and the world is no where near that target yet. Most consumers are unaware of the consequences of over eating and eating of foods with 'empty' calories and they indulge in such foods for the sake of palate satisfaction. Under these conditions is it inevitable that world is left to its fate while those who have the wherewithal to arrest the trend ignore the writing on the wall non-chalantly?

Many nations do spend enormous money in supporting food programs that subsidize or offer free nutritionally balanced foods at least once in a day to stave off hunger and promote nutrition amongst some segments of vulnerable population. How far they serve the purpose is another matter. More over can a government take up the whole responsibility to protect the health of its entire population through bureaucratic muddles for which it is notorious? While supportive programs are useful when paid for by the taxpayer directly through the government for the benefits of most vulnerable population, who is going to "guide" the eating habits of well- to- do consumers? No matter how much voluntary efforts are channeled to promote consumption of' 'well-being' products, the impact is not likely to be dramatic. In India the food industry floated the grandiose organization called Protein Foods and Nutrient Development Association in sixties with the objective of promoting nutrition in a big way but very little has happened during the last 4 decades of its existence. In stead of resolving to voluntarily to manufacture 'well-being' products for the Indian consumers, the Association went for the all too familiar "seminar, workshop and symposium" mode for promoting the concepts for which there were no takers even amongst their own members!

It is in this context that one must admire the new initiative coming from the law makers of the US who wanted the industry to be roped in to promote well-being of, at least, its own employees. Taxation is a powerful tool in the hands of the governments to make or break the industry and it is unfortunate that many third world countries use taxation as a means of collecting revenues for profligate spending on non-productive activities. Under the new administrative dispensation in the US, a move is afoot to enact legislation that will give significant tax breaks to the industry if it promotes health and well-being amongst its employees. At present any welfare scheme promoted by an industry is not recognized by the government as bonafide expenditure in the balance sheet and the recipients will have to pay income tax on such special allowances. Thus if a particular industry reimburses to its employees expenditure on buying regularly healthy and nutritious foods, such payments are considered as part of the salary attracting taxes at the individual level. Under the proposed Bill being considered in the US these payments can be shown as valid corporate expenditure admissible for tax computation. Probably the US cannot delay such welfare schemes for long as its population is on the brink of a dangerous implosion of epidemic nature, caused by obesity, CVD, hypertension, diabetes, cancer and similar life style diseases.

Do we learn any lesson from the experience of this affluent country? Lulling ourselves into a false sense of comfort through garbled statistics which says we are far behind other countries as far these diseases are concerned, is a short sighted policy that can put our country in great peril in the coming years. Our taxation policy is most regressive and even food is not spared by both state and central governments as most of the processed foods attract one or the other tax making them dearer to the consumer. Repeated pleas during the last 6 decades by the industry and consumer groups to declare the food industry as a "zero tax" industry have fallen on deaf ears and how can we expect these governments to think in terms of a pro-active taxation policy to promote healthy foods? In stead of looking for luxury foods to slap taxes, it may be a better strategy to grade the foods based on their health protecting quality and besides exempting from all taxes, additional financial incentives should be offered for marketing such products. Dairy foods, low fat, low sugar and low salt products, high protein foods, nutritionally balanced products and others with stress on health must be exempted from the taxation net, irrespective of who buys them.

At the Corporate level the industry must be encouraged to put in place eateries exclusively for their employees manned by dietitians and nutrition consultants, enlist a product portfolio available in the market that are considered specialty health products and identify people with good health for special pay based on acceptable national health parameters like body mass index, effective control of illnesses, good dietary habits, regular health check ups etc. Such employees can be paid ex-gratia health allowance, all expenditures allowed as genuine corporate expenditure eligible for IT deduction.


Wednesday, May 13, 2009


The topic of human diet is as controversial as any other subject of human interest. There are vegans, lacto vegetarians, ovo vegetarians and non-vegetarians, all based on whether one consumes milk, egg or meat and fish. While vegans depend solely on foods of plant origin others get their vital nutrients from rich foods like milk, egg, meat and fish. For many it is intriguing as to how human beings growing up in the early stages with mother's milk can shun milk at later stages because milk is one of the most complete foods in nature. Of special interest is the calcium content in milk which is biologically more potent in terms of absorption through the intestine and its critical role in bone and skeleton development. More crucial is the fate of post-menopausal women whose bone density tends to fall due to hormonal disturbances at that stage in life.
The recent findings in a limited study in Australia that the vegan women had bones as healthy as those eating animal foods regularly have surprised many health pundits because of the fiction built up over the years about bone health and animal derived foods. Though the intake of protein and calcium by Buddhist women covered under the study were lower than that by non-vegetarians, the bone density values were not much different in both the groups. Milk has been hailed as the major source of calcium for ordinary vegetarians who consume this nutrient rich source regularly and naturally exclusion of milk in the diet of vegans was expected to cause some problems in terms of bone health including early development of osteoporosis. The fact that this was not true raises the pertinent question as to whether milk and milk products have such an important role in human diet as being touted, especially for adults. The Daily Value for calcium for human beings is in the range of 1000 mg to 1300 mg and a cup of milk gives about 30% of this need. Other sources like vegetables also contain calcium with collard green giving 357 mg per cup, spinach 352 mg per cup and Okra 180 mg per cup.
Probably one does not have to look far to understand the reality that milk is not as crucial as it is being made out to be, especially for an adult. Take the example of the most important herbivore on earth, the elephant which is totally a 'vegan' as far as the diet is concerned. Weighing 8-12 tons, Elephants require about 60 gm of calcium every day to maintain its huge body mass which is derived from 140-270 kg of forage it consumes each day. Except during its early childhood when the calf depends on its mother's milk, Elephant derives all its nutritional needs from plant sources. To add to its dietary problem, the digestive system in Elephant wastes almost 60% of the food it consumes with the remaining providing the nutrients vital for growth and maintenance. Green leaves, grass and tree barks on which this animal depends for most of its food supply contain calcium to the extent of 0.4-1.5%. Sugarcane liked very much by Elephants is both juicy as well as rich in calcium. The black strap molasses, a by-product of sugar milling industry contains calcium as high as 200 mg per table spoon. Same is true with jaggery which is often an important ingredient in animal feeds.
One of the important questions that remains unanswered is the role of protein in utilizing and/or maintaining calcium present in the food by the body. Otherwise why should a typical Western women get osteoporosis when her diet is invariably rich in calcium from sources like meat, fish, milk, cheese and others which also incidentally contain high levels of proteins. Could it be possible that high levels of proteins cause demineralization in the bones, in spite of the presence of high calcium content in the food? The vegan population, estimated at 5% of the population in the World by willful choice, can derive comfort from the thought that their food is as healthy as that consumed by others, if not better!


Tuesday, May 12, 2009


During these days of globalization and liberalization of economy, how is that an egg in India cost to the consumer less than 5 cents (Rs 2.50) while same egg sells for more than 20 cents (Rs 10) in the markets of rich nations? After all same hen lays the egg, people have to work hard and certain minimum infrastructure is necessary to maintain poultry industry whether it is in UK, USA, Japan or India. Some leeway can be given for the low cost of labor, lower power cost, cheap raw materials and low purchasing power of the population in general for the prevailing low prices for egg in the country. Still how can the poultry industry, which does not enjoy the economy of scale in running the poultry farms as most of the farms are much smaller than what one can see in other countries, afford this give away?. There are a very few farms that can boast of a bird population of more than a lakh and most of them have only a few thousands at ant given time. Though reliable statistics cannot be a a strong point in this country, one may go along with estimates by different sources regarding the strength of the poultry industry. It is estimated that there are about 60000 large poultry farms in the country with more than 1000 birds per farm while another one lakh farms operate with bird strength of 50-1000 . Still poultry industry is a thriving activity employing 3 million people in production, distribution and retailing with another 15 million farmers producing the ingredients that go into poultry feed.

India is supposed to be the third largest producer of eggs in the world with a production estimated at 47 billion eggs an year working out to an average per capita annual consumption of 41 eggs where as the recommended intake is 180 eggs. The skewed consumption profile is reflected by very low consumption in rural areas, about 5-20 eggs per year while in urban and semi urban areas the intake is 42-170 eggs an year depending on the population of the cities. An egg weighs about 43 gm (small) to 71 gm (extra large) and is one of the richest sources of concentrated nutrients known to mankind. On an average one kilogram of egg provides 11.2 gm of carbohydrate, 126 gm of protein with very high biological value and 106 gm of fat besides meeting 51% of RDA for Vitamin B1, 33% for B2 and 28% for Pantothenate. True it also is a significant source of dietary cholesterol, about 426 mg/100 gm. Consuming about 6 eggs a week by a normal person is not known to precipitate diseases like CVD, Stroke and Diabetes as being commonly perceived but those with these diseases may have to restrict its intake to avoid aggravating the already existing compromised health conditions.

Out of 45 countries which produce eggs, India is rightly acclaimed as the cheapest egg producer where it costs just 50 cents a kg at the wholesalers' end compared to 145 cents in Argentina, 80 cents in USA, 102 cents in France, 86 cents in Holland, 108 cents in Japan, 136 cents in New Zealand, 108 cents in Taiwan and 117 cents in Bangladesh. Interestingly the feed cost which constitutes more than 75% of the cost of production is not the lowest in India. That honor goes to Zimbabwe where it is 18 cents per kg while in India feed cost is 44 cents per kg. China, which is the top producer of eggs in the world makes available to its poultry farmers feed at 27 cents a kg while the whole sale price of egg there is 94 cents per kg. In many developed countries feed costs are heavily subsidized to protect the margins of the producers and it is ironical that still the consumers there pay 400 % more to buy an egg compared to an Indian consumer. Similarly the cost of chicks in India is not the lowest as the producer has to pay 39 cents a chick while in Sri Lanka the corresponding figure is 29 cents a chick.

With egg production concentrated in the South, distribution poses tremendous logistical challenges and the infrastructure put in place by the poultry industry can deliver egg to every nook and corner of the country. The role of Governments in this endeavor is practically nil as specially trained drivers, well developed distributor-retailer net work and country wide communication system in place, all industry's own creation, have been able to sustain the industry weathering frequent hiccups from to time. The breakage during handling and transportation and spoilage during storage and retailing have been minimized. It is unfortunate that this industry has not been able to build any infrastructure for washing, grading, pretreatment of eggs for better shelf-life, regional assembling facilities with cold stores, local cold storage facilities and any significant processing platform for value added products from eggs. This has exposed the industry to a situation where it is vulnerable to wide price fluctuations caused by supply and demand stresses. Under these conditions the role of Indian poultry industry in providing to the consumers the cheapest egg in the world is indeed amazing and they deserve all kudos for their ingenuity, enterprise and hard work in making this possible.


Monday, May 11, 2009


It was Linus Pauling who first came out with the idea of using mega doses of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to overcome the common cold and the pharmaceutical industry made a fortune capitalizing on this unproven concept during sixties and seventies. Even to day many believe that high intake of Vitamin C can give protection against cold and related ailments. With more knowledge emerging regarding the role citrus Bioflavonoids play in giving resistance against cold, combination of Vitamin C and Citrus Bioflavonoids is prescribed by many physicians.

The new role for Vitamin C in alleviating Gout symptoms and even to prevent development of Gout disease seems to be reviving the same therapy that was popular against Cold. Over 5 million people are affected by Gout disease across the world for which no effective treatment is readily available in Allopathic medicinal system though many claims are made regarding its successful management in Ayurvedic and Homeopathic systems. Probeniced and Sulfinpyrazone are routinely prescribed to treat persistent cases of this disease. Gout is one of the most painful forms of Arthritis manifesting in intense pain at the joint of the big toe to begin with and subsequently spreading to ankles, heels, insteps, knees, elbows, hips, thumbs or fingers. The causative factor for the precipitation of Gout syndrome is Uric acid, a by-product of nucleotide metabolism that is prevalent at the cellular level. Too much accumulation of Uric acid in blood can lead to formation of sharp and tiny Urate crystals and their deposition in connective tissues and around the joints causing inflammation and pain. Normally Uric acid levels in blood can be in the range of 2 mg to 20 mg per deciliter and beyond 7 mg/dL hyperuricemia condition develops as it is not soluble at this concentration and beyond. However, 95% of the population having hyperuricemia condition do not develop Gout and may not experience Gout attack any time in their life time for which clear reasons are not yet known.

According to some experts Uric acid accumulation is associated with heart disease (CVD) and hyperuricemic subjects are 2.5 times more likely to die due to CVD. The rationale behind such a link is yet to be explored. The fact that Gout affects people over 30 years of age, overweight persons, frequent consumers of alcoholic and sweetened beverages, regular eaters of red meat, internal organs, yeast, poultry or sea food may explain the association of Uric acid with CVD. The connection between diet and hyperuricemia is rather tenuous because more than two thirds of purines, the precursor of Uric acid in the body come from metabolic reactions and only one third is contributed by the food that is consumed. This is similar to cholesterol which again is made in the body with contribution from the diet often being not very substantial.

Regular consumption of Vitamin C, at levels higher than 500 mg a day has proved to be beneficial in containing Gout symptoms. Between 250 mg and 499 mg of Vitamin C intake per day the relative risk (RR) of developing Gout is reduced to 0.97, 500 mg to 999 mg/ day lowers the RR to 0.83, 1000 t0 1499 mg/day brings down the RR to 0.66 and above 1500 mg the RR is just 0.55. With every 500 mg increase of Vitamin C intake the risk of getting Gout is reduced by 17% but consumption beyond 2000 mg a day is not advisable due to many reasons. This vitamin has been shown to reduce Uric acid levels in the blood significantly by several studies. As a strategy those suffering from hyperuricemia will be better off to avoid foods rich in purines such as Anchovies, Beer, Caviar, Goose meat, Partridge meat and Mushrooms. Medium purine containing foods like Asparagus, Beet, Pork, Meats, Cauliflower etc should also be avoided when Gout symptoms appear. Vitamin C rich foods like citrus fruits can help. As Vitamin C is acidic in nature, the high daily doses that can bring relief must be taken in 2-3 portions to avoid hyper acidity problems.

How does Vitamin C manage to obviate the Gout conditions is not yet clear though there are some surmises to explain its beneficial role. Kidney stones formed due to Calcium Oxalate build up is known to be dissolved by mega doses of Vitamin C up to 4 gm a day and this has been attributed to acidification of urine which favors dissolution of Oxalate crystals. Probably same may hold good for Gout also but this needs confirmation by further clinical studies. The role of Vitamin C in the synthesis of Collagen protein that gives shape to connective tissues is well recognized and since Gout affects connective tissues, high doses of Vitamin C may be providing quick healing to the damaged tissues.

While mega dose therapy using Vitamin C against Gout is a subject matter of focus amongst many health experts, Coffee consumption has been linked to significant reduction of Uric acid levels and many believe that regular consumers of this beverage rarely develop symptoms of Gout in their life. There appears to be connection between lower C-peptide levels in coffee drinkers which is a marker for insulin levels in the body. Strong association between insulin resistance and elevated Uric acid levels further points to the role of coffee in lowering the Uric acid levels. Coffee also contains chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant par excellence which is known to inhibit glucose absorption in the GI tract. Further studies are required to confirm the mechanism by which coffee protects against Gout.

Food scientists need to come up with plant based foods and edible materials, consumption of which can help reducing build up of Uric acid in the blood through the food route, enabling Gout affected patients lead a normal stress-free life through modified diets of proven efficacy.


Sunday, May 10, 2009


The world is sharply divided into two camps, "the haves and the have nots" because of historical economic factors. Industrialized countries with natural, economic and technological resources have been able to amass fortunes that enabled them to pamper to their populations with the very best in all spheres of life. In contrast poor countries, most of them coming out of the yolks of colonialism in the last century, can boast of only the starving populations for whom hunger and poverty are the only options. 75% of world's ultra poor people live in the African continent with less than 50 cents a day income that can hardly buy any thing to day. Mal distribution of wealth is a serious issue that confronts the world which defies any simple solution. Top 10% of the world owns 84% of the wealth while bottom half barely holds 1%. Food prices continue to climb in many poor countries while they are going down in affluent countries due to the on-going economic melt down which is ironical.
European Union (EU), a conglomerate of super rich nations, is finding it hard to satisfy their farmers because of lower demand for produce and the consequent rapidly sliding prices for them in the market place. It was as recent as in 2007 that EU congratulated itself for eliminating the large surplus of foods purchased and stored in the past with tax payers' money, mainly through exports to third world countries where increased demands emerged due to droughts and better economic conditions. For the records, it must be remembered that EU bought butter to the tune of 1.23 million tons from their producers creating the euphorically called 'butter mountains' which were disposed off by 2007. But the trend reversed sharply in late 2008 when economic recession depressed the domestic demand while farmers continued to produce with no let up. During 2008-09, EU is budgeting to buy from the farmers about 30000 tons of butter alone while similar schemes are being worked out for other dairy products. While global prices for butter has plummeted from Euros 3000 per ton in 2007 to less than Euros 1500 per ton in early 2009, the farm subsidy program is gearing itself to offer to them a minimum price of Euros 2299 per ton. EU is also planning to buy 1.09 lakh tons of non-fat milk powder @ Euros1698 per ton, much higher than what open market can offer. Already EU is stuck with 1,17, 810 tons of cereals, 41,422 tons of sugar and 2.3 million hectoliters of wine bought under its Euros 50 billion agricultural subsidy plan. Third world countries must wake up to the reality that these cereal mounds, butter mountains, skim milk powder stacks and wine lakes are likely to be dumped at low prices threatening the very existence of their domestic producers,
Similar picture emerges in USA also where more than $ 1 billion worth of non-fat milk powder were bought by the government in 3 years up to 2002 in an effort to prop up milk prices which saw a slump during this period. The 1.3 billion gallons of milk that went in making the powder came from 6.35 lakh cows over a period of one year and was sufficient to meet the needs of its population for 16 months. The powder was kept in a series of man-made caves near Kansas City, Mo and other private ware houses across that country. Though the 1996 Freedom To Farmer Law was supposed to have terminated the controversial subsidy system, it resurfaced again in 2002, continuing till to day.  Thanks to this, US exports of dairy products increased from $ 1 billion in 2003 to $ 4 billion in 2008, the milk powder export alone showing a six-fold increase during the period. Government offered 90 cents a pound then and to day it is giving 80 cents a pound to buy about 111.6 million tons of powder worth $ 91 millions with tax payer's money as the fluid milk price slumped from $20 per 100 pounds last year to $ 14 to day. To cap it the government spends $ 25 million an year to warehouse the dairy products bought from their farmers. It is ironical that the non-fat milk powder after three years, if not exported, will be sold at very low prices to animal feed manufacturers while millions of children in the third world are starving to death for want of food!.  

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Animal foods like beef, chicken and pork meat are consumed world over by more than 70% of the population and their supply chain has an important bearing on the safety of the marketed products derived from them. As they are rich sources of protein, fat and other nutrients, mankind seems to be over dependent on them as a source of healthy food. During the last hundred years, production technology for raising these animals has undergone revolutionary changes, with safety upper most in the minds of the industry. Beef consumption is a taboo for certain population while pork products are shunned by another group due to religious sentiments. Chicken meat how ever is universally liked and consumed practically in all regions of the world.

Raising of beef cattle in large farms with tightly controlled living conditions and designer feed application, more or less controls the end quality of the product with uncompromising safety. Same is true with pigs and chickens by the organized meat industry. Only in developing countries one can come across scattered rural settings where meat animals are raised at the house hold level with each having a few animals. How ever organized poultry farms have become conspicuous now in many developing countries with large farms with birds as high as 100000 in a single farm becoming common. Same is true with pig farms though they are still very small by international standards.

The animal food industry had to face serious challenges ever since mad cow disease was reported first in UK and then in USA and even to day American beef is banned in some countries due to fear of the disease which was not affecting human beings in any significant way. Same is true with bird flu or avian flu which became a serious threat during the last two years necessitating culling of millions of birds in several producing countries across the world. Here again the avian flu virus, being an animal virus could not cross the animal-human barrier and did not cause any damage in human beings. Controlling the flu was necessary to prevent total collapse of the poultry industry rather than protecting human life.The most recent Swine Flu originating from Mexico is reported to have already killed more than two dozen people there and caused a couple of deaths in USA besides making hundreds of people sick in 24 countries though not much is known about the virus that is responsible for the episode.

Influenza A/H1N1 Virus which is being described as a combination of Avian, Swine and Human Influenza Virus is responsible for the new epidemic and since it has spread to more than two regions, WHO was forced to raise the alert level to 5 in their scale of 6, indicating the seriousness of this infection to become pandemic. Any Influenza pandemic occurs when a new Virus appears against which human population has no immunity and H1N1 Swine Flu virus is indeed a new strain having pandemic potential. A pandemic can cause up to 7.4 million deaths world-wide. Since 1900 world has seen 3 pandemic episodes which include Spanish Flu of 1918-19 when 40% of world population became ill killing about 40 million people. The 1957 Asian Flu caused by H2N2 Virus resulted in 2 million deaths while the 1968 Hongkong Flu accounted for 33,800 deaths. In 1976 a pandemic was avoided because of massive vaccination efforts and in 1997 and 1999 Avian Flu was promptly controlled with minimum death of only 6 people. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 also was effectively controlled but the world realized that Virus could jump the "animal to human" barrier that has serious repercussions. Fortunately these Virus strains did not undergo sufficient mutation to sustain "human to human" infection on any significant scale.

While any Virus epidemic is a serious health concern to all countries in the world because of the ease with which it can spread across national frontiers with millions of people traveling every day, what is disturbing is the illogical knee-jerk reaction by some countries in banning the meat products from countries where the Virus originated. It took several years and billions of dollars of losses to put the beef industry back after the mad cow disease. Same is true with Avian Flu also when millions of birds had to be culled and many countries slapped ban on import of chicken meat from the affected regions. Now comes the so called Swine Flu and same logic is being invoked to ban import of of pork from Mexico and USA by countries like China, Indonesia and a few others in spite of the fact that processed meat, having undergone thermal processing adequate enough to destroy all living organisms including Virus, cannot be a source of infection. With billions of dollars of investment, any industry will feel the heat when irrational considerations affect their business and can even be considered as a disguised "Technical Barrier to Trade" (TBT) which calls for immediate intervention by WTO in the interest of a seamless global trade.
Cow, Chicken and Pig seem to be sharing the common concern that their utility to mankind is severely affected, for no fault of theirs, by the virus epidemic, vising them periodically in spite of the best attention bestowed on them by their benefactors!


Friday, May 8, 2009


Carbon dioxide(CO2), one of the naturally occurring gases in the atmosphere, is blamed by the environmentalists for the dreaded global warming phenomenon being faced by the modern world. It is true that CO2 is omnipotent because all living creatures inhale oxygen and exhale CO2 every second without which life is not possible. Plants absorb CO2 during day time to fix solar energy and synthesise starch using chlorophyll pigments present in green leaves. Normally atmospheric air contains 21% Oxygen, 0.038% Carbon Dioxide and 78% Nitrogen. Major sources of CO2 emission are fossil fuels which are burned to generate energy for driving modern civilization. Kyoto Protocol on green house gases calls on all countries to reduce these emissions in order to save the world from disaster due to uncontrollable and undesirable weather changes. Viewed from this angle CO2 is indeed a villain but branding this gas as such ignores the beneficial role it plays in many spheres of life to day.

The omnipotent fire extinguisher that is a part of to day's civil infrastructure is based on the principle that CO2 is a fire retardant and the soda-acid fire extinguishers generate CO2 that can be directed at the fire. As a refrigerant, dry ice or solid CO2 has no parallel as it is a clean refrigerant leaving no residue once sublimed. The temperature of pure dry ice is minus 109.8F which can be further lowered by mixing powdered dry ice with ether or acetone to minus 220F. CO2 is one of the raw materials in the manufacture of the most popular fertilizer Urea. CO2 under pressure is also widely used as a cleansing agent in many industries.

Food industry owes a lot to CO2 for its diverse portfolio of products. Most common use, as a common man can see, is in the manufacture of aerated drinks where the fizz is provided by this gas. CO2 under pressure and at low temperatures dissolves in aqueous phase lowering the pH and providing an atmosphere that inhibits almost all living contaminants in the product. Technologies like Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP), Controlled Atmosphere Storage (CAS), Equilibrium Modified Atmosphere Packing (eMAP), Modified Atmosphere/Modified Humidity Packing (MA/MH) owe their strength to the presence of CO2 in the gas mixture that protects commodities under ambient as well as reduced temperature conditions. CO2 at just 80% cause hypercarbia while Nitrogen beyond 98% concentration leads to hypoxia conditions, both inimical to most living things including microorganisms. CAS was being used since 1930 for transportation of fruits over long distances while MAP became prominent in 1970 for Bacon and Fish transport. To day MAP is widely used for distributing products like red meat, sea food, minimally processed fruits and vegetables, cheese, pasta, bakery goods, poultry, cooked and cured products, ready meats and dried foods. It is estimated that 25-40% of all fresh produce harvested does not reach the consumer table due to spoilage and emergence of the above technologies helps to reduce the waste to the minimum where CO2 plays a very significant role.

While meat and fish require very low gas permeability films or high barrier packing materials as they are non-respiring in nature, fruits and vegetables, being actively respiring and transpiring, call for use of films with certain permeability characteristics to allow for diffusion of O2 and CO2 for establishing equilibrium. They need O2 for respiration and emit CO2 as a by-product. Build up of too much CO2 can adversely affect the sensory quality of the product packed and that calls for its diffusion out of the pack. Depletion of O2 is also to be avoided and there fore O2 entry into such packs at desired rate is also necessary. There are excellent packaging materials available to day thanks to the innovative efforts of the packaging industry, meeting every need of the food packers. Both gas flushing and compensated vacuum methods are deployed in packing foods under MAP system. O2 levels of 3-5%, CO2 levels of 10% and rest N2 can be effective for packing fruits and vegetables. CO2 at concentrations of 10% or less is considered most effective in killing all microbes and pests. Grains stored under CO2 can stay in good shape for more than 5 years.

CO2 is a by-product of alcohol fermentation and is available in plenty, waiting to be harnessed for use by the food industry. In baking industry CO2 is an essential tool to impart the desired texture to the baked products. Baking powder, based on sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid or calcium hydrogen phosphate which generates CO2 on heating is an integral part of the bakery industry and millions of kitchens around the world. The loaf volume, texture and other qualities of the bread are imparted by CO2 generated by yeast under aerobic conditions. The Super Critical CO2 Fluid Extraction Technology (SCFE), the high end process developed some time back has enabled the industry to obtain concentrated and purified products from flavor bearing materials like spices, herbs and aromatic plants. The decaffeinated coffee is made to day mostly by the SCFE technology which does not affect adversely the delicate flavor constituents present in coffee, unlike the solvent extraction technology and Caffeine is obtained as a valuable by-product.

Since the world is fighting against uncontrolled build up of CO2 to protect the environment, it is certainly an adversary but considering the diverse beneficial uses it has in the day day to day lives of people, CO2 is also a friendly partner that sustains the human civilization.


Thursday, May 7, 2009


Man consumes water and water based drinks to meet the demand from the body for maintaining homeostatic balance. Some are consumed cold, some at ambient temperature and others in hot or warm state. While cool drinks are more popular during summer, warm/hot drinks are preferred in winter or rainy days. Juices, beverages, soft drinks, buttermilk, sweetened yogurts and flavored milk are consumed at 4-10C while tea, coffee, milk, cocoa, malted drinks, etc are enjoyed better when taken hot. In a startling report a group of scientists have raised an alarm regarding taking beverages like tea at high temperatures beyond 70 degree Celsius (158 F). According to them, drinking hot tea poses risk of oesophagus cancer and recommends waiting for 10 minutes after the preparation before drinking. Oesophagus is the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach and is susceptible to cancer due to many reasons, most common being drinking of alcohol and use of tobacco, causing more than half a million deaths a year in the world. The vulnerability to this type of cancer increases several fold if the socio-economic conditions are poor, consumption of fruits and vegetables is not practiced and irregular habits of brushing the teeth. But no link has so far been established between the temperature of the food consumed and oesophagus cancer. The new findings implicating hot black tea in cancer raises disturbing questions regarding the eating and drinking practices and their impact on health.

According to the above findings drinking black tea hot was associated with twice the risk of oesophagus cancer while drinking very hot tea raised the risk level eight-fold. Likewise drinking tea within 2 minutes after preparing raised the risk five-fold as compared to drinking the same tea after 4 minutes. Conventionally any beverage at a temperature of less than 149 F is considered warm, at 158 F as hot and beyond 158 F as very hot. It is hard to believe that temperature of the drink can make such a difference considering the in-built safety provided by the inability of the oral cavity to tolerate high temperatures. Many consume tea at a much lesser temperatures and this is especially true with green tea and black tea beverages which are prepared by dropping the tea leaves into hot water followed by straining. In some cases tea is 'cooked' in boiling water for a few minutes, strained and consumed with or without sugar. More over sipping action and roiling the liquid in the mouth for some time before gulping naturally will bring down the temperature significantly. Also to be remembered is that drinking coffee or tea is never done in a jiffy as it provides relaxation when one sits own for the drink and the slow process of sipping does not permit the drinking temperature to go high beyond the danger level at any time. It is doubtful whether in all these cases the temperature would go beyond 149 F when the drink passes down the throat. Same applies to coffee also. Whitened tea or coffee is still more safe as addition of milk naturally brings down the temperature to tolerable levels.

The alarm was raised by the scientists based on their finding of wide spread incidence of oesophagus cancer in Golestan Province in Iran where local people traditionally drink very hot tea to which their oral cavity is accustomed. But it is rather naive to assume that hot tea is the only factor that is responsible because the population there are also reported to be socio-economically poor; they do not eat vegetables at all and do not brush their teeth regularly. Probably further studies only can bring out the causative factors that make this cancer prevalent in that region. Such stray reports should not dissuade people drinking coffee and tea regularly to shun their enjoyable habit fearing dangerous consequences. At best one can consider exercising caution while drinking hot beverages in general, to be on the safer side!


Tuesday, May 5, 2009


The intestinal flora in human beings are diverse and billions of microbial cells inhabit the GI tract, most of them beneficial to the host. Over 500 species of microorganisms have been identified and some of them are pathogenic in nature. However the pathogenicity does not find expression under normal conditions due to the overwhelming presence of friendly microbes. Helicobacter pyloris is a classical example of a pathogenic organism that resides in the stomach which can flare up under favorable conditions causing chronic ulcers and other problems. Clostridium difficile, also referred to as CDF or cdf or simply as C.diff is another example of a pathogen that has been found in 2-5% of the population in the world. The enterotoxin, cytotoxin and binary toxin produced by C.difficile can cause severe diarrhea and other complications in the large intestine when the general population of harmless bacteria declines due to repeated use of antibiotics through the oral route or cross infection from patients harboring high population of this bacteria in their body. Old age population, residents of hospitals and nursing homes and people coming in direct contact with infected persons can contract this disease.

Emergence of CDF as a major causative agent in intestine related disorders is of a recent origin. With hardly 1000 case reported 5 years ago, to day more than 50000 incidences involving this pathogen are being recorded, some of them proving to be fatal. Large intestine where there is very little oxygen, is the thriving ground for CDF as it is an anaerobic microorganism. Its proliferation can cause serious ulcers, bleeding from the colon and even perforations of the intestine which can be fatal. There are about 100 variants of CDF and the most virulent is Type 027 which has been detected in most of the infections occurring in recent times. As they are spore forming microbes, their destruction is not easy once they start growing as many normal antibiotics are ineffective against it. Oral administration of special antibiotics like metronidazole, vancomycin, fusidic acid or bacitracin can control the infection to a great extent. Psuedomembranous colitis caused by CDF results in bloating of stomach region, constipation, severe diarrhea and abdominal pain. In India there is no credible report of occurrence of CDF infection, probably due to insufficient diagnostic tools available to detect CDF and all diarrhea being clubbed together under one category.

With indiscriminate use of a wide range of antibiotics, even for minor fever and ailments, CDF infection is likely to rise in the coming years unless some restriction is put in place on supply of these antibiotics with out accurately diagnosing the reason for every ailment. Some hospitals do type out the microbial profile of the faeces to determine the causative agent but this is more an exception than the rule. Though antibiotics sale is covered under physician prescription regulations, the ground reality is that any one in India can get them from small pharmacies without such prescriptions and there is a tendency amongst many citizens to rush to a drug shop rather than an hospital or a physician when ever they have fever and similar symptoms. Administration of freeze dried lactobacillus culture containing live cells, is practiced by many physicians to restore the the intestinal flora every time antibiotics are used to treat serious infections. Consumption of yogurt or butter milk in abundant quantities will also serve the purpose. It is no wonder that yogurt finds a prominent place in almost all lists of "top ten" healthy foods recommended by health experts world over and its regular consumption can preempt infections from pathogens like CDF in the long run.