Saturday, June 20, 2009


Who is not fond of the story in the Disney Film, Jungle Book where the orphaned Mowgli grows amongst wild animals? Food scientists seem to have found a clue to tackle the obesity disease in the saga of Mowgly. The character depicted as Baloo is a bear who loves to eat the fruit 'prickly pear', probably without realizing its ability to reduce body weight as being claimed now. The scientific explanation behind this property of the fruit is that one of the active principles present in it has the capacity to bind fat in the GI tract and to make the bound fat unavailable for absorption into the blood. How far this will be acceptable to health experts remains to be seen though there are some supporting evidence to go along with the findings.

One of the chosen routes in tackling weight gain in human beings is to retard absorption of dietary fat in the GI tract that will effectively reduce net calories generated in the body. Ability of stable oil in water emulsions prepared using Tween 60 in slowing down fat digestion and provide the feeling of satiety was reported in this Blog earlier. Chitosan, a by-product of shrimp industry, extracted from inedible portion of shrimp was one of the earliest fat binders reported in food science, It is more a physical binding and an intake of 1500 mg of chitosan was claimed to achieve significant reduction in fat intake in the GI tract, though this claim is still inconclusive. The approach to slow down fat absorption or prevent a part of the dietary fat from getting into the blood stream is an attractive option being pursued by a number of scientific groups across the world.

The prickly pear or Indian fig as it is known is a fruit from the cactus family Opuntia, popularly used in Mexico and other South American regions as a medicine as well as food for a number of beneficial effects it is supposed to have when consumed. Amusingly it is neither a pear nor a fig though many refer to this fruit using this terminology. It is remarkable that from an obscure status, prickly pear is being touted as one of the most nutritious fruits in the world, finding its place in many modern markets in the US and Europe under the fresh produce category. It is rich in many flavonoids like Kaempferol, Puercitin, Kaempferol-3-Methyl Ether, Quercitin-3-Methyl Ether, Narcessin, Dihydrokaempferol, dihydroquercitin and Eriodictyol. These flavonoids make prickly pear a power house of healthy chemicals capable of protecting human immune system, prevent oxidative stress by fighting oxyradicals, preventing muscle soreness after exercise and controlling levels of blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure.

Peeled fruit contains 9% carbohydrate, 5 % fiber, no fat and 175 kJ of energy. According to those who promote consumption of prickly pear for weight control, the fiber present in the fruit is responsible for binding the fat making it unavailable to the lipase system for splitting the fat and further absorption across the intestine and the fiber-fat complex is excreted through the faeces. As an evidence a 27% increase in faecal excretion of fat by those consuming the fruit after a meal has been cited. Two of the commercial brands of pills developed with prickly pear already available in the market have been allowed to claim that they could reduce fat consumption by 28%, suppress appetite and food cravings, cut calories by 150 kC per meal, lower serum cholesterol and increase joint flexibility. Probably Baloo,the bear (or Walt Disney Productions?) realized the ability of this particular fruit, while picking on it, to check the shape of his cuddly body and prevent obesity, though there were many other more delicious fruits available in the forest!

With unheard of food materials like Acai berry, Prickly Pear, Kiwi Fruit and others, not known to the modern world till recently, becoming celebrities, one cannot but feel that there may be numerous such natural products in India that require "reinvention" through serious scientific attempts by the indigenous scientists. It is time we look into the treasure house of information available in our ancient scriptures, bring to surface their immense health protecting potential and enable the world to be benefited by the wisdom of ancient India.


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