Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Railway catering system, once completely under the in-house catering department of the Indian Railways, started taking a U-turn as a result of economic liberalization and greater appreciation of the role of private enterprises in delivering better service to the consumer. The volume of food catered also is increasing by leaps and bounds with new express trains and deluxe trains being introduced in greater numbers. Food is included as a standard feature in many trains, offered as a part of the tickets when passengers buy them. Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), set up as a dedicated service provider under the Railway Board is supposed to have good facilities for supplying part of the food requirements from their base kitchens located at some strategic stations. Private caterers are involved for augmenting the food services based on competitive bidding. Is the present system working efficiently? Is the traveling public entirely satisfied with the quality and cost of the foods served and the in-train service provided during the travel?

Here is an excerpt from a news report in some reputed papers on the subject."Inferior quality and overcharging of food and beverages served in trains and stations falling under the South Western Railway Division is an experience most of the train passengers have endured at least during some train journey". The response from IRCTC to such complaints is that they have so far 'slapped a fine of Rs 4.36 lakh on its franchisees and terminated the services of one contractor' for unsatisfactory performance during April 2008 to February 2009. It further claimed that only 73 complaints were received from passengers in trains like Sampark Kranti Express, Vasco-Nizammudin Express, Sangamitra Express and Karnataka Express during the last 3 months conveniently ignoring the reality that, being a Gandhian country, people stoically put up with such inconveniences without bothering to register any complaint, besides having no confidence on the rectification system that has to deal with complaints! Some of the complaints are of serious nature like serving stale foods unfit for consumption, lack of characteristic taste attributes, missing food items in the meals like roti, curd, sweet etc, cold foods, lack of hygiene and over charging.

According to IRCTC, the organization has deployed some quality control 'professionals' to monitor the quality of foods served in various trains, franchisees are being warned repeatedly for violations, surprise checks are carried out often and a minimum of Rs 20000 fine is imposed on guilty franchisees as a deterrent. The recent order insisting on only branded foods being sold inside the stations, does not serve any purpose at all because it is known that for every one reputed brand of a product there are at least half a dozen imitations from non-decrepit companies with no definite address! For example hardly 1% of the railway stations carry established brands of bottled water while others sell unknown and unheard brands and the thirsty travelers have no option but to buy these questionable quality products to quench their thirst!

Railway catering was a subject matter of one of the earlier blogs where a forceful plea was made to the Railway Board to auction the catering rights in each train to a reputed food company like ITC, Britania, MTR, Dabur Foods etc and the successful bidder can be provided with an exclusive pantry where pre-prepared foods can be stored and heated before serving. Unfortunately Railway Board is more concerned with revenue generation and profit making, sacrificing the comfort and health of its patrons, viz, the Indian Public. R & D Wing of the Railway Board is more interested in designing coaches that can accommodate higher number of passengers who feel more like chickens in a coop with literally no moving space! If passenger care is upper most in the minds of the authorities concerned, more meaningful efforts need to be made to innovate on the foods, their containers and delivery service.


Sunday, March 29, 2009


Managing kids to make them eat their food regularly is a challenging task for many mothers. Till the age of three, mothers have to do lot of coaxing,cajoling, and persuasion to feed their children. The problems after wards is making the kid eat the right food with balanced nutrition. If the meals in a day are divided into three portions, breakfast time, between 7 am and 10 am is most important because body's energy reserve is at its lowest. 12-14 hours gap between previous day's dinner and next day's breakfast can result in depletion of all nutrients, though the body is relatively inactive during sleeping, only basal metabolism taking place at the resting period. Logically, therefore, breakfast provides the required recharging to raise the level of body function sufficiently to meet the energy and nutrient needs for the physical as well as brain activities, at least till the lunch time.

A recent survey in the US has brought out a chilling reality that 22% of the school going children do not have enough time or inclination to eat their breakfast and are allowed to go to the school almost on an empty stomach 3 to 5 times a week. A further 20% skip their breakfast on 1 or 2 days in a week. What are the implications of such a situation on the health and attitudes of these children as they grow up? One of the serious consequences could be the ability of such children to focus on the learning with an energy level considered low by normal standards. According to some experts this is analogous to driving an automobile without fuel which can cause serious damage to the engine! How far such a claim can stand scientific scrutiny is another matter. But such children will consider taking break fast as redundant and get adjusted to a routine in life with no morning meal before starting the day. Probably this might be the basis on which many school breakfast programs are operating in many countries. But can this be taken as the gospel truth? Is there sufficient scientific evidence to say categorically that body does not have adequate reserve resources to meet the temporary contingency caused by missing the breakfast? Are the parents of such children guilty of abdicating their responsibility of giving them a decent future? Highly subsidized foods available in the school canteens could be one of the reasons for lulling the mothers to a sense of complacency.

Some stray findings here and there do indicate that breakfast is an important meal and as far as possible must be consumed before starting the day's work. It is believed that children regularly missing their breakfast invariably tend to become obese adults of tomorrow, the odds against them being 4-fold. There are also reports suggesting that those kids with irregular breakfast eating habit have less visuospatial memory and alertness compared to normal kids. They also tend score less in maths and perform below par in attention and memory tests; but their capacity for sustained attention in the class room is not affected adversely. A recent report even suggests that the reaction time of children who did not eat breakfast or who ate simple carbohydrate breakfast was almost same as that of a 70 year old person, which is indeed alarming. Thus not eating the breakfast and eating a 'bad' breakfast such as junk foods are undesirable practices deserving to be discouraged. Even if existing data on ill effects of not consuming breakfasts regularly, do not warrant raising an alarm, common sense and logic demand that kids must be discouraged from ignoring the first meal of the day for the simple reason that a hungry child will tend to over eat at lunch, that too preferring foods rich in calories and fat, certainly not good in the long run. Growing children must get their act together as far as eating habits are concerned to become healthy adults of tomorrow!


Saturday, March 28, 2009


Cold sterilization and pasteurization processes are generally based on gamma radiation or X-Ray exposure at ambient temperature without recourse to heating. They have the unique advantage of not affecting the organoleptic quality or the nutrient content of the foods processed. How ever both these technologies are viewed with suspicion by the consumers because of the use of radiation energy which is mistakenly being associated with the lethal Hiroshima Atom Bomb responsible for the death and miseries of thousands of people during World War II. Tons of scientific data have been generated to prove the absence of live radiation in the products treated and more than 40 countries have cleared the use of gamma radiation in selected foods for both indigenous consumption as well as for exports. As for X-Ray treatment, it is a young technology, yet to take off, with lot of promises.

Food contamination with pathogens like E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria, etc is assuming alarming proportion in some of the developed countries in the American and European continents in spite of strict vigilance and the much acclaimed monitoring systems in place. Yet these countries could not prevent the outbreak of E.coli infection in spinach in 2006 in USA killing 3 people and sickening another 200. In USA alone 40000 cases of Salmonellosis per year are being reported killing at least 400 people and 70000 cases of E.coli infection resulting in dozen fatalities. The recent Salmonella contamination reported in Peanut products made in USA, requiring calling back of millions of dollars worth of products containing peanut paste or butter as an ingredient, is still fresh in our memory, hitting hard the credibility of their safety monitoring machinery.

Most difficult materials to be decontaminated are fresh farm produce as they suffer significant quality damage if standard thermal treatment regime is adopted. Though Salmonella is associated more with fish and meat products, their presence in fresh produce is suspected to be due to careless farm practices and indifferent handling in the packing sheds. Treatment with chlorine does help to some extent but this is not a fool proof practice and post-treatment cross infection can still take place with potential hazard to the consumer. Food chain accountability being lax in many countries, it is becoming increasingly difficult to trace the source of infection.

The prayer by the industry for a low cost technology for decontamination of thermally sensitive foods seems to have been answered by the development of a technique using low wattage electricity in the US. Though it may take some time before commercial equipment become available for decontamination of foods, the promise it holds for the future of food industry may be exciting. Excellent results have been reported with tomatoes which after packing in sealed plastic bags were exposed to a plasma field created by two high voltage, low wattage electric coils on either side. Generation of Ozone from the oxygen present with in the bag kills the pathogens within a matter of few seconds. After the treatment ozone does not stay to cause any oxidative damage to the contents and decomposes to the original atomic oxygen. Besides tomatoes, this treatment was found to be effective for spinach also and may work for any food material. The low electricity consumption of 30-40 watts, practically no rise in temperature in side the bag, no electrode intrusion into the container and suitability of both flexible and rigid plastic containers, make this technique attractive to processors as well as the consumers.

Before this technique is adopted some questions regarding use of ozone in food system need to be addressed. Generally ozone is considered a pollutant when it is present at the ground level and it is known to cause head aches, burning eyes and irritation in the respiratory passage at levels as low as 100 ppb. How much residue will remain in the treated produce must be assessed after processing. A concentration of 300 ppb is necessary to get a 99.99% kill of food borne pathogens. Also of importance is the susceptibility of the packaging material to ozone action and possibility of chemicals and artifacts generated that can contaminate the contents during processing. A claim that ozone can decontaminate fruits ad vegetables with respect to pesticide residues also calls for further study. Optimum time of processing for total kill, influence of moisture in the product on the efficacy of the process, effect of varying sizes and shapes of the materials to be treated on the product quality, etc will have to be worked out for different products.

It is likely that the above process, if technically found feasible, will be eventually patented and cost of acquiring it may be exorbitant. In the mean time why not Indian food scientists work on this principle and come out with a successful low cost gadget that will benefit thousands of small scale processors in extending the shelf life of many fresh as well as processed products in the country. Such innovations only can drive Indian food industry up the growth chart on a sustained basis.


Thursday, March 26, 2009


Why is that some foods in nature are strongly colored and others are colorless or mildly colored? Many food constituents present in different concentrations have specific roles to play during germination, growth, maturity and senescence. If it is so the multitudes of colors with different hues, represented by different chemicals contained in these foods, must have definite roles during the life cycle of the plants that produce them. Organoleptically, human beings like foods that have bright colors and this may be the reason for the development of the food color industry. From a plethora of manufactured dyes and tints available for edible use a few years ago, the number has dwindled to a handful because of the long term toxicity associated with the use of artificial colors. Shift from synthetic colors to natural colors is a logical corollary to the realization of the dangers of using artificial color adjuncts during food processing.

One of the strong reasons for nature to produce colored fruits and vegetables might be the compulsion of sustaining each species through spreading the progeny to far and wide. Just like the colored flowers attracting bees, insects and birds which carry the pollens and seeds through long distances for propagation, colored fruits and vegetables also may be attracting birds, squirrels and similar creatures as a food material and they serve as propagating agents for the plants. Still it is a mystery why each plant is endowed with characteristic genetic apparatus to produce same colored flowers or fruits or vegetables. It is understandable that plants contain chlorophyll which gives them the distinct green color of varying intensity, vested with the responsibility of fixing CO2 for bio-synthesis of starch in presence of solar light and generating the life-sustaining oxygen in this planet. Plants are responsible for producing a significant portion of the oxygen in the atmosphere while cleaning up the green house gas CO2 responsible for global warming.

Red colored fruits like tomatoes contain Lycopene which gives it the distinct hue during ripening and it is recognized that Lycopene offers protection for humans from diseases like prostate cancer, heart ailment and lung disorders. Purple crops like beets, egg plant, red cabbage and red pepper, containing anthocyanin group of chemicals are considered good for a healthy heart. Orange colored foods like carrots, winter squash, sweet potato and others contain alpha-carotene and beta-carotene good for the eyes. Blue colored crops like blueberries, plum, raisins etc are rich in anthocyanins, phenolics, isoflavones, flavinols, catechins, ellagic acid and minerals like magnesium and are considered excellent protective foods. Yellow and green crops such as spinach, collard, corn, avocado, etc get their color mainly from lutein and zeaxanthine which are known to improve eye health. Green cruciferous vegetables which include broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, kole etc contain valuable sulforaphane and isothiocyanates blessed with the ability to inhibit the adverse action of oxyradicals, responsible for the generation of carcinogens in the body and development of cancer. There is a class of crops with neutral or light color such as garlic, onion, sprouts, celery, asparagus, etc which contain allicin and some antioxidants with powerful anti-tumor properties. There are many health experts who advocate regular consumption of the seven groups of colored fruits and vegetables to keep away all the diseases that afflict the modern society.

Interestingly widespread apprehension about the long term effect of using artificial colors in foods on health has led to the emergence of color concentrates extracted from fruits, vegetables, flowers and seeds. One of the earliest used natural colors is annatto dye, extracted from annatto seeds, a forest produce available in plenty in India. Progressive elimination of many coal tar dyes from the list of permitted edible colors compelled the industry to look for alternate natural sources considered much safer. To day a wide choice of natural colors is available from sources like beetroot, safflower, blue grapes, alfa grass, parsley, spinach, carrots, red chilli, caramel, carbon black. blackberry, blackcurrant, kokum fruit, turmeric, etc. Though some of them have the advantage of being nutraceuticals also, the poor tintorial power necessitates use of large dosages which some times adversely affect the organoleptic quality of the end product. Efforts are called for in enhancing their color intensity through molecular modification by application of synthetic organic chemistry and modern physical chemistry.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Every one is supposed to go ga ga after hearing the the news that the inflation last week continued to slide down to the lowest figure since a long time. The Official figure of 0.44% inflation based on WPI (wholesale price index) changes reflects a trend that indicates relatively slower rise in wholesale prices as compared to that existed an year ago. It is difficult for a common man to understand the relevance of whole sale prices that prevail in the market as these have no resemblance to the prices that rule the retail market. Of course GOI also brings out Consumer Price Index in three different categories for agricultural labor, urban workers and non-industry workers but as these figures are much higher than WPI they are not widely disseminated. There is widespread apprehension that the country may even get into a deflation mode or negative inflation regime soon, the major reason being declining demand in the country for many products due to recession like situation. Some economists interpret the rapidly declining inflation as a sign of plummeting demand for many things by consumers, left with less and less disposable income.

The 'feel good' factor disappears the moment one looks at the price front, especially for some of the basic food materials in the retail market. The basic staples rice in the South and Atta in the North have registered price increases in the range of 30% to 50% during the last one year for no rhyme or reason. Though GOI claims that this price increase is due to higher support prices offered to the farmers, this is hard to accept because no farmer gets this type of hike in prices for his crops in a single year. Same trend is evident with other essential commodities also except in the case of edible oils, price of which is influenced by the import duty on palm oil and soybean oil. Present zero duty import regime for the above oils, compared to more than 60%-85% earlier, has succeeded in bringing down the prices very significantly, at least for these two items. Whether it is sugar, salt, dal or dairy products, the upward trend in consumer prices is causing misery all around with low income groups cutting down on foods due to economic compulsions, affecting their health adversely. In the case of fruits and vegetables the situation is some what different. The cheapest fruit in the market is Papaya with a ruling price of Rs 10-12 per kg while others cost upwards of Rs 25/kg. Wide fluctuations in prices of vegetables, experienced by the consumer defy any explanation and how meager the farmer gets out of the price paid by the consumer, is a matter that must affect the conscience of this nation.

The PDS which the country put in place under the socialistic pattern of government in sixties does provide some solace to the consumer but the widespread corruption that characterizes the distribution system denies the benefits to a substantial segment of the deserving population. After the economic liberalization reforms in the beginning of the last decade, PDS has become dysfunctional in many states causing further misery to economically weaker sections of the society. It is high time that PDS is reorganized and modernized to serve the purpose of social equity and guaranteed food to meet the minimum nutritional need of the low income population which cannot afford to face the galloping price escalation in the open retail market. Using ration cards as an identity document must be stopped and only those opting for regular purchase of commodities from the PDS, because of economic reasons, should be provided with such cards.

What country needs is a re-look at its food retailing system, giving prime importance to growers' cooperative organizations for marketing the produce from their members directly to the consumers. Amul is a classical model of a cooperative venture that changed the face of dairy industry from one of perpetual shortages into a situation of plenty in less than 4 decades. Why we are not able to clone this model in other areas like edible oil or horticultural crops or food grains is not well understood. NDDB, in 1983-84 made an attempt under Dr V Kurien, to organize production, processing and marketing of fruits and vegetables with a pilot scheme in new Delhi. Though the project gained considerable experience, it could not be implemented across the country like the dairy ventures. Whether it is due to GOI apathy or the strong lobbying by vested interests, people of this country are the real losers in the bargain. If GOI and State administrations provide weighted policy and fiscal incentives to the cooperatives to face the challenges from investment-rich private players, there is no reason why the former cannot succeed in keeping the consumer prices under control. Probably one of the pre-requisites for success is empowering the cooperative producing and marketing organizations, owned and operated by the growers, with the required financial muscle in meeting the credit needs of the agricultural sector. This could be done with a fraction of the massive one time "write off" program under the last year's budget estimated at Rs 60000 crores!

The successful e-choupal model promoted by ITC, a major player in wheat processing industry, can be easily emulated by the cooperatives, the only difference being the direct ownership of the organization when it is in the cooperative sector. Maize cooperatives working in southern Karnataka, are a living example of a successful growers' organization with enormous market clout in fetching maximum returns to their members. Such successes need to be multiplied manifold in all areas of agriculture, horticulture, livestock rearing and captive fisheries if the industrious farmers and the vulnerable consumers in India are to be liberated from the 'middle man' syndrome that is prevalent to day, largely responsible for the consumer misery.


Monday, March 23, 2009


Indus Valley is the cradle of Indian Civilization and the river Ganga is ingrained in the ethos of this country through its association with various events spanning over the past 5000 years. Its 2500 km journey from Gaumukh to the Bay of Bengal provided sustenance to millions of people living on its banks. The seven kilometer human chain program stretching from Assi to Adikeshava Ghat on March 22 by school kids, college students and socially active citizens was organized by Sankat Morcha Foundation to create wide awareness about the continued neglect of this ancient river in spite of crores of rupees spent on its restoration by GOI. The occasion was the 'observance' of World Water Day by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), initiated in 1992 at Rio de Jeneiro to focus on the critical problems the world is facing vis-a-vis water.

As a nation ever ready to indulge in such public demonstration for any worth while cause, India has very little to show when it comes to implementation. It is true we have an exclusive Ministry for Program Implementation at Delhi but what it does is any body's guess! Other wise how one can explain the total failure of the 1984 Ganga Action Plan put in place by GOI with much fan fare with the honest intention of freeing this sacred water body from destruction through massive man-made pollution, investing more than Rs 15 billion. It is a tragedy of monumental proportion when it is realized that Ganga water has been declared unfit for drinking along its entire stretch from Haridwar down, as declared by no less an authority than Central Pollution Control Board of GOI. In some cases it is considered not even fit for bathing. Coli form bacteria in Ganga water, for which there are strict restrictions under the India Law, exceeds the safe limit in many places with great potential for many diseases.

It is estimated that River Ganga receives upwards of 1 billion liters of untreated sewage every day from the human settlement on its banks. In Patna alone 190 million liters of raw sewage flows through 29 drains. Under the Ganges Action Plan of 1984, 33 big sewage treatment plants were installed ostensibly to reduce the biological load of sewage flowing into the river. It is a tragedy that all these plants are lying idle, obviously because of apathy and callousness by the authorities concerned. How can we, as a responsible nation condone such colossal waste of national resources on life saving projects like this with no benefits accruing to its citizens. It is all the more pathetic to see public demonstrations like the 7- km human chain show to highlight the same problem even after 25 years of the Plan and realize that the water quality to day is worse that what it was in 1984!

More alarming are the findings by a group of scientists from University of Michigan that human beings are not the only ones affected by this pollution and even fish population undergo changes for the worse. Zooplanktons in River Ganga are so seriously affected by the pollution that they tend to develop tumors which find their way to human food chain through small fish first and then the larger varieties putting in jeopardy the safety of the food chain. Samples collected at Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna and Kolkata confirmed the presence of such plankton in the water. Whether drinking of this water in the form of sacred 'Theerth' in small quantities poses any danger is not known but this has not detered a state government in the South to ferry water from Ganga during the recent shivrathri festival for distribution to devotees in some major temples. While packing Ganga water in copper containers for preservation is widely practiced because of the oligodynamic properties of copper which is known to inhibit bacterial growth, whether copper can kill the tumor affected plankton needs to be verified.

The UNCED theme this year during the World Water Day is 'Transboundary Water', obviously to highlight the need for cooperation amongst nations in harnessing river bodies, forgetting the artificial barriers in the form of national boundaries, considered sacrosanct and inviolable by many. One wonders whether this is not an utopian dream in a world where there are countless and mindless water disputes, not only between sovereign nations but also between towns and cities, districts, areas, states and regions within a country, depriving the citizens of even the minimum needs of water for a decent quality of life.



Meat eating is a way of life amongst majority of the population across the world and forms an inseparable part of their diet. High quality proteins, essential vitamins and minerals that are critical for human growth are present in meat in abundance, making it one of the most concentrated form of foods known to man. The choice between white and red meats is often influenced by the presence of cholesterol in the latter and some time fish is suggested as an alternative to red meat. Added to this dilemma is the linkage between meat raising and greenhouse gas emission as livestock animals are the most polluting sources as far as environmental degradation is concerned accounting for more than 18% of emissions responsible for global warming. Further damage to the credentials of red meat is caused by the drastic changes taking place in farming of animals from a free roaming open farms of yesterday to the present day livestock pen system which seems to have changed the nutritional and health protecting qualities of meat very significantly.

There is a strong argument that man was not designed to eat meat like carnivorous animals and the structure of hands and profile of the teeth in human beings are being cited in support of such claims. Presence of alpha amylase enzyme in the saliva of humans is unique and this probably reflects the predominance of starchy foods in their diets during evolution. Supporters of meat eating tradition highlight the unique presence of Carnitine in the red meat to promote its consumption in moderate amounts. Carnitine is a quaternary ammonium compound synthesised in the liver and kidneys, the precursors being the amino acids Lysine and Methionine and its main role is to transport fatty acids from the cytosol to the mitochondria during break down of lipids. Presence of Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) is critical for this transformation. During growth and periods of pregnancy Carnitine need may exceed the normal supply through in vivo synthesis. Long chain acyl groups from fatty acids are conveyed to the mitochondrial matrix for breaking down through beta oxidation to acetates to obtain usable energy via the Tri Carboxylic Cycle (TCA).

During aging process fatty acid metabolism in various tissues is slowed down due to diminishing levels of Carnitine synthesised in situ adversely affecting the bones which require continuous reconstruction and metabolic functions of Osteoblasts and maintain bone mass. Reduction of Osteocalcin in blood plasma is indicative of reduced Osteoblast leading to on-set of Osteoporosis, especially amongst eldrerly people and post-menopause women. Carnitine is also being promoted as an antioxidant in lipid peroxidation of phospholipid membranes against oxidative stress induced at the myocardial and endothelial cells. Weight loss claims for Carnitine have not been substantiated so far, though the critical role of this chemical in burning of fat is well recognized. However it is widely believed that Acetyl- L- Carnitine exercises some effect on more efficient crossing of the blood-brain barrier, better energy metabolism, improved neurotransmitter function in brain and reduced fatigue in patients undergoing chemotherapy. Up to 2 g of intake per day is considered adequate if supplementation is called for in some cases as absorption saturation is reached at this level. Beyond that Carnitine can cause nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea.

Does Carnitine deficiency occur in humans? Difficult to make a positive statement because of the difficulties in monitoring Carnitine level in the body. 98% of Carnitine is confined to muscles, balance 2% being in the blood. In routine tests the ratio between Acyl-Carnitine to Free Carnitine in blood is determined and a ratio greater than 0.4 reflects deficiency, requiring supplementation. It is known that high fat diet, certain medications and low protein intake can manifest in Carnitine deficiency in the body and the symptoms may include chest pain, frequent tiredness, muscle weakness and pain, increased body fat and elevated cholesterol levels.

Highest levels of Carnitine is found to be in red meat like beef which provides about 95 mg per one serving of 3.5 ounces. Other sources include dairy products like milk and cheese, the concentration being 2-4 mg per serving. Tempeh is reported to contain about 20 mg of Carnitine. Carnitine can be biosynthesized using E.coli or Proteus sp which can convert protonobetaine or D-Carnitine to L-Carnitine. Butyrobetaine and 3-Dehydrocarnitine also are good precursors. While omnivorous humans get about 20-200 mg per day through the diet, intake for vegetarians and vegans is limited to 1 mg a day. It seems 75% of the requirement has to come from the diet while 25% is synthesized in the body. Since the half life of Carnitine in humans is 17 hours, over consumption may not pose any significant risk. These findings raise a pertinent question regarding any justification for external supplementation for normal healthy persons. Crass commercialism should not lead consumers astray by unsubstantiated claims and scarce scientific data to back them up.


Saturday, March 21, 2009


Sun rays are always shunned, especially in western countries due to their potential to cause skin cancer by too much exposure. Sun is also avoided in tropical countries especially during summer to avoid sun-strokes and consequent fatality. But limited exposure to sun is necessary if humans have to make vitamin D in their body from the precursor 7-dedydrocholesterol present under the skin. Whether it is due to sun rays alone or because of its role in making vitamin D, the amazing finding that pregnant women tend to deliver taller babies during summer compared to those born during winter, is some thing to be examined for confirmation through scientific studies. But the very fact that they found summer born babies, half centimeter taller with wider bodies, is worth probing further. The role of sun light in the formation of Vitamin D3 is well known, the Ultraviolet B rays responsible for the conversion. Vitamin D3 has many functions like promoting bone formation, strengthening of the skeleton, strengthening immune system by promoting phagocytes, helping kidneys re-absorb nutrients, anti-tumor activity etc.

In a cohort study lasting 18 years in UK involving 14000 women and 7000 children of age less than 10 years, a definitive conclusion was drawn regarding the advantages of a few minutes exposure to sun in delivering babies with longer and wider bones. The height growth rate was 2-2.5 times higher in children of mothers who had exposure to sun in the 3rd trimester during the months of March to May, than others who did not had this advantage. In some other studies in countries in Africa and South America, it was consistently found that 65-75% of children born during dry seasons with bright sunlight available in plenty had maximum growth spurt compared to those born during rainy seasons.

The linkage between sunlight and Vitamin D3 formation being undisputed, it is thought that the seasonal variations in the availability of the required UV rays from the sun and the consequence fluctuations in D3 formation, could explain the phenomenon of increased growth during sunny season. Vitamin D3 has critical role in remodeling of skeleton and mineralization of bone tissues. The endocrine system and the hormones involved in growth regulation are influenced by the D3 concentration in the blood. This is confirmed by the findings that use of sun lamps during winter enabled children to gain heights as much as 1.5 cm. Such children had extra 5 inches of bone, because of increased periosteal growth, compared to their counterparts with insignificant exposure to light. Children from 6 months to 4 years can benefit maximum by extra supplementation with Vitamin D3. But such supplementation may be necessary only if adequate exposure to sun cannot be achieved, especially in areas where sunshine is limited.

What is intriguing in all these studies is whether sunshine has really an important role to play in height growth because of the complex metabolic regulatory matrix that works in humans governing the longitudinal and periosteal bone development. If such is the case most of the children born in tropical countries should be taller than those in temperate and cold climates which in reality does not happen. When USA was the most predominant economic power till a few years ago, their population were taller significantly compared to those in Europe. To day newer generation in Netherlands, Norway, Japan and other modern industrial nations boasts of men, a good 1"-2" taller than an average American. Obviously affluence, healthy foods, good physical work out and other favorable developments in the living environment have brought about this significant change. Many factors like gene inheritance, food consumption and others may have more critical influence on height growth than sunlight alone. But Vitamin D3 definitely plays an important role in bone mass development which is reflected more by the thickness or width of the bones.



The widespread awareness about global warming and its consequences, attributed to emission of greenhouse gases like CO2 generated by burning of fossil fuels, seems to be creating new opportunities for the food industry to use this as another competitive tool in marketing. Many manufacturers are attempting to bring out products with zero carbon foot prints by taking remedial action to neutralize the unavoidable emissions, which are part and parcel of the food processing system. Auditing of CO2 emission at various stages of production and processing is fraught with many uncertainties but can still be achieved by breaking the operations into different steps and estimating CO2 produced during each step. In dairy operations various steps involved consists of preparation of the land, its maintenance, transporting calves to the farms, raising the animals, preparation of feeds, feeding operations, milking, cold stores, processing, packing, storing, refrigerated distribution, market display etc. Invariably all these steps make use of fossil fuels generating CO2. Wherever alternate sustainable energy sources are used to manage some operations, the extent of emission gets reduced to some extent.
Pepsico, one of the global giants in the food processing area, is often reviled for its supposedly inadequate commitment to the welfare of the society which sustains its very survival. Without getting into the veracity of such blames, the fact remains that they are the leaders in the latest movement amongst the industry to voluntarily declare on the labels of some of their products the extent of CO2 released by each pack till it is placed on the market shelf. It admits that each half gallon carton of its Tropicana orange juice on the market shelves is responsible for 3.75 pounds of CO2 emission into the atmosphere. According to them biggest source of emission was growing the fruit itself. Citrus groves use a lot of nitrogenous fertilizers which require large quantities of natural gas during its manufacture. Besides when these fertilizers are spread on the field they themselves can turn into a potent green house gas, accounting for one third of the total emission assigned to the processed product.
There are many organizations engaged in green rating any human activity including college education. Princeton Review, a US based set up evaluates colleges for their green credentials on a scale of 60-99 based on environmental practices, policies, course offerings etc. Assessment of industries on a green scale of 1-5 is being carried out in some parts of the world and a median score of 3 is considered satisfactory while 5 is excellent and 1 is very poor. Food and drinks industry has been assigned a score of 2.54 indicating the need for considerable efforts to improve the score through much more commitment. There are products being put on the shelves with distinct Carbon Foot Print tags to exploit the sentiments amongst the consumers regarding the need for restricting emission of green house gases. In the case of food industry direct emission accounts for only 14% of the total emission while pre-manufacturing supply chain causes the rest. 
How far these scales are realistic and accurate? Probably they can at best be very approximate and considerable scope exists to manipulate the score by differences in interpretation and difficulties in getting true emission figures for the supply chain activities. As far as the consumers are concerned product selection becomes difficult based on green scale score only. There can be many products with low green score but they may not be good from the health point of view. Products from developing countries will invariably score better when compared to those from industrialized countries where use of fossil fuel is extensive due to scarcity of labor and over mechanization of many operations is the normal norm adding to the emission score. This could be one of the reasons for countries like USA to insist on putting on the label the name of the country from where products like meat are sourced, hoping that indigenous products, though high in green score, are conceived as safer, exploiting the pathogen scare that is an over riding concern for any consumer. A better proposition will be to combine the health value and the green score of each food product and come up with a new system of scoring that will reflect the true value of that product. How this can be achieved is a matter for consideration by the industry for the sake of their customers.  

Friday, March 20, 2009


Any discussion about Omega-3 fatty acids is not complete unless Algae is brought into the picture, for it is the food growing abundantly in the ocean that is eaten by the fish which is the best known source of DHA and EPA, two most widely recognized essential fatty acids needed for healthy living. One of the advantages of Algae being used for direct extraction of Omega-3 acids is that it is free from mercury contamination when produced under controlled conditions. Algae is also a rich source of protein containing branched chain amino acids. In the quest for bio-fuels to substitute the fossil fuels, Algae is considered as a promising future source though price-wise it may not be cost effective at to day's fuel prices.

Algae belong to a large and diverse group of simple auto-tropic microorganisms, some unicellular and others multicellular in nature. In their most complex existence, sea weeds represent the largest form used in the manufacture of functional food ingredients with viscosity modifying properties. Algae is a eukarytic organism with a nucleus enclosed within a membrane and chloroplasts bound in one or more membranes which confers on Algae the photosynthetic capability. All algae have the photosynthetic machinery derived from Cyanobacterium and produce oxygen as a by-product of its growth. There are 6000-7000 species of Algae and their origin dates back to 2 billion years, being the predecessors of the green plants as we see to day. Algae is estimated to provide 90%of oxygen in the planet while plants account for the balance. Algae is increasingly being touted as the most potential CO2 capture module of future, the biomass being considered as a source of high quality proteins, lipids for food purpose as well bio-fuels, nutraceuticals, animal feeds and fertilizers. A startling discovery, confirmed through clinical trials, credits algae with the ability to reduce or prevent side effects of chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

Nanno chloropsis, Chlorella vulgaris and Spirulina sp are being tried for large scale production under controlled conditions.Botryococcus braunii is the most promising organism favored for bio-fuels as 86% of their dry cell mass is long chain hydrocarbons. In place of bio-fuels from food sources, Algae based bio-fuels make much more sense because of higher productivity. The annual yield per hectare can be as high as 100000 liters of bio-fuel compared to only 1413 liters(L) from Castor, 952 L from Sunflower, 779 L from Safflower, 5950 L from Palm, 446 L from Soy or 2689 L from Coconut. There are a number of global projects trying to mass produce Algae to make it a viable proposition. Large Photobioreactors are being designed using artificial light with specific wave length spectrum ideal for optimal growth. In a typical such reactor of capacity 200 L, yield of 140 g has been reported and still it is a long way before efficient large scale reactors become operational. Hybrid systems combining open pond cultivation and photoreactor modules are also being developed, ultimate aim being higher productivity and lower production cost. Algae species rich in oil include Scenedesmus dimorphis (16-40% lipids), Spirogyra sp (33-64% lipids), and Prymnesium parvum (22-38% lipids). Oil yield can be maximized by manipulating the growing conditions, especially the medium composition.

Single Cell Proteins (SCP) was once a prime candidate for meeting the world wide protein malnutrition during nineteen fifties and sixties and Algae fitted the bill admirably well. Species like Scenedesmus obliquus (50-56% protein), Chlorella vulgaris (51-58% protein, Spirulina platinsis (46-63% protein) and Euglina gracilis (39-61% protein) are useful as protein sources. However, high nucleic acid content in some species, as high as 6%, poses problems for use of Algae for edible purpose unless properly processed. Some of the nutraceutical components from Algae include Phycocyanins for defense against oxy radicals, beta carotene for antioxidant defense, Zeaxanthi/Lutin for good eye health, Gamma Linolenic Acid as essential fatty acid and some like calcium spirulan, sulfolipids and glycolipids still being investigated for their health protection role. Algae like Nanno chloropsis and Chlorella vulgaris are priced at about $ 18000-36000 per ton in the market and a $ 27 billion sports nutrition industry makes use of these material for various formulations.

It is time that global efforts and intensified, as is happening in the sustainable energy area, for evolving universally accessible technologies in Algal cultivation for the benefit of people in poor as well as the rich countries of the world. Vast ocean spread, this planet is blessed with, must be utilized to produce algae under controlled conditions, similar to the off shore drilling projects with well designed infrastructure, working to exploit the ocean bed for fossil fuels. This tiny organism, if harnessed collectively, has the potential to dramatically change the face of the world for better, by providing an inexhaustible source of food, feed, fertilizer, fuel and health promoting chemicals in unlimited quantities, for centuries to come..


Thursday, March 19, 2009


Asthma, allergic rhinitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, all caused by serious respiratory inflammation, affect millions of people across the world and there are about 15-20 million in India affected by these ailments.They are simply air pathway obstruction reversible by either spontaneously on their own or by treatment with medicines like beta agonists, corticosteroids or prednisolone. Typical signs include wheezing, prolonged expiration, rapid heart rate and some murmuring sound in the lungs. During severe attacks one can turn blue from lack of oxygen, experience some chest pain and loss of consciousness. Basic measurement of peak air flow rate can indicate whether one is suffering from such ailments. Stimuli for asthmatic and similar respiratory inflammation include allergens like house mite, cockroach, grass pollens, mold spores, pet epithelial cells, indoor air pollution, volatile organic compounds, perfumes, soaps, detergents, shampoo, hair sprays, lotion, paints, medications like aspirin, milk, peanuts, eggs, ozone, nitric oxide, sulfites, chlorine, hormonal changes, psychological stress, cold weather and exercise. Pathologically, the mucus glands in the airway get overdeveloped and respiratory passage progressively thickens due to scarring and frequent inflammatory conditions. Narrowing of the airway in the lungs caused by the tightening of the surrounding smooth muscles leads to bronchoconstriction.

Some of the phytochemicals present in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli have been identified as possible cure for asthma as they reduce the inflammation of the air pathways significantly. It was known that cruciferous vegetables are rich in sulfur containing organic compounds with many beneficial effects in human body and one of the major findings of the last decade was the presence of the isothiocyanate, Sulforaphane in these vegetables which has anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties. Besides they also contain Phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) and Indole-3-Carbinol(I3C), both with antioxidant properties capable of protecting against onset of many forms of cancer in humans. These chemicals have the potency to induce the activity of Type 2 detoxification enzymes which provide a defense mechanism triggering broad spectrum antioxidant activity that neutralize many free radicals responsible for cell damage and consequent mutation leading to cancer. Same hold good for inflammation of respiratory tract also and Sulforaphane triggers an increase in the level of antioxidant enzymes in the human airway. Increased activity of these enzymes offers protection against the onslaught of free radicals that one breathes every day in polluted air, pollens, diesel exhaust, tobacco smoke, etc. Free radicals, being supercharged forms of oxygen cause oxidative tissue damage resulting in inflammation and respiratory conditions like asthma.

Broccoli contains about 60 mg of Sulforaphane per serving. but three day old Broccoli sprouts are considered richest source of this chemical, the levels being 50-100 times higher than that in the vegetable. Glucoraphanin(SGS), a glucosinolate by nature, is the precursor of Sulforaphane which is formed by the action of the enzyme Myrosinase present in the cells. There appears to be some confusion as to whether SGS itself can induce the antioxidant enzymes or it has to be Sulforaphane, a product of Myrosinase enzyme action. If Sulforaphane is the real active principle, cooking of the vegetable will certainly inactivate the enzyme Myrosinase blocking the generation of Sulforaphane from SGS. There are Broccoli sprout extract tablets in the market made of a mixture of dry extract and Myrosinase enzyme extracted from watercress which on reconstitution or chewing is supposed to generate Sulforaphane. How far they are effective is not known.

Another issue that needs clarity is regarding the effectiveness of regular consumption of broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, containing relatively low levels of SGS as compared to Broccoli sprouts. Probably to get the same effect one may have take more than 200g a day which may not be practical. This raises a fundamental question regarding the desirability of cooking of vegetables like Broccoli, if the active principles are destroyed at cooking temperatures. Some argue that the best way to get the full impact of the chemoprotectants in vegetables is to process them into fresh juice for consumption but one has to reconcile to loss of dietary fiber which will be left behind in the residues. Consumers will wonder whether such scientific studies could bring out more comprehensive, definitive and practical findings proven by clinical studies with large subjects so that they can practice what is preached with least reservation.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Time is at a premium as far as urban folks are concerned with different daily activities clamoring for a slice of the same and planning investment of the limited but precious time is fraught with many uncertainties and unpredictable events. Food processing and the food service industries find the situation ripe for expanding
their business and help the time-stressed families to cut down on home cooking as far as feasible or affordable. The processing industry offers a wide choice of ready to eat (RTE) or ready to cook products in functionally sound packages, though they come with a price tag not affordable to many consumers. Widespread presence of food service establishments in towns and cities offers viable alternative option to the population around, living at a hectic pace. The major advantage enjoyed by the catering sector is that depending on one's paying capacity there are restaurants and eating joints that can suit every pocket.

Eating out habit is invariably linked to the size of the disposable income though many people with high income prefer home cooked foods for a variety of reasons. In a country like USA or in Europe, eating out is widely practiced and almost 20% of the food eaten comes from the restaurants. On an average an American family visits a restaurant five and a half times a week. In India nation-wide statistics are hard to come by regarding such practices. But in Delhi families eat out side six and a half times a month while the corresponding figure for Mumbai is seven times a month. In the age group of 21-30 years visits to restaurants can be as high as 23-27 times a month, working out to almost every day. What are the consequences of increased visits to restaurants and cutting down on home cooking drastically, on the health of the consumer? Those who eat their breakfast, lunch and snacks in between in the office canteens and take their families out for dinner frequently will have to consider the possible consequences of such a life style and see whether there is a need for reviving the age old practice of home cooking, in spite of the time constraints.

Those who eat outside their homes have very little control over what they eat as practically no restaurant in India gives out information on the composition of various foods offered by them. Consumer has no clue as to whether heart healthy oil or hydrogenated fats containing trans fats are used in the products, extent of reheating undergone by the frying oil used which invariably generates unhealthy thermal break down artifacts and quality of raw materials and ingredients used. Vegetables like Okra, Beans, Brinjals, Spinach, Peas and Cauliflower, often infested with worms, need careful cleaning and there is wide spread apprehension that under many mass preparation regimes, such close scrutiny may not be taking place in many commercial kitchens. Weevil infested dals, cereals and grain flours are serious health hazards and how much care is taken is a matter of concern.

It is true that such drawbacks cannot be generalized showing all the eateries in unfavorable light and many of the commercial eateries are not guilty of negligence on this score. Hotel preparations generally have high fat to calorie ratio and salt content tends to be higher, both considered unhealthy for humans. Diabetes and Heart diseases have their origin in poor childhood eating practices and a fast paced life can expose the children to more frequent eating outside their homes. Since eating out is unavoidable it is incumbent on the part of the food service industry to evolve voluntary food safety and health promoting guidelines for the restaurants at least in the organized sector and implement them strictly if consumer confidence is to be retained for sustained growth. Innovative ways need to be found to make the consumer visit the restaurants and the most basic strategy can be to reassure them that the food preparations offered are equal, if not better than what they make at home.

Commercial eating joints also have a social responsibility in enlightening their clients about the basic facts about food regarding its quality, safety, nutrition and health attributes. It is the fundamental right of the consumer to have certain minimum information such as serving size, calorie yield, protein content and carbohydrate in each serving. A progressive caterer can go one step further by providing values for saturated fat, trans fat, PUFA, dietary fiber, sodium level, glycemic load (GL) per serving for some of its major products offered. A family friendly environment suiting children, youngsters and senior citizens can ensure repeat visits. Restaurants can even supplement the educational efforts of the school and the home in food related areas through attractively printed and well designed electronic audio-visual capsules in the form of posters and video discs, accessible to the patrons.

Ideally there should not be any difference between home-cooked foods and restaurant foods, measured by any yardstick and that should be the goal and aspiration of the food service industry in the long run!


Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Wide prevalence of life style disorders like CVD, BP, Type II Diabetes, Cancer etc in the Western world has been attributed to drastic changes in the food consumption habits brought about by higher affluence, high purchasing power and sedentary living. Rapid catching up with the West by India during the last few years in terms of incidences of these diseases amongst its population, is again due to changes taking place in the diets as a result of wide exposure to Western dietary practices after the so called economic liberalization set in motion in early nineteen nineties. The undue predominance of IT Sector in the industrial landscape of the country has brought about significant disparities in the personal income levels. The inroads made by many global food companies into India offering a vast array of products with doubtful nutritional value, have impacted the eating habits of many youngsters, especially those with high disposable income which may have long term health repercussions.

It is unbelievable that by 2020, more than one third of the deaths in India will be from heart disease. There are 45 million heart patients to day and in a decade's time we will have the unenvious record of being the top nation as far as this disease is concerned! The revelation that the disease catches Indians at an age,10-15 years younger than their western counterparts, is indeed shocking. It is also painful to know that 6-8% of the urban population is afflicted by Diabetes mellitus while another 25-30% suffer from hyper tension. There may be many reasons for this transformation from a healthy country in 1947 to the status of the "sickest" country in the world within seven decades of "planned" development which is a telling reflection on our ability to manage ourselves.

Changes in dietary habits, to some extent, caused by the population increase and declining agricultural production and their consequences, were never addressed seriously and probably this may the root cause of rapidly deteriorating health conditions of the population. Pulses are considered a vital food component in the diet of a typical Indian as it provides a major portion of the daily protein needs and the recommended daily intake (RDI) is 70 g a day. As against this the per capita availability stands at 27 g a day and the actual consumption varies from 14 g to 140 g a day depending on the economic status of the consumer.

Legumes which include soybean and peanut are considered health protectants as their regular consumption at the RDI level confers protection against diseases like heart disease, diabetes, prostate cancer and osteoporosis for normal healthy population. Pulses, a sub-category under legumes are annual leguminous crops, yielding 1-12 seeds of variable sizes, shapes and colors within a pod and there are 11 types of primary pulses which include dry beans (Phaseolus spp) like kidney beans, lima beans, mung beans, black gram etc; dry broad beans (Vicia faba) like horse bean, broad bean, field bean etc; dry peas ( Sativum spp); dry cow pea or black eyed pea (Vigna spp); chick pea or garbanzo bean or bengal gram(Cicer spp); pigeon pea or toor or cajan pea (Cajanus spp); lentils (Lens spp) earth pea(Vigna spp); vetch (Vicia spp); lupins(Lupinus spp) and some minor pulses. In India major pulses consumed are toor, bengal gram, mung, black gram and moth bean.

In 1949-50 pulses were grown on 20.7 million hectares (mh) of land producing 8.16 million tons (mt) with an average productivity of 405 kg per hectare when the population was less than 500 million. In 2000-01, 23 mh of land was cultivated to produce 13 mt of pulses with average yield of 572 kg per hectare when the population touched 1 billion mark. The per capita availability declined from 45 g a day in 1949-50 to a mere 27 g a day by 2000-01. The abnormal price increase for pulses during the last 5 decades have made it a luxury item for most of the population. While the availability in 1949-50 itself was not enough, being only 65% of RDI, the situation must have considerably worsened by now. It is a pity that only 17% of the land under pulse cultivation received irrigation while the rest depended heavily on rains.

One of the most significant aspects of Indian diet is that pulses provide the much needed essential amino acid, methionine in a predominantly cereal menu making it a balanced one. Meat eating population does not suffer from this handicap as it is a very balanced food with all essential amino acids in right proportion. Besides pulses provide valuable dietary fiber and being low in glycaemic index (GI), they also ensure balanced metabolism in the body without unnecessary glucose stress on the system. In some African countries 65% of the calories are derived from pulses in the diet with apparently no ill effects. Probably high pulse consumption makes them sturdy and disease resistant ensuring active life. In nineteen eighties, GOI Mission on pulses and oil seeds made an attempt to boost the production of the two commodities but with very little success as judged by the sorry situation vis-a-vis pulses that exists to day. Unless massive investment is made to increase productivity of pulses by expanding the irrigation infrastructure, mobilization of more inputs and systematic injection of new agriculture technology, the country will never have the capability to provide its citizens with the wherewithal to fight modern day diseases.


Monday, March 16, 2009


Many working couples with infants, having barely enough time, especially on week days, to prepare for leaving home for the work place, face enormous odds in coping up with such daily pressures and tensions. While some have retired parents to take care of the children when they are away from home on official work, many others depend on creches and day care centers to park their kids for 6--10 hours a day. Compared to children of yester years, to day's kids are more prone to frequent ailments like cold, flu, diarrhea, cough etc probably because of lesser resistance to infections polluted environment that are prevalent in many urban areas of the country. Though they go through the prescribed regime of modern vaccination without any default, there are too many vectors of infection that are not immunizable which can cause temporary discomfort to the children.

Common cold, winter crud, lingering nasal drips, irritating cough are all too common amongst pre-school children which do not need hospitalization. There may be vomiting and fever which can be serious requiring medical attention with least delay. Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a relatively harmless vector as far as adults and School Children are concerned but it can cause serious damage to infants, if not promptly attended to. It is not realized that children can carry a viral infection without showing typical symptoms for some time and even after apparent curing they can still be a source of infection. On the other hand, RSV infected children may cough for weeks without necessarily having the virus particles still in their body because the virus had affected the linings of their lungs during its active phase and it takes time to heal the inflammation which is responsible for the drip.

Immunization against Flu, the most common affliction amongst children and old age people, is possible but plain cold has to be endured for as long as 21 days in some cases. Use of many 'Cold Remedies', often available as "Over the Counter" medicines needing no prescription by a physician is positively ruled out for babies under the age of two years because of unpredictable consequence. Viral particles generally gain entry into the blood through the receptive epithelium of the nose and the eyes. There is the usual tendency for the children to rub the areas near the nose and the eyes due to irritation and contact with such children can spread the infection to others. In a recent classical study of hospital environment which can be a place for spreading infection, it was reported that those who stood near an infected baby and those who touched the baby as well as the crib were highly vulnerable to catching the infection while those keeping some distance from the crib were not affected at all. It is against this back ground that hospitals insist on a rigorous practice of thorough washing of hands every time some one goes near an infected baby. Creches and pre-school institutions also should have such facilities so that between handling two children the concerned personnel practice thorough hand washing. Encouraging children to wash their hands as frequently as possible will also cut down the probability of spreading infection to a great extent.

Biggest worry for parents is when they should be keeping their children home during times of infection. If an actively infected baby is sent to such public places there is high probability of passing on the infection to other babies with the least resistant one being affected first. While common cold, nasal drips and cough can be ignored for sending the child to creche, it will be irresponsible if children with fever or vomiting are encouraged to attend such day care centers. They must stay home even if there is inconvenience for the parents. Diarrhea, by itself, is a different proposition and as long as food is not handled with soiled hands there may not be any hazard to others, though keeping such children at home, if possible, will be a better proposition for their comfort.

The oft repeated slogan" wash your hands before eating" needs to be changed to "wash your hands as often as possible". Such training must start at home where young kids are encouraged to go to the wash basin for washing their hands regularly after every activity. Washing with soap or disinfectant can be insisted on before eating the food and after visiting the toilet every time. A child trained like this will be least affected by fellow children attending the day care center even when the latter carry viral infection. In any creche or day care center where all the kids are trained for hand washing regimen, serious infections will be far and few.


Sunday, March 15, 2009


Water is considered the fountain of life and it constitutes a major portion of all living things. Being a medium for all life sustaining metabolic activities, water needs to be supplied to the body through the food consumed and by direct consumption. While pure water is supposed to be free from pathogenic microorganisms and dangerous contaminants, the ground reality is that the current status of most of the so called protective water supply infrastructure does not guarantee its safety to the consumers. Though there are national and international standards for potable water, public health authorities turn a blind eye to all violations since water supply is mostly in government sector. This piquant situation has given scope for a thriving market for branded, bottled, safe drinking water products manufactured by over 1000 units in the private sector. Though they are supposed to be certified by ISI, the compliance is more often perfunctory with very little punitive action taken against defaulters.

Practically every house hold in towns and cities invest on water cleansing gadgets to make the water supplied by the civic bodies really safe for them. Those depending on bore well supplies face additional safety concerns because of high degree of hardness and possibility of unpredictable contaminants present in such water samples. Water purification by filtration, activated charcoal treatment, resin treatment, revers osmosis etc gives reasonably good water, especially from microbiological angle but presence of dangerous chemicals and traces of heavy metals still pose life time risks, especially in the long term.

It is well known that female sex hormones (estrogen) and many chemicals that mimic estrogen cause dramatic changes in the male fish leading to their feminization and loss of fertility. These chemicals originating from industrial effluents and medical wastes containing even harmful levels of contraceptive medications find their way into water bodies like rivers through the sewage treatment plants. Fish population living in these waters show remarkable tendency for sex change affecting the reproductive ability of male fish. In human beings infertility is often caused by testicular dysgenesis syndrome due to exposure to a range of anti-androgen chemicals, present in pesticides, anti-cancer treatment medicines, many medicinal products etc which inhibited the function of male hormone, Testosterone. Two major reasons for male infertility are stress conditions in life and pollution from chemicals. DDT's adverse effect on the fertility rate of Alligators in Florida USA, decades ago, is one of the well documented evidences that opened up the Pandora's box vis-a-vis dangers of pesticides.

Per Flourinated Compounds (PFCs), many in number, are omnipresent in almost all consumer products and their presence has been reported in air and water also as a result of large scale industrial pollutants finding their way from chemical plants . Chemicals like Bis-phenol A (BPA), Pthalates, Chloridane, Dielderin, Heptachlor, Hexa Chlorobenzene, Toxaphene, Perchlorates, Alkylphenols and many others are part and parcel of hundreds of modern day house-hold consumer products inventory which find their way, albeit in small concentrations into human body capable of inflicting heavy damage to the health including fertility. Though this may be a scary situation, the extent of risk posed by them depends on the frequency and intensity of exposure which is determined by the living style of the people. Most alarming is the quality of water that is available in many places located near chemical industries and waste treatment plants. While water treatment system is confined routinely to filtration and disinfection by chlorination in many urban areas, what is not checked is the chemical quality which can only reveal the safety.

Probably a mission-like project to assess the chemical quality of water at least in all the protected water supply areas in the country can be a beginning in addressing the potential dangers posed by these chemicals to the health of the population. The shocking fact that in Patna alone, there are 29 discharge points of effluents into the Ganges, must wake us up from any complacency. Many years ago a national project was undertaken to monitor heavy metals in water in different parts of the country but what came out of this study is not known. Whether it is Ministry of Health or any other agency, 'mission project on chemical quality of water' must be taken up on a priority to avert possible human disaster and tragedy of unimaginable dimension, for the future generation.


Thursday, March 12, 2009


Serious concern is being expressed about the ability of this planet to sustain itself till the end of the current century. Number one concern is whether adequate food will be available to avoid large scale starvation. Some knowledgeable people assert that it is not a question of availability that pose the threat but it is the wide disparities in purchasing power amongst the population that will make it difficult to ensure equitable distribution of what is available in sufficient quantities. In support of this it is claimed that current food production, arithmetically, can provide every person with 2800 kC to make them over weight and in 2 decades due to population decline, the food available at that time will be sufficient to supply 3050 kC per capita!. In contrast international agencies like FAO, World Bank and many others predict large scale starvation in coming years due to declining agricultural productivity and food production in many parts of the world. Added to this is the worry that global environment is increasingly becoming dangerous affecting the over all quality of life.

The alarm signal is set off by the burgeoning population, led by Asian, African and South American continents, with relatively less per capita income, increasing poverty and declining agriculture productivity. A daunting figure of 9 billion is being projected as the likely population by the year 2050. To provide adequate nourishment to this incremental population, the world food production may have to double within the next 40 years which calls for dramatic break through in agriculture, much beyond the current level of thinking. It is estimated that the global food reserve has come down from 585 million tons (mt) in 1999, adequate for 115 days of survival to 309 mt in 2007, just sufficient to meet the needs for 54 days. Food grain production has taken a beating during last year plummeting to 2075 million tons from the previous year's 2098 million tons, necessitating dipping into the already depleted food reserves.

It is true that newer technologies like genetic engineering have contributed to increased productivity from the land, especially in the developed countries. The well established production regimes for genetically modified crops like maize and soybean are increasingly being adopted but these crops are finding their way into production of bio-fuels and live stock feeds with very little positive impact on the food front. Lack of sustained interest in developing high yield versions of rice, wheat, oil seeds and legumes through biotechnology route is telling on the stagnant/declining productivity of these staples during the last few years. It must be remembered that more than 3 billion people about 50% of world population, are rice eaters and no private bio-tech players seem to be interested in investing on staples such as this because of limited market potential for innovations as the most of the growers are concentrated in poor countries with low purchasing power.

Instead of expanding areas of cultivation to cope up with emerging demand, there appears to be decline in cultivable land for food due to anthropogenic climate changes, live stock raising practices and bio-fuel production. More than half of the Amazon deforestation is being swallowed by large scale cultivation of agricultural crops for animal feeds. World is ignoring the fact that mindless expansion of livestock production to satisfy the insatiable demand for meat is causing rapid deterioration of the environment through massive greenhouse gas emission. 18% of global emission is accounted for by the livestock production which must be curtailed if global warming is to be arrested. Agriculture in countries like Brazil, Australia and New Zealand with vast stresses of land devoted to industrial livestock and feedstock agribusiness is found to be responsible for more than 50% of greenhouse gas emission, outdoing the carbon impact of emissions from cars, planes and coal fired power plants.

The African continent presents a stark picture of what has gone wrong in the food front in many impoverished countries in the world. 75% of world's ultra poor people live in this region with hardly 50 cents per day income. Population is increasing uncontrollably while agricultural productivity was falling during the last 30 years and food demand far outstrips the domestic supply. In 1970 most countries in this region were net exporters of food whereas now many of them are net importers. Because of continuous cultivation and large scale mining during the last 6 decades, every bit of nutrients has been drained out without any effort for replenishment. It is estimated that, if US levels of yield can be transferred, East Africa can double the current productivity, in South Asia it can be tripled and in sub-Saharan Africa productivity can be raised five-fold. Hybrid seeds, fertilizers and appropriate pesticides combined with introduction of drought resistant, water saving, heat tolerant and salt tolerant technologies can dramatically change the continent, provided large scale investments are forthcoming.

The future of this planet lies in moderating the wants of the inhabitants, all round efforts to stem the global warming and sharing equitably the resources that are at our disposal. Peace and prosperity in Asia, South America and Africa can only ensure peace in other parts of the World also. No nation can live in isolation imagining its wealth can insulate it from the turmoil around due to poverty and deprivation amongst its co-inhabitants.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009


It was poly unsaturated fatty acids ( PUFA) that made news in eighties and nineties and tons of money were made by the health food industry touting their virtues. Then came Linoleic Acid ( ALA) a n-3 fatty acid and Linolenic Acid (LA), a n-6 fatty acid, both branded as essential fatty acids. They were declared as most important PUFAs that humans should have through their diets and more money is made by same health food lobby. Now we have the Omega-3 fatty acids fad and if the emerging reports are to be believed, all the ills of modern world can be overcome if every food is laced with this PUFA from fish, not from any other sources!

The reported recommendations of American Heart Association (AHA) to consume more Omega-6 fatty acids(n-6 acids) make the nutrition related to essential fatty acids topsy turvy. Until recently excessive consumption of n-6 acids in the diet was considered dangerous with an array of diseases being attributed to it. Linoleic Acid, the torch bearer amongst n-6 acids, present in many vegetable oils, tree nuts and plant seeds, is supposed to be converted to physiologically active arachidonic acid which is the precursor for prostaglandins. Palm oil, Soybean oil, Rapeseed Oil and Sunflower seed oil with an annual production of 100 million tons (mt) provide 32 mt of n-6 fatty acids and 4 mt of its n-3 isomer. Hitherto nutritionists were swearing that an ideal diet should have n-6 acids and n-3 acids in the ratio of 4 to 1 where as in a typical western diet the ratio ranges from 10 to 1 at the lower level to as high as 30 to 1 at the other end of the spectrum. The reasoning for the change in the stand of AHA is that n-6 fatty acids give both pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds in the body and therefore outweigh any negative consequences that may arise due to any excess consumption. Their recommendation calls for 5-10% of calories to be derived from n-6 fatty acids which works out to 12-22 g intake per day replacing the saturated fats and trans fats in the diet for an adult.

According to those opposing high intake of n-6 fats and espouse more consumption of n-3 fats, all the ills of the modern world can be attributed to drastic changes taking place in the diets of the population as a result of increasing demands for foods. Emphasis seemed to have shifted since the last 5 decades on cutting down carbohydrates, proteins, fats, cholesterol, saturated fats and trans-fats. It is not realized that the key to good health lies not in ruthlessly cutting down on fats in the diet but eating the best possible fats suitable for the human body. Their judgment is that n-3 fats are critically needed for brain functions and protection against CVD and other disorders. n-3 fats, also called Omega-3 fats, is synthesized from CO2, water and sun light in the chloroplasts of terrestrial plants and marine algae. During olden days animals raised in open farms exposed to sun light and feeding on grass and other forage materials yield milk and milk products like butter, cheese etc rich in n-3 fats. But the modern farming systems fatten cows using feed stocks containing grains like corn and soybean and use antibiotics and growth hormones to get them to the slaughter house in 1 year as against 4-5 years under the old open farming system.

n-6 fats are supposed to contain more rigid fatty acids that give the cell its structure while n-3 fats being more fluid help the body fight inflammation better. Oils from Soybean, Corn, Cottonseed and Canola, all seed oils constitute 96% of the edible oils consumed in the US. Seed oils are increasingly being implicated in diseases like Alzheimer's, CVD, Cancer, Diabetes and Obesity. The radical shift in the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fats from 1:1 at beginning of the last century to 20:1 to day is one of the most dramatic changes that accompanied the increased incidence of many modern day diseases. Powerful pleas are being made for including fish as a 'must' component of regular human diet, if we have to reverse the present trend of continuing onslaught of life style disorders. Already the industry is gearing itself to meet the expected demand for Omega-3 acids from the food industry which wants to fortify many processed foods with fish PUFA. With modern edible oil refining technology of decolonization and deodorization, fish oil can be converted into a water like product and further encapsulated for protection from oxidation and incorporation in many dry products. These fortified foods, positioned as 'super foods' in the markets, ranging from fruit juices to every day bread, have become money-spinners in no time!

The layman consumer is totally lost regarding the implications of all these claims and counter claims. There are al least 10 versions of PUFAs available from different foods. Firmly believing in the concept of PUFAs many consumers cultivated the practice of consuming PUFA rich foods including Flax seed which has more than 85% PUFAs. When Omega-3 fatty acid concept emerged, ALA was courted as the savior for keeping good health. The startling claim that only 1-5% of ALA consumed is converted into readily usable form of Omega-3 Acids like docosahexaenoic acid ( DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid(EPA) by the body further raises alarm in the minds of the consumer. Added to this, the two fatty acids DHA and EPA are readily available only in fish and algae making the life of vegetarians miserable! A moot question is how those not consuming fish or Algae have been surviving for centuries so long without suffering from the tragic health problems of to day? Whether ratio of n-6 to n-3 imply that simple n-3 acid like ALA is not adequate but it has to be in the form of DHA or EPA? Added to this worry is the current belief that n-6 acids are not convertible to n-3 acids while reverse is possible in human body. Probably these mundane questions may not be critical for fish eating populations but are important in addressing the concerns of countries like India where majority of the population is vegetarian by nature or by compulsions. Indian Council of Medical Research, Ministry of Health must bring out clarity on this issue for the benefit of the consumers in the country.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Bio-sensors are increasingly being considered as monitors for vital health parameters. Latest to arrive on the scene is an intelligent pill that sends digital signals to an external receiver after being swallowed. Developed by a US company the pill, when swallowed, can send digital signals to an external receiver for recording vital parameters in side the body. The pill consists of a food based sensor that is digestible in the body and activation is achieved through exposure to the stomach fluids. The existing invasive system calls for introducing retrievable sensors, monitors or cameras into the body through oral or anus route and the computerized system receives digital signals via the cable which are monitored live or recorded for diagnostic purpose. The familiar angiogram uses the venous route to assess the health of the heart and its arteries before deciding on relevant treatment or otherwise.
The sensor containing pill after reacting with the stomach fluids sends detectable signals to a receiver which can record the data with date and time stamps. It further decodes information about the medicines used, heart rate, activity and respiratory rate. The receiver is designed as a small bandage type skin patches which can be connected to 3G phone networks for easy access from any where in the world. Patients, recuperating at homes and old age sick persons can use this system so that hospitals located in far away places can monitor the health condition for prompt and effective intervention as and when required. Though the system is in final stages of development, the industry expects its availability during the year 2011-2012.
Bio-active silk films made by boiling silk cocoons and preparing purified silk solution are cast into lenses, microlens arrays and holograms to make edible optical sensors which can be used in food packs to detect infection by organisms like E.coli. Polymers like silk proteins used as edible sensors are strong, flexible, benign and biodegradable. The idea is to include such optical edible sensors in bags of fresh produce like spinach which will provide the consumers with a read out of whether the product is contaminated before consumption.
Luminescent sensors are still in the conceptual stage and probably they may yet provide the industry with a relatively low cost tool for monitoring microbial quality of food. These probes, 20-200 nm in particle size are made incorporating edible dyes like erythrosine or naturally occurring phytochemicals like quinones or flavonols and provide high signals due to more than 10000 particles present. They are easily dispersible without the risk of sedimentation,  versatile and selective in their properties. The signals generated can be easily and precisely detected with inexpensive, portable and reliable instruments.
With the threat of pathogenic microorganisms posing serious health challenges, both industry and the safety monitoring agencies are worried about the future of the food processing sector, especially those handling fresh produce for cold consumption without heat processing. Quick and reliable detection systems like the ones mentioned above can only restore the rapidly declining consumer confidence on products marketed by the organized food industry and the efficiency of the enforcement agencies in protecting consumer health.