Monday, August 31, 2009


Global economic recession has affected literally all human activities and business losses could scale new heights if there is no visible sign of return to normalcy. Food industry and food retail business are no exception to this phenomenon. Shifting from more expensive branded food products to cheaper generic foods is enabling the consumer to cut down on food expenditure as much as possible. It is believed that the days of cheap foods are gone and even manufacturers of generic foods will have to escalate the cost in the light of galloping prices of almost all food raw materials that go into many processed products. Some discerning signs indicate a marked shift in the buying and eating patterns of the population and many consumers seem to be going back to home cooking, considered cheaper under to day's inflationary environment.

Coffee, the classical stimulatory beverage, is consumed all over the world either as black brew or whitened coffee and major coffee growers include Brazil, Vietnam and Columbia. Coffee connoisseurs have their own preferences depending on the origin of the crop and these preferences are not easily correlated to the chemical composition of the beans or the brew. Roasting actually imparts the color and aroma to the final product and here again consumer preferences are at best subjective. There are two dozen coffee beverages going by different names in different countries and the industry constantly tries to add value by developing more and more exciting products based on coffee beans.

Global production led by Brazil (2.3 million tons), Vietnam (1 million tons) and Colombia(0.7 million tons is expected to increase to a high of 8 million tons during the current year and world exports are to cross the 6 million ton mark this year. It is ironical that the per capita annual coffee consumption in major producing countries like Brazil is insignificant varying between 0.7 kg in Vietnam and 5.3 kg in Brazil. In India the corresponding figure is just 0.1 kg. Top consuming countries include Finland (12 kg), Norway (9.9 kg), Denmark (8.7 kg), The Netherlands (8,4 kg) and Sweden(8.3 kg). Caffeine, present in coffee products to the extent of 300-850 mg per liter depending on the way they are prepared, makes people shun coffee due to the misplaced fear of undesirable impact it has on normal healthy persons.

According to International Coffee Organization projections coffee out put in Africa, Asia and South America is slated to increase in the current year and consumers do not appear to have cut down their coffee consumption despite the recession. But consumers seem to be brewing their own coffee at home more frequently instead of patronizing high end coffee shops selling branded products, probably on account of cost considerations.


Sunday, August 30, 2009


Enormous strides made in packaging materials and packing technology have helped the industry to protect the contents well and make their products more appealing to the consumer.Though it is a welcome trend, the flip side is that such developments have made it possible for some industry to practice price manipulations to fleece the unsuspecting consumers. One of the most remarkable innovations in packing as far as India is concerned involves miniaturizing the pack size to fit into the pockets of low income consumers. Who can miss the avalanche of 'garlands', hanging in most of the small vending shops, some times the shop owner not even visible behind them! The products, both food and non-food items are sold at prices varying from Rs 1 to Rs 10 per piece. Consumer rarely looks at the quantity of the contents and possibly may not have the wherewithal to do a quick calculation of unit cost because of the varying contents packed by different manufacturers.

Miniaturizing the pack size did increase business for everybody whether in food, pharmaceutical or cosmetics area. Where can one get a biscuit pack or a candy pack or a shampoo sachet at Re 1, except in India?. Who can deny that the availability of 100 ml packs of pasteurized milk by the dairy sector, has put this precious food material within the reach of millions of poor people?. Food industry must be congratulated for its yeomen efforts in helping the common man.

Same cannot be said of the pharmaceutical industry which deals with vital medicines for treating hundreds of ailments affecting humans. There are many examples that can be cited to prove the point about exploitation of human misery by this industry through distorted pricing strategy leaving the consumers high and dry. There is a tablet being prescribed for osteoporosis which costs Rs 40 per piece if the concentration of the active ingredient is 400 mg while same tablet sells at Rs 37.50 if the level is only 200 mg!. Similarly many ointments for external use have adopted the same tactics to fleece the hapless consumer. While a 5 gm squeeze tube of a particular branded ointment for treating fungal infections, costs about Rs 95, the price for a 15 gm version is just Rs 125! What is the message coming out of such actions by the organized industry? Are they promoting more consumption by reducing the price of larger packs? A discerning consumer can only draw the rightful conclusion that the cost of the active ingredient is insignificant and profit margins are astronomical. GOI must frown upon such unethical practices in the interest of the consumers at large.


Saturday, August 29, 2009


Milk presents a dilemma in that a significant segment of the world population do not consume this nutrient loaded food but still seem to be apparently healthy. Many in Indian still are nostalgic about the proverbial 'Ramarajya' where milk and honey are supposed to flow freely, symbolizing the value of both these foods for keeping people happy and healthy. Unfortunately the habit of milk consumption during childhood is fast declining in the face of the relentless onslaught of modern calorie rich foods containing sugar and fat. In India per capita daily consumption of milk is about 250 gm which is an average figure, implying that some may be consuming more while others must be taking less. What are the consequences of such a paradigm shift in the eating habits of future generations on their life span and the quality of life?

Milk is traditionally associated with bone development and children are encouraged to cultivate the habit to ensure orderly growth and strong body frame. Of course Mother's milk is a category by itself providing nutrition much beyond the calcium content. Though some of the commercial products being promoted for wrong reasons deserve to be frowned upon, they at least serve the purpose of stimulating milk consumption as dry products like malted or chocolate or flavored milk powders contain milk solids and are invariably consumed with fresh milk. Recent revelations that those who had high dairy products intake when they were children were protected against stroke and other mortal diseases have reinforced the belief that milk is the best food nature has bestowed on human beings.

Thanks to food technologists milk availability has been stretched to all year round and the variety of processed products from milk has increased manifold during the last 3 decades. Products like skim milk powder, hundreds of variants of cheese and cheese based products, pro biotic yogurts and products based on them, long life packed milk with more than an year's shelf life, condensed milk preparations, traditional Indian items like paneer, khoa, chhana, shrikand, burfi, peda and many others make it possible to consume milk solids in a form consumers desire or accept. Technologies like homogenization, aseptic packing, vacuum concentration, roller drying, spray drying, freeze drying, freeze concentration, membrane filtration, reverse osmosis etc are all practiced by the dairy industry to provide the consumers with hundreds of convenient products based on milk.

According to current thinking, based on long term studies spanning almost 70 years, three servings of dairy foods in the form of liquid milk, yogurt and cheese would be adequate to derive full benefits from the nutritional strength of milk. A daily intake of 350 gm of milk can do wonders to the health of the population. The insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), also known earlier as somatomedin, which is a stimulatory hormone for cell growth and multiplication, inhibiting programmed cell death and synthesis of cellular DNA, is found to be in greater concentration in the blood of population consuming milk regularly.

Milk also contains other hormones like ghrelin, leptin and several bio active molecules, some of which, in spite of being peptides pass through the digestive system, though major portion is hydrolyzed into amino acids. Medical opinion is more or less unanimous in accepting milk as suitable for preventing dental caries, increased bone mineral content, fewer bone fractures, reduced risk of protein deficiency malnutrition and rickets. The common belief that milk contributes to increased cholesterol probably will be debunked by studies across the world that chances of dying due to ischaemic stroke or heart attack are reduced significantly by 60% if milk is consumed regularly from early childhood.


Friday, August 28, 2009


Consumption of sleeping pills is increasingly becoming a habit with many people as a part of their daily regime for preventing physical and mental exhaustion. There are also many people suffering from sleep-onset insomnia which is generally attributed to deficiency Melatonin, one of the critical antioxidants produced by the brain and circulated in the blood, especially amongst older people. Synthesized by the pineal gland it is responsible for the synchrony of circadian rhythm, modulating sleep patterns with day and night. Melatonin also protects tissues from oxidative damages by free radical elements, besides inducing synthesis of endogenous antioxidants like Superoxide dismutase (SOD). It is also implicated in giving protection to Gastrointestinal tract from irritation, stress induced lesion formation and cancer.

The obscure Red cherries cannot sound like a candidate for inducing sleepiness in human beings but presence of Melatonin in some concentration in this fruit seems to have endowed it with properties to do so. Montmorency tart cherry is one amongst very few natural sources of Melatonin amongst fruits and eating a handful of these cherries is reported to be effective in producing symptoms of sleep in normal healthy individuals. According to some reports eating a few berries one hour before traveling by air assures one of a sound sleep during the flight. Similarly consumption of this fruit for 3 days after a flight sets right the sleep rhythm affected by passing through different time zones during international travel. A serving of half a cup of this fruit or its juice or any other preparation made from it provides the benefits attributed to tart cherry.

What is intriguing is that tart cherry is not the best source of Melatonin, that distinction going to others like Huang-qin (7.11 ug/g), St John's wort (4.4 ug/g) white mustard seed (0.2 ug/g) or feverfew leaf(1.92 ug/g). Tart cherry has just 15-18 nanogram per gm of Melatonin and still it is being claimed as the most effective material for inducing sleep. Probably its other constituents like anthocyanins, vitamin C, and a slew of bioactive compounds and its high ORAC value, about 2000 per 100 gm might also be contributing to the unique property attributed to it. Processed products that can be made from tart cherries include juices, concentrates, frozen fruits, dehydrated whole fruits etc and the daily recommended intake of foods with 5000 ORAC units can be met with about 75 gm of dried cherry. Probably industry must consider importing the concentrates and dried cherries for reprocessing in India into locally acceptable products for the benefit of the consumers.


Monday, August 24, 2009


Fruit and vegetables are on top of any list that identifies good foods for sound and diseases-free health. Presence of health boosting nutrients, dietary fiber and phytochemicals make them unique compared to many other staple foods. It is a universally accepted norm that for maintaining good health one must take 4-6 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. True, fruits are also rich in sugars like sucrose, fructose, glucose and organic acids like citric, malic, maleic etc which so far have been considered safe when consumed regularly. The sugar content in fruits can vary from a low of 7% to a high of more than 15% depending on the variety. Fruits like Banana (16%), Grapes (18%), Mango (15%), Apricots (13%, Pineapple (12%) are considered high sugar foods, most others like Watermelon, Cantaloupe, Grapefruits, orange, peach, plum etc having less than 10% sugar.

Sugars in fruits can be a mixture of mostly sucrose, glucose, fructose and maltose. Apricot, Banana, Jack fruit, and Mango are sucrose rich while Sweet Cherries, Grapes and Pomegranate contain more glucose. Fructose rich fruits include Apple,Grapes, Cherries and pears. Does the nature of fruits consumed make any difference as far as the consumer is concerned? Obviously it does, according to some studies recently published from Israel. It appears that consumption of even two servings of fruit juices a day has the potential to cause long term liver damage, attributed to the presence of fructose. Probably the fact that metabolic route of fructose, different from that of glucose, is supposed to explain the basis for such a finding. Fructose is metabolized only in the liver and too much of it may produce fat, causing non-alcoholic fatty liver. First observed with fizz drinks based on HFCS, freshly squeezed fruit juices were also found to cause liver damage if taken in 'large' quantities, about two glasses a day.

Studies such as the above raises more questions regarding the age old practice of drinking fruit juices for good health. If fructose is the real culprit, juices from such fruits like Apple, Grapes, Pears etc, which are rich in this sugar could be more dangerous if consumed regularly! Also not clear is whether only juices cause this problem or even eating whole fruits could be potentially hazardous. Fructose has a low GI of about 19 compared to 100 for glucose and it is doubtful whether human liver does not have the capability to handle low influx of fructose caused by drinking fruit juices. Besides, fructose is a component in sucrose and why the normal consumption of sucrose in the diet should not cause the same problem?

World consumption of sucrose from sugarcane and beets jumped from 11 million tons (mt) at the beginning of the lat century to 130 mt by beginning of this century and the per capita annual consumption is in the range of 16-18 kg in Asia and Africa while North American figure is around 36 kg and in South America it is 47 kg. This works out to an average intake of 50 to 150 gm a day but the proportion of population consuming much above the average figures can be substantial. Are they compromising the health of their liver by taking sugar equivalent to 2 to 6 servings of fruit juices every day?

These findings are bound to cast a shadow on the fruit juice industry and it is unfortunate that a high nutrient product like fruit juice is being bracketed with fizz drinks. Unless more exhaustive studies confirm the claims by the above report from Israel, there is no place for any panic.


Sunday, August 23, 2009


Use of solvents for extraction of active ingredients or removal of undesirable substances is one of the most common practice in the food industry. Water is the chosen solvent if the substance to be extracted or leached out is soluble in it. Other wise organic and inorganic solvents are required and depending on the solubility characteristics of the extractable material, different solvents are selected. The solvent extraction process generally involves use commercial Hexane to get soluble fractions, separation of the extract and desolventization to recover the extracted materials. Edible oil industry started using solvent extraction technology since 1930s for recovering oils from pressed residues of oil seeds and other oil bearing sources containing less than 20% oil.

Commercial Hexane is made up of 52% n-Hexane, 16% Methyl Cyclopentane, 16% of 3-Methyl Pentane, 13% of 2-Methyl Pentane and 3% Cyclohexane. It is one of the cheapest organic solvents available, being a distillate of petroleum industry. It is estimated that about 60 million tons of edible oils are produced by Hexane extraction technology and the most abundantly produced extracted oil is soy oil. Concerns have been raised regarding the dangers posed by presence of Hexane in extracted residues as well as in the edible oil products and without adequately analyzing the hazard potential, the industry is being damned. It is true that exposure of humans to Hexane can cause excessive inhalation through the lung route and many ill effects have been reported. A 15 minutes exposure to 800 ppm of Hexane can cause acute respiratory and eye problems,nausea, vertigo, head ache and such exposures are associated with neuropathy and other toxicity problems.

What causes concern to the food industry is the unsubstantiated claims that Hexane residues present in extracted foods pose dangers to the consumers. However the Environmental Protection agency of the US found no ill effect even when the residue was up to 0.2%, at least to the test animals. Cotton seed flour and hops extract for which maximum limits have been prescribed must not contain more than 60 ppm and 25 ppm of hexane respectively. WHO has not prescribed any limits for this solvent in any foods. No toxicity trial has ever implicated Hexane in any serious health disorders when foods containing low levels of residues are consumed orally. In fact people working in gas stations and those staying near by are more vulnerable to Hexane toxicity through inhalation. Probably the processing plants using Hexane as a solvent will have to be weary about the pollution they can cause if Hexane losses are not minimized during handling of this highly volatile solvent which can be any where between 0.15% to 0.5%. According to one estimate, the soy processing plants belonging to one of the giants in the US are responsible for an annual emission of more than 1 million pounds of Hexane to the environment. Annual Hexane loss by the edible oil industry is reported to be about 0.3 million tons. Still it is to be recognized that the Hexane level in the atmosphere rarely exceeds 2 parts per billion (ppb) whereas Hexane beyond 20 ppb only is considered undesirable.

Consumer scare mongering practice is neither good nor desirable based on inadequate data or misinterpreted information and must be checked in the interests of the consumer who has no where to go for getting at the truth. It is almost eight decades since solvent extraction process was established as a safe process and no evidence exists to implicate this technology in any human disaster. Of course use of organic solvents in general is not some thing industry favors but till alternative viable options are available, one has to live with this. Emergence of Super Critical CO2 Extraction technology does provide an option but the cost considerations rule out its use for low cost food material like oil bearing food sources. Damning a technology like the solvent extraction process, which provides bulk of the edible oil, a vital food constituent in the diet of mankind, based on unsubstantiated information, deserves to be frowned upon.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Spices are known for their characteristic aroma and taste and Asians population use them extensively in their culinary preparations. Most commonly used spices include Chilli, Black Pepper, Ginger, Turmeric and Cardamom while there are two dozen more exotic spices used in smaller quantities ti impart flavor and taste to hundreds of food preparations. Generally a spice has two main components, the fixed oils or resins which are not volatile and the volatile  odorous fraction. Fixed oils provide the typical taste and can be recovered only by solvent extraction. The volatile fraction containing the essential oil, is obtained by steam distillation. Blending together the resin and the essential oil gives commercially marketed oleoresins. Both oleoresins and essential oils are available in powder forms, made by encapsulation technology. Pure chemicals like capsaicin from chilli, curcumin from turmeric and a few others are commercially valuable for their applications in food formulations and pharma products.

Organic foods which are coming to the fore because of apprehensions on account of indiscriminate use of organic pesticides on agricultural crops depend on natural pesticidal formulations containing plant derived substances with practically no toxicity. Plant derived pesticides have come to stay and so far the major ones have been based on pyrethrum and neem oil but their effectiveness is rather limited. Traditional Indian practices point out to the use of many spices in fighting infections and the Ayurveda system depends significantly on plant based phytochemicals to cure many human health problems.

Western world seems to be waking up to the potential of spices and the oils recovered from them to protecting agricultural crops from many pests that cause massive damages in the field, if not treated with modern pesticides with high toxicity. According to their new 'discovery' essential oils from rosemary, thyme, clove and mint can provide eco-friendly pesticides for raising organic fruits and vegetables. They are being touted as environment-friendly alternatives to synthetic pesticides harmful to humans and animals. Mixtures of small amounts of two to four different oils in water have been found to be efficient in either killing the insects out right or repelling them away from the field. Many essential oils have broad insecticidal activity and currently they are being used in growing crops like strawberry, spinach, tomato etc. Farm sector finds it convenient to use them as they do not need any mandatory approvals, no resistance has been noticed on continued use, no health risk for farm workers and others around and in addition most of them are repellents for mosquitoes, flies and cockroaches.

Combined with pyrethrum many essential oils from herbs and spices like mint, clove, lavender, thyme, rosemary have been found to be more effective for organic farming and such products are being offered in many application formats like dusts, aerosol cans, liquid concentrates and wettable powders. What may be of concern is whether these culinary spices will be diverted in large quantities from the consumption table to the agricultural fields, once the organic food business grows beyond the current level of 2-3% of the food chain. It is estimated that more than 35 million hectares of land under cultivation of organic foods in 138 countries generate a business worth about $ 40 billion, with an annual growth of $5 billion an year.Countries like India should gear themselves for increasing the production of spices to meet the newly emerging demand for protecting the interests of actual consumers as well as boosting exports for non-food purpose. 

Friday, August 21, 2009



Space missions have become common place occurrences with half a dozen countries having the capability to send man to the space and get him back with practically no risks. While missions of few days duration can provide for suitable foods in preserved condition, long duration space voyage calls for specially designed and packed foods adequately nutritious and tasty with very long shelf life. Most preferred foods to day for space flights are freeze dried products which are packed in foil laminates to prevent moisture ingress and consequent spoilage. The Space Laboratory, a joint venture between USA and Russia, has inhabitants living for months together for carrying out scientific tasks under low gravity conditions and an array of foods has been developed to cater to the needs of these astronauts. With relief going every six months, foods stocked in the Space Lab project need not have long shelf life.

Food scientists at NASA are reported to be in the process of developing an appropriate menu under their "Advanced Food System' program for the a mission to Mars which is considered highly challenging. The Mars voyage is expected to cover about 80 million miles requiring 3 years to be in the space vehicle. The voyage itself may take about 8 months each way with a stay of 18 months in the planet. The scientists are mandated to come up with a menu that is light in weight, nutritious and having a long shelf life of 5 years and the products are to be ready by 2015-16. Modern packaging materials like Aluminum foil is not considered to be suitable because of weight considerations and focus seems to be on thermo-stabilized foods instead of freeze dried ones requiring reconstitution. How far to day's retort pouch technology can fit into their needs remains to be seen but it should be promising as there are newer pouch materials available without using Aluminum.

The ambitious project also envisions growing of fresh foods like lettuce, spinach, carrots, radish, bell pepper, strawberries, fresh herbs, cabbage etc while sweet potato, soybean, peanuts, dried beans are also being considered. It is felt that the psychological well being of the astronauts is closely linked to the variations in the food eaten and variety in taste, texture, color and flavor. If cereals are grown, naturally processing equipment also will have to provided in the Mission and the currently available ones are to be scaled down for fitting into the limited space in the spacecraft.


Thursday, August 20, 2009


How about a gadget like the microwave oven which can effectively kill a substantial load of microbes in foods while heating them? Foods, in general cannot be sanitized without use of heat or chemicals which will invariably affect the taste and texture of the product treated. Microwave oven is one of the most useful devices invented by man, after the refrigerator and millions of house wives across the globe use it for heating and cooking a variety of food preparations. But there are many foods that cannot be exposed to heat,if their eating quality is to be maintained. Consumption of raw fruits and vegetables is assuming critical importance in the light of confirmed health benefits such eating practices can confer on the population and obviously the diverse sources from where they are procured make their safety uncertain. Microbiological contamination can take place in the field, warehouses, transportation carriers, handling floors, kitchen refrigerator and dining table. A cut-fruit vending venture in Singapore offers sound and safe quality products up to 5 days after processing and cut surface treatment with a mild acid like acetic acid is known to retard microbial growth.

There are emerging technologies like pulsed electric field, low wattage plasma field, mild radiation etc which do not raise product temperature significantly when treated and in building the gadget they can be helpful. Food preparations in India are mostly consumed fresh and freezing is rarely practiced. There are disturbing reports that vegetables, especially the leafy varieties are grown with sewage water near many metropolitan areas feeding the populations in the cities and one can imagine the load of microbes including the pathogens on such crops. Many house wives believe that once the food is pushed into the refrigerator it stays there safe for days together which is not true. Though there are no serious cases of food borne disorders recorded at the micro level, it could be substantial. Continuous and repeated exposure to mildly infected foods does confer some immunity and this could also be one of the reasons for relatively less reported cases of food poisoning due to microbial contamination.

Pulsed electric field works using high voltage electricity and how far it can be useful in ordinary house holds remains to be seen. Creation of plasma fields with low wattage electric coils for microbial decontamination may be an attractive option which needs to be developed further. Relatively less requirement of power makes it eminently suitable for domestic application. Of course fool proof hardware needs to be designed and past experience in building domestic ovens will help in evolving a decontamination gadget on similar lines. Mild radiation process, not based on radio isotopes but electrically operated also is a candidate worth looking into. Indigenous X-Ray machines are now being made in India and down sizing is what is needed to come up with a small gadget for use in the kitchen. Domestic appliances majors now offering many kitchen gadgets like ovens, mixer-blenders, refrigerators, roti making devices, etc can definitely can come up with a sanitation gadget good for making the raw as well as stored cooked foods safer to the consumer.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Industrialization had brought in its wake many societal changes over the last 5-6 decades due to increased urbanization and high aspirational goals of younger generation. Hindu Undivided Family (HUF)system which was prevalent during the early part of the last century started disintegrating as agriculture was not bringing sufficient returns for maintaining large families forcing the members to seek their fortunes in developing urban areas like towns and cities. The old concept of producing and raising children for helping the agricultural operations in the field is fast disappearing though in many communities female child is detested because of the liability they are supposed to carry with them. Modern India has been experiencing a sea change during the last 3 decades with massive expansion of education and girls out performing boys in many fields. Equality of sex enshrined in our constitution confers on them every right that boys enjoy and the results are there to see in every sphere of human endeavor.

HUF with a titular head called patriarch can have many members belonging to 3 or more generations and have several features that include: all members live under one roof, they share same kitchen under the control of the matriarchh, the senior most female in the family who also takes care of child rearing responsibilities, income and expenditure shared among the members, a common place of daily worship and all decisions taken by the patriarch. The wisdom that comes with years of experience is shared by all the members in facing the uncertainties of life. Or is it a case of blind leading the blind in a world where senior members have very little formal education, probably forcing their views and opinions on the younger generation which is more keen to break new grounds?

Advent of television and computers enabled younger generation to look outside their environment and learn from others' experience rather than that of the family head. Divorces, never heard of in olden days, have become common place after the disintegration of HUF as adequate opportunities are not available for new couples to adjust to the new world of conjugal life. Counseling moderation and patience is not available these days to guide the youngsters and the ability to discriminate between good and bad is on the decline. Access to Internet does not train new mothers as to how best the pregnancy has to be managed or the right way of bringing up the kids. Traditional foods, recipes and their preparation methods are gradually forgotten and new eating cultures are imbibed, not necessarily for good. One of the reasons for the fast extinction of our traditional food culture is the disintegration of the joint family system due to modern education, vast employment opportunities created by the industrial development and exposure to so called 'modern' foods with high caloric density.

Having said this, what is the option left to recapture the old values and strength of the society of the bygone era? Obviously joint family system may never be resurrected, at least in the urban areas because of real estate constraints as big houses cost a fortune to establish for nurturing a large family. But can the builders give a thought to designing radically new dwelling places where multiple nuclear families with common kitchen and some shared facilities can live symbiotically and derive benefits of experience each one is endowed with? Can GOI evolve enlightened supportive policies for such a movement through its economic incentive system? One may call it clannish but it makes lot of sense when one realizes the benefits of such a transformation on mental, societal and physical health of the population. Probably this may be the only way to preserve and nurture the rich moral, ethical, cultural and food traditions for which Indian civilization was admired across the world.


Monday, August 17, 2009


If the whole world can be divided into two distinct groups, majority will fall under the category of those trying to get sufficient food for a decent living while others live for the pleasure of eating food without any consideration of the consequences of over consumption. According to WHO almost a billion people in this planet, more than 15% of world population, do not get adequate food to lead a normal healthy life while a few millions in the developed as well as the developing countries consume 150% of the normal food requirement. It is a fact that modern living style diseases like CVD, diabetes, cancers, obesity etc are also more prevalent in populations consuming foods which are qualitatively poor but calorie-wise super rich. The larger philosophical question that emerges from such a scenario is whether we live to eat or eat to live!

It is not that we do not know what is best for us to maintain a sound health but high income levels and a fantastic range of pleasure-giving food products, most of them nutritionally imbalanced, churned out by the industry, are blinding us to the potential hazard posed by irrational choice of foods and over eating to satisfy our taste buds. On another level the issue that needs focusing is how far we are justified in switching over indiscriminately to processed foods, forgetting that natural foods like fruits, vegetables, whole cereals and milk are the protective foods that safeguard our life in the long run. Processed foods, at best can only supplement our diet based on natural foods. Clarified fruit juices, refined grain flours and products derived from them, fat rich cream products, double refined cooking oils and hydrogenated fats, synthetic beverages, mass manufactured fried foods, fat rich restaurant foods, etc are available to the consumers but frequency and extent of their consumption have critical influence on their health. Claim to richness and wealth need not be demonstrated through gluttony and considerations for fellow denizens should guide our food habits. The recent disclosure that even the amount of food wasted by the rich nations in Europe, Japan, Canada and the US can feed 50% of the global population is shocking to the conscience of every human being.

For almost two decades food scientists have been suggesting that man can live 20% longer by controlling the intake of calories through the food without compromising on the level of nutrients needed for normal life. Though these findings were based on animal studies involving mice and monkeys, the revelation gives further impetus to the protagonists, advocating restriction of consumption of food calories for a better and longer life. It is a pity that man learns to correct himself only when pushed to the corner and disciplined eating gets practiced invariably when one faces the extreme situation of misery, pain and morbidity caused by one or the other disorder due to past indiscretions in food choices. Consumer education, policy orchestration and voluntary restraint by food industry do not seem to be working and it is sad that scientists are forced to look for the magical pill that will kill the appetite in our efforts to control food consumption at the individual level. The discovery of Resveratrol, a chemical present in red wine and Rapamycin drug are claimed to be able to suppress the appetite significantly and their consumption on a wide scale by people with tendency to over eat, may spare enough food that can save millions of famished people in Asia, Africa and South America!



Some thing was published in this blog earlier regarding the buffet style of serving and its repercussions. But if a survey is made on the diverse styles of eating across the world many noteworthy facts emerge which are interesting to a keen observer of food habits. As humans have to ingest food for their survival, they eat from an abundant and varied diet 3-4 times a day. There are cultural, social and environmental influences on the type of food eaten and the way it is consumed. According to the renowned French philosopher Roland Barthes "food is but a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behavior".Historically eating has been ritualistic and evolved over the years to differentiate the classes from one another whether based on economic criteria or social standing or religious basis or caste, community and color based, in different parts of the world. Globally standard practices of using crockery, cutlery, china, silver, linen, decorations, seating practices etc vary significantly in terms of quality of these wares used. But there are also wider differences in the practices of eating, depending on the cultural and traditions prevalent in the region.

Various factors that influence eating include survival strategies, agricultural patterns, industrial development, gender equality and familial structure. Eating is a physiological function associated with vitality but cultural and social factors have critical influence upon the act of eating. A few examples of eating traditions in some countries will illustrate the diversity in their practices. In Germany where people use knife and fork for transferring food from the plate to the mouth, fork is invariably held in the left hand for eating and knife in the right hand. Hand is directly used some times to eat some foods. The fork and knife are laid down parallel on the right side of the plate to signify end of the meal. In Japan chop sticks, used for eating food, are never pointed to any where except the food and they are never used to pierce any food on the plate. In the US fork is held in the right hand and is used for eating. When knife needs to be used, fork is switched to the left hand and after cutting, knife is shifted back to the left. In Middle East foods are eaten with right hand and use of fore finger and thumb to tear meat pieces is common. Rice is scooped up and the diner has to leave some food in the plate to signal the end of the dining. In Ethiopia Injera, a dosa like preparation made from fermented batter from Teff cereal is eaten from a large plate as big as 18-24 inches in diameter with side dishes arranged all around the plate inside and family members sit together around the table taking a bite from the same plate together.

India is a country where enormous diversity is noticed in eating customs. While in the North, use of thali, spoons and vattis, made of stainless steel or some times silver, are common, plantain leaves are the most commonly accepted material for serving food in the South. In some regions dried leaves, stitched together, usually circular in shape, are the serving material. Traditionally squatting on the floor is the common practice, though in urban areas dining tables and chairs have become standard features. In some rural areas of the country poor people still use plates and bowls made of earthen ware and instead of spoons, leaves from jack fruit are shaped and stitched for consuming liquid foods like kanji. Advent of synthetic plastics has introduced plates made from materials like melamine and others, which are more durable, besides being unbreakable. And in these days of 'disposables' plates and cups made from thin plastics and natural materials like arecanut sheath, dry leaves from banana plant, teak etc in combination with paper and plastics are also available. There is even a banana leaf simulating synthetic product looking like the original which is popular in the South.

Being a nation of multilinguistic, ethnic and cultural societies of varying history, the eating practices also show wide variations. Invariably the traditional eating has always been with right hand, though use of spoons and forks is increasingly becoming the norm in many families and restaurants. Propitiating the ancestors by offering the first few morsels of food to the crows before taking the meal is still in practice with some families. In Gujarat toasted papads and unsalted buttermilk are common adjuncts, a nutritionally right choice. Eating desserts is usually reserved as the last course in meals in western countries but in India traditionally yogurt or butter milk or their rice preparation form the last item on the menu. Probably a pro biotic like yogurt may be more appropriate for digestion than a sweet tasting dessert at the end. In some western countries coffee is taken after ingesting the main meal as it is believed to be a digestion aid. Ginger preparations in combination with butter milk also is served as a part of a heavy meal in some parts of India, presumably to help digestion. The concept of cross contamination probably is deeply ingrained in the Indian society where even amongst family members food is not exchanged between plates,once eating session starts.

Though eating with hands is often frowned upon by western societies (though 'finger licking' to taste food during preparation is still in vogue), the ground reality in India is that many of the typical foods popular in the country cannot be consumed easily with the knife and fork system. The major danger in using hand for eating the food is the microbial contamination that can be transferred from the hand, if dirty, to the stomach with some potential for adverse consequences and hand washing, before and after a meal, is invariably practiced by the people. The dexterity of human fingers cannot be expected to be achieved with any other man-made contraptions and the pleasure of eating a food with hands as experienced by Indians for centuries may not be easy to get from other systems of eating food. "Hand to Mouth" existence, literally, is loved and enjoyed by millions in Asia, Africa and South America!


Sunday, August 16, 2009


Cholesterol management is a continuing topic of interest amongst nutritionists, medical practitioners, policy makers and consumers, ever since this biochemical has been implicated in arterial diseases. The belief that cholesterol and its metabolic companions lipoproteins are involved in forming dangerous plaques on the walls of arteries has spawned an entirely new industry that manufactures and markets drugs called statins to reduce cholesterol levels in the blood. The statin manufacturers, numbering about a dozen are estimated to be raking in a mammoth turnover of about $ 26 billion in USA alone and this 'magic' drug is routinely being prescribed to people with cholesterol levels, even marginally higher than recommended optimum concentration in the blood.

The family of cholesterol containing lipoproteins like VLDL, LDL and HDL is present in human body at varying levels depending on the genetic make up, food intake, living style and some other factors. Cholesterol by itself is a soft waxy lipid that is not soluble in water or blood and it is in the form of lipoproteins that cholesterol performs its assigned metabolic functions. Cholesterol is critical for cell wall synthesis besides being a precursor to all of the steroid hormones like estrogen, testosterone, cortisone and others. Many believe that HDL cholesterol is good while LDL and VLDL cholesterol types are responsible for heart diseases. While body synthesizes cholesterol routinely through the mediation of HMG CoA Reductase enzyme, many of the foods we consume also contribute to cholesterol in the body. Optimum concentration of LDLs in blood is less than 100 mg/dL while high risk levels begin at 160 mg/dL. HDL concentration is generally around 40-60 mg/dL and a ratio of 5:1 for total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol is considered beneficial. Arcus juvenilis, a pale ring around the iris in the eyes and yellowish fatty deposits under the skin around the eyes called xanthelasmata usually are indicators of high cholesterol levels in the body.

There does not seem to be any unanimity regarding the role of cholesterol in causing heart attacks. Many believe that high levels of LDL and VLDL cholesterol are responsible for forming arterial plaques which block blood circulation through the heart causing myocardial infraction. A few reputed experts, however, contest this thesis and assert that cholesterol numbers are not important but small dense LDL particles formed in the blood probably due to development of insulin and leptin resistance, cause plaque formation. According to them these small LDL particles can squeeze between cells lining the inside of the arteries (gap junction) of the endothelium where they get stuck and are potentially oxidized causing inflammation of the lining and plaque formation. In support, hundreds of studies have been cited where majority of patients hospitalized for heart attack have cholesterol numbers, well within the recommended levels and reduction in cholesterol is not well correlated to reduction in mortality rate. While the ability of statin drugs to lower the circulating cholesterol is undisputed, whether such intervention helps to reduce the chances of heart attack is a debatable point and jury is till out on this issue. Many believe that high fibrinogen levels play more important role by its tendency to form blood clots and consequent effect on the heart.

Adding another dimension to this burning issue is the reported side effects of statins implicating it in muscle pain, nerve damage and memory impairment. Further the enzyme that is inhibited by statins to achieve low cholesterol numbers is also vital for synthesizing the co-enzyme Q10 involved in metabolic reactions converting food into usable energy for transport to the cells in the body. It is also well argued that current recommended levels of cholesterol are not easily achievable with diets and exercise regimes, except through intervention drug therapy using statins. No wonder that more than 12 million Americans are hooked on to statins because of the scare posed by such perceived dangers of cholesterol.

Consumption of whole cereals and pulses, soybean, garlic, onion, hot pepper, cloves, green tea, fruits like strawberry, grapefruit, orange and apple, almost all vegetables, fish, red wine, olive oil, many spices, nuts like almond and walnuts and most of the every day natural foods provide plenty of antioxidants which can ensure that cholesterol will never pose a problem vis-à-vis the heart. Naturally occurring phytochemicals present in plant foods work in different ways to protect the heart by preventing formation of blood clots and lowering of cholesterol. Probably food industry can seize the opportunity to win the 'hearts' of the consumers through the food route and break the stranglehold the statin industry has on them at present!


Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Food industry is faced with the greatest challenge in restoring confidence in the consumers regarding its ability to offer safe foods after a series of episodes of food contamination and costly product recalls in many western countries. It is another matter that contaminated foods do not get sufficient attention in India due to the lax monitoring and enforcement practices prevalent in the country and absence of product liability system sparing the manufacturers as well as the traders from punitive corrective actions. A ray of hope emanated from the corridors of power that is supposed to oversee the food safety in the country, when hotels in New Delhi were chosen to grade them into different categories based on hygiene and food quality, probably keeping in mind the forth coming Common Wealth Games hosted there by India. Whether the declaration of 'intent' will transform into reality remains to be seen.

Inputs for food processing such as raw materials and water, the infrastructure and services, the environment where facilities are located and working personnel are the major sources of microbiological contamination resulting in spoiled foods and consequent damages to the consumer health. Out of these, people involved in handling foods in the processing floor are the carriers of pathogenic vectors, transferring them to the food through their direct contact or through the air they exhale. Till the robots take control of food handling, human hands are bound to be the most crucial tool to manage various operations that constitute processing. While personnel health can be monitored through medical check ups and daily examination, keeping the hands clean is fraught with many practical difficulties. Hands are invariably used by a human during coughing, sneezing, gargling, eating and drinking, visit to the toilets, washing of face and feet and many other purposes. The microbial status of the hands is under a flux, continuously changing during different times of the day.

Current practices of keeping hands clean include washing with soap or detergent and drying or wiping and using antiseptic preparations before entering the preparation area. There is no guarantee that hands of the operators are really clean before entering the processing area because many factors will influence the efficacy of this critical step. Extent of detergent used, quantity of water used, thoroughness of forming the suds and their spread through out the hand, method of drying the hand all will determine how clean the hands are after each washing. According to WHO a person who washes hands often is 24% less likely to acquire a respiratory illness and 45-50% less likely to suffer from a stomach upset. 80% of all illnesses and infections are transported by touch where hand plays the prominent role. A thorough hand washing calls for vigorously scrubbing with water and soap until lather appears, making sure to get them between fingers and finger nails which generally takes about 20 seconds to complete followed by drying with a towel.

Innovations in hospitals which are continuously on alert regrading infection from pathogenic microorganisms are greatly relevant to the food industry managers also and the industry needs to learn from their experience. Popular sanitizing hand gels and liquids, though touted to be efficient, were found to be less effective in practice than washing with plenty of water because the bacteria could still remain on the hand, when not washed. Water and soap wash down these contaminants from hand removing their very source. To make the washing hand operation more reliable, electronic sensors have been developed to detect presence of extraneous matter on the hand which are being tried out in some hospitals in the western countries. Washed hands when brought under a wall-mounted scanner are tested for cleanliness and inadequate cleaning can trigger alarm signals that can be detected, logged and monitored for every individual worker in the organization entering the processing area. Workers wearing appropriate badges pick up the signals and those not cleared can go for more thorough washing. Hot air drying can take as much as 20-30 seconds while towels and tissue paper are often used for quick drying. Drying of washed hands before scanning can now be done in a few seconds using air blades at room temperature using compressed air at 400 miles per hour velocity.

Hand washing is increasingly receiving attention especially during recent weeks because of the pandemic H1N1 virus spreading Swine Flu across the world, expected to affect almost 2 billion people within 2 years. Most effective way of avoiding the infection is washing the hands as often as possible since hands are known pick up the infection first before transferring to the lungs through soft tissues of the nose, mouth and eyes.


Thursday, August 6, 2009


The "Duranto" Minister for Railways, in her recent budget speech, made the startling announcement that railway catering would be taken over from the private sector players, the noble objective being 'to upgrade' the quality and 'reduce' the cost of food served in railway stations and in all important trains. Intention may be noble because it dangles before the hapless commuters using the railways, the 'carrot' in the form of mouth watering foods at low cost. It is shocking because post-independent India has been a mute witness to the progressively declining standards of government controlled services reflecting the ground reality and no lesson seems to have been learnt from the past miserable experience for the citizens.

Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) as well as Department Catering of Indian Railways (IR) are involved in providing food services to the passengers at present to a limited extent, rest being outsourced to private contractors. According to IR, there are 10, 752 static catering units servicing 260 pairs of trains through pantry cars and train side vending units serve another 80 trains. While IRCTC has 1428 catering units, Catering Department of IR runs another 56 units. In contrast number of private catering units under different zones run into 3473 and another 5797 private units are under the IRCTC monitoring orbit. For serving running trains, base kitchens are set up in major cities from where the trains start or pass through during long journey. IRCTC has 4 base kitchens in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Patna. Private caterers have invested heavily in setting up about 100 base kitchens across the country to provide food service to more than 600 trains in a day. No doubt providing good, affordable and safe food is the responsibility of the IR and a rudimentary system of monitoring is supposed to be in place, though its efficiency or effectiveness is still to be felt by the traveling public.

If the new 'mantra' of in-house catering is to be implemented, IR will have to set up least 30-35 more base kitchens to serve all the Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains numbering 32 at present. According to IRCTC officials, even setting up a small kitchen would cost Rs 3 crore while it will be more than 3-4 times when it comes to establishing a large base kitchen with necessary facilities. The manpower needs to be expanded several fold and it is likely that once they are inducted into the railway catering service their tenure will become permanent. If the experiment of in-house catering fails for some reasons or the IR reverses the policy, these employees can be a permanent drain on the railway establishment. More appropriate would be to mechanize many of the preparations that could save manpower significantly. To day automated equipment are available for preparing many cuisines like chapathi, idli, dosa, poori, vada, bonda. bread and parotha which are the basic items on demand from the traveling public and base kitchens can be equipped with these machines for continuous mass production. Advanced packaging materials and packing machines must be used to make the preparations well protected and presentable.

A larger issue to be addressed is whether IR can provide better service to the passengers than that offered by the private players. In all likelihood, this is an Utopian dream. IR is used to make money from the catering contractors through heavy licensing fees and forcing them to pay exorbitant recurring royalties from their turn over. All know whatever has happened to the pompous decision of the previous minister in making use of earthen ware pots and cups compulsory for serving food and beverages in IR stations and trains! Solution to bettering the quality of food lies in making monitoring more stringent and deployment of a critical mass of technically experienced food technologists with well equipped safety assessment facilities to shoulder the responsibility. Probably IR can do a better job in promoting food industry in the country than MoFPI because of the vast captive clientèle it has and joining hands with some of the major industrial corporates by involving them in running the pantry car system may be of mutual benefit to all concerned, the passengers, IR and the industry.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Way back in late nineteen eighties, GOI was contemplating making addition of fruit juice mandatory to all soft drinks, ostensibly to find outlet for the products from fruit processing industry. Juice consumption was very low in the country while soft drink industry was churning out popular products like cola beverages and artificially flavored fizz drinks. However the proposal never saw the light of the day, probably because of the clout the fizz drink industry enjoyed during that period. Though there were technical problems in carbonating fruit juices containing particulate materials like fine fiber, it was not insurmountable provided there was a will to do it. Besides incorporation of juice at10% level hardly makes any difference as far as nutritive value of the end product was concerned. Fortunately fruit juice industry could establish its credentials subsequently thanks to the advent of tetra pack technology which could preserve the juice without exposing to high temperatures for long time necessary for sterilization or without use of chemical preservatives. To day 100% fruit juices are available in tetra pack, though at a cost much higher than that of soft drinks.
Effervescent drinks provide the bubbly feeling because of the escape of CO2 from an aqueous solution. Natural carbonation occurs due to aerobic fermentation by yeast in products like beer and sparkling wine while forced carbonation is achieved by infusing gaseous CO2 at low temperatures under high pressure. Carbonation is supposed to give bite to any drink whereas the fizzy taste is contributed by dilute carbonic acid inducing a slight burning sensation liked by many. CO2 solubility in water increases with pressure, lowering of temperature to near zero degree centigrade, increasing the pH and decreases with concentration of ionic solutes like sodium chloride. Presence of organic compounds may increase or decrease the CO2 concentration. At 0 C 0.334 gm of CO2 dissolves in water while the corresponding figure decreases to 0.287 gm at 4 C, 0.2492 gm at 8 C at atmospheric pressure. The solubility increase with pressure and soda and fizzy drinks are made by saturating refrigerated water with CO2 under pressure before mixing with sweetening and other flavor ingredients.
Carbonation of milk is an unthinkable proposition till recently and many believe that CO2 and milk are incompatible. But application of basic food science principles and use of appropriate equipment can give a milk beverage containing CO2 at levels that can be enjoyable to many consumers. It is also known that presence of suspended solids can hinder CO2 retention as they act as nucleus for coalescing the unstable gas bubbles and casein present in milk tends to get precipitated in presence of CO2, especially at higher temperatures. It is not that milk is never carbonated but the purpose is to increase the shelf life of fluid milk and other milk based products by at least 50%, though this is not a widely followed practice in the industry. Reducing the particle size of suspended milk solids to sub-micron levels through high end homogenizers, the coalescing effect of CO2 can be significantly retarded and under pressure the product can be stabilized. How such a product will be accepted by the consumer is another matter that needs to be explored by the industry.

The reported soft launch of a designer drink based on skimmed milk and containing CO2 in New York by the beverage giant Coca Cola may yet enable dairy industry to stimulate milk consumption amongst youngsters, weaning them away from the 'nutrient shallow'' synthetic soft drinks. Selling at a stiff price of almost $ 4 a bottle
the new product named 'Vio' is being offered in different flavors like peach, mango, berry, citrus, tropical and colada. The process involves mixing of skimmed milk with sparkling water flavored with fruit and cane sugar sweetener. Good milk flavor, fruity aroma and creamy body provide the product a distinct personality of its own, not found in many established beverages. The USP of the product is that the sweet taste is discernible only after the entire bottle is consumed, delaying the satiety feeling. It is time for Indian Dairy industry to think on similar lines, if milk consumption is to be boosted in the country where the successful 'operation flood' program has created a milk surplus.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Keeping one's weight under control is considered to be the most practical step in prolonging the life unrestricted by onset of life-threatening health disorders. BMI and Obesity find mention in practically all references touching on the subject of longevity. Going beyond the desired goal of weight control, man is becoming more ambitious or rather 'greedy' to cling on to the Mother Earth, if not permanently but at least for a few years more than what is expected. Use of appetite suppressant by over weight people, to reduce calorie intake and thus control body weight is now being tried to prolong life amongst, other wise, normal healthy persons. The clue is provided by the findings by many studies that in rodents and some primates deliberate restriction of calorie intake enables them to extend their life span by as much as 40%!.

'Calorie restriction' (CR), according to experts, is a strategy for 'extending' healthy life, evolved based on 20 years of studies on animals which gained life extension, as much as 40%. CR is claimed to confer other benefits that include lowering the risks of most degenerative conditions of aging, reducing other risks like DNA damage, enhanced cleaning up of cells, enhancing DNA repair, protecting against aging of the heart, slowing down the deterioration in the immune system, restraining the development of Alzheimer's disease, arresting stem cell decline, reducing inflammation and checking muscle degeneration. Yeasts, fish, rodents,dogs and primates have all achieved extended life span to varying degrees, though limited studies reported on humans are still inconclusive. One of the examples cited to support the effectiveness of CR concept is the population in Okinawa, Japan which boasts of high numbers of long surviving people who habitually consume only 80% of daily food requirement as a part of their traditional eating practice.

The mechanism of slowing aging through CR is not well understood but some believe that it decreases the insulin levels thereby "upregulating autophagy". Contrary to this, studies using Sirt1 protein for longevity, scientists found the insulin levels in their studies increased significantly creating complications while Klotho protein, another longevity aid, produced lesser insulin creating diabetic like conditions. Unless the precise mechanisms of various anti-aging approaches are known, wide scale practice of such systems is ruled out. But calorie restriction is still an option, if not for longer life span but at least for a more healthier life on which there is a near unanimity amongst the scientists. Perceptions differs only as to how much restriction of calorie intake must be practiced to get maximum benefits from such a regime in to day's world where over-weight and obesity are endemic..

Antagonists of calorie restriction approach dwell on the fact that results of animal studies cannot be extrapolated on humans and the benefits of CR are far less than what is claimed. While rodents achieved 40% life span extension on CR, humans, it is claimed, can never expect to get more than 7% increase in life expectancy at practical levels of CR. Even in animal studies many aberrations were noticed such as undesirable changes in behavioral pattern, emission of foul body odors, irrational irritability, greatly reduced fertility, unbearable hunger pangs and greatly lowered energy levels incapable of carrying many normal activities. Added to this confusion some studies report that CR is effective in slowing down aging only in obese mice and normal healthy ones do not benefit at all.

CR to be effective must be practiced when young and people at the fag end of their life cannot get benefit through this diet restriction technique. If that is so it raises many questions that are legal, moral and ethical. Which mother will agree to restrict food to her child during the early stages of growth? Is it morally right to deny foods to the children when they are growing fast during the childhood? Will the practice pass legal test regarding the rights of a child before reaching adulthood? Will some one sacrifice one's quality of life to get a few extra years on this planet? Will it not be better to live healthy for some time than living with diabetes for long time? Industry has to be weary about entering into such a field with future repercussions about the possible impact on society.