Thursday, November 26, 2009


Food retailing and catering form an important part of a country's landscape and both touch the lives of people practically every day. The fact that they have to carry out their business with an eye on profit does not absolve them of their commitment to be fair and equitable to the consumers. Governments are supposed to keep vigilance over the functioning of these sectors in order to prevent avoidable harm to the citizens due to negligence, unsafe practices and deliberate fraud on the part of the food handlers. Every retailer and caterer think that, once a license is obtained from the local authorities for operating in approved premises, nothing needs to be done further to improve the business atmosphere or better the quality of products offered. Government is shirking its responsibility by not instilling in them the discipline expected in handling food materials scientifically to avoid food related mishaps.

As a model one can look at a country like the US where the food handlers know what is expected from them which is codified in unambiguous terms. A voluntary Food Code has been existing for long and it is revised every four years incorporating new developments and knowledge in food safety field. Though it does not have any mandatory force behind, it still serves as a model code and reference document for sensitizing the retail and food service segments of the food industry for safety compliance. It is true no one forces any one to follow the guidelines strictly but many use it voluntarily as a guide while some adopt it in toto. The Food Code should provide authoritative information on time and temperature control for various foods for storage, cooking and serving to ensure they do not favor growth of harmful bacteria before reaching the consumer.

There are many gray areas in food safety information which need to be revisited by food scientists and sanitation experts for evolving a comprehensive resource and reference document for the benefit of catering industry and the retailing sector. Very few members of food trade and catering service have adequate awareness about the dangers lurking in their premises in the form of microbiological and other contamination which can affect the health of their customers. Qualified and experienced personnel are neither willing to be employed nor being employed by this industry for various reasons. A comprehensive Food Code containing a series of "do's" and "don'ts" in simple language, in English as well as regional languages, will go a long way in educating the industry to improve their service dramatically. The Food Code must contain information regarding distinguishing good food from bad ones, avoiding infestation of raw materials, favorable conditions for harmful bacteria to grow and preventive regime, food storage, tips on hygiene and sanitation, safe life periods of freshly cooked foods, etc.

Lead has to come from the Central Government in formulating such a Code for adoption and implementation in the country. The question is, who will "bell the cat" since it is a multi disciplinary job involving microbiologists, toxicologists, food scientists, catering specialists and sanitation experts. Probably an institution like CFTRI is best suited to undertake such a task for which needful, time targeted mandate has to be given by GOI. Such a task, if undertaken and completed satisfactorily in time, can be more useful to the nation than the pedestrian research being carried out during the last two decades in the name of food industry. Sooner it is done, better it will be for the country.


Sunday, November 22, 2009


Biological control of harmful vectors in foods is a dream many scientists have, as it does not leave any harmful residues of chemicals used commonly to sanitize the products. Most famous example is the potential showed by Bacillus thuringensis in controlling pests in food grains. Discovery in 1917 of bacteriophage, viruses that stay within the bacteria,and kill others that cause diseases in humans is another example. Consumption of pre-biotics is also intended to increase the population of "friendly' bacteria in the GI tract providing protection against smaller population of infectious bacteria. How ever the revolutionary findings that good bacteria always exist along with bad ones and they can be used for getting rid of the latter under favorable conditions, may have potential in improving the present agricultural practices by incorporating such a biological "warfare" component to prevent contamination at field level. .

Thanks to some smart work carried out by a group of scientists in the US on controlling Salmonella contamination of tomatoes which created a furore in that country recently, a new avenue seems to be opening for using friendly bacteria to destroy Salmonella. Though the finding is mainly in tomatoes, the concept should work for many fruits and vegetables which carry contamination from the field all the way to the kitchen, posing risks to the unsuspecting consumer. Through laborious field work these scientists were able to isolate some bacterial species from the tomato farms which were found to be effective in killing harmful pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, E.coli O15:H7, though Vibrio was found to be resistant. Similar work in baby carrot field yielded some bacteria with similar properties. If similar work is taken up seriously many "helpful" bacteria can be unearthed with potential to counteract food contamination due to many pathogenic organisms.

The trail blazers in biological control were the plant protection scientists who could develop many biopesticides for reducing use of chemical pesticides in agriculture. Biopestide preparations are to day are available based on Agrobacterium, Bacillus, Psuedomonas, Streptomyces, fungi such as Ampelomyces, Candida, Coneothyrium and Trichoderma. The pioneering work by Japanese in developing the bacterial preservative, Nisin and Diplococci from Lactic streptococci and similar products like acidophilin, lactoacidin, lactolin etc from Lactobacillus species have already established the potential in using bacteria and other microorganism to fight against food borne pathogens.

The bacterial "warfare" strategy for Salmonella deploys live bacteria instead of any extracted or purified fractions with antibacterial activity and unlike bio-pesticides they target pathogenic bacteria, instead of the pests and insects. How such isolated good organisms can be deployed remains to be seen. It could be a treatment of the produce with a suspension of the good bacteria to make the hostile ones ineffective or application of the suspension in the field itself as pre-harvest operation. Probably some more work is needed to fine tune the technology. It cannot be considered a fool proof process as those pathogens gaining entry into the produce through cracks and crevices are immune to the action of the 'basher' bacteria. None the less it is a welcome break through that has potential for adoption by the fruits and vegetables growing community in future.


Saturday, November 21, 2009


Chilli happens to be an integral part of the spice bank in any kitchen in India, being a regular culinary ingredient in the diets of the people. The 'hot' sensation one experiences during food consumption is due to presence of chilli in such preparations. Chilli can come in either fresh green form with limited shelf life or in dried red version with long life. While green chilli has not much of a commercial value for food industry, red chilli is processed into powder, blends with other spices or oleoresins for use by the food ingredient and pharmaceutical industries. The 'hot' sensation felt in the oral cavity is contributed by the capsaicinoids, numbering about half a dozen with varying 'heat' generating capacity. Pure capsaicin, a while crystalline or waxy substance of hydrophilic nature, is supposed to have a 'heat' potential measured in terms of Scoville Heat Units (SHU) and a milligram of capsaicin is equivalent to 15 SHUs.

India boasts of the hottest chilli in the world grown in Tezpur region, known locally as Naga Jolika capsicum with 8,55,000 SHUs while the next hottest is Red Savina Habanero with 5,77,000 SHUs. Guntur Chilli, commonly used in the South has a mere 53,250 SHUs! Jalepino Pepper, considered too hot for the western consumers has just 5000 SHUs. Capsaicin to gether with dihydrocapsaicin constitute 91% of the capsaicinoids in Chilli. Capsaicin and anthocyanins present in Chilli make it a popular industrial commodity and these two fractions can be separated with the latter used in food and allied industries as natural colorant. Besides the food use, capsaicin is a much sought after natural substance for its medication value as a counter irritant in controlling pain sensation in people suffering from peripheral neuropathy. Most of the pain balms available to day has capsaicin as the main ingredient at levels between 0.025% and 0.075%. Capsaicin is also being promoted as possible nutraceutical for preventing or treating some of the diseases like prostate cancer.

Capsaicin caught the attention of the world recently when it was approved for use in patients suffering from postherpetic neuralgia ( PHN) as an 8% patch, in the US and Europe. The treatment works by targeting certain pain nerves in the area of skin where pain is being experienced. Clinical studies have confirmed that PHN pain can be reduced for up to 12 weeks following a single 1-hour treatment. Up to 4 patches may be used and patches may be cut to conform to the size and shape of the painful area. It is a locally-acting, non-narcotic medication that is not known to cause drowsiness or any drug-drug interactions. Treatment can be repeated every 3 or more months as warranted by the return of pain and the simple Chili may become the symbol of a better quality life to millions of people suffering from the above ailment. Even more exciting is the possibility of using capsaicin as an analgesic to treat post-surgical and osteoarthritis through a single injection at the site of pain, giving relief for long periods. With Chilli having such healing powers, it may become the darling of the pharmaceutical industry with food industry becoming a minor user because of cost factors.

Advent of VNA, Vanillamide of n-Nonenoic Acid, better known as the synthetic capsaicin, is proving to be a stumbling block for the Chilli processors as it is available at a price, one fourth that of natural capsaicin with practically same properties.
Though VNA is not being recommended as an ingredient for internal medicines, industry finds it much more economical for manufacturing ointments, creams and patches for use as a part of topical treatment protocol. Spice processors will have to change their strategy by concentrating on high SHU chilli varieties for processing and evolving new technologies that will drastically reduce production cost of natural capsaicin in the coming years.


Friday, November 20, 2009


Jan Ahar, which is the new name given by Indian Railways to the 50 restaurants being set up in some important stations, probably means people's food and obviously it is targeted at the railway passengers who have the time and inclination to spend some time in an eating place before boarding or after alighting from a train. According to what has been reported, these restaurants are designed to make eating a pleasure with a congenial environment, yellow colored serving tables with green chairs and uniform wearing servers. The prices for various preparations offered at these outlets have also been fixed. Considering that most of the railway restaurants presently serving the traveling public in various stations do not have any uniform standard, the new move may bring in certain transparency in food catering.

One of the fundamental questions that is difficult to answer is whether railway passengers travel to reach their destination or eat and enjoy good food. It is understandable that during long haul travels, access to food is important and most of the major trains have delivery service or pantry cars for meeting the needs of passengers. There are many ordinary trains where passengers travel in crowded coaches, some time even standing and probably the eateries in railway stations do serve a purpose but whether the proposed Jan Ahar outlets can meet their needs is doubtful. Availability of a couple of minutes for snacking or less than 15 minutes for meals during halts at certain stations, does not allow any passengers, especially those traveling without reservation, to relax and eat, with apprehension upper most in their minds that train may leave while eating. A quick grab is always preferred under such circumstances and what is expected is clean food of tolerable quality..

Lot has been said and written about the Food Plazas established in many stations involving private caterers and no one knows for sure whether any thing has gone wrong or the type of response from the passengers. Jan Ahar seems to be positioned to hit the food plazas because their business is going to be adversely affected. The flip-flop in policies with change of ministers at the helm, does not bring any laurels to any body and elbowing out private players cannot be justified after inviting them to set up shop earlier. Obviously Jan Ahar can serve foods cheaper because it is run by the IR and unlike the Food Plazas, it does not have to pay heavy royalty and other charges for the facilities within the railway property. The scrapping of private catering system in running trains is another example of a government agency reversing the PPP policy apparently without any logical reason. According to IR sources, these outlets will be "managed" by IR but food will be sourced from private contractors, whatever that means. It is not clear how IR can fix the range of prices for the foods served at Rs 10 to Rs 35, if outsourcing is going to be done. Since the first outlet is going to be launched soon, one has to see how far this idea is going to be useful to the passengers.

A woman being the Railway Minister, it may be more appropriate if women's cooperatives are formed to run these food centers and the example of Lijjat Papads shows what such organized bodies can achieve if motivated. Added bonus is that the food is prepared and served by women who are supposed to have better culinary talent. IR must realize that it can also serve the society through such programs. While the intention behind the project, viz, to serve better and cheaper food, is laudable, the management and logistical restraints may still "derail" the plans. Consumer can only hope that "Jan Ahar" does not become synonymous with "Pashu Ahar", during implementation and operation of the new proposal.


Thursday, November 19, 2009


The Food Summit which just concluded has been termed as a ritual without achieving any thing substantial and repeating the same platitudes expressed in the last Summit, viz halving the number of hungry people in the Planet by 50% before the year 2015. The gross disinterest evident amongst the well to do nations is reflected by the scanty attendance of the heads of these countries. The disappointment is writ all around and the African nations were left wondering about their future with global aid not readily forthcoming to the extent needed. The statistics of hunger can make any one scary about future. According to the FAO one in six denizens in the world go hungry and their absolute number has swollen to 1.02 billion as per the latest count and 17000 children are supposed to be perishing every day due to food insecurity.

Lack of global initiative and global unity in the world is the root cause of putting in place a permanent mechanism for hunger alleviation of a durable nature. It is vital that both the developed world and the developing countries come together and extent support for a global initiative in the war against hunger. Developing countries themselves need to do more to support their farmers, especially in the African continent. Richer countries and U.N. agencies have to be very proactive in increasing funding directly to the third-world country's farmers who need quality seed, efficient quality fertilizers and enhanced access to credits. According to the FAO, the estimated financial aid that is required works out to about $40 billion for investment in agriculture annually to combat hunger which is equivalent to 17 percent of all official development aid instead of the current 5 percent

What is galling is that no specific amounts have been committed during the Summit creating some doubts about the future of aid programs originating in the developed countries. While in absolute terms aid amounts are sizable, the relative proportion invested in agricultural sector needs to be increased, if increased aid flow does not materialize, sacrificing or postponing non-food investments. Late Norman Borlaug often expressed his view that what Africa needs is a Green Revolution similar to that occurred in Asia in sixties and seventies of the last millennium and this is where investments ought to be made.

One of the critical issues is the over eagerness of multinational companies, backed by rich countries to sell GM technologies to African countries which cannot be considered viable under the conditions prevailing in the continent. It is inexcusable for the First World to tie economic assistance to GM technology in the name of modernization of agricultural sector in these poor countries. The input intensive and restrictive seed generation properties associated with GM technology, combined with uncertainties about yield and crop failure make the farmers weary about the new technology. Economic assistance must come with no strings attached, if the recipients are going to be really benefited. In the interest of a peaceful world and congenial growth atmosphere, cooperation, understanding and mutual appreciation amongst all nations are prerequisites.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Success of a consumer product depends on the ability of its manufacturer to convey to the consumer the features of his product and convince him about its USP. Intense competition in the market puts pressure on the manufacturers to make inflated claims regarding the superiority of his product. As long as these claims do not cross the line of verifiable facts, they can be acceptable. The label on the food packet has sufficient provision to print the facts about the product and information such as the identity of the manufacturer, quantity of contents, ingredients, manufacturing date, best before date, nutritional profile, MRP, method of preparation and any other relevant but truthful facts. This can give a fairly good idea to the consumer based on which first time purchase is made. Repeat purchase will happen only if consumer is convinced about the overall quality of the product and the reasonableness of its price.

While Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) is vested with the authority to enforce food laws prevailing in the country, its implementation arm is the concerned state which is supposed to be equipped to inspect, collect samples, analyze them and prosecute if they do not conform to the standards. How ever neither the FSSAI nor the state administration has adequate infrastructure and needed personnel in quality and number for doing a decent job. Recent reports from Ahmedabad and Ludhiana regarding large scale adulteration of food by traders expose the underbelly of FSSAI!

While monitoring of food safety and quality as it exists to day is a sham, what goes on in the advertisement area is a hoax perpetrated by some industry on the unsuspecting consumers. Circumventing regulations that bar printing unsustainable claims on food labels, small screen has become the playing field for some of the unscrupulous industry players to influence the mind of the consumer through saturated advertisements, some time involving icon personalities from sports, film world and even wayward members from the scientific field. Promoting a food claiming faster brain growth, growing stronger, sharper and taller, increasing body stamina, etc will naturally influence any mother or house wife in her purchasing decision.

It has taken the government so long to take notice of this obnoxious behavior on the part of the food industry is some thing alarming about its commitment to protect the citizens from unfair exploitation. In a recent announcement by GOI, a resounding declaration was made that it was going to come down heavily on food industry making `tall' claims about the benefits of their products

through advertisements. Further GOI wants to evolve a specific code to be followed by the industry which will restrict misleading and deceptive claims made on the effect of products on nutrition, health, exceptional intelligence or physical ability. In case of a violation of the code, the FSSAI wants to take action by publicizing the fact through the media which is considered a strong deterrent for potential violators and there is also a provision to impose a penalty of Rs 10 lakh. Lack of a legal framework in the country for regulating advertising standards on food and beverage companies, probably tempts manufacturers to indulge in such devious practices. The Advertising Standards Council has in place a voluntary code for advertisers in general, with no specific guidelines for advertising by food and beverage companies and it is rare that any one is pulled up for such unethical activities.

Consumer will patiently wait to see the words from FSSAI being translated to action in the coming days and if these utterances do not provide the needed deterrence, consumers may eventually rise against the industry as well as the government agencies for defaulting on their responsibilities to protect them from exploitation and dangers of unsafe foods..


Tuesday, November 17, 2009


In a tragic incidence of food poisoning that occurred in a remote village in Karnataka on November 16, 2009, seven persons were reported to have been killed while four others were hospitalized. The bare report by a news agency mentioned that the poor villagers ate puffed rice served to them where after one women died immediately while four lost their lives while being taken to hospital. Another two died in the hospital subsequently. Probably these deaths occurred within a span of few hours. The episode happened in Konkal village of Shahapur Taluk in Gulbarga district which affected several people and some one seems to have decided it was due to consumption of the traditional puffed rice based preparation "mandaal vaggarane". The knee-jerk reaction of the authorities was to announce ex-gratia payment to the victims, forget the entire episode and wait for the next tragedy to happen!

Several issues regarding this unfortunate incidence are baffling. Why only a total of 11 people were affected out of which 7 died, varying in age between 10 and 60 years, all from one family? Did the local hospital conduct any Post Mortem on the bodies? If food poisoning is indeed the cause, what is the type of poison that caused death so fast? Any thing has been done to trace the source of 'poison'? A dry material like puffed rice with such a low water activity cannot be a good medium for fatal microbial infection and even if so, such infections take time to develop "lethality" in human beings.

A thorough investigation involving police and toxicology experts can only bring out the real facts in this case as puffed rice with low moisture content is one of the safest foods available and as a traditional food material it has a long shelf life. True the process of making puffed rice is confined mostly to cottage scale sector and involved heating of conditioned paddy in sand medium in small batches. Though modernization efforts were made some years ago, very few artisans are willing to change their traditional practices. Possible reasons for the fatalities could be intentional homicide, voluntary suicide, accidental contamination of paddy used with poisonous agri-chemicals, storage of puffed rice along with poisonous substances or unintentional addition of poisonous ingredients during preparation of the mandaal vaggarne which was consumed by the victims.

The casual way the news was reported shows how indifferent our safety monitoring agencies at Delhi and the states are to the sufferings of citizens. Contrast this with a similar episode reported from Minnesota in USA in April last year when puffed rice and puffed wheat made by a local manufacturer caused food poisoning to just 23 people in 14 different states of the country which was immediately traced to Salmonella agona by DNA finger printing! This infection causes nausea, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, stomach cramp and can be life threatening for people with poor health and weakened immunity system. The response from the health authorities was spontaneous in pinpointing the cause, identifying the causative agent and recalling millions of packs of these products from the market as a precaution. In India we have an "Authority" at Delhi, supposed to be "looking after" the food safety concerns in the country which must lead by action in taking up such cases for detailed investigations to avoid future recurrence of such episodes, in stead of "sermonizing from the pulpit". Some hope!


Monday, November 16, 2009


A citizen to day may be happy from the materialistic point of view getting all the comforts money can buy from thousands of innovative products churned out by technology intensive manufacturing industry. But the dangers lurking behind such a transformation during the last 5-6 decades are manifold and man's understanding of these life-threatening risks are minimal posing an uncertain future. Newer industrial chemicals developed at a frenetic pace all over the world with potential application in every day life are known to be safe to some extent though no one will guarantee100% safety. Risk benefit ratio of each new chemical ultimately decides their entry into the human chain. Continuous risk analysis has enabled the world to eliminate many of these chemicals from active use. Banning of use of halogenated hydrocarbons based on their ozone destroying property causing global warming is an example of global cooperation in such endeavors.

Food industry has its own Achilles heel in the form of chemical additives, thousands in number which are used as process aids and in packaging materials. While some of them have been cleared based on some scientific data, many are still being used under the GRAS protocol. Many of them have not been clinically tested, their safety having been assessed by only animal studies. Existence of Codex Alimentarius Commission under FAO-WHO banner provides some solace to consumers as most countries more or less follow its guidelines in the use of chemical additives. Newer analytical tools capable of detecting nanogram levels of chemicals in food and water are providing better insight into the presence of contaminants which hitherto were not considered as possible pollutants. Advent of newer and faster biological assay techniques is helping toxicologists to understand the impact of chemical substances at cellular levels. In spite of all these positive developments consumer still remains exposed to many hazards from many directions every day.

Polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) were welcomed at one time when they were developed in 1950s, with open arms for their extraordinary ability to reduce surface tension in detergents and impart non-sticking, non-staining properties on many products. Chemicals coming under this category include Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), Perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), Perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), Perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS) etc and find extensive applications in many materials with which humans have contact every day. The revolutionary non-sticky cookwares, found practically in every kitchen, are made using Teflon which contains PFCs while non staining food wrappers like the ones used for take out foods and pizza delivery also have coatings based on PFCs. Most of the surfactants in use to day, lubricants,paper,textiles coatings, polishes, fire -retardant foams, carpets and many industrial products owe their special properties to the use of PFCs
during their manufacturing process. It turns out that the common house dust kicked up during cleaning the house has significant levels of PFCs which get into the blood stream through inhalation. PFCs have been detected in many water bodies and even in breast milk fed to the infants. As against 0.4 ppb of PFCs in water considered safe, there are reports indicating their presence several times this safe limit.

As PFCs can bioaccumulate and biomagnify in marine and fresh water ecosystems, the aquatic creatures are most affected causing immeasurable damage in the long run. In some countries where PFC levels are monitored periodically their concentration in blood goes up to 15 ppb but absence of more exhaustive data is worrisome because of the serious repercussions of unknown dangers that may confront the mankind in future. Some of the PFCs have a serum elimination half life of more than 8 years and they can cause lower birth weight in children, affect immune system, lead to liver damage, infertility and cancer depending on the extent of exposure. Most recently presence of PFCs has been linked to elevation of serum cholesterol, especially LDL component, in healthy individuals, though the precise mechanism is yet to be unraveled. Considering the serious health risks inherent in wide spread use of PFCs, a time has come to ban its manufacture and use through a global agreement.


Sunday, November 15, 2009


When new knowledge is emerging in the crucial areas of nutrition and health having vital bearing on the well being of humans, there does not appear to be a realization still that all humans are not same and their needs can vary significantly depending on the environment, physical activity and many other factors. Only recently British authorities announced a revised guideline for their population based on the specific needs in that country and surprisingly a recommendation has been made to consume up to 16% more calories for male adults based on their daily physical activity. This is totally against the current trend universally to reduce calorie consumption to combat obesity related disorders. It is not clear as to the basis of new guidelines for Indians, published in some media recently, as no reliable data still exists regarding the nutrient requirement of a "typical" Indian. This country has been faithfully following the parameters that prevail in countries like USA and the nutrition labeling required to be followed by the industry is also based on foreign nutritional parameters.

So called new guidelines look like a tinkered version of a similar one brought out in 1998. A cursory look at the 'new' guidelines does not reveal any major deviation as if nothing much has changed in this country in spite of the explosive growth of GDP and ever increasing purchasing power of the citizens. Suggesting a cut down in the intake of carbohydrate marginally may not be significant because that is the only bulk energy supplier in the diet where as fat is not an accepted choice for making up the calorie need. The increase in protein intake, just marginally, does not make any sense at all. If total calorie need is still maintained at 2000 kC and if carbohydrates are to be reduced how can one derive the required energy? The crucial factor missing is the type of carbohydrate to be consumed and the guideline regarding sugar consumption may not be sound since, from 20-25 gm a day in the earlier version, it has been increased to about 10% of total energy, which amounts to 50 gm a day!. Sugar is increasingly being shunned universally for its adverse effect on health.

It is amusing to read about a recommendation calling for use of a combination of mustard oil and soybean oil which the pundits consider as the best. One cannot help feeling sad because all native oils available and popular in India have been sidelined. That the two oils named, Canola and Soybean are in the forefront in the GM food development platform, may not a coincidence and if GOI takes this line seriously, flood gate is going to be opened for increased imports of these two oils from the US and Canada in the name of good health! Guideline for salt intake, less than 5 gm a day, is very sound but how to go about to achieve this is a million dollar question. Present consumption level is estimated to be around 10-12gm per capita per day, though no one is sure about the real situation. Probably food industry must make an earnest effort to cut down on use of salt in packed foods voluntarily and catering establishment could take a conscious and collective decision to make their preparations with low salt. leaving the choice of adding it by the consumer, if necessary, on the serving table.

Why should a national diet guideline set a limit for alcohol consumption is baffling. Only recently some disturbing reports have come out regarding the harmful effects of alcoholic beverages like wine on women and it is a controversial area best to have been avoided leaving the decision to the individuals and the medical fraternity. In stead of coming out with a report which is neither scientific nor precise, it would have been more appropriate to compile ideal diets for different regions in the country based on the local food habits and availability of food materials in respective areas.


Saturday, November 14, 2009


Indians feel proud by the achievements in many spheres during the last six decades of independence. The farmers of this country have brought laurels for this country, even if the agriculture is a losing proposition for most of them. The impoverished farming population which constitutes more than 90% of the agriculturists in India catapulted the country into top position with respect to production of many crops on the global scale and if India is a major producer of milk, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables, cereals, cotton, tea etc the credit goes to the subsistence farmers of this country. Of course, the nuclear bombs, rocketry and IT industry have made India a world force to reckon with though their percolation effect is far and few..

Against such a background, Indian record in many other areas is dismal. It is supposed to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, has highest number of poor, hungry and malnourished population, has very poor record in the sphere of sports and athletics and is considered to have a soft belly when it comes to aggressive diplomacy. On a day when the whole world is observing the ritual of "Diabetes Day", India has been declared the "Diabetes Capital of the World", probably because it boasts of the highest population afflicted with this metabolic disease. The current estimate is that there are 50 million plus diabetic persons in the country which is projected to reach a staggering figure of 75 million. It is scary to note that seven out of 100 Indian adults suffer from diabetes disorder. 

Earlier perception that diabetes is a rich man's disease has taken a knock on on its head because compared to the per capita income in First World countries, corresponding figure in India is a pittance. Still diabetes seems to have developed an affinity for Indians, though their food consumption pattern is no where near that in most of the developed countries. One of the parents being diabetic poses a 20% risk for the children to inherit it, while a diabetic couple can increase the risk to 50%. With each passing generation the age at which diabetes develops gets lowered by 5-10 years. The relation between diabetes and obesity is well established and uncontrolled BMI can be a sure sign of potential development of diabetes. Here lies the paradox! Obesity is not known to be prevalent in India but diabetes is still a predominant disease. It is a complex question to which ready answers may not be forth coming.

There is a misconception that as India is a land of "mithais" (sweetmeats) with hundreds of variations, popular amongst all people across the country, there could be a connection between consumption of sweets and development of diabetes. Possibly such a connection may be through excess calorie consumption and higher BMI but cannot be through any effect on pancreas or insulin production. A recent report from the US blames sugar for reducing the life span based on studies on some worms which have similarities with humans in the insulin signaling pathways. A lot more needs to be done to unravel the real reason as to why Indians are more prone to diabetes without being unduly overweight.

If adequate insight on the above phenomenon is not gained quickly, diabetes may spread in geometrical progression with each passing generation becoming more vulnerable to it because of their diabetic parents. While diet modification can help to arrest the progress of diabetes in those already affected, lacking the wherewithal to reverse the disease, based on current knowledge, will hamper global efforts to checkmate it effectively. Diet and exercise seem to be the only tools available to fight diabetes to day and more people realize this truth better will be the future of this planet. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009


There was a time during good old days when shoppers use to carry cloth or jute bags to bring groceries from stores and these shopping bags are permanent part of a house hold, washed frequently. It is common sight to see such bags with many people coming to the market for purchasing different items from various shops. Advent of plastics has changed this scenario for good and plastic bag industry has been able to manufacture very thin, single use carry bags at low cost enabling the sellers to offer their products in such bags free of cost. Bags with less than 20 microns thickness but with unparalleled strength are to day available and their cost is just a fraction of the cost of the materials that it can carry. According some estimates every minute about 10 million bags are produced, most of which are of single use type ending up in the garbage and annual production can be as high as 5 trillion bags. The world per capita consumption works out to 1000 bags per year. If plastic bags have attained such a preeminent position in human lives, there must be strong reasons and if they are to be eliminated, as is being contemplated in many countries, then also there must be strong reasons to justify such a strategy.

Most of the plastic bags that is seen to day are based on polyethylene (PE) polymer derived from natural gas and therefore one may have strong reservation regarding dependence on an exhaustible fossil fuel source. Long time, about 700-1000 years, required for degradation of PE in nature and environmental contamination potential naturally make PE an undesirable material for use in manufacture of carry bags. Indiscriminate littering with PE bags create serious environmental problems for the infrastructure as well as other forms of life. The frequent urban flooding episodes have been attributed to discarded plastic bags choking drains and water ways, preventing free flow of water from flooded areas. Though PE bags can be recycled with ease, currently less than 1% is actually recycled in practice. Use of PE bags, made from non-food grade resins, for food contact application, can cause serious health hazards. If plastic bags are to be avoided there must be a decent alternative with much better credentials.

Paper, jute, cotton fabrics etc have been suggested as alternate options. Paper can never be a suitable substitute because of its links to deforestation and more than double the energy required for its production. Same is true with jute and cotton fabrics but they can still be acceptable as long they are reused several times. Reuse can still save plastics from oblivion and the problem of its biodegradability can be addressed in a different way. The ability of plastics to be compacted into small sized bundles offers the possibility of their use in land fills, construction industry and for road building for which low biodegradability is a plus factor. Also under development are new plastics with biodegradable characteristics. Polylactic acid is an example though it is also being criticized for the uncertainty regarding its recyclability. Incorporation of additives in PE to provide a UV and/or biological mechanism to degrade in 6 months to 2 years is also under development.

If recycling can be a viable option for PE bags to continue to serve humanity, what can be done to prevent people from throwing them away after single use? Banning their use, as being done in some states in India, may not be a practical solution since enforcement of such ban is neither practical nor cost manageable. Latest suggestion to come from some NGOs is to financially reward the shoppers for returning plastic bags whenever they make future purchases but who will bear the economic burden is not clear. Why should the retailer pay it from his pocket, unless he is a socially responsible person caring for the planet? Probably government may intervene by rewarding the grocer when used plastic bags are redeemed by designated agencies at a rate adequate to reimburse the amount paid to the consumers. The prevalent low price commanded by used plastic bags does not motivate many consumers to take the trouble of returning the used bags. Rewarding the consumer at @25-50 paise per used bag may be more appropriate for which governments in the state and the center must make budgetary provision. It looks like there is no realistic alternative to plastics and one has to learn to live with them, making best use of technological innovations to alleviate some of the perceived problems.       

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


It is the conventional wisdom that consumption of fruits regularly is good for health. There are many processed products from fruits like juice, beverage, preserves, dried pieces, fresh cut pieces, fruit bar etc out of which most commonly sought after and promoted is the juice, singly or in combination. A break fast for a western consumer is incomplete unless a juice is served. Most important reason for the juice to become popular is its presumed health conferring values due to presence of many phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. But a juice can never be a satisfactory substitute for the whole fruit and its high sugar content is increasingly attracting the attention of the health critics who advocate restricted consumption of sugar and sugar based products to prevent development of many of the modern day diseases.

Fruit juice is now being compared to man made sugary beverages with different flavors turned out by the soft drink industry because of the concentration of fructose present in both. Soft drink consumption is now being frowned upon because these products are supposed to cause obesity if consumed regularly in large quantities and there are even proposals to impose punitive taxes on them to discourage production and consumption. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a processed sugar concentrate derived from corn starch through hydrolysis and isomerization, is the sweetening base used in the recipes of most of the soft drinks and obesity pundits blame this particular ingredient responsible for fat build up in the body. Fructose is reported to be more readily converted to fat in the liver than glucose and this poses greater risk for development of CVD and Type 2 diabetes.

According to some scientists fruit juice contains more sugar than that present in soft drinks and other sweetened beverages. Levels of sugar in juices can be 10-50% more depending on the source of the juice. Grape juice can have sugar as high as 152 kC equivalent per cup while Coke or Pepsi contains only 97-100 kC, mostly derived from the sugar component in the product. Apple, cherries, grapes, banana, mango, pineapple all can have high sugar content and the fructose levels can be 1 to 2.5 times more than glucose. Natural juice generally contain 95-100% fruit solids with very little added water. Presence of suspended solids in some juice products is another variable when fruit juice nutrition is considered and such juices are always more preferred compared to clarified juices. A natural question that arises is whether consumption of fresh fruit also can be risky in the long run. Will this new findings rewrite present day's nutrition concepts?

The fact, that some scientific studies, critically peer reviewed, have raised the question of fruit juice nutrition, especially in kids, calls for further detailed investigation internationally with more objectivity. It should not appear that these studies are intended to buttress the case of soft drink manufacturers who do not subscribe to the view that fructose is an undesirable sweetener causing obesity in people as being claimed in the Western world.


Saturday, November 7, 2009


For the last few months the term swine flu is on the lips of every one including children because of proclamation by the WHO that it is pandemic. During the initial stages when swine flu was first encountered in Mexico and subsequently spread to other countries, it was dreaded as a lethal infection with no immunity enjoyed by the population. Development of vaccine to preempt the spread of this infection taken up on a war footing has given hope that the H1N1 virus, the culprit responsible for the disease may not become a massive killer in the coming months.

It is interesting to look at the statistics regarding the extent of incidence of swine flu amongst various countries as it may give a clue regarding the reasons why only in certain countries the virus has taken its toll sparing many others with less virulence. If swine flu is as dangerous as being made out, countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and most of the African countries should have borne the brunt of its onslaught because of the prevalence of poverty, malnutrition and low living standards. In stead it assumed epidemic proportion mostly in countries in the Western Hemisphere. USA claimed to be the most powerful nation on earth when it comes to economic and muscle strength could do very little to stop H1N1 virus onslaught on its track and paradoxically maximum fatality was recorded in that country. According to WHO more than 5000 deaths have been attributed to swine flu out of which USA alone accounted for about 1000. In India fatality reported on this count is just 316 till last week.

One of the reasons could be the high degree of immunization conferred on Indians by the environment where they live and exposure to hundreds of varieties of bacteria, virus and other vectors could have helped them to develop immunity to a wide spectrum of such organisms. Who knows H1N1 virus might already be present in the country and this could have probably created the necessary defense against this vector when it started spreading through persons coming from western hemisphere. Another possible factor is the type of foods consumed in the country and it is known that some of the foods do have virucidal properties. Diets containing thiosulfinate rich foods like garlic and many spices do exercise virucidal properties while tea, coffee and lauric oils also have inhibitory effect on many virus species. The role of diet in protecting humans from some types of microbiological infection needs to be explored further based on the diseases status of populations consuming different foods.


Wednesday, November 4, 2009


If one goes by the commercials which bombard the viewers almost every minute from hundreds of television channels, India is indeed a 'blessed' country and its citizens are the most fortunate ones in this planet having a food industry which 'lovingly' give them products that can do miracles! There is a product from a major player which claims that its newly developed product contains 33% more of the nutrient that nurtures brain cells, the natural inference being that parents must give this product to their children to make then more 'brainy'. It is another matter that the manufacturer was served a notice by the GOI Health Ministry asking them to provide scientific data to support such a ludicrous claim. If one goes by past experience nothing much is going to happen by this 'notice' and every body is happy that 'some thing' has been done, irrespective of the outcome!

There is another product blaring day in and day out about its product containing double the protein compared to milk and goes on to say that protein is necessary for fast growth. The indirect message is that since the protein content is double, the growth rate that can be expected is also double. The "23 essential nutrients" advertisement has lost much of its sheen since experts started to believe added vitamins and minerals consumed do not improve the health of the buyer and on the contrary they make the the economic health of the manufacturer "robust". Another food product tries to hammer the point that children consuming its product will be sharper, smarter and taller! The most unfortunate aspect of such rabid posturing is that even those who cannot afford even the bare daily necessities start buying them while those who are rich, any how do not need them because the milk they consume in large quantities is a much better wholesome food than any processed product in the market.

The devious way by which some of these players try to influence the minds of the consumers is not through their legitimate product labels but by sponsoring high decibel commercial claims in the electronic media. In the absence of a credible mechanism to vet the contents of such promotional programs, usually any one can get away committing serious misdemeanors. The Food Standards and Safety Authority (FSSAI) seems to be without power to do a darn thing about these offenses committed in front of millions of viewers, young and old. Probably FSSAI should assume power to bring such wayward members of the industry to books and provide deterrent punishment that will be a lesson for others.