Sunday, February 28, 2010


Frenetic search for sustainable energy systems that can replace the current omnipotent fossil fuels has thrown up many possibilities and one of them happens to be the fuel cell technology based on hydrogen and oxygen. Though the technology has been developed several years ago, its commercial application is hindered by high cost of operation under practical conditions. Some early start ups in the US and the EU who ventured into fuel cell technology have not been able to achieve break-even scale of production so far. The high unit cost of the power generated through fuel cells make it hopelessly non-competitive vis-à-vis conventional power from fossil fuel or hydroelectric generators. It needs courage, conviction and commitment for any greenhorn entrepreneur to join the club of renewable energy pioneers and the latest to enter the arena is a venture promoted by an NRI entrepreneur in the US whose operations are considered by many experts to have high chance of success.

The Bloom Energy outfit which offers commercial energy server modules have been able to convince corporate giants like Google, Walmart, FedEx, Coca Cola etc to buy their product and four advantages cited for its optimism include low material cost, high efficiency, multiple fuel sources and reversibility. Fuel cells normally convert hydrogen and oxygen into electrical energy by an electrochemical process for use directly for many power driven applications. Most of the designs presently in vogue use expensive material like platinum raising the cost or highly corrosive chemicals that limits the operational life of the device. In contrast the new innovation deploys thin fuel cells fabricated from silica coated with a special ink which can react with oxygen in the air producing electricity through a chemical reaction. Each fuel cell of the size of a floppy disc can generate about 25 watts of electricity sufficient to light a bulb and when stacked together to the size of a normal brick, it can produce sufficient energy to meet the needs of an average home. The server type"Bloom Box" resembling a chest freezer, containing stacks of fuel cells, can easily generate about 100 Kw electrical energy continuously.

According to the ambitious plans drawn by the venture company Bloom Energy, floated by the innovator the fuel cells can eventually meet the power needs of large corporations and provide "fail-safe" power to individual homes. It also claims that the new innovation can be adapted to reduce dependence on gasoline-powered vehicles by generating electricity for hybrid or electric cars. If the cells are run in reverse, they can produce hydrogen, which could power hydrogen fueled vehicles, if and when they become commercially viable. Probably Bloom Boxes when commercialized and priced down may play a critical role in revitalizing the emerging economies in many developing countries. It may still emerge as the single most important technological innovation that can deliver power and light to remote villages where supply from the power grid is uncertain and of low quality. This in turn may facilitate developmental programs aimed at boosting education, health care, and access to clean water and refrigeration. The estimated commercialization time frame of 3 years by the innovator may be too short and it could take as much as 10 years for the product to "bloom" fully.

How far the promise of percolating the technology down to the house holds remains to be seen in spite of the enthusiasm evident during the recent launch of this product in California, USA. The promise that the generation cost through fuel cells can come down to less than Rs 5 per unit is indeed tempting and possibly can be achieved through further efforts. Under the present ruling regime in the US investors in sustainable energy sector are encouraged by the supportive policies being pursued by President Obama and there is greater chance for technologies like the fuel cells to become viable sooner or later. If that happens the world is going to see a change for the better in the energy front in not too distant a future.


Saturday, February 27, 2010


Desserts are considered an integral part of a meal and invariably arrives as the last course in most countries except in southern parts of India where dessert is the penultimate item on the menu. Historically there is no clue as to how desserts became a part of a meal though one could argue that eating of a sweet dish causes increased flow of saliva that is supposed to aid digestion. Same argument is offered for consumption of curd and rice as the last course in a typical south Indian meal as the lactic bacteria present in the curd is a probiotic and also facilitates digestion in the GI tract. Mouth washing after a meal is often recommended to remove adhering food particles so that dental area does not provide refuge for undesirable bacteria to grow and erode the teeth. After eating a dessert if mouth is not rinsed properly, breeding of bacteria in a matter of few minutes, can have potential for developing cavities, gum disorders and tooth erosion.

Most desserts contain high levels of sugar and fat. While western desserts are mostly made by baking except the frozen desserts, in India they can be based on cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables or nuts involving cooking with sugar and fat or frying and syruping. There are thousands of Indian confectionery products of traditional origin most of which contain sugar between 20 and 60% and fat 25 to 50%. The ubiquitous kheer of different types is a part and parcel of meals served during festivals and religious and community functions and being liquid preparations they may contain marginally lesser sugar and fat. In terms of caloric density a single dessert preparation delivers 2-3 times more calories compared to any other item on the menu. It is against this back ground that attempts are being made to persuade diners to cut out desserts from the main meal so that there is net reduction in calorie consumption from a single meal. Eating high sugar and high fat desserts has been implicated in obesity epidemic by the WHO and health experts.

A meal is supposed to be taken to satiate hunger and after consuming sufficient food from the main menu, the hunger is supposed to be 'doused' leaving very little scope for ingestion of any food. But desserts do attract many diners because of the sweetness, typical texture, eating pleasure and exciting flavors. Obviously it has nothing to do with hunger or nutrition. Logically there is an excellent case for imparting the healthy habit of taking a meal with no desserts at the end, amongst children. Millions of meals served every day in thousands of restaurants and food serving institutions must exclude desserts from their menu and those having the urge to eat sweets must be made to pay extra for the "sin" in their own interest.


Friday, February 26, 2010


Freeze drying technology recommends itself for removing moisture from food and pharmaceutical products because of the low temperature drying conditions where water is sublimed from solid to vapor phase under vacuum. The high investment cost and exorbitant recurring cost for processing make this technology beyond the reach of most entrepreneurs. Freeze drying or lyophilization is still the preferred mode of drying for highly thermal sensitive materials like live cultures, vaccines, high value flavors etc. Commercial freeze dryers are far and few probably because of the cost factor. Establishment of a Freeze Drying Plant for meat for exclusive use of army personnel in nineteen sixties in Tundla, near Agra in India never took off because of the non-acceptance of the dried product by the end users due to undesirable textural changes.

Spray drying, a popular technology being adopted by food industry, especially dairy products industry, is based on concentration of the liquid products to optimum solid levels followed by spraying the intermediate product into a hot chamber where incoming hot air carries the moisture off while the resultant dry powder settles down at the bottom of the chamber to be drawn off. The concentration step, mostly under vacuum does cause some damage to the biochemically active or thermally sensitive constituents. Though contact with hot air in the spray drying chamber is for a small duration, here again some damage to the end product does take place. Most of the milk powder preparations and instant coffee are manufactured by spray drying. New innovative efforts have enabled the industry to dry highly hygroscopic and heat sensitive materials using carriers for aiding the drying operation, preserve the product from moisture ingress and prevent loss of volatile principles. Cost wise water evaporation through spray drying is much less expensive compared to freeze drying and hence its universal adoption.

Fruit and vegetables are generally preserved by sun drying, especially in rural areas where mechanical drying is not feasible due to severe infrastructure limitations. There are several drying systems using different heat sources and various scientific principles. While low capacity batch dryers use static product configuration and moving hot air systems, continuous dryers with large capacity are operated by large scale processors. It was in nineteen sixties that several continuous hot air dryer of high capacity were imported into India from Bulgaria for processing onions for export. To day there are many indigenous fabricators in India, capable of making hot air driers like cross flow or through flow or fluidized bed driers, using almost all fuels including solar energy for generating hot air. Plant materials like spices, condiments, herbs, nuts, vegetables, some fruits etc are processed in such driers.

If food products are to be protected from losing their nutrients and aroma, freeze drying has been the main choice. If the recent claims by a patent filed in the US are to be believed, a newer option is available to the food processing industry and the Radiant Zone Drying (RZD) technology as it is being called, can protect heat sensitive phytochemicals in fruit juices by controlled heat input and lower product temperature. According to the innovators RZD technology can dry sticky and amorphous products with practically no carriers, it is 95% energy efficient, has low utility cost and processing cost is less than other drying technologies. This liquid drying technology useful for juices, purees, extracts and slurries can yield dry powders of unparalleled quality and purity. The programmed drying under this technology uses consecutive drying zones of varying temperatures and compensates for the change from constant drying period when moisture is high to falling rate drying period at lower moisture levels towards the end.

Under RZD regime liquid products are deposited on moving clear polyester belts under which radiant heaters are positioned and infra red sensors above the belt monitor the product temperature accurately. The Dryer is divided into multiple temperature zones down the length of the drying chamber and the temperature is maintained between 45C and 90C. The zonal arrangement is such that it allows more heat input during the initial stages to allow for maximum evaporation without raising product temperature because of large latent heat content of water present at the beginning. Water vapor is prone to flash off while the product viscosity is still fluid. High production rate and minimum thermal damage are characteristic features of the technology. As the technology is under the Patent regime, RZD plants will have to be procured from licensed fabricators in the US and there fore can be expensive. RZD technology is supposed to bridge the gap between high quality freeze drying and low cost spray drying processes.


Thursday, February 25, 2010


Liberalization of Indian economy, started in early nineties of last millennium has brought to India many multinational food processing giants from around the globe, most visible being from the US. International leaders in the beverage sector like Pepsi and Coca Cola who made their entry early have been able to capture substantial market in this segment allowing them to expand into other product portfolios like fruit juices, snacks, fast foods, pizza etc. Later came many other American Companies like Yum's India, McDonalds, Domino Pizza and others hotting up the competition.

One of the adverse impacts of foreign investment in the food sector is the marginalizing of many local grown Indian processors as Multi National Companies (MNCs) have much deeper pockets and greater resources to sustain initial losses till the business is firmly established. Most MNCs work on a long time frame work spanning 10-20 years and against such formidable forces native processors can do very little to stave off the inevitable-either close down or sell off. The most celebrated case in the history of Indian food Industry is the great "sell off" by the Thumsup giant Parle to Coca Cola Corporation which entered India when Pepsi was dominating the beverage market. Most recent case is the "sell off" by MTR Foods, the pioneer ethnic food giant to Okla, Norway.

While subduing an Indian player is fairly easy if one has ample funds, what about competition between MNCs to corner bigger chunk of the market?. Yum's India which operates about 72 out lets catering its world famous Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), seems to be gearing itself to push out another American player McDonald's to gain upper hand in the Indian market. The big population, increased prosperity amongst middle class consumers, increased eating out activities and greater exposure to western foods seem to be the catalytic factors, causing this stampede. Yum's India currently lags its big U.S. rival McDonalds Corp.which operates 170 outlets in India. Similarly in the Pizza field Yum's India has just 158 Pizza Huts where as its arch rival Domino's Pizza Inc. has 274 stores. How ever this may be a part of history if Yum's plans to expand into a behemoth of 1,000 restaurants in India by 2015 materializes, generating about $1 billion in annual revenue. Probably its record in China where it operates 3500 restaurants gives enough optimism for achieving its goal in India.

Probably heavy competition in Pizza, French Fries, Fried Chicken etc may not have any relevance to Indian catering sector as most of them deal with ethnic foods in which MNCs seem to be least interested at present. Ethnic foods are native to India, very little scientific data is available on their preparation, preservation and quality and no mechanized gadgets of reliable design exist for large scale manufacturers to achieve adequate economy of scale. These factors may be responsible for lack of interest in these foods amongst MNCs. There is some risk in the long term that Indian ethic foods may become extinct if the overwhelming marketing strength of MNCs attract more and more consumers, especially from the younger generation. The health risk for future Indian generation from consuming these foods, rich in calories, fat, sugar and salt cannot be brushed away easily resulting in a society of plumb, over weight, obese and morbid population with a multitude of life threatening health disorders. A wiser course would be for the Indian food industry, GOI and food scientists to raise the image of ethnic foods to bring them on par with the so called modern foods of western origin.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010


The clamor for declaring the place of origin of foods in western markets got a fillip recently after many people in 44 states in the US got infected with the pathogen Salmonella after consuming Salami and other Italian sausages. The source of infection was traced to the black pepper used in their preparation, reported to have been imported into the country by the manufacturer of these products. This episode comes close on the heels of a similar infection episode involving consumption of black and white pepper ingredients by one of the processors in the country affecting several people.

The Department of Agriculture in the US (USDA) is supposed to regulate salami though the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is vested with the responsibility of overseeing the use of black pepper and other food additives by the processing industry. To add to the misery of the consumer the FDA authorities were not able to throw any light as to the origin of the spice ingredients used in the salami products under cloud. How ever credit must go to these agencies for the alacrity with which they joined together to investigate the incidence. Also to be appreciated is the action taken by the industry in recalling more than 1.2 million pounds of these products from the market owning up responsibility for the episode. Threat from Salmonella is forcing many industries to insist on radiation sterilization of spices to ensure that they are free from pathogens before using as input material in processed foods.

It is well known that Salmonella pathogen can cause serious fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people and others with weakened immune systems. Healthy people infected with Salmonella can have fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In some cases the infection can spread to the bloodstream and result in severe illnesses such as arterial infections and arthritis. Frequent reports of Salmonella contamination now a days in plant food materials are worrisome as such contamination was earlier confined to foods originating from animal sources. A plausible reason could be use of contaminated water during cultivation and washing after harvesting which can carry the dormant bacterial culture under dry conditions all the way to the ultimate user, be it the consumer or the processing industry.

India has a major stake in world spice trade, being the largest producer of several spices including black pepper. In nineteen eighties, many foreign buyers of black pepper were insisting on compulsory washing of black pepper before exporting to remove mold spores that form on the crevices on the surface of the pepper corn during drying but processors can still short circuit the washing step to save on power and water. The danger is all the more real considering that pepper is dried invariably under the Sun as mechanical drying is expensive and contamination can occur from the contact surface and the environment. Irradiation facilities are not wide spread for the small scale exporters to depend on though the Spices Board constantly strives to help them to maintain international quality standards with their modern analytical quality assessment facilities and experienced technical personnel. More vigilance is called for if India has to maintain its role as the leading exporter of spices in the world.


Monday, February 8, 2010


Increased awareness about the relationship between food and health is going to be the drive engine for substantial changes in the business strategies of food conglomerates in the coming years. Serious meaning governments, incessant campaigns by NGOs and social activists and more emphasis on food related basics in education are setting a trend where consumers do not buy blindly any foods without understanding what harm it can do to them. Studies after studies have brought out the fact that consumers would make reasonably sound decision in buying healthier foods if sufficient nutritional information is provided either through the labels on the food pack or displays in restaurants. This indeed is a welcome change.

According to a recent confession by Chief Executive of the $43 billion global chocolate giant Cadburys that companies like hers have business compulsions in moving away from the established beverage field into more healthier food segments because of the shifting perceptions of the consumer regarding what they want. Added to this controversies like pesticide residues, use of HFCS, Caffeine and phosphoric acid in cola beverages dented its image further. During the last two decades, consumers have been slowly moving away from carbonated soft drinks that once comprised 90% of Pepsi's beverage business. Significant population of consumers transferred their loyalty to bottled water for quenching their thirst. Unable to face the barrage of criticism regarding the expanding business of its snack portfolio considered high in calories, salt and fat, the company quietly acquired Quaker Oats and other wholesome brands known for health protecting features to improve its image. But its long time intention can be gauged only if the R & D priorities are shifted to areas concerning consumer health. Though the over all research budget has seen an increase of almost 38% over the last three years, it will take some time before this investment bears fruit.

If Pepsico's activities are scrutinized closely there appears to be a genuine concern about the past performances pursuing profit at any cost and recent hiring of nutrition experts and physicians for transforming their existing product portfolio into more healthy and less controversial from nutritional angle gives hope that this multinational food and beverage monolith will deliver on its promises to be a more socially responsible business organization. It is going to be an Herculean task for the company to achieve the target of $ 30 billion as the annual turnover with new products that will be oriented more towards nutrition and health and relatively less concerned about sensory aspects. While profit taking is a genuine goal for any business, equally important is the contribution industry like Pepsico can make to improve the living standards of the population around their manufacturing facilities. The recent rain water harvesting projects initiated in India by this company have attracted favorable attention all around and more needs to be done to enhance its image as a socially caring organization.

ITC Ltd borne and thrived on tobacco is another example of an industrial giant compelled to change their business direction due to consumer compulsion. After tobacco was indicted for its role in human cancer and billions of dollars awarded to consumers for the damages tobacco had done during the last so many years, some of the tobacco industry players started diversifying into other business ventures. ITC, besides its hotel portfolio, also ventured into food processing in India probably with a view to withdraw from tobacco business eventually. It has already established in several food areas like "heat and eat" foods, baked products, atta, snacks, salt etc and can be expected to be a major player in the field very soon. ITC's e-choupal concept for helping farmers in rural farm lands with quality inputs for agriculture in areas like wheat and soybean has already established its credentials as a farmer caring industry and probably it may emerge as one of the most socially responsible business corporates in India.

Consumers have powerful influence on the course of an industry and educating the consumer is like empowering him to punish "wrong doers" and "business at any cost" industry players, many of whom think that high pressure and saturation promotions through electronic media can "brain-wash" the consumers, by shunning them consciously. The slogan that "consumer is the king" has still some relevance even to day if the examples of Pepsico and ITC are taken into consideration.


Saturday, February 6, 2010


Over eating and consumption of high calorie foods have been blamed for many health disorders in modern society and governments world over are seized of the matter trying to create awareness about bad 'foods' and bad 'eating'. According to sociologists and psychologists, the consumers are often unaware of the caloric density of the foods being offered to them at public eateries as most of them do not display nutrition information on the foods prepared. In an interesting study, investigators have brought out the fact that consumers do make correct choice of better foods if nutrient information is provided to them before taking the orders. 

Many restaurants are compelled to provide nutrient information per serving of each of their products, the most important one being calorie content. This trend is spreading and in many places the practice is made mandatory. Some surveys have brought out the fact if a choice is given between high and moderate calorie containing foods consumers consciously pick up lower calories foods. In absence of information about the calorie and fat in various preparations, consumers do not think about these issues while dining out. It is true that the taste and flavor of foods served ultimately decide about the popularity of an eatery and providing such foods with lesser calories and fat is a challenge the catering sector must take up earnestly.

In a recent study covering millions of consumers visiting one of the most famous international coffee chain restaurants furnishing calorie information on their products, it was brought out that on an average there was about 10% reduction in total calories consumed by the customers over a certain period. This again brings out clearly the impact of nutrition profiling of restaurant foods if any meaningful impact is to be made on the over eating and weight juggernaut that is facing the population, especially in affluent countries.

Such studies and surveys confirm the already suspected link between consumer information and wise choice of right foods in restaurants and food outlets. Though obesity is not yet a critical problem in India, if adequate precautionary policies are not thought of at present, it may be too late when the problem actually stare at us in a few years from now. Probably creation of an "Authority" to oversee the restaurant sector with regard to the safety of the products offered, their health implications and quality of infrastructure necessary for ensuring public safety may be the need of the hour, especially in India where public accountability is progressively being down graded.