Friday, April 30, 2010


Water is so abundantly available in nature, it is rarely that any one thinks of a major calamity due to water starvation. While irrigation is critical to raise adequate food crops, potable water is critical for sustenance of the very life in this planet. No wonder that the recent discovery of water in the Moon during the Chandrayan I voyage launched by India created such a sensation amongst the scientists that colonizing it is already a subject matter of serious discussion. Though a major part of planet earth is covered by water, the quality of all water sources is not suitable for use for most of the human activities. The saline water from the seas and the oceans can be used only if pure water is recovered from them through technological means costing heavily and therefore unaffordable under present day situation.

Karnataka state was one of the relatively better placed areas in the country five decades ago but to day it is reeling under water shortage of unbelievable dimension. The situation is so desperate that many urban centers are supplied water once in a week and there is not even a single township receiving continuous supply of water daily. There are at least 30 urban centers which are in the grip of a water famine of unprecedented proportion. According to the official version more than 15% of the 22000 bore wells dug during the past to provide drinking water to urban areas have become dry while many others require drilling deeper to depths beyond 600 feet to get sufficient discharge. According to experts in many areas in the state viable volume of water cannot be obtained at less than 1000 feet below ground level. Logistically pumping out water from depths more than 1000 ft requires more powerful pumps with 3-phase connection, not easily obtained from the power starved utility companies in the state. Power management in Karnataka is based on very simple philosophy "do not care for the citizens, switch on power when available and switch off when not available" with even the God ignorant of the extent, duration and schedules of shut down!

It is known that deeper the bore well, less reliable can be the quality and safety of water extracted, especially the unacceptable levels of fluoride in such waters. Bore well water is also invariably high in soluble solids, the hardness being more than 500 ppm, unsuitable for use for laundering, bathing and cleaning. The roaring business by the water softening industry ensures that practically every house hold has a softener based on physical filters, resins or semi permeable membrane costing between Rs 2000 and 15000 per unit. The minimum need of water for a family of 5 is estimated by the state government babus at 250 liters a day, though this is less than one third of the international standard. In practice average water that can be drawn at present is no more than 75 liters a day for a typical urban family and 55 liters in rural areas. These estimates are from the state administration itself and one can imagine what could be the ground reality. The weak excuse that water is supplied through tankers in some areas is not believable because as against the permitted rate of Rs 200 per tanker, private suppliers charge Rs 500 to 700 per tanker and no wonder that private water supply under government tutelage is a lucrative business in the state!

Major reasons for such a sorry state of affairs include indiscriminate drilling for water with out any regulation, gross neglect of rain water harvesting practices, insensitivity to water wastage, disappearance of thousands of water tanks, lakes, wells, etc in many urban regions, dilapidated distribution pipe lines in many cities and towns with practically no maintenance and low cost at which water is supplied to the citizens in the name social equity. The land grab mafia that operates in some of the urban areas has developed the "technology" to reclaim lake areas for real estate development in nexus with political class depriving almost the entire catchment area for rain water. It is beyond comprehension as to how water shortage can be experienced in coastal areas in southern Karnataka which is blessed with abundant rains almost year round! It speaks volume about the lack of fore sight and far sight on the part of successive governments in harnessing and protecting the bounty offered by nature in the form of "heavenly down pour"!

If the position of Karnataka is so desperate, the conditions in other states may not be much different. If this situation continues for too long, India may be facing the stark reality of a civil war in the name of water. It is time some hard decisions are taken, snail-paced water supply projects are put on a fast track, water wastage made a criminal act, rain water harvesting made mandatory, all lakes and wells that existed 50 years ago restored, water recycling programs given priority and accountability demanded from all the water supply boards.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


Meat foods form an important source of proteins and other nutrients for more than half the population in the world. They are obtained mostly from farm raised animals like beef, lamb, sheep, pork, poultry, turkey, veal etc, each having its own characteristics liked by different consumers. Organized farms with tight control and technology intensive operations are supposed to keep the animals disease free, well fed with scientifically formulated animal feeds and slaughter them under humane conditions as per international guidelines. Traditional free grazing is practically non-existent to day, replaced by the much maligned"factory farming" which is amenable to large production of meat with rigid quality and safety parameters to ensure the protection of health of the consumer from food borne diseases.

Traditionally animals are still slaughtered in many developing countries in municipal abattoirs and the dressed carcass in fresh condition is hung from hooks in thousands of small retail kiosks for selling the cuts to consumers on the spot. The fresh meat is generally cooked same day though some keep them in the refrigerator for a day or two. In contrast the organized meat industry uses better slaughter house facilities and process the carcass in well protected processing units for freezing and retailing. Export consignments, in frozen condition have to meet strict hygienic and sanitary over seeing to ensure that they conform to buyers' specifications. Global trade in frozen meat foods form a substantial portion of food business.

In many western countries processed meat cuts are well protected from light, oxygen and other spoilage factors and retailed through super markets with well controlled refrigerated modified atmosphere packs (MAP) and equipped with efficient frozen storage and display facilities. While fresh cuts are universally preferred, the processing and distribution compulsions make it difficult to deliver the products same day. Meat preserved under MAP and cold conditions can be as old as a week when the consumer lays his hands on them in the super market shelves while frozen versions have comparatively longer life in commercial freezers.

Cured meat with nitrites exhibits bright color but these products are not gaining acceptance because of presence of salt and other chemicals used in the curing solution. With the advent of modern technology fresh meat products with attractive color and other desirable quality features have replaced the traditional ones. Color is the single most important factor that attracts a consumer and different sources of meat have varying hues of red color typical of them. Beef cuts are cherry red in color, lamb dark cherry red, pork grayish pink and veal pale pink. As the color imparted by the pigment myoglobin is not stable in presence light, UV rays and oxygen under ambient conditions, meat processors take sufficient care to preserve the desired color through controlled processing conditions. Under adverse conditions both Myoglobin and Oxymyoglobin, the pigments that impart color are converted to Metmyoglobin with a brownish red hue not considered the hall mark of fresh meat. Color stabilization is generally achieved through lower temperatures, MAP conditions and well protective packing materials.

Current practice is to use MAP system with high oxygen content, about 80% of the gas mixture so that the bright red meat color is preserved under refrigerated temperatures. However high oxygen levels can also increase the incidence of oxidative changes in the meat generating off flavors, marring the over all quality of the product. Recent discovery that the desirable color in ground beef can be maintained by incorporating about 200 mg per kg tannic acid has opened up new opportunities to offer better products to the consumers as per their expectations. Use of polyphenols like tannic acid allowed for use under the GRAS regime prevents lipid oxidation while allowing oxygen to stay in the MAP at levels as high as 80% desirable for maintaining the optimum quality. Tannic acid polyphenols have been reported to have superior radical scavenging and shield the product from lipid oxidation activities in fish also and their use in ground meat preparations should offer same advantages.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010


One of the oft repeated slogans to exhort people to work hard,"genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration", was originally attributed to Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of electric bulb who made this statement in 1903. Whether it has lost relevance in to day's world is worth looking into.

Figuratively speaking perspiration or sweating is associated with hard physical work but it is a biological phenomenon of immense importance to human life is not known widely. According to human physiologists, perspiration is caused either due to physical heat or emotional stress and the sweat glands present in human body excretes sweat through the pores in the skin. Evaporation of the sweat drops cools the body considerably as a part of the thermo-regulatory mechanism. While physical heat causes sweating through out the body, emotional stress generates sweating of palms, soles and some times on the fore head. Sweating, transpiration or diaphoresis means same, referring to production of fluid, consisting of mainly water as well as various dissolved solids, 0.2 to 1%, such as chlorides of Sodium, Potassium and mineral salts of Zinc, Copper and others in small quantities. Ortho Cresol, para Cresol and urea are the three organic substances present in sweat fluid.

There is a mistaken belief that profuse sweating enables the body to excrete toxins in the blood and there is multi-billion dollar industry sustaining on this belief by health conscious populations, especially in some of the wealthy countries. Sauna bath sets costing as high as $ 6000 are acquired for home use and many health clubs offer facilities for sauna bath to its high paying guests. But scientific findings do not support this theory and extensive research by the International Hyperhydrosis Society could not find even traces of any toxin in the sweat fluids of human beings. What one achieves by sitting in a sauna bath set up is not clear to both the service provider as well as the user! Definitely it does not produce any genius!

The perception that hard work generates sweating cannot be taken as the gospel truth though the metabolic reactions taking in the muscle can generate physical heat causing sweating provided the environmental conditions reflect hot weather and high humidity. To day's work places are mostly air-conditioned regulating the temperature as well as humidity to comfortable levels and even the "hardest" and "heaviest" worker does not sweat at all. It is a different thing for the unskilled workers working in open fields and factory sheds with asbestos or GI sheet roofs where temperature can reach as high as 40C and if it is a coastal area humidity may go as high as 70-100%! Whether providing 1% inspiration to them can create a genius, unless he is a born genius is a matter of speculation. Also interesting to note is that dogs generally do not sweat though horses do perspire under their armpits and both of them are hard workers. Whether there are geniuses, as measured by human yardstick, amongst these animals is not precisely known.

Inspiration is supposed to mean stimulation of mind and feelings to do beyond a person's usual ability. If this is so right inspiration can motivate workers to be geniuses in their own field. In to day's world, there is nothing more inspirational than money and financial incentive is the best inspiration for increased productivity.If inspiration can play a really decisive role in upgrading human behavior, Indians should have been "inspired" by the great soul of Mahatma Gandhi who preached and died for the principle of non-violence and become the most peaceful country on earth. Unfortunately this country has become the cradle of violence for narrow parochial considerations based on religion, language, caste, politics, pecuniary issues and other destructive causes. Probably Edison's iconic statement may need a modification in India and it should read as "An Indian is 1% perspiration and 99% relaxation"!


Tuesday, April 27, 2010


The prediction that there would be a Mango famine this year in India is really sad because this is not the first time the country is facing such a situation. Simplistic explanation that Mango production is "cyclic", is routinely offered by the establishment without ever bothering to look into the scientific basis for such a phenomenon if it really exists. Indian horticulture scientists have creditable records in developing newer varieties of fruits during the last 3 decades but their inability to ensure uniform production is a bitter reality. What it takes to prevent wide fluctuations in production of a fruit like Mango should have been found out long ago. True, organized cultivation of Mango is far and few and a major portion of the annual production comes from thousands of scattered gardens owned by individual families. The trees are neither irrigated adequately nor fertilized regularly, most growers considering what ever crop is harvested as a bonanza with practically no inputs. There are no systematic efforts to replace old trees which start yielding less and less after 40 years. The pre-harvest contracting system puts the responsibility of maintaining the trees on the contractor who takes great care but only to prevent people "pilfering" from his captive tress.

In sharp contrast Apple orchards in Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are better organized and have collective bargaining strength in fetching attractive price for their "fruits of labor". Added to this the governments there pitch in with economic support to boost the income of Apple growers. Considerable scientific research world over has enabled the growers as well as the whole sale buyers to harvest, pre-treat, pack, store, distribute and retail the fruit with minimum losses and earn substantial income from Apple growing. No wonder that Apple is available any where in the country 365 days an year and the retail price never comes down to a level less than Rs 80 per kg. With easing of import regulations, Apple varieties from China, Australia, the US and other countries are flooding the market, their retail price hitting the roof at about Rs 150-200 per kg.

Mango season is generally spread between April and August and it is normal for early and late arrivals to command high price. A price around Rs 20 to 40 per kg is considered affordable though fancy varieties like Alphonso may fetch even Rs 80-100 per kg. Mango business is not as transparent as it should be, because it is often difficult for the consumer to identify the variety offered. There are more than 1000 varieties of Mango grown in 85 countries all over the World though commercially hardly two dozen cultivars are important. About 50% of tropical fruits produced globally,is accounted for by Mango, grown in an area of 3.7 million hectare with an annual production estimated at 27 million tons. India is reported to have about 1.5 million hectares under mango cultivation producing 13 million tons annually, the nearest competitor being China accounting for just 3.8 million tons.

Though Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Bihar account for bulk of the production, the variety wise statistics are not reliable. Indian varieties like Alphonso, Badami, Chausa, Dusehri, Langhda, Totapuri, Banganapalli, Kesar, Mallika, Mulgoa, Neelum, Pairi, Raspuri etc are well known and well established with unequaled taste, texture and aroma characteristics. But paradoxically the Florida originating Mango cultivar Tommy Atkins predominates the global market because of its positive traits like high productivity, firmer fruit texture, low spoilage and longer shelf life, though it is fibrous and less aromatic. In India fruit losses are heavy on the trees before harvest and post harvest perishability can be as high as 50%! It is a shame that the specialized National Horticultural Board of GOI has not been able to do much in putting the Mango growing and retailing business on a sound economic footing so far, in spite of tons of literature generated by Indian scientists available on every aspect of growing and preservation of Mango.

What is urgently needed is to develop varieties that can grow all year round with fruits that can keep well under low temperature and modified atmosphere storage conditions, amenable to country-wide marketing with minimum losses. Considering that almost all Indian varieties score well over those originating from other countries in terms of eating quality, the export market may be unlimited. GOI must come out with a policy to encourage organized massive cultivation of Mango dedicated for export by credible industry players. APEDA, the export promoting arm of GOI is doing a wonderful job in positioning Mango as an exotic fruit in the international market but the impact has not been dramatic as the traders are not able to sustain the quality and quantity. The present pre-harvest contracting system must be abolished and adequate organizational net work should be created to market Mango produce from small growers scientifically to benefit the consumer by preventing the middle man gulping a major part of the consumer price.


Monday, April 26, 2010


The recent reports about the influence of hooking on to the habit of consuming "fast foods" regularly on human behavior is indeed disturbing. While the so called fast food preparations served by some of the largest corporate food service organizations in the world have been blamed for over weight and obesity and associated health disorders, no one has raised the potential of such foods on influencing the behavior of people in the society. Fast foods present a dilemma to the nutritionists, health experts and national governments in many countries because of their stranglehold on the consumers and the nutritional imbalance inherent in most of these processed foods. Most fast foods are supposed to contain high calories contributed by sugar and fat with practically no useful essential nutrients, attracting world-wide criticism and demand for their regulation.

Why sugar and fat are blamed while the willing consumer is spared the criticism defies logic. While children need to be guided and mentored up to a certain age regarding right combination of foods to be consumed till attaining adulthood, normal adults are considered responsible members of the society requiring to use their intelligence, wisdom and experience to follow scientifically sound eating habits for maintaining their health. Individual freedom and responsibility go hand in hand and irresponsible attitude towards food, alcohol or tobacco is a burden on the society for which counseling and treatment may be required. Food industry is blindly blamed for the "bad" foods being offered to the consumer ignoring the fact that any business is bound to survive only if the market demand is met fully as consumer is considered the "king". Where the industry really deserves a rap on their knuckles is misrepresenting scientific facts, distorting truth, excessive promotion of "bad" foods and not providing healthy options to those who are willing to try.

Fast foods need not be always unhealthy and there are healthy foods catered by some vendors with balanced nutrients in them but the mode of serving can be similar to a McDonald or Wendy's. For example most of the foods catered to by the Mexican food catering chain Taco Bell, though a fast food restaurant player with franchisee net work all over the world, are considered generally healthy. Not being a regular restaurant, the foods are served fast with turn over time of less than 5 minutes for executing the order. Same is true with the Subway chain which serves its 6" and 12" subs with a variety of vegetables, cheese and meat, considered nutritious by any standards. Same cannot be said about the dhabas and other fast food outlets that operate in India offering fat rich products of doubtful health value. As there is no control over the quality of oil used the food preparations may not agree with many patrons if consumed more frequently.

The findings by the Canadian scientists that regular exposure to fast foods can condition the mindset of the consumer vis-à-vis "instant gratification" and practically in every endeavor such people undertake such "time efficiency" is anticipated bordering on "impatience". They also found that uncontrolled eating in such places creates further craving for food and suppress the natural impulse for saving money. This is a socio-economic-physiological-psychological phenomenon with potential for spreading fast in the community which has access to easy to reach fast food outlets. Is the world facing a daunting situation where people are becoming increasingly impatient and at times becoming aggressive because of lack of instant gratification? Can it be that fast foods condition the brain to look for all things that can save time in every activity of such individuals depending on fast foods?

In India we see a different scenario where most people are in a hurry the moment they leave their home for completing all their personal work while patience of epic proportion can be perceptible at the workplace! A significant segment of the population wants to jump a queue, if possible to get preferential service while "influence peddling" to get out of turn service is the rule rather than exception. Even for getting darshan in reputed temples like Sabarimala, Titrupati, Guruvayur etc the devotees look out for influential officials and agents for "instant" darshan without wasting time in the queue meant for the "cattle class", as described by the just resigned GOI minister, meaning the "aam admi"! The Indian experience does not prove the fast food-impatience connection as reported above because fast food consumption is abysmally low in the country. More probable factor could be the "environment", education system and the societal "values" that condone such attitudes and behavior in the public


Sunday, April 25, 2010


Food industry is facing a crisis to day because there is a feeling all around that it cares more for its profits than the safety and well being of the consumers who nourish this sector. Historically food processing has evolved to serve a definite purpose and that is to preserve the food from spoilage and deterioration from many harmful vectors. Food production has been a seasonal occupation and different foods were being produced during different seasons. Surpluses created serve the needs during the off season. The classical preservation technologies like salt, sugar and vinegar based techniques and dehydration are still prevalent to day though to a considerably lesser extent.

The industrial revolution saw a see change in the development of food technology and newer processes emerged to make food more attractive, palatable, diversified in taste, convenient to use and store for longer time. Here is where the health aspect was pushed to the background in quest of other life style satisfaction. To day more than 90% of processed food products serve to satisfy the sensory demand of the body, ignoring the necessity of meeting the nutritional and health needs. The four aspects of organoleptic quality, viz color, aroma, texture and taste overwhelmingly influence the minds of the product developers in the food industry and very little attention is paid to the long term harm that can visit upon the consumers by consumption of millions of unbalanced foods coming out of the industry stable.

Health conscious consumers of to day feel strongly that, in spite of so many advantages to food processing as conceived originally, there exist sufficient grounds to blame the industry for many of the ills facing mankind. There are a few realistic reasons which sound reasonable to a dispassionate observer. According to critics, the further a food product is from its natural form, the less it retains its healthful nutritional properties. Vitamins are destroyed, minerals are leached out and fiber is ignored to be cast away during processing. Though it is grudgingly conceded that the decrease in nutrients is compensated by high tech enrichment and fortification technologies, these add only a small number of nutrients back to a product, whereas hundreds of others are lost in the conversion process from the natural raw material into a ready food to be packed in plastic bags and bottles of questionable safety.

Increasing the shelf life of a food requires the use of preservatives and these may be natural ones such as salt, or artificial chemicals. Since chemicals are specific in their functions, hundreds of them need to be deployed with specific functions like mold inhibition, bacterial destruction, antioxidant functions, etc. Some of them obviously have adverse side affects on some or all human populations. Similarly, to make food more palatable and attractive, many additives are used, though approved at prescribed levels, but with uncertain long term health consequences. Food colorings are a huge category of additives. Though color of a food is an important psychological consideration all artificial colors are not safe for use in human foods. Despite studies that have shown correlation between food colorings and cognitive problems in children, the food industry uses them because they are cheaper than natural sources.

The recent uproar regarding the indiscriminate use of antibiotics by the meat and dairy industry is justified because of the long term repercussions it can have on the effectiveness of many currently used antibiotics to fight against serious infectious epidemics. The inhuman conditions that prevail in many cattle farms, pig farms and poultry farms, the cruel slaughtering practices, wide scale Salmonella contamination of fresh and frozen foods, emergence of GM crops as major input raw materials for the processing industry and many other developments do not help to boost the consumer confidence on the sincerity of this industry. If food processing has to regain its preeminent role as a friend of mankind , it has to collectively restrain its appetite for gaining economic gains at the expense of the health of its patrons, the consumers.


Thursday, April 22, 2010


Living long and living well are two entirely different things and with the number of aged population increasing at an alarming rate, improving the quality of life for them is becoming a priority for geriatric scientists. Muscle atrophy or sarcopenia is the most visible affliction that occurs due to reduction in muscle mass and its proteins, especially Myosin. If such age related changes in muscle can be prevented, it is possible to reduce the onset of diabetes and obesity associated disorders, contributing to better quality of life. A better understanding of the protein synthesis in the muscle probably may help to reverse their degeneration and degradation during aging.

According to a recent estimate the world population can reach the staggering figure of 9.1 billion by the year 2050, a whopping increase of more than 30% of the current population. With mortality rate dramatically coming down and longevity reaching unprecedented levels, the proportion of people with age beyond 60 may reach 21% in 2050, compared to 10 per cent in 2000. A population with gross disability to look after themselves can be a handicap for any country striving to achieve all round development. Of course there are many well being foods, geriatric formulations and health programs for rejuvenating the body but most of these are commercially motivated with no guaranteed results.

During aging process the muscle production rate declines progressively and this results in lesser muscle mass available for carrying out the routine physical activity. The age at which muscle atrophy begins varies widely over a range and depends on genetic factors, dietary practices and the level of physical activity. As muscle and its protein content diminish, fatigue sets in more easily and frequently leading to a sedentary life style. Such a situation if not allowed to develop and the slow down can be reversed through appropriate diet and exercise, an active life style can be ensured. Adding another dimension to this problem is the propensity of the body to develop the much dreaded metabolic syndrome when the muscle atrophy starts due to body's inability to spend the calories resulting in abdominal obesity. Excess weight is known to cause glucose intolerance or resistance to insulin action. Metabolic syndrome also involves changes in lipid levels, hyper tension and increased clotting tendency which can lead to cardiovascular deaths.

If the age related changes in muscle can be prevented, the onset of Type II diabetes and obesity can also be avoided. Against the above background it is being felt that a concerted effort must be mounted to evaluate the potential of synergizing protein intake and exercise to stave off the gradual decline in muscle strength and function for this growing age group. Maintaining an optimal body composition and adequate muscle mass during the lifespan can be expected to enhance significantly the general physical performance and the overall quality of life. Food plays a critical role in maintaining health and assessing scientifically the impact of nutrition and exercise on the quality and quantity of muscle mass can also help to evolve optimally designed foods for young adults whose performance can be enhanced. Major players who are presently peddling different types of health foods can be expected to jump into the fray for coming out with scientifically established geriatric foods that can stop muscle atrophy and give hope for senior denizens for a better quality life.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Except for those who are exposed to Mexican foods, the product going by the name Salsa may be unfamiliar. Though Salsa can also mean the dance that is typically practiced by Cubans, consumers of food who like the Mexican foods can recognize its virtues. Salsa sauce, as it is known to some people, means a salt based sauce prepared from tomato, spices and hot chilli. For Mexicans, Italians and Spanish, Salsa is a part and parcel of their cuisine while Americans use this preparation mostly as a dip for snacks and an accompaniment in meals.

There are many varieties of Salsa evolved over the years in different countries and these include Salsa roja, S.cruda, S.verde, S.negra, S.lacquera, S.ranchera, S. brava, S.guacamole, S.mole, mango salsa, S. mexicana, S.fresca etc which vary from one another based on preparation mode and ingredients used. Raw materials used can include cooked or uncooked tomato chunks, green pepper, onion, garlic, green chilli, red chilli, cilantro, herbs, oil, vinegar, avocado etc in varying proportions. Salsa can be semi-liquid with chunks of tomato and other vegetables and traditionally pestle and mortar system was being used for getting the consistency but modern day blenders are replacing these manual contraptions.

Jarred, canned and bottled Salsa available in many super markets are manufactured in thermal processing facilities with provision to generate temperatures to 80C sufficient to kill all pathogens and confer good shelf life. Fresh Salsa preparations are also offered in super markets and Delis under refrigerated conditions with limited shelf life. Products made with fresh raw materials without heat treatment can be contaminated with bacteria like E.coli, though high acidity does not allow serious pathogenic infection. Mexican restaurants and fast food chains like Taco Bell have been able to popularize Salsa which is reported to be out selling even the ubiquitous tomato ketchup in the market. With the opening of the first Taco Bell outlet in Bangalore recently, Indians have an opportunity to taste authentic Salsa under desi environment. How far it will click in India remains to be seen.

Looking at the remarkable success of Salsa, one wonders why there is no attempt to popularize our own Indian chutney preparations internationally. Chutney products based on ground coconut do not have adequate keeping quality but with a little effort it should be possible to evolve products that is universally acceptable as an accompaniment or dip for many ready to eat snacks and meals. Probably it is time that a truly enterprising entrepreneur emerges with vision to establish food joints like Taco Bell but with standardized foods of Indian origin amenable to quick preparation and serving in well designed out lets reflecting the ethos represented by this great country.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Modern man's fight against excessive eating of food and its consequences in the form of distorted body shapes are issues that worry nutritionists and health experts world over. It is well known that with high end technologies developed for design and fabrication of food products by the industry majority of consumers find it irresistible to avoid calorie rich foods with high sensory pleasure bordering on addiction. According to some projections, obesity is likely to affect more than one third of the population in this planet if corrective actions are not taken now to reverse the trend. With per capita earning increasing significantly in most of the countries, the purchasing power also goes up and crux of the problem lies in utilizing this increased money supply "intelligently" to buy healthy foods from the market.

The situation is becoming desperate in many developed countries where the food industry has been flooding the market with foods that score in terms of sensory attributes but ignoring its social responsibility to market healthy alternatives also. If consumer has no choice to choose between a good and a bad food the buying consideration probably will be influenced by the cost factor and invariably unhealthy foods are much cheaper than their healthy counterparts pushing the consumer towards this segment. Measures such as taxation, label warning, policy restrictions etc do not seem to be making any dent in this critical area of public health. At consumer level restrictive diet regimes, weight reducing diet foods, special exercise programs, bariatric surgery to reduce stomach volume, stitching tongue patches surgically, resistant starch based diets etc, are all practiced with limited success. Ultimate answer may be developing necessary "will" power to resist food temptations and acquiring the ability to select healthy foods. A tall order indeed!

Discovery in 1942 that certain plant foods contain active principles that can help in reducing weight gain led to the discovery of Phaseolamin, an active alpha amylase enzyme blocker that could prevent quick assimilation of starch contained in the diet, allowing a significant portion of the starch calories in the food consumed to pass through the GI tract without releasing the glucose. Phaseolus vulgaris seed or the commonly known white kidney bean is a good source of this enzyme, though initial extracts commercialized with great hurry in late nineteen seventies failed to take off due to presence of impurities, low enzymatic activity and susceptibility to destruction under the strong acidic environment in the stomach. It was only much later that 100% pure product was fractionated out of the bean extract with high alpha amylase inhibiting units (aaiu), as high as 5000 aaiu per gm, sufficient to block 500 gm of starch with 2250 calories potential.

Development of products like tablets, capsules, diet supplements, chewables, baking mixes, beverage powders etc has given a fillip to this approach to tackle the calorie "crisis". According to independent research findings from scientific laboratories including the reputed Mayo Clinic, consumption of 250-1000 mg of Phaseolamin for 4 to 8 weeks can achieve weight reduction of 2-3 kg, waist reduction up to 3 inches and reduction of 10% body fat without any side effect. Alpha amylase, a glycoprotein enzyme produced by pancreas, is absolutely necessary for the enzymatic hydrolysis of starch into glucose before assimilation by the body. Pure Phaseolamin has the GRAS status because of zero toxicity demonstrated by independent pharmacologists and therefore can be used in food preparations safely. However some of the commercial products use recipes containing caffeine, silica etc and there fore necessary precaution needs to be exercised before deciding to try these preparations for weight reduction

Phaseolamin based preparations are chiefly peddled for weight reduction but it should also be equally effective in people afflicted with Phase 2 diabetes since it effectively makes the food a low GI one with low glycemic load per serving. But so far the manufacturers have not targeted diabetics for marketing these preparations. It is not known whether Phaseolamin is effective in preventing glucose "surge" in diabetics after consuming a starch rich diet. Probably diabetologists should consider the possibility of using Phaseolamin in diabetic patients and if successful the quality of life of these unfortunate victims of modern life style changes is bound to be improved tremendously.


Sunday, April 18, 2010


Tomato fruit received a boost recently by the discovery that it can be a source of valuable nutraceutical substance extracted and purified from the outer gel like coating of the seed. Now comes the news that Lectin from Banana can be used to counteract spread of HIV infection and minimize incidence of Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in humans. If sufficient supporting evidence is forth coming from this discovery, many food materials, especially fruits, vegetables and spices are going to be of relevance to the pharmaceutical industry in coming years.

The story of Tomato is very interesting as consuming whole tomato as part of a regular diet does not confer any special health benefit though it is a good source of Vitamin C and antioxidants. Tomato as a part of the vegetable intake compliments the virtues of other vegetables collectively in ensuring normal health without any deficiency disorders. But the purified fraction of Tomato seed extract, with aspirin-like activity, keeps blood thin just like aspirin which is taken regularly in small doses by millions of people to prevent platelet aggregation and consequent myocardial infarction. Where Tomato extract excels aspirin is in preventing gastro intestinal injury and consequent intestinal bleeding commonly encountered amongst aspirin consumers. Added to this is its claimed effectiveness against Deep Vein Thrombosis and Triglyceride deposits in arteries. Most interestingly the claimed benefit from the fractionated preparation of tomato seed is not available by consuming fresh tomatoes in regular diets. Probably the rationale is that the gel like seed coating is not digestible in human GI system.

All plant materials contain Lectins which are proteins or glycoproteins with specific biological function assigned to them by nature. They have active sites that can bind sugars and sugar derivatives through which they identify foreign invaders like a virus and attach themselves to such pathogens to prevent access to human cells. Lectins are present in food grains including legumes, dairy products in significant concentrations. One of the most renowned (for wrong reason) examples of a Lectin is Ricin, extracted from Castor seed and reported to have been used during the last world war as a part of the biological warfare. Ricin at concentrations as low as 500 ug in the air can cause breathing problem with lethal consequences. Though food grains like wheat and soybean contain toxic lectins, they are destroyed mostly during processing and thermal treatment.

That toxicity of Lectins can be gainfully exploited for beneficial purpose has been proved by the studies on banana Lectin which has two characteristic primary sites that can bind the sugar moiety in viral particles disabling it from entering into the host cells in human beings. Lectins, being proteins, can be isolated through many biotechnological methods like chromatography of different types and such pure preparations are considered effective against the much dreaded AIDS. Present anti-viral drugs like T-20 and Maraviroc are often ineffective against this virus when continuous mutation occurs. Banana Lectin was found to have virocidal effect and its regular use can prevent this sexually transmitted disease with high degree of success. According to the claims by the discoverers even at 20% coverage of vulnerable population and with 60% efficiency, Banana Lectin can prevent up to 2.5 million new cases of AIDS in the world every year.


Friday, April 16, 2010


Atta is the ground product from whole wheat used extensively in preparing many food articles in India. By far the single largest use is in making Roti or Chapati or other products which are staple items in the diet of a majority of Indians. If multinational giants are in the Atta business, it is due to the extreme popularity of this milled product amongst the Indian consumers. It is another matter that entry of these large companies has pushed up the price to unimaginable levels during the past 2-3 years. Branded Atta to day costs more than double the price of the raw wheat and urban consumers have no alternate choice but to buy these products for their daily subsistence.

In western countries the concept of Atta was practically non-existent as most of the wheat products like pasta, bread, biscuits and many others are based on milled, refined flour containing no bran or germ, the most nutritious part of the grain. The sophisticated milling technology developed in the West based on automated roller flour milling concept has spawned large capacity plants with through put as high as 2000-3000 tons per day. The by-products like bran and germ go for compounded animal feeds. In contrast, Indian families had perfected manual process of grinding wheat grains into whole grain flour which preserved the characteristic aroma and taste of wheat. The historic "Atta Chakki" which once was an integral part of Indian family traditions, are disappearing fast from the landscape of the country for want of clientele which has switched over to branded Atta during the last one decade.

Atta Chakki or the stone mill or the plate mill as it is known amongst food technologists was originally based on revolving granite discs with a gap for feeding wheat grain and flours of any fineness can be obtained by adjusting the gap. Cast iron discs replaced the granite ones with more efficient grinding and through put capacities. Attempts by the organized flour mill industry to by-pass the Chakki ground Atta by mixing the bran fraction from the roller flour mill with refined white flour were doomed to failure and Atta Chakki survived. Adopting the strategy that "join the adversary if you cannot beat hm" larger Chakkis were designed by the organized milling industry for use along with the standard pre-cleaning and post-grinding facilities of their flour mills to manufacture Atta similar to Chakki ground Atta. Traditional Chakki stood the test of time and it is unlikely that any alternative will ever be found for this ubiquitous contraption of yesteryear.

Why is that Atta from Chakki rules supreme in India, able to beat back the onslaught of the modern technological prowess as represented by the Roller Flour Mills of sleek and elegant design? There is scientific basis for this phenomenon. One of the basic factors that puts Chakki Atta above modern white flour is the temperature generated in plate mills which cause "desirable" changes in the starch granules in the grain contributing to better quality roti in terms of aroma and eating pleasure. Besides its nutritional superiority in terms of high dietary fiber, higher Vitamin E content and minerals, Chakki Atta has more appealing flavor and sweeter taste due to the roasting effect and carotenoid content in whole flour. Even to day many house holds in Northern parts of the country buy high quality raw wheat based on their experience from the market, wash it clean with water, dry under the sun and take to the nearest Chakki facility to grind into Atta of desired fineness. One of the problems associated with whole wheat flour is its limited shelf life due to presence of high lipase germ fraction causing rancidity but traditionally only limited quantity of wheat is milled, just sufficient for a few days without causing any spoilage.


Sunday, April 11, 2010


Tobacco plant was known to man since 6000 BC and smoking cured tobacco plant is still an addiction, enslaving millions of people across the globe. According to a conservative estimate more than 1.1 billion people use tobacco in one form or the other to enjoy the pleasure of nicotine derived sensation. Nicotine the major chemical constituent of tobacco leaves is a neurotoxin and about 5.4 million deaths an year are attributed to tobacco use, more than 10% of the total death world wide. Besides Nicotine, Tobacco specific Nitrosamines, generated during smoking are also considered dangerous to life. Extensive scientific research over the last few decades has brought out the role of smoking in causing cancer, especially the lung cancer and other human disorders. Tobacco is the fourth biggest killer to day and world has to wake up to this reality sooner or later.

Practically every country in the world wants to curb tobacco consumption in any form, at least as a policy but only "smoking" has received major attention in all official and non-governmental campaigns probably because of its predominance in the western societies. In a country like India only 20% of the tobacco cultivated goes into cigarette making, the rest being used in different forms like chewing, bidi making, cheroots, snuff products etc. Millions of people are engaged in economic activities connected with tobacco cultivation, curing, processing and end products manufacture. Probably it is difficult for any country to totally ban its cultivation for fear of the consequent economic impact. Like alcohol, tobacco is here to stay for good though its user base may shrink in the coming years.

About 5 million hectares of land are under tobacco cultivation and 33 million people work for tobacco industry. This poses an enormous challenge to the global community in protecting the livelihood of those depending on tobacco. Any coercion to stop tobacco cultivation may meet with the same fate as similar efforts made in the case of cultivation of opium and other opiate plants. Is it possible that tobacco production can be continued while minimizing its impact on human health in some way or the other? True, the land being used can be diverted to food crops, if tobacco cultivation some how "fades" away but that is unlikely to be accomplished in the foreseeable future. A recent suggestion that tobacco can be a source of biofuel deserves some consideration in the light of the dilemma world is facing on this issue.

Tobacco seed is known to contain triglyceride oils to the extent of 40% but its yield is hardly 600 kg per hectare making this option economically non-viable. As for the plant itself, the dried mass has only about 1.7 to 4% oil which again is not an economic option. Where tobacco can score is its amenability to be genetically modified in the hands of bio-technologists to increase the oil content to as high as 40%, a feat which can be easily achieved. If that happens the entire tobacco production can be diverted for biofuel processing that will cause minimum hardship to the existing growers. Some varieties of tobacco are also known to be useful in tackling Toxic Pond Scum, Microcystin-LR, that makes water unsafe for drinking, swimming or fishing in some areas.

If tobacco ever finds its use in biofuel industry, the task of the grower becomes simplified because all it requires is drying of the crop before shipping to the biofuel processor. The existing curing houses, requiring energy for efficient curing will become redundant. Probably the revenue for the governments may come down drastically because tobacco products attract one of the highest rates of taxation and how far this vested interest of the exchequer coming in the way of orchestrating policies to encourage use of tobacco for biofuel generation remains to be seen.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Many sociologists wonder from where the increasing trait of violence man has acquired during thousands of years of his existence has originated. Mind boggling violence being witnessed amongst human beings is some thing having no parallel in this Universe and the expression "inhuman" or "humane" has no meaning because animals rank much lower in the scale of violence than man. Look at the most recent mindless slaughter of hundreds of people in Nigeria on religious grounds or almost daily suicide bombers causing havoc in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan or the senseless killings by Maoists in India or the terrorists related loss of lives all over the world and the streak of cruelty is there amongst human beings. History is also replete with instances of mass murder for the sake of wealth, land or religion. How can one explain the cruelty often noticed amongst young children who do not have any sense of pity or kindness towards other smaller and harmless creatures? There are three distinct possibilities that can be relevant when the "cruelty" trait in humans are considered which include genetic make up, the environment that shapes one's life and the diet one consumes regularly.

Taking the connection between cruelty and genes, this is an area which has been researched for long without any consensus emerging amongst scientists. There are many theories based on limited studies and none of them can explain clearly this phenomenon. More recent studies are focusing on the gene that is responsible for expressing the crucial enzyme Monoamine Oxidase or MOA located in X chromosome in the humans which has the critical responsibility in deactivating excess levels of neurotransmitters like Serotonin, Melatonin, Norepinephrine and Epinephrine through oxidation into aldehydes and ammonia. The enzyme exists in two forms MOA-A and MOA-B, located in the outer membrane of cytochrome, found in neurons and astroglia. MOA-A has more specific role in dealing with the neurotransmitter amines. Lower as well as higher than than normal levels of neurotransmitters can cause depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, attention deficiency disorder, migraine etc and MOA Inhibition therapy through drugs is practiced in severe cases. But the critical question is whether this gene which must have been present in ancient man is preserved without mutation during evolution and the traits of violence, brutality, aggression, cruelty etc are more evident in people with this particular gene gone berserk due to reasons not yet clear.

Coming to the environment, the most important question is whether the behavioral pattern in humans can be changed by continuous exposure to hostility or through deliberate training in hostile behavior as is being attempted by many violent and terrorist groups. Stray studies do point out to the tendency of children brought up in a hostile environment becoming cruel adults with least sensitivity to sufferings to others. While hostile or retaliatory aggression can be attributed to low IQ, planned or predatory aggression cannot be explained away so easily. Organized butchering of billions of living creatures for supplying food to the population to day probably can make consumers of the foods from these sources some what insensitive to killing which after all is a product of aggression and cruelty. Using terminology like Prevention of "Cruelty" to Animals, People for Animal, Beauty Without Cruelty cannot hide the fact that these killings take away the life of hapless creatures for humans to live. It is for the human psychologists to answer whether one who kills an animal as big as a beef cattle will have any feelings about extinguishing any other form of life.

Food appears to be least connected with violence or aggression. The astronomical quantity of animal derived foods being consumed to day are providing more nutrition to people, almost like the pre-historic man who had to be aggressive for survival. Though there are not many peer reviewed publications on any link between food and aggressiveness, a few stray reports do indicate that some foods can make animals like dogs more aggressive while others make them docile. In one of the rare studies with prison inmates, it was found that providing nutrient supplements along with regular foods made them less violent, more rule abiding and cooperative. Blood sugar variations are also under the scanner as consumption of high sugar foods like confectionery amongst school going children have been found to be responsible for their aggressive behavior later in life. Thousands of additives that go into processed foods have also been blamed by some for the change in behavior of children noticed lately.

Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of peace and violence, probably believed that human beings can train themselves to be "humane" without recourse to cruelty or brutality and his ability to harness an entire nation for peaceful agitation to shake of the colonial yoke is a classical testimony to his conviction which stands vindicated.


Sunday, April 4, 2010


If some one claims that foods with high fats are healthy on April 1, people will consider it as a prank to make them "April Fools". That was what happened when the news item, that a breakfast rich in fat could keep people free from long term metabolic diseases like CVD, blood pressure and diabetes, was flashed all over the world on 1 April 2010! However it became apparent that there is some truth in the claim which was based on the scientific findings appearing in the internationally reputed and peer reviewed publication, International Journal of Obesity.

According to these findings, the metabolic pattern for the day is decided by the type of food one eats first thing in the morning for breakfast (BF) and a fat loaded BF can make fat burning the predominant metabolic activity for the rest of the day. Eating varied types of foods subsequently does not result in unnecessary fat accumulation in the body, preempting the possibility of getting exposed to obesity related health disorders. In contrast eating a carbohydrate rich BF can only promote carbohydrate metabolism through out the day, making the fat components vulnerable to be deposited and consequent weight gain. High fat BF enables the body to transfer energy utilization between carbohydrate and fat during the entire day.

How far one can take it as a credible evidence to support regular consumption of fat-rich BF remains uncertain because these studies were carried out using mice as experimental animals. It certainly requires further corroborative studies using human subjects to validate the theory and if confirmed such a finding finding can have far reaching implication in diet formulation and food consumption practices. Probably the present mindset amongst consumers, health experts and nutritionists cannot accept the preaching that a BF based on "Bacon, Sausage and eggs along with beans, mushroom, tomato and black pudding" can be really healthy!

A similar study earlier, using women as subjects, had found that a high calorie BF, which can deliver as much as 50% of the daily energy need, prevents putting on weight but such a BF can be based on carbohydrates also. Conversely people who skip their daily BF tend to be invariably heavier. Another interesting observation is that women during conceiving can hope to get a baby boy if heavy BF is taken and a baby girl with a low calorie BF.

Looking at the Indian situation, the above studies probably mean that BF based on fried items like poori, parotha, vada, uppuma, dosa etc could be better than those based on idli, phulka, dry roti, plain rice preparations, puddings, puttu, idiyappam etc. Many people in India, because of circumstantial compulsions, take heavy meals in the morning before going to work, take a light meal along with them for the lunch at the work place before returning home after the work and in a city like Mumbai one can rarely see "fat" people on the road. Similarly some of the best administrators hailing from Tamilnadu during nineteen forties, fifties and sixties, were heavy eaters in the morning while being frugal during the remaining part of the day. The old English saying that "eating like a king at breakfast, like a prince at lunch and like a pauper during dinner" may yet turn out to be a home truth after all, till proved other wise.


Thursday, April 1, 2010


Food fraud is considered to have taken place when a premium food product is substituted by a cheap one or when the label declaration does not truly reflect the quality of product inside. In extreme versions of fraud, the lives of consumers can be at jeopardy due to the poisonous nature of the substitute or adulterant used. This is not an evil confined to any one country or region and ever since the advent of humans in this planet, food fraud has been in vogue, mostly for easy and quick economic gains. World-wide the economic dimension of food fraud is placed at $ 50 billion, though no one is sure about the accuracy of this figure. Probably the value could be for food frauds that take place in rich countries where fraudsters target high value foods for committing this crime.

While 7-10% of all foods are considered fraudulent in western countries the corresponding figure in India is any body's guess. GOI statistics claim that 15% of all samples "picked up" for testing are adulterated but the monitoring agencies at the state level do not have the wherewithal for testing more than a few hundred in a year in a country where 1.2 billion people live. A major difference in India is that fraudsters or "adulterators" do not spare any food for economic gains and are least bothered about the health risks posed by the foods they churn out. High value products like Cheese, Meat, Alcoholic beverages, Cod liver oil etc are favored targets in western countries while simple foods like puffed rice, cooking oils, sugar, coffee, tea, mustard, milk, ice cream, honey, spices, dals, vegetables, asafoetida, ghee and butter etc are frequently adulterated in India.

Monitoring frauds in foods is beset with insurmountable practical problems and ultimately the onus of avoiding such foods falls on the consumer. But how far the consumers in a semi-literate country like India can assume this responsibility remains to be seen. Added to this, the disorganized retailing where most commodities are sold loose (unpacked), consumer has no means of finding out whether they are really genuine. As the menace from this evil acts assumes alarming proportions, technological innovations in detecting such frauds are adding to the armory of the testing agencies which were not available earlier. NMR imaging, use of Radio Isotopes, genetic methods like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and DNA finger printing are new tools that can detect adulteration in many foods though they cost heavily to procure, maintain and operate. May be it is too far fetched to imagine that the current dilapidated understaffed testing labs can ever be able to have such facilities under their roofs. FSSAI, the exalted agency with "authority" to punish fraudsters does not seem to be able to identify adequate culprits because of weak field level monitoring activities and insignificant number of food samples picked up in the market place for testing. Even in a few cases booked, the culprits live out the delays in the judicial system and come out unscathed!

Why pick on the poor FSSAI which any how has no expertise, experience or coherent thoughts on the subject, being a thorough bureaucratic organization when the much hyped FDA of the US or other similar agencies in Europe and developed countries are being hauled up for their "inefficiency" in combating the incidence of food frauds in their countries. Many food frauds have been documented in fruit juice, olive oil, spices, vinegar, wine, spirits and maple syrup, and seafood products. Victims range from the shopper at the local supermarket to multimillion companies of impeccable reputation. True, such deception has been happening since Roman times, though it is becoming the focus of attention now with more products imported under the free trade regime and a tight economy heightening competition. Interestingly organized food industry itself is becoming increasingly critical about the regulators blaming them for not doing enough to combat this social evil because the fraudsters are eating into their business.

Is there no way to face this "safety crisis"? While organized industry can exercise some self control with their brand value at stake, what about those millions of informal sector players in food processing who do not comer under the vigilance umbrella? "Hang them from the nearest pole" policy is easy to advocate but difficult to implement in any decent democratic society, though countries like China or Saudi Arabia may be able to make food fraudsters pay with their lives for the crimes committed by them. In India there is a feeling that punishments for food crimes are extremely small and further the distinction between willful and accidental adulteration in awarding punishment complicates the situation enabling most of the violators get away with a "rap on the knuckle", insufficient to be a deterrent. Compulsory registration of all food manufacturing activities, stringent monitoring of processing and retailed products, strengthening the infrastructure through several fold expansion and modernization, ban on loose vending of any foods, accelerated judicial system and product liability to compensate automatically to consumers affected by fraudulent foods are some of the minimum needs to respect the rights of the citizens to quality and safe foods.