Sunday, January 31, 2010


Transferring public money to private pockets is an established game in India and no one is concerned about the ethics or the consequences of such heinous action that is eating into the very vitals of our society. Politicians and bureaucrats of various hues aspire to amass fortunes during their so called "service" through bribes and kick backs under a regime of high corruption. Not to be satisfied with "cuts" from contractors and "commissions" from suppliers, the new game seems to be to declare "subsidies" to be met out of the public exchequer for the benefit of poorer sections of the society under different schemes by state and central governments from time to time. It is an established fact that only a fraction of such earmarked funds reach the ultimate beneficiaries. Of course providing subsidies is not confined to India only as many countries adopt this route to support agricultural and export activities and protect their citizens. Even the WTO regime, now in place has not been able to stop the subsidy practices by its members.

Subsidy is not a bad word by itself but the purpose and beneficiaries of such financial largess must be very clear and the mechanism to award such economic benefits must be transparent. For example providing export subsidy to face competition in the international market cannot be questioned as long as other countries are doing the same blatantly. It is known that the US, Japan and EU countries subsidize their farmers heavily to the extent of almost a trillion dollars, presumably to prevent bankruptcy amongst them who, though less in number, raise all the food necessary for the entire population. 2% of American population engaged in farming provide food to remaining 98% and imagine the consequences of collapse of the farming system on the food security of that country. It is true that the subsidy amounts go to some of the richest farming families in the world but it just cannot be helped.

The subsidy thrust in India took another ugly turn when the Maharashtra State Government quietly put in place an obnoxious scheme to grant financial aid to some of the distilleries there which could switch over from molasses to food grains. It is one of the most devious plans to siphon off the public funds in the name of development and interestingly majority of the distilleries identified belonged to politicians and their supporters. If this is not a blatant favoritism and citizen-unfriendly measure what else it is? It does not bother the government that the country is in the throes of a crisis of gigantic proportion with shortages of foods all around and sky rocketing prices due to inflation and any diversion of food grains can vitiate the situation further. Alcohol industry is one of the few in the manufacturing sector which is rolling in money and why it needs cash infusion at the expense of the poor citizens is begging the question.

Though the present CEO of the state government was responsible for initiating this policy during his previous incarnation, some credit is due to him for scrapping the scheme mid-way heeding to all round criticism about the logic of this strange strategy. Probably the judiciary deserves major credit for injecting some sense in the government when the Bombay High Court sarcastically posed the question 'whether alcohol is an essential commodity' on a petition filed by activists about the logic of the scheme. Consequently the government stayed subsidy to some of the existing units that were granted huge amounts earlier, almost two years ago and assured that no further licenses would be given to new grain-based alcohol distilleries in future. The amount involved is not too small to be ignored as about Rs 1000 crore was set aside for distribution to 21 distilleries, each getting Rs 35 crore to 50 crore under this dubious scheme. Is it not a paradox that when the whole world is moving towards a regime that would preclude use of edible plant foods for bio fuel production, in India the opposite is being encouraged. If there were no an independent judiciary, it would have been a field day for those supposed to guard the interests of the citizens, to divert public funds for personal benefits under one pretext or the other, a case of "the fence eating the crop"!


Saturday, January 30, 2010


In less than 50 years kitchens in India have undergone a revolution and many functions earlier done manually are being carried out with the help of so called gadgets. Imagine how the older generation house wives were toiling in the kitchen with stone made mortar and pestles for grinding, wood fired hearths for cooking and manual cleaning of utensils and dining plates. While LPG stoves have established their omnipotent presence in almost all urban house holds, its influence is spreading fast to many rural areas, especially those near the urban centers.Most impact making step in modernization involved mechanization of grinding operation with designs that simulated manual grinding, followed by table top grinders with more compact design and efficiency. The idea is to ensure the quality of batter made remains almost similar to authentic manually ground counterparts.

Advent of electric mixers or blenders complimented the role of wet grinders to the extent that they are of smaller capacity suitable for daily use without the inevitable task of elaborate and arduous cleaning involved after the use of the latter after every use. But the batter or ground materials made with a blender were invariably considered of inferior quality because of its tearing action compared to the crushing action in wet grinders. Food processor is synonymous to an electric motor-driven appliance but manual devices are also there. A food processor works in a similar pattern to that of a blender but have the extra advantage of interchangeable blades and disks instead of a fixed blade. The bowls in a food processor are wider, shorter and more appropriately shaped for solid and semi solid foods. In blender you may have to use liquid but in a food processor there is no need to use any liquid.

Waring Blender and Osterizer, the reputed global brands, were once upon a time synonymous with mixing but to day there are innumerable manufacturers of mixers or mixies as they are commonly called. Many of them are copies of western models though they are supposed to process Indian foods with characteristics totally different. One of the most noticeable features in Indian made mixies is the relatively low power motors used which are not sturdily built but serve the purpose of a typical Indian kitchen. Like all machines made in India, the quality of materials like steel, rubber, plastic parts etc used for making mixies and the finish of the final product need considerable improvement. As there is not much of R & D being done, new models being put out have only marginal improvements. Probably the manufacturers of kitchen appliances must form a cooperative organization to carry out research on design and fabrication and such R & D set up can be on a PPP model with fund sharing by GOI.

What applies to mixies is true with regard to other appliances like gas stove and the accessories, pressure cookers, cooking utensils, toasters, baking ovens, microwave ovens, etc. Durability, convenience of use, energy economy, ease of cleaning, user safety, etc should be the guiding parameters in designing and fabrication of these appliances. Is it not a paradox that the house wives to day do not have any means to monitor the gas level in an LPG cylinder where as we are aspiring to send man to the moon? With limited time available to the nucleus families of to day for cooking, it is the bounden duty of this nation to make their lives less arduous and more meaningful by evolving diverse kitchen appliances, suitable for Indian foods, that require less time and physical stress.


Thursday, January 28, 2010


The Acrylamide "scare" that originated in April 2002 in Sweden by the accidental discovery of the presence of this artifact in some starchy foods processed at high temperatures has assumed hysterical dimension with thousands of reports highlighting its dangerous implication in many human disorders. There are more than 1.5 lakh reports from many countries since 2002 dealing with one or the other aspect of Acrylamide in foods. The WHO and the FAO, as well as health authorities in Europe, the US, Canada etc have come out with safety limits for consumption by human beings. Considering that incidences of cancers in nervous system, oral cavity, peritoneum, thyroid gland, mammary glands and uterus were reported in more than 10% of experimental rats when administered very high doses of Acrylamide, safety experts are invariably cautious in making any recommendation for a safe level of consumption. Currently a daily intake of 1 micro gram per kg body weight is considered safe. Most of the processed foods contain comparatively lower levels of Acrylamide with serving size providing much less than the limit suggested.

Chemically Acrylamide is 2-Propanamide, formed during chemical reaction between fructose, glucose and some reducing sugars with amino acids the most reactive being Asparagine at temperatures beyond 120C. Foods cooked at high temperatures as encountered during roasting, frying, baking etc tend to contain significant levels of Acrylamide, its concentration directly related to the temperature and time of exposure. The fact that it is not stable in acidic or alkaline conditions does allow the GI tract to reduce the impact of its consumption, seems to have been over looked by those crying hoarse about the dangers from Acrylamide. Also under ambient conditions Acrylamide decomposes to Ammonia. According to available data base most affected commercial food products are Potato Chips and French Fries, universally liked by young age consumers including school going children.

Now that a "problem" has been "identified" it is logical that palliative measures are developed to over come the "risks" associated with Acrylamide. The historical fact that potato chips were being consumed for at least during the last 100 years and no "cause and effect" relationship has been established while consuming this product, cannot be brushed away easily and therefore how far this problem is serious must be assessed thoroughly before pronouncing a scientific judgment. The Biotech industry, lately becoming a focus of consumer apprehension because of its role in developing the controversial GM goods, has now jumped into Acrylamide bogey by coming out with bioactive preparations like "Acrylaway", "Preventase" etc based on microbial Asparaginase enzyme derived from molds like A. oryzae, A. niger etc. This enzyme transforms the amino acid Asparagine into a non-reactive entity disabling the Maillard reaction potential very significantly. Use of these enzyme preparations requires the industry to modify the potato chips making process to include a partial frying and steeping steps before the final frying which according to the manufacturers would reduce Acrylamide concentration to the extent of 60-85%. Mandatory approvals have been given for use of Asparaginase enzyme preparations under GRAS category in many countries like the US, some European countries, New Zealand, Australia and China.

It is an irony that "consumer scare" becomes the driving force for spawning a new industry that is supposed to overcome the danger perception amongst the consumers and the policy makers. There are simple ways of handling this perceived problem and consumers can always avoid Acrylamide development in products like potato chips by observing certain precautions like use of potatoes stored at temperatures above 8C, maintaining frying temperatures between 145 and 170C, avoiding prolonged cooking, preferring "golden" tint to dark brown color in the final product and consuming lesser quantities of dark colored fried products as much as possible. Snack industry must increasingly switch over to vacuum frying from the current open frying systems to prevent high temperatures in the frier and consequent generation of Acrylamide in high concentrations in the fried products.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Hardly a day passes without hearing about the "Salt Reduction Campaigns" being undertaken in different countries, the noble intention behind such moves being protecting their population from the ill-effects of high salt content in foods on their health. True, sodium is one of the critical nutrient minerals, essential for many biological functions in human beings and its health protecting role is well established. The delicate solute balance in body fluids influence many body functions and maintaining this balance depends on the diet and the life style followed by a person. Of course genetics also can play a role in sodium balance and thanks to modern day medicines such handicaps can be overcome. In contrast excessive sodium intake through unsound diets can be dangerous, the expressed syndrome being high blood pressure or hyper tension and many other health afflictions.

Pickle is considered an essential food adjunct in many parts of India and they are invariably made from salt stocks of raw fruits or vegetables prepared during the season. Naturally such salt stocks can contain high amounts of salt though during pickle making its concentration is diluted to some extent but it is still considered too high for regular consumption. Daily pickle consumption can vary between 5 gm to 25 gm per person depending on the eating habits of people and daily consumption of salt from pickle alone can be as high as 1-4 gm per day equivalent to 300 mg to 1300 mg of sodium. what about other foods like savories, breakfast foods, curry preparations, papads, soups, salads etc all of them adding on to the daily salt consumption very significantly. In the UK, Australia and the US, recommended daily intake levels of salt are between 4 gm and 7 gm. Many nutrition experts feel that an intake of 500 mg of sodium equivalent to 1.4 gm of salt would be adequate to maintain electrolyte balance in the body. Of course healthy human kidneys generally ensure electrolyte-water balance by regulating the fluid intake and out put up to a limit.

Knowing well that hypernatremia situation can raise the risk of developing osteoporosis, ulcers, gastric cancer etc it is advisable to restrict the salt intake as much as possible. One sure way is to restrict consumption of high salt products like pickles, snacks and savories both home made as well as from processed food industry. In India the two products that contain extremely high salt levels are pickles and papads. Having used to the consumption of these two items of almost every day consumption, it is necessary to moderate the salt content rather than banning them due to fear of damages from salt. Salt as a preservative was being used for centuries before the advent of modern preservation technologies and probably did not get the focus it deserved from food scientists because of its low technology status, the major production of salt preserved products being confined to cottage scale sector. The situation has now changed with organized sector getting into pickles in a big way and any alternate technology developed to reduce salt in this product will have better chance of adoption. As for papads the precise role of salt in its quality is still not clear though some studies indicate it has more to do with lateral expansion during frying than as a preservative.

If one can take a leaf out of Japanese pickle Umeboshi which is a salt preserved product made from the plum like fruit Ume and used as an adjunct with rice, it should be possible to make low salt pickles in India also by maneuvering the acid-salt proportion in the recipes. Umeboshi is a dry pickle and therefore the water activity must be very low making it safe from any microbial contamination. Indian pickles can be made into dry concentrated versions which can be reconstituted adding water at the time of consumption and once the role of salt as a preservative is made subservient to low moisture content for preservation, the end product made by the consumer will carry much less salt than a normal commercially marketed RTE pickle. Also possible would be concentrated pickle containing spices 2-3 times more than the normal pickle and diluting further at the consumer end as when it is to be consumed. There can be many other technological options and Indian food scientists owe to the consumer to come out with a modified technology of pickle making that will cut down sodium intake very significantly. .


Monday, January 25, 2010


Every country has a legitimate right to protect its citizens from sub-standard and unsafe foods originating from external sources and necessary surveillance regime is supposed to pre-empt such imports. Unscrupulous elements amongst the trading community may indulge in imports of foods that do not conform to the technical standards that are prevalent in the country. Since global trade involves extensive transportation from the exporting country to the importing destinations, sufficient precaution is called for before the consignments are shipped. According to an estimate consumers in some of the western countries have to depend on many food products which travel on an average more than 2000-2500 km before reaching the ultimate sales point. International Standards Organization, WTO, WHO, FAO etc are in the field to evolve globally acceptable standards for inter country trading and many countries do adopt such bench marks while striking export deals. There are also bilateral agreements between two countries or regional groups that set the standards for trade amongst them.

Most developing countries export their agricultural commodities with practically no value addition to developed nations which do not produce adequate foods for domestic consumption. In contrast high value added materials and industrial products find their way in the reverse direction. Countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa have a fairly well established safety monitoring regime and products originating from these countries can be expected to be reliable and safe for consumption. Of course some times, there could be black sheep amidst the trading community who might default on quality and safety but the entire country should not be viewed as undependable and unreliable.

USA, the sole super power that exists to day, seems to be under the delusion that it is the only country concerned about safety of foods and quality of most of the foods imported into the country is not reliable. Probably some one has to remind this super power that its safety surveillance agency, the FDA, does not enjoy a reputation that can be considered flattering because of its failure to safeguard American foods in the domestic market. There have been frequent recall of pathogen tainted tomatoes, jalapeno, spinach, peanuts, beef products from the market and this is nothing but a failure of its vested responsibility. How it can improve the safety of foods contracted for import by the American buyers, is at best a "symbolism" or "tokenism" to impress its consumers. Frequent rejections of imports from developing countries at various ports of entry on flimsy grounds, as determined by the same FDA, cause severe economic hardship to many exporters though there could be some instances of deliberate fraud.

Against such a background it is ridiculous for this agency to take a high moral ground and claim that it "plans to work collaboratively with international governments and regulators to harmonize regulatory standards, establish new guidelines for food safety, and improve product handling safety protocols".
According to a recent report FDA has set up its facilities, manned by Americans, in 10 countries including China, India, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, and several European countries. It is not clear whether the national regulatory agencies in these countries have surrendered their responsibility of monitoring food safety to the FDA. It is claimed that its purported presence is just "to provide an additional point of control for helping these local agencies meet U.S. safety standards and avoid food contamination and other problems". Because of numerous food contamination outbreaks within their own country the American regulators seem to be thinking that establishing permanent international offices in other countries would "improve their ability to operate effectively", whatever that means..
By opening its offices in foreign countries, staffed with arm-chair bureaucrats, FDA cannot accomplish any thing, let alone control the quality of foods made in the countries concerned. Trade must be based on mutual trust and not by bullying the countries which survive on their exports. Imagine the chaos that will ensue if all importing countries start setting up their offices in the sourcing countries to protect their citizens from imaginary dangers!


Saturday, January 23, 2010


It is well known that India is one of the few countries in the world that does not respect the skills, knowledge base and capabilities of its scientists. Probably the administrative specialists system, inherited from the erstwhile British masters, still an omnipotent force in every area of concern to the common man, is responsible for sidelining the technical cadres even in area of scientific endeavors, requiring specialized knowledge and experience. It might be true that the members of the administrative cadre have superior skills when it comes to running various activities requiring organizational and management skill but how they can fit into an environment that needs scientific knowledge and experience. Imagine what would have happened if Space Research Organization or Atomic Energy Commission or Council of Scientific Research, Agricultural Research Council or Dept of Biotechnology is headed by an administrator with no basic or practical qualification. Probably the country would not have possessed the nuclear bombs or missiles and rockets that launch satellites or the industrial development or the green revolution achieved by the nation.

Look at the recent fiasco involving the UN Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC), chaired by no less a person than one of the Nobel Laurates from India who also heads the Tata Institute of Energy Research in the country. The Panel with great fanfare claimed that most of the Himalayan glaciers would vanish by the year 2035 to dramatize the impact of green house gas emissions on the planet in not too distant a future. Apparently the IPCC deliberately or mistakenly changed the date from 2350, as originally reported by a Russian hydrographer earlier. That limited real time data exist on glacier melting in Himalayas based on studies with 20 glaciers out of 9500 glaciers that exist in Himalayas is a known fact. Such a claim led to demands from countries like the US on India to eliminate millions of wood fired stoves used by the rural population to prevent the sooth drifting to Himalayas and melting the glaciers! Why such a thing happens too frequently? The most plausible reason is that India has a history of deputing its bureaucrats with limited knowledge to international bodies to represent the country in such highly technical bodies and meetings. Deputing an under secretary of GOI for a meeting of Codex Commission dealing with food safety, is nothing but a farce perpetrated on the country which happens too frequently in this country. What about the much touted Food Standards and Safety Agency of GOI? It is unfortunate that GOI could not find a decent qualified technical person to head this important body and in stead pick up a retired administrator for the task.

Read the recent report recently carried by many news papers concerning the constitution of an "expert panel" by the National Planning Commission (NPC), vested with responsibility of evolving a strategy for transforming the country to a low carbon economy. Guess who are the "expert" members of this group. The convener is an administrator from Haryana cadre who is supposed to set the agenda, coordinate the meetings and consolidate the final strategy report. The qualification of the members of this 29-member committee does not inspire any confidence that any thing constructive will come out of this "circus" orchestrated spending enormous amount from the exchequer. The commitment by the GOI to reduce carbon emission by 25-40 % within a decade at the Copenhagen climate summit, though not mandatory, needs to be honored to protect the country's credibility as an ethical nation.

Scientific community in the country has also not covered itself with glory through its attitudes, behavior and past track record. There is supposed to be a Scientific Advisory Council of GOI mandated to advice the government on all matters concerning science in the country. No one is aware of its past track record in terms of accomplishments during the last few years, except being an ornamental body décorating PMO set up at Delhi. It looks like scientist administrators, moving over to Delhi, leaving their original moorings and environment, are worse than the administrators in promoting science in the country, most of them indulging in self glorification and enjoying power and perks that come with the position they manage to get through efforts other than technical or scientific.

Prime Minister of the country was lamenting during his address at the recent science Congress meeting at Thiruvananthapuram that the present system of recognition and remuneration to the scientists are not sufficient to motivate them for innovation but scientists themselves know that they cannot hope for a better deal from the government, especially after the massive pay hike implemented last year. There are still plenty of good working scientists in the country who need to be motivated by dynamic leaders with high quality accomplishments and self less dedication and commitment besides freeing them from the inflexible bureaucratic procedures with which they have been saddled. It is time Indian science become quality conscious and not obsessed with quantity or numbers.


Friday, January 22, 2010


The so called "Public Hearings" orchestrate by the Central Government (GOI) in India resembles a Circus Ring of yesteryear because of the predictability of the performance that is being offered. Genetic Engineering Approval Committee GEAC), over ruling stiff objections from within, recommended commercialization of Bt Brinjal, a GM crop with hardly any evidence about its safety for human consumption or to the environment and ignoring the adverse impact it will have on the vast majority of poor Indian farmers. In spite of the fact that the Minister for Environment is in possession of at least two damning reports against Bt Brinjal from international experts to whom the issue was referred by GOI itself, the precise intention behind these "public meetings" is obvious, that is, to accord approval under the pretext that "public has been consulted". On top of this the Agriculture Minister chips in saying that GOI would go by the recommendations of the "experts".

Our survival on this planet depends on adequate natural food and water, cleaner environment and a satisfied farmer. The threat to our living a normal life comes from mindless tinkering of the above natural systems under some or the other excuse. Latest to arrive on the scene is genetic modification of our traditional crops like staple food grains, oil seeds, fruits, vegetables and others by business interests with insatiable profit on their agenda. Obviously their justification is to increase food production to meet increasing demand by a growing global population. Why, one may ask, are a vast number of concerned people including worried scientists, who can discern the dangers of genetically modified foods (GM) to the citizens, environment and the farmer, are raising their voice against the present government policy of supporting such risky activities.
Well documented scientific studies have clearly brought out the grave consequences to the health of the consumers in the long run by directly consuming GM food crops. GM corn, soybean and others already being grown in countries like the United States are not directly consumed but processed into products that do not contain the dangerous ingredients created by genetic modification. Bt Brinjal, about to be cleared in India has significant levels of toxins present that will be ingested by the consumer which will have dangerous impact on intestine and other functions in human body.  International protocols have not been gone through by the developers of Bt Brinjal while assessing the safety of this GM crop and the recommendation of the Genetic Engineering Clearance Committee is premature and hasty. Supreme Court in India is still considering this issue and no clear verdict has come so far. If the government clears Bt Brinjal to day, soon to follow will be others, more than 40 in number, being readied for introduction in India through similar perfunctory assessment, putting the citizens in great jeopardy through cumulative poisoning. Government seems to be usurping the fundamental right of a citizen to know whether he is eating GM Brinjal by not putting in place a fool proof system of identifying such crops in the market.

The GM crops can contaminate normal crops when cultivated nearby, causing irrevocable damage to our 5000 years old cultivation and germplasm. What consequences such reckless action can have on the environment of the country cannot be predicted. Already there are studies indicating proliferation of many pests in the agricultural areas where GM crops are planted which can cause massive damage to other crops in the area through these pests. Many GM crops also need new and powerful weedicides to prevent crop damage, contaminating the environment including water bodies and the whole food chain with residues of dangerous weedicides with terrible consequence to all forms of life. Environmental dangers from GM sugar beets cultivated even in the US are still being debated legally in the supreme court of California.

Where ever GM crops are being cultivated, the farms are of big size, mechanized agriculture is in vogue and farmers are invariably rich to be in a position to thrive due to extensive government subsidy system. In India most farmers are impoverished with a couple of acres of land holdings with hardly any resources to invest on infrastructure and other high cost inputs. A significant percentage depends on rain for their survival and even a marginal drop in precipitation or unseasonal rains can affect the farm income driving them to suicide. With their own seed generation the agriculturists reduce the cost of cultivation but seeds for GM crops are not amenable to regeneration on successive generations making the farmer perpetually at the mercy of the seed supplier who can manipulate the astronomical price already being charged for the seeds further. Inputs like water, weedicides, pesticides to keep away new pests and unanticipated crop failure, cannot be borne by the Indian farmer, most of them considered marginal farmers. The seed supplier never accepts the responsibility for crop failure leaving the farmer high and dry, hiding under legal garbs and fighting the mighty seed supplier is beyond the resources of even a big farmer, let alone the vast majority of marginal farmers. 70% of the population that generates food for the country, if affected by such distortions, the consequences is not only for themselves but also to the entire population depending on the food supplies from rural areas.

Most GM foods pose several risks of unknown dimension as only one ill-designed human study has been reported in 2004 using 7 people and the conclusion of this study supports the vulnerability of intestinal microorganisms to pick up the external genes from the GM foods ingested. All other claims regarding safety are based on animal studies which cannot be accepted by any honest scientist. What type of health problems that can pose due to long term consumption of GM foods depend on the technique used and the source and type of gene introduced in the food. It can have direct adverse health effect, tendency to cause allergies, generate specific components with toxic effect, unpredictable adverse consequences due to inherent instability of the external gene introduced, reduced nutrition value with respect to some nutrients or pose unintended adverse effects of unknown nature. There are well documented studies linking genetically engineered foods to (1) cancer (milk fed GM hormones), (2) damage to kidney and heart in some cases, (3) damage to intestinal linings (GM potato) (4) severe allergies from proteins from the external genes introduced which are new to humans (GM soybean), (5) reduction of nutrients and phytochemicals useful for maintaining good health (GM Soya) and (6) antibiotic resistance by consumption of some of the GM foods exposing the consumers to dangers posed by pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella, E.coli, Campylobacter and Enterocococcus, many of them capable of causing life threatening health disorders. Another serious concern to food scientists is the unacceptable levels of residues of more dangerous herbicides, necessarily to be used by the GM crop farmers which can contaminate other crops through soil, air and water. Many food raw materials may become unfit for consumption or processing if the levels of chemical herbicides are high.  Bt Brinjal MUST undergo multi generation safety studies with human subjects before it can be considered for commercialization.

GM crops are not developed for charity by the private seed companies unlike the developments under the Green Revolution regime in sixties and seventies where it was the government funded research done for the benefit of the farmers and promoted through government agencies with no profit motive. If GM is an accepted route for increasing food production, WHICH AT PRESENT IT IS NOT, research must be indigenous to evolve suitable variants of crops considered crucial to the country, with high productivity potential and safety, proven as per standard protocols by the government controlled institutions with a guarantee to safeguard germplasm of cultivated, wild and medicinal species and not endanger the balance of the living soil system. This confirmation must be upheld by representatives from the farming
and scientific community and not from vested commercial interests.



Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Fear of lurking dangers from improperly processed foods is increasingly being felt by consumers who used to believe that processed foods are absolutely safe. This is accentuated by the spate of food poisoning episodes reported in different parts of the world during the last few years. Dangers to foods can come from microbial sources or chemical contaminants during harvesting, storage, processing and marketing. It is true that national governments and international agencies like WHO, FAO etc have necessary safety surveillance protocols and infrastructure to help the consumers in accessing foods that are considered healthy, safe and nutritious. Still the agro-food industry comprising fresh produce dealers and processing sector faces many problems, some unanticipated and others avoidable with better vigilance.

A consumer in any western country can always go back to the retail store, mostly in the organized sector with a complaint about the quality of food purchased and without asking any question replacement is readily given which increases the consumer confidence on the equity of the marketing system and the food industry in general. There are occasions when a consumer is not sure whether a product bought from a store is safe or not and it would be helpful if the consumer can get a competent opinion from knowledgeable people about such product before returning the same. Of course there are thousands of useful web based sources from where an intelligent and educated person can access sufficient information about food and come to a conclusion regarding quality of food purchased from the market. But there are a vast number of consumers who depend on the government agencies to guide them regarding quality and safety of foods they consume every day. The moot question is how many countries have such an agency which can advise their citizens on these issues?

A recent report that some countries have started to take steps to address this issue is really welcome. A integrated web site has been set up in the US, organized by government agencies like FDA, USDA and others and those looking for authentic answers to their food safety queries can readily tap this source, being billed as a one-stop-shop. This must be a great relief to the American consumers who are pulled between the necessity to buy processed foods and serious concern about their safety and reliability. Computer and Internet literacy is very high in that country with practically all house holds having this facility. The beauty of this system is that the views offered on this web site is the official version of the government as all those involved in food safety management are stake holders in this public venture.

Can we think of a situation similar to this in India? Though computer literacy and spread of broad band are limited, still an official web site blessed by GOI, offering useful information on different aspects of food, will be useful to at least some consumers and consumer activists having the wherewithal to access information through Internet source. Probably it may be too early to think of launching any major project of this nature for the time being because too many government agencies are involved in monitoring and enforcing food standards and safety measures in the country. Each agency is too keen to protect its turf where it enjoys unlimited power and any task integrating the activities of these multiple agencies will be a "nightmare" of unimaginable magnitude. Nonetheless a beginning can be made to start at least a "technical" web site under the aegis of a technical institution like CFTRI at Mysore with necessary mandate and funding from the central government. The existing Food Science and Technology Information Service (FoSTIS) in CFTRI premises set up in late eighties with funding from DST is a defunct set up with no use to any one looking for real technical information in food area. Myopic vision on the part of those "running" this program and starving it of necessary technical and other inputs during the last 15 years have ensured its irrelevance for the bonafide users, consumers and the industry.


Sunday, January 17, 2010


Foods coming under the banner of Kosher and Halal are attracting new consumers who may not be Jews or Muslims by faith. In fact increased business being garnered by Kosher foods is a surprise development which cannot be explained away easily. Kosher foods are made strictly by the Jewish Dietary Laws,enshrined in Kashrut, enunciated centuries ago and followed by the Kosher industry with practically no compromise. For faithful Jews, Kosher foods only are acceptable and many processed foods carry the coveted Kosher certification from authorized agencies accredited for the purpose.

That Kosher foods have been able to penetrate the market with substantial following from non-Jewish consumers is amply clear from the fact that there are over 80000 food products in the world that carry the Kosher imprint and more than 40% of products on the super market shelves in the US belong to this category. Business-wise the value of Kosher foods is estimated at $170 billion out of the total food business of $500 billion in that country. Interestingly less than 15% of the consumers who buy these foods are believers of Judaism while others with different religious affiliations consider Kosher foods as clean and safe.

Kosher label for meat and dairy products imply that the products are made from kosher animals fed special diets and the animals for meat are slaughtered as per the guidelines under the surveillance of a Rabi. Washing the carcass with water and salt is compulsory and this is supposed to clean it free of blood and infectious microorganisms. Carcasses with broken bone or found to carry infection are not cleared by the Rabi. Pigs and shellfish are not permitted under Kashrut rules while use of blood as a food is banned. Foods carrying Kosher Parve label under Jewish system are considered vegetarian or vegan but may contain egg, fish and honey. Pure vegetarians, therefore must read up the label of a vegetarian Kosher food to make sure the above ingredients are not present in them. Meat and dairy products are never combined under Kosher system.

According to market analysts, many consumers in the West switch over to Kosher foods because of their comprehension, right or wrong that the regular foods manufactured by the industry are no more reliable and safety aspects are increasingly being compromised by them. This is reinforced by the spate of food poisoning episodes and frequent recalls of products like tomato, jalapeno,peanut butter, meat foods, walnuts etc due to presence of pathogens during the last few years. Consumers assume that Kosher foods are of high quality, healthful and safer compared to other foods. Casual customers buy Kosher foods when ever organic foods and Halal foods are not available in the market reflecting the reputation Kosher foods enjoy currently. It is remarkable that Kosher foods confined to small scale or micro enterprise levels till recently, have become a major sub-sector of main stream food industry in less than two decades. Probably with business volume looking up and more entrepreneurs entering this area, there is bound to be more frequent episodes involving violations and recalls in the case of Kosher foods also in the coming years, especially under the emerging scenario where food safety surveillance and implementation protocols become more stringent.


Friday, January 15, 2010


Sugar from cane or beets forms an important component of modern diets. While sugarcane cultivation in Brazil, India and other countries constitute a major portion of world production, sugar beets dominate in the US and Europe. More than 50% of sugar consumed in the US comes from beets, with the GM varieties dominating the field. Recent spurt in sugar prices in the international market has raised alarms and in India the prices have registered more than 100% rise in one year making it a serious political issue to the government in power. Globally the price is predicted to jump to more than 45 US cents per kg ( more than Rs 20). In man's quest for getting 2000-2500 kc of energy per day, sugar is an important source, though it is being implicated lately in causing serious health disorders. The fructose+glucose combination (HFCS) derived from corn is used extensively in processed foods and beverages and the burgeoning obese population in some western countries is attributed to uncontrolled consumption of HFCS. Against such a scenario, the role of sugar needs to be defined before any long term policy option is considered for increasing or decreasing world production.

Some experts suggest that daily sugar intake must be restricted to no more than 44 gm where as the actual consumption works out to more than 65 gm per capita. It is unlikely that this level of consumption will go down significantly in spite of all dire warnings about the dangers posed by high consumption of sugar. The annual growth in consumption averages around 2% while production and stocks are declining. Against a global demand of 167 million tons (mt), actual production in 2009-10 is not anticipated to be more than 160 mt. In India the production registered a catastrophic decline of almost 11 mt in 2008-09 from the peak of 26.3 mt in 2007-08. According to current projections the sugar output may recover partly during 2009-10 to reach about 22 mt. The area under sugarcane cultivation fluctuates between 10.5 and 13 million hectares (mha).

Sugar situation in India is complicated by factors like inconsistent government policies, diversion of cane to jaggery production, direct consumption, inconsistent export policy, uncertainties regarding minimum support price guaranteed to growers and huge payment arrears to growers by the mills. The per capita availability fell from about 60 gm in 2007-08 to less than 40 gm a day in 2008-09 that seems to have led to the current price escalation. Even if the production regains the momentum eventually, now is the time to think of a long term policy regarding country's over dependence on sugarcane. With yields like 80 tons per hectare, sugarcane at best can deliver only about 8-9 tons of sugar whereas Tapioca containing 25-30% sugar equivalent starch and a yield as high as 80 tons/ha can provide same sugar from less than half of the current acreage under sugarcane with considerably lesser water requirement. The technology for fructose + glucose products equivalent to sucrose in sweetness is well established and India must go for this system increasingly at least to meet the sugar needs of the food industry.

Another possibility is increasing the sweetness quotient of cane sugar by admixing with safe sweeteners like Stevia glycosides, Sucralose and /or Neotame and extend the supply. Sucralose a unique modified sucrose molecule is made by introducing 3 chlorine atoms in place of 3 hydroxyl groups in the disaccharide structure of sucrose which results in boosting its sweetness 600 times. Technical feasibility of processing sugarcane juice directly for making sucralose needs to be explored and blends of sucrose and sucralose can be cleared for manufacture and consumption. Such a route offers the possibility of introducing different versions of sugar with varying sweetness and differential prices. Safety considerations are important but sucralose has been cleared for use by humans in more than 80 countries with approval from FAO, WHO and other global agencies. More than 4500 food products are manufactured to day containing sucralose. The intake limit of 15 mg per kg weight per day offers very high safety margin as individual consumption beyond 200 mg per day (equivalent to less than 3 mg/kg body weight) is beyond the realm of possibility.

There will be stiff opposition to such a strategy from the sugar lobby and some consumer activists who oppose anything which is not natural. But in the long term interests of the country such policy options must be considered after making sure that consumer safety is not compromised in any way.


Thursday, January 14, 2010


Human milk is well known to be a complete food containing qualitatively and quantitatively nutrients that can nourish a newborn baby at least for 6 months without any supplementary food. Besides its nutrient content, mother's milk is also endowed with immuno-biochemicals that confer protection to the baby from many infections. Common perception that cow's milk which is richer in proteins and some other nutrients can be more nutritious does not have scientific validity and in fact feeding unmodified milk from cows can even be harmful to the child in the long run. It is against such a background that the relentless campaign, nationally and internationally, to promote breast feeding, needs to be appreciated. If a cow's milk is adequately nourishing for its calf, why is it not considered suitable for homo sapiens? The simple answer is the system difference, as man is made different from other creatures in the planet. Biological specificity is the hallmark of evolution.

If breast milk is so good, why are many mothers reluctant to continue to feed their siblings with their own milk as much as possible? Is it ignorance or compulsion that is responsible for this reluctance? It is true during the last two decades the trend has been more and more mothers adopting the practice of breast feeding and with the availability of manual as well as motorized milk pumps at affordable cost, even a working mother can continue providing her milk to the baby, as long as milk is available. In spite of heavy promotion of the so called "humanized" milk by the dairy industry, due to combined efforts and sustained campaigns of the medical fraternity, the governments, many NGOs and international organizations, the practice of breast feeding, at least for the first 6 months after birth, is universally being accepted.

Infant foods developed by the dairy industry suffer from several handicaps in terms of nutrient composition and other health boosting components compared to mother's milk. The quality and quantity of proteins, levels of vitamins C and E, biologically available iron and zinc, concentration of sodium and potassium, fatty acid profile including essential fatty acids like linoleic, linolenic, DHA and ARA, unique oligosaccharides (HMO) present in human milk are significantly different in formulated infant foods, some of them either not found in the latter or are externally added during processing. This concern has been addressed to some extent by the Food Chemicals Codex (FCC) , an internationally recognized compendium of standards for food ingredients by recommending optimal levels for three nucleotides and two DHA oils for incorporation into infant formula by the industry. Still commercial products are not strictly comparable to human milk as many biologically active components like lipase enzyme which facilitates fat absorption, even if present, cannot survive the thermal processing of milk during manufacture of infant formula. According to one recent report breast milk contains more than 400 nutrients which are not found in milk from other sources.

With such credentials, it is but natural that there is a demand for supply of human milk by mothers unable to feed their babies for one or the other reason. The Milk Bank movement started 2-3 decades ago has been able to provide safe quality milk and such Banks are usually attached to reputed Hospitals with adequate infrastructure to handle and store human milk, similar to the concept of a blood bank. There appears to be an emerging demand for human milk and some sellers are reported to be asking for rates as high as $1000 a liter!
Presence of Taurine, one of the amino acids implicated in brain development during early days, seems to have enhanced the demand for human milk. It is quite possible that human milk may become a commercial commodity if prices rule high. Commercial freeze drying technology, available to day can convert liquid milk into stable dry powder preparations without destroying the biochemical components as well as health nutrients present in milk. There are moral, ethical and legal issues involved in making human milk an industry product for general consumption. Distortions can set in where artificial means of generating milk in females without going through the process of conception, may even be attempted which can affect the societal values and sanctity attached to procreation and conception.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Indian machine building industry is considered to have the capability to build any machine as long as a prototype is available for copying. This may not be a universal truth because there are some excellent fabricators boasting of original design capabilities with reasonably good credibility and dependable credentials. Weakness in the area of equipment design has been attributed to limited demand for original machinery and unless business volume reaches some critical levels, investment on the necessary infrastructure for designing and prototype building cannot be justified. With no more import restriction on capital goods and reduction of import tariffs under the WTO regime, most of the industries in India opt for sourcing their equipment needs from out side the country, a further disincentive to design activities in the country.

One of the most critical deficiencies being experienced by the machine building industry in India is availability of right quality of materials of construction which only can ensure long life and high performance efficiency. Indian built machinery generally do not enjoy good reputation and they are mainly marketed in African countries because of significant price advantages vis-à-vis those from western countries. While low prices can give temporary advantages in the market place, sturdiness, performance efficiency, trouble free operation and responsive back up-service can only help to get universal recognition and assured business.

Food processing industry in India is looking for equipment that can perform as efficiently as imported models and there are only a dozen fabricators who do have the expertise, wherewithal and infrastructure to build good quality machinery at costs which are lower than those imported from the West but higher than some of the items offered by China, Korea, Taiwan, Turkey etc. Take any equipment, be it a washer, grinder, blender, expeller, extruder, flaker or extractor the models available in the market vary in price by a factor of 50-500% making it difficult for any one to take a decision regarding the right one to be bought for one's requirements. Form-Fill-Seal machines with same capacity are available for less than Rs 1 lakh while high end models can cost as high as Rs 10-12 lakh. Same is true with all other machinery items used by the food processing industry, especially in the small scale sector.

It is time that the vast number of tinker shops and other small facilities that offer many machinery to the food industry is organized on a sound technical footing and a streamlined mechanism evolved to assess their capabilities to manufacture dependable equipment based on performance, durability, energy efficiency, back-up service etc. Food industry in the country will be able to grow and develop further if such an environment is created. Like the ISI certification for domestic appliances or the star rating for energy consumption by refrigerators, a rating system for different categories of food processing equipment will go a long way in improving the performance of the small scale industry in food sector. The Food Engineering and Design Center of the MFPI, located at CFTRI, Mysore should be mandated to take up this task on a priority basis and bring socour to the industry, many of them languishing for want of guidance in procuring appropriate processing machinery.


Sunday, January 10, 2010


Compared to plant foods, animal based foods are more difficult to preserve due to contamination by lethal pathogens like Salmonella, E.coli, Listeria, etc. Established processes like thermal treatment, irradiation, canning, dehydration etc have severe limitations when it comes to meat products. Modern preservation method for meat is freezing as most microorganisms do not grow under sub-zero temperatures. Though technologically freezing can preserve the original quality of the food processed, there is no way it can improve on the quality, if the raw material is already contaminated or cross contamination takes place from other contaminated products during storage and handling at various stages after the factory process. In other words freezing cannot destroy the microbes which are already present in the product or that which many contaminate it during storage. Food related food poisoning arise when the frozen products are brought to ambient conditions and consumed without any adequate cooking at the consumer's end.

There are strict guidelines that need to be followed by the abattoirs where animals are slaughtered and at manufacturing plants where the meat is further processed into finished products. In many countries surveillance authorities undertake plant inspection frequently to ensure strict compliance of safety guidelines. Still food poisoning due to E.coli and Salmonella occurs regularly though such episodes are not wide spread and causalities are minimal. Irradiation is a technically sound process which can achieve 100% kill but its industry-wide use is constrained by the labeling regulations calling for declaration regarding irradiation. As consumers do not accept irradiation process due to many reasons, industry is reluctant to use this technology. It is under such circumstances that Ammonia treatment of meat became an accepted process duly approved by FDA of the US and the USDA since 2007. Recent reports that even some of the Ammonia-treated meat products showed the presence of these pathogens are ringing alarm bells causing some concern.

Ammonia is a natural chemical found in human body and also in many foods at significant concentrations and it has not been declared as a toxic substance for use in foods. Products like peanut butter, cheese and a few other foods contain Ammonia at levels 400-800 ppm. Use of Ammonium Bicarbonate, Ammonium Carbonate, Gaseous Ammonia and Ammonium Hydroxide are permitted to be used 0.04 to 3.2%, at least in the US. Ammonium Hydroxide, a solution of Ammonia in water is allowed 0.6-0.8% in baked goods, cheese, relishes and puddings. Effectiveness of use of Ammonia for control of fungus in citrus fruits, storage of corn, in meat is known since 1976 and in 1988 scientists from Punjab University reported about the ability of Ammonia to kill aerobic bacteria and many anaerobic ones also. Use of Ammonia for preserving fish, dehydrated potato chips and broken eggs has also been reported without any apparent ill effect on human health.

Ammonia is used in gaseous form for killing pathogens in lean meat trimmings from the slaughter house after removing melted fat in centrifuges and the ground products were flash frozen and compressed for use in Hamburgers. The pH of the product is supposed to go up from 6 to more than 10 to get a 100% kill of pathogens. Ammonia brings about changes in extract release volume, water holding capacity, soluble protein nitrogen and cook out losses. It is somewhat intriguing why such specially treated products are not made to declare the same on the label since not much scientific information exists regarding the long term effect of consuming Ammonia treated meat. Besides many consumers are able to experience the pungent smell of Ammonia in the product, mistaking it for chemical contamination. At 50 ppm Ammonia can be detected by the nose while at 35 ppm it can impart undesirable tastes. As Ammonia treated meat is exempt from mandatory inspection and quality check, some of the samples were found to have pH of only 7.75, not considered safe, raising inconvenient questions regarding the reliability of the process under manufacturing conditions.

Any process if to be approved has to undergo strict evaluation for safety and ascertain the risk-benefit aspects based on which only valid conclusions can be drawn. It appears as if such an exercise has not been done in the case of "Ammoniacation" of meat, probably because of the anxiety to counter act increasing episodes of meat contamination and decreasing public confidence on the ability of the surveillance agencies to preempt such incidences. .


Monday, January 4, 2010


The concept of industrial clusters or estates has been the center piece for industrial development in India for the last so many years and there are many such clusters set up by the State enterprises vested with the task of identifying suitable area, acquiring them, developing the needed infrastructure including power, feeder roads, water and pollution abatement. To day the same concept is the basis for the industry parks being set up either by private players or government agencies or as collaborative ventures. The major difference is that the earlier clusters had multidisciplinary industrial units while to day's parks are specialized entities dealing with same category of products. Thus there are Food Parks, Electronic Parks, Textile Parks etc coming up in different parts of the country.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MEF) of the Federal Government has the onerous task of protecting the citizens from environmental degradation through pollution and preservation of the forest resources that play an important role in preventing global warming. The Pollution Control Boards at the state level are the executive agencies and new industrial units are subjected to surveillance and monitoring by these Boards. Major projects, infrastructural as well as industrial, with potential impact on forest degradation must have environmental clearance from the Center. If these checks and balances work properly there can be no apprehension about industrial pollution in this country. The Kerala fiasco vis-à-vis Coca Cola company in Palghat district, a few years ago, could have been avoided if proper assessment was done regarding the impact of large scale water extraction by the manufacturer on the population nearby.

Realizing that the country must take up an active program to monitor the functioning of industrial clusters located near many cities, MEF has recently took up a study to assess the pollution caused by the industry located there and the findings turned out to be alarming. MEF assessed the level of pollution vis-à-vis air, land and water on a scale of hundred and ranked 88 such clusters based on their polluting potential. It turned out hat 43 of these clusters have reached a level on the pollution scale considered alarming and further 10 amongst them were considered critical. As a policy measure GOI wanted to stop any further expansion of these clusters till proper study is conducted regarding the impact of pollution to people, food chain as a whole and the water resources in the area where the clusters are working.

MEF must be congratulated for its initiative in this respect and deserves full kudos for reposing confidence on technical institutions like IIITs which were partners in this project. In contrast there is a Ministry for Food Processing Industry (MFPI) at Delhi, staffed by heavily top loaded bureaucrats who does not feel that the food technologists in the country are as competent as them in deciding on matters pertaining to food processing industry. The technical services offered by the premier food technologists group in the country, Association of Food Scientists and Technologists (AFSTI) during the last one decade were spurned by this Ministry and the result is there for all to see! Probably for good things to happen for the food sector, the industry may have to wait for the arrival of a visionary minister like the one heading MEF currently.


Sunday, January 3, 2010


Indian ethnic foods were never able to capture global attention compared to others like those from China, Mexico or Japan. One of the major reasons could be the 'reputation' these foods enjoy as strongly spiced because of liberal use of cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilli, ginger. black pepper, fenugreek etc in most of the preparations. For long, restaurants serving Indian foods in countries like the US were patronized mostly by immigrant population from India and other South Asian countries,with a just sprinkling of local customers. The UK where there is a substantial population of Indian origin, boasts of hundreds of Indian restaurants where both immigrants as well as the local people frequent making such joints economically viable. Long colonial history that had forged some cultural ties with the UK could be responsible for the popularity of Indian foods in that country.

In sheer variety, ethnic foods of India have the unique position unrivaled by any other country in the world. Though curry preparations are invariably associated with India, there are thousands of others crying for attention. In the area of snacks and sweetmeats, some of the varieties made by traditional artisans or 'halwais' can beat many confectionery and savory snacks of the west from sensory angle. If these food products have not crossed the national boundaries and could not make any international impact, blame must go to the industry for not trying harder and the indigenous food scientists for not providing timely research support to standardize, stabilize and mechanize the production during the last 5 decades. According to a rough estimate there are more than 5000 traditional food preparations of Indian origin and most of them have limited shelf life. Their quality is not uniform with the sensory perception varying over a wide range. Almost all of them are manually produced with hardly a dozen products being made by well designed large scale machinery. Any hand-made food will be naturally viewed with suspicion regarding its microbial quality, especially by the western consumers.

New opportunities emerged after the Retort Pouch Technology was first developed by the Defense Lab at Mysore which can keep many Indian ethnic foods stable and safe for at least 6-12 months and in some cases even up to 2 years. Large scale exports of these foods to the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and other parts of the world enabled them to be part and parcel of the large grocery chains with high visibility. Added to this is the impetus given to this industry by introduction of many specialized rice preparations in the last 5-6 years by the industry spreading Indian culinary "signature" far and wide. Innumerable number of so called "Indian Stores", that serve the 2.7 million strong Indian community (less than 1% of the population in the US), more akin to the "pop and mom" type of family grocery shops that forms the backbone of food retail here, have substantially contributed to give a distinct identity to Indian foods abroad. It is a pleasure to see large super market shelves in the US, displaying a large range of Indian foods that include pickles, chutneys, sauces, "heat & serve" meals, etc, though much more needs to be done to infiltrate this segment of the market further to enlarge their presence and visibility to non-Indian consumers.

Western palate is not considered to be bland any longer and mildly spiced foods are being liked by many of them expanding the range of customers for Indian ethnic foods in these countries. According to market experts, knowledgeable about growth of ethnic foods from different parts of the world, the next decade will see the growth of Indian foods similar to what sushi bars did in the 1980s and Thai food did in the '90s. A recent survey of ethnic food by one of the market research groups in the US found that the fastest growing segment was Indian food, with sales growing by more than 35 percent from 2006 to 2008. Of course the share of Indian food, about $ 40 million in the $2.2 billion ethnic food market, is not considered high compared to $ 1.4 billion generated by Mexican/Hispanic foods in 2009, Indian foods are expected to be the growth engine for this sector during the next decade. It is incredible that a city like New York boasts of more than 350 Indian restaurants to day compared to less than two dozens 3 decades ago. Same is true in many large metros in the US.

Better presentation, more safety assurance features, improved ambiance and decor of the eateries, improved service quality, uniform food quality, more promotional activities, reasonable pricing and putting in place a reliable delivery service can make the growth chart steeper than what it is to day. Emerging scientific revelations about the positive impact of Indian foods like turmeric, ginger, chilli, black pepper, fenugreek, cinnamon etc on human health are bound to escalate interest in Indian foods substantially in future. If Indian restaurant set ups are linked to the processed food industry back in India, it should be possible to offer in such eating joints pre-processed foods of impeccable quality and safety that should reassure the non-Indian customers about "risk-free" eating and enhance the brand equity of indian ethnic foods interrnationally.


Saturday, January 2, 2010


Omega-3 fatty acids, vital for many body and brain functions are present in abundance in marine creatures like fish, crustaceans and algae. Plant sources are relatively poor sources of these essential fatty acids, though Linoleic and Linolenic acids are present in liquid oils of plant origin. The conversion of short chain unsaturated fatty acids into the biologically active long chain version like Docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) is very inefficient in human body necessitating their supply through fish in people predominantly non-vegetarian by habit. Of course by adopting a diet with diverse food materials can still preclude any major deficiency manifestation but modern life styles invariably depend on diets which are based on sugar, carbohydrates, fats, proteins based on refined/processed raw materials which have practically no nutrients left behind due to processing.

With the advent of modern technology for extraction and purification of DHA and EPA from sources like fish and algae, a new era has arrived when enrichment of foods during processing is technically and commercially viable. The resistance from the vegans against accepting fish derived ingredients, mostly due to the unacceptable "fishy" smell can be overcome by using bland DHA and EPA ingredients now being offered by reputed suppliers. There was a time when cod liver oil consumption was encouraged for boosting health and the encapsulation technology made it possible to make it tolerable to non-fish eaters. How ever emanation of fish odor some time after swallowing the fish oil from the body and through exhalation was still a problem. The new technology has been able to overcome these disadvantages. Milk, juices and other products in some countries are to day fortified with DHA and EPA and consumer can know about it only from the label declaration without being able to detect organoleptically.

Omega-3 business is predicted to cross $1.6 billion by the year 2014 world wide but it is unlikely that there will be any major diversion of edible fish species for their production. If so what could be the sustaining source for production of DHA and EPA? While algae can be a good source, production cost is unlikely to be favorable compared to minor fish species having no commercial value being used now. Krill, a crustacean living 100 meters below the ice caps of Antarctica seems to be a logical choice because of its abundance. There are 85 species of Krill known to man and many of them are suitable for processing into food. The estimated potential can be as high as 6 billion tons and since they live for 5-10 years the supply is unlikely to be exhausted in the foreseeable future. According to one report the weight of Krill that exists to day is more than the combined weight of humans in this planet. Krill also plays an important role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere through the Phytoplankton which happen to be their staple food. It is the favorite food for fish, birds, marine animals like Whales and a fully grown Whale consumes as much as 3.5 to 4 tons of Krill each day.

With hardly 5 cm in length, Krill contains on a dry weight basis, 70% high quality protein, 10.7% fat which is made up of 40% highly unsaturated fats (HUFA), 18.4% EPA and 11.1% DHA and 12,6% ash reflecting the high mineral content. It also contains antioxidants like Astaxanthine carotenoids. The residue after extraction of Omega-3 acids will still be rich in proteins and minerals, suitable as a raw material for food and feed industry. Realizing the potential of Krill many countries are trying to establish sustainable operational base in the Antarctica and an amicable international agreement can only prevent future conflicts in the name Krill.

If Omega-3 preparations with no odor obtained from Krill are used in India what will be the legal stance vis-à-vis labeling. Any packed food containing ingredients derived from animal source is required to print a red dot prominently on the label. As Omega-3 acids, whether from fish or algae, are hardly distinguishable because of the high end technology used, how the monitoring agency can decide about the nature of the food containing these added nutrients, whether they are vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is some thing to be seen if and when these ingredients enter the food chain in the country.

Friday, January 1, 2010


Hard liquors are distilled beverages from weaker fermentation broths containing less than 15% alcohol as further concentration cannot be achieved during yeast fermentation because of the inability of the microorganism to survive at higher alcohol levels. Only Beer and Wine are the major non-distilled beverages while the commonly known "Spirits" like Brandy, Gin, Rum, Tequila, Vodka and Whiskey have alcohol levels above 20%. Liqueurs are spirits with added sugar and flavorings. Distillation is a process known to mankind since second millennium and modern technology for efficient distillation has its origin in the 8th century.

Gin is a distilled alcohol beverage obtained mostly from neutral spirits derived from agricultural sources by yeast fermentation. Traditionally neutral alcohol is re-distilled after mixing with Juniper berries under ambient conditions. Over the years several changes have taken place in modifying the flavor of gin and to day there are gin products made with not only juniper berries but also with other aromatic ingredients like lemon, bitter orange peel, lime peel, grapefruit peel, coriander, nutmeg, cassia bark etc. In contrast cheap variety of gin is made by blending neutral alcohol with essences to resemble natural gin. Innovations so far were restricted to flavoring of gin but technology of making the product also has been improved to make a better quality product.

It was In 2007 that a patent was filed for a practical industrial method under which high quality product was obtained by distillation under sub-freezing temperatures. Unlike the traditional distillation, the new method was claimed to be able to produce gin with an aroma much closer to that of the original infusion of juniper, coriander, citrus peels and other botanicals with which gins are flavored. The liquor giant Bacardi started selling an English gin called Oxley that is distilled at a temperature around minus 4C which contains fresh citrus peels instead of the usual dried peels and the product is claimed to be much superior to industry standards with impressively intense, bright, almost sharp aroma. Though the precise information about this technology is not available due to patent protection, it is presumed to be a variant of the freeze distillation process known for a long time. When a blend of alcohol and water is frozen the material which freezes first is a dilute solution of alcohol in water. The liquid left behind is richer in alcohol. Freeze distillation enriches a solution by partially freezing and removing the frozen fraction that is poorer in dissolved material than the liquid left behind.

It is understandable that under low temperature conditions chemical reaction is extremely slow and most of the aroma chemicals, being aldehydes,can get oxidized under conditions when temperatures can reach 100C. Distillation under freezing conditions when the alcohol is still in liquid phase can confer distinct advantages in terms of aroma preservation. What is not known from the bare details of the process contained in the patent document, is whether the process is capable of reducing toxic artifacts of fermentation like methanol, fusel oil etc. In conventional distillation the distillate contains mostly alcohol and some flavoring substances from the base raw material used as sugar source. If the new process is superior to the thermal distillation process, it is possible that distillation under freezing temperature can improve the quality of other distilled beverages also such as brandy and whiskey.