Monday, May 31, 2010


It is an irrefutable fact that the gross nutritive value of food grains like wheat, rice, legumes and others has been coming down during the last 200 years of cultivation due to a variety of factors, some perpetuated by humans and others beyond their control. Massive use of chemical fertilizers, often not in optimal concentration and imprecise monitoring of the soil condition, high intensity of cultivation, mono culture crop practices, increased CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, all have contributed to this state of affairs. Of course agriculture scientists have not been lagging behind in evolving newer varieties but their focus has been more on yield rather than nutrition. If world is able to produce sufficient food to theoretically meet the satiety needs of the entire population, credit goes to agricultural scientists of yesteryear. It is another matter that due to social inequity, there is widespread hunger prevalent in many parts of the world, because those who are hungry do not have the economic means to buy their minimum needs of food grains.

Added to this misery is the massive diversion of grains for production of biofuels in countries like the US and those in the EU that has the effect of destabilizing the global food market making imports by needy countries dearer and beyond their reach. The meat and poultry industries pile upon more miseries by feeding the meat animals with food grains which otherwise could have gone for human consumption. It is not acknowledged that producing meat from animals using the food grains is one of the most inefficient conversion processes, each 100 kilogram of grain (< 12% moisture) yielding less than 12 kilograms of meat (> 70% moisture), rest being wasted. That animal production is responsible for substantial emission of green house gases is well documented.

While farmers in developed countries have reached their maximum potential vis-à-vis land productivity, Asia, Africa and South America lag behind them, having no economic resources to invest on new technologies, tools and practices that can help them to come out of the "yield trap". It is ironical that the "suspect" GM crops are being pushed into these underdeveloped regions as a solution to low productivity though it is known that GM crops are input intensive and non-sustaining, not affordable to poorer nations. GM crops may be relevant to the developed world since it is based on a clean technology and this may be the only route for them to achieve greater productivity via cutting down on losses in the field due to pest activity. The food grains produced under GM technology are already in use in the countries where they have been developed without bothering to know the long term adverse consequences, if any, of their consumption

It is now realized in Europe that wholegrain bread and other wheat products can be full of components that are good for health and this has led to renewed efforts to upgrade the nutritive content of wheat through research. It does not need much of an insight to understand that the amount of dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals that can be sourced from wheat varies substantially from one variety of wheat to the next, with some varieties providing with as much as four times more goodness. Adapting existing varieties of wheat or evolving new varieties can confer more health benefits. The late realization on the part of some of the developed countries may hopefully spawn more developmental efforts in future to evolve naturally nutritious varieties rather than allowing the industry to fortify the products with synthetic nutrients of uncertain efficacy.


Saturday, May 29, 2010


There was a time when lead poisoning was feared in canned foods because the solder used during the manufacture of sanitary open top cans contained lead as a component. Lead poisoning also became an issue with marine fish caught from some of the polluted waters. Now comes the news that lead contamination can be more widely prevalent because of the multifarious activities in to day's industrial society, deserving more attention. Lead can come from paints, petrol, food cans and water pipes causing contamination in cereals, vegetables and tap water. The dangers posed by lead are sufficiently documented and most developed countries are taking action to reduce lead exposure by banning substances of daily use known to contain lead. 

Lead was discovered more than 8000 years ago and it was one of the widely used heavy metals by the engineering, chemical, paint and gasoline industry. It is found in Lead-acid batteries, lead wires and pipes, metal recycling works, foundries, smelters, soldering compounds, radiation shields, ammunition products, surgical equipments,fetal monitors, circuit boards, jet engines, welding rods, ceramic glazes, rubber products, paints and pigments etc to varying extent. Incorporating lead in gasoline started in 1920 and continued till 2000 when exhaust gases contributed to air pollution with lead extensively. Lead contaminated foods were common in vending kiosks working on road sides and highway routes with high vehicle density during the latter half of the last millennium.

Though it is a fact that lead exposure has come down drastically since the last 50 years. it is an area of concern in some countries, especially amongst children. Lead at even smaller levels in the body can cause irreparable damage in human beings. It interferes with a host of processes in the body, toxic to many organs, tissues, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive nervous system. Since it affects development of nervous system, there can be permanent learning and behavioral disorders amongst children. Lead poisoning symptoms include abdominal pain, head ache, anemia, irritability, seizures, coma and death eventually in serious cases. It inhibits the critical delta-aminolevulenic acid dehydratase enzyme (ALAD) and ferrochelatase that influence heme synthesis. The common routes for entry of lead into the human body can be through air we breathe, water we consume. soil we tread on and the food we ingest every day. According WHO guidelines safe limit of Lead in blood is 10 ug per dL, though it rarely exceeds 2 ug under to day's living condition in many countries. At levels beyond 40 ug/dL symptoms of lead poisoning may manifest in some people while

at 50-60 ug many will be affected.

While protected water supplies can deliver potable water with lead concentrations of less than 15 ug per liter, food can be a cause of some concern. Foods, mainly commodities, can contain Lead, between 13 and 80 ug per kg but as per WHO guidelines safe limit of ingestion of lead through food is 200 ug per day for an average adult which is much higher than the present levels of consumption through various foods. Before the advent and overwhelming use of stainless steel utensils for cooking and storing food, copper and brass utensils were routinely tinned and Lead contamination from tin coating was a common occurrence.

More than adults, the effect of Lead on children in the age group 1-5 years is receiving critical attention world over because of its effect on the brain development amongst them. Recently an expert panel on contaminants, which assessed current levels of Lead exposure through food and other sources at the request of the European Commission, could not set a firm level above which Lead in food could trigger health problems. There appears to be considerable evidence demonstrating that the developing brain is more vulnerable to the neurotoxicity of Lead than the mature brain and in children, an elevated blood lead level is inversely associated with a lower intelligence quotient (IQ) score and reduced cognitive functions up to at least seven years of age.

The fact that Lead can pose greater dangers to children during their early stages of brain development causing lower IQ when they grow up to become adults is frightening. Though no consensus is still emerging regarding the safe limit that can be tolerated by children without ill effect, there is an urgent necessity to evolve as low a limit as possible, if not zero level, for Lead content in products that may come in contact with children. Recent Indian ban of toys imported from China was due to high lead content in them but politically GOI found it expedient to lift the ban within a few days, putting Indian children at great risks! Sensitivity regarding the adverse impact of Lead on human health is at a very low level in countries like India and nutritionists, food scientists and policy makers must do some thing to address this dangerous problem. World does not want to create a future generation of population with reduced intelligence and learning abilities due to negligence and unintended activities by the present generation. Continuing decline of Lead levels in the food consumed and dramatic reduction of this heavy metal in the blood amongst most of the population over the last few years, gives hope that lead related disorders may eventually disappear from this planet.  



Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Improving the health sustaining quality and safety of food are high on the priority list of the Obama administration in the US, after tackling the health care environment through legislative intervention. The proposed food safety bill, now being considered, includes many features with far reaching impact. Food Industry which always prefer no government control often proclaim that it has the capacity to self regulate and take voluntary action to improve their products on their own. How far this industry, blamed for the health crisis faced by the country, can resist the temptation to garner more profits at the expense of the consumer, remains to be seen

The unusual interest being taken by the administration in the US to change the attitude of the food industry there by putting more emphasis on health, nutrition and well being of the consumers is ringing alarm bells amongst major industries. In a proactive step, they are assuring the authorities that they would improve their products voluntarily on their own and no government intervention is necessary. Of course no body likes government peeping over the shoulder which may have unforeseen consequences on the profit margins. But if one is to go by the experience in other countries such assurances are hollow and no one means to stick to such promises, hoping such periodic turmoil would be forgotten in course of time.

It is logical that some half measures will be taken up to appease the authorities and most likely there will be some marginal improvements in some of the products. Already many junk foods, being condemned for being unhealthy are being re-branded as healthy ones by modifying the recipe slightly or by adding a dash of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants etc. Probably industry has its own compulsions in resisting whole sale changes in food formulations, especially with regard to popular and successful consumer brands on which they have invested heavily. Industry seems to be taking the stand that the public marketplace is a different environment and government is least qualified to change the market dynamics. Being more experienced in the art of making popular food products through deployment of advanced technologies, the manufacturers are "supposed" to know better as to how such products can be improved. If the industry sources are to be believed more than 10000 products have already been nutritionally upgraded during the last couple of years and without any government intervention they would continue to do this in the coming years also! That means they can be the "accused:"as well as the "judge" when it comes to health quality of foods produced by them.

The claim that the industry has already improved the nutritional value of thousands of products already sounds hollow because there is no evidence of it happening in the market place. Incorporation of some vitamins or other nutrients in the food product does not mean that it is wholesome and healthy. There has to be a balance in terms of various components like energy, carbohydrate, protein, fat and sodium and unless this is done people will continue to suffer from the plethora of health disorders as they do now. Probably the present stand of the industry may be a strategy to defer the inevitability of mandatory action by the government. There are some responsible players in the industry who are conscious of their social responsibility but they are more an exception than a rule.


Sunday, May 23, 2010


The global climate change studies and predictions invariably focus on increased levels of CO2 in the environment and rise in temperature, both having far reaching impact on the life in this planet. The controversial report of the Inter country Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), though has some major errors in its treatise, still graphically illustrates the consequences of emissions of CO2 and other green house gases, if not controlled effectively. The Copenhagen Summit on climate change last year, is supposed to have addressed this critical issue for arriving at a possible global commitment for cutting down emissions dramatically in the coming years. It is another matter that the Summit ended up with achieving no concrete results. Only redeeming feature of the Summit was the voluntary commitments made by China and India in reducing emissions voluntarily by 40% and 25% by 2020 while the affluent nations, spewing out several times more green house gases, prevaricated on the issue reluctant to make any significant sacrifice on this issue.

One of the indirect consequences of increased concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, not comprehended by the climatologists, is the adverse impact it can have on quality and quantum of agricultural production in future. All living beings need proteins to grow and sustain and if CO2 has any adverse influence on protein production by the plants as being suspected, it can have catastrophic consequences on the future of this planet. Reduced food grain production can lead to increased starvation while depleted proteins in the food grains like wheat will tell upon the health of the population. One of the most startling findings coming out of the laboratories of scientists is that with increased levels of CO2, protein content could come down as much as 11%. As per the recorded documents, between 1800 and 2000 the CO2 levels in the atmosphere increased by 39% and by the end of this century it may further increase by 40-120% if remedial measures are not adopted immediately.

It has been demonstrated conclusively that in Mustard and Wheat plants, rising CO2 concentrations tend to decrease protein levels in the grains. Plants absorb nitrites applied as fertilizing agent through the root system to be converted into organic nitrogenous compounds of vital biochemical importance such as proteins. This process is retarded in presence of higher levels of CO2 and needs to be compensated by increased fertilization through supply of more of nitrites externally. Excess levels of nitrites, on the other hand can cause toxicity to the plants due to accumulation of Ammonia. Agricultural management will have to change to fine tune fertilizer application to keep up with CO2 concentration in the atmosphere.

Elevated CO2 levels in the atmosphere are known to decrease the rate of photorespiration that enables the plant to operate the naturally occurring chemical process responsible for combining oxygen with carbohydrates for generating energy for its growth and sustenance. Though a net reduction in photorespiration does contribute to increased photosynthesis, the effect does not last with the tapering of this activity at higher levels of CO2, adversely affecting the plant growth and productivity.

What will be consequences of such a change in the form of protein depletion in the food that is consumed by humans as well as the damaging vectors like insects and pests? Human beings may tend to eat more to derive the minimum protein needs as per the current nutrition norms and same applies to insects and pests also, the consequence of which will be the necessity to produce more foods in future. Already there are dire predictions that food production levels would fall well below the minimum needs of a growing population by 2050 with the attendant consequences of mass starvation in some parts of the world. Probably uncontrolled CO2 emission will aggravate this situation further. Increased acidity of ocean water because of higher sinking of CO2, consequent to rising levels of this gas in the atmosphere caused by human activity, is predicted to bring about destructive changes amongst marine life and availability of sea foods is likely to become critical due to this phenomenon. It is unfortunate that brunt of this catastrophe will have to be borne by the poor people of Africa, Asia and South America.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010


Vinegar is the latest ingredient in the diet that is claimed to have influence on the blood sugar levels which can help millions of people affected by Type II diabetes disorder. Ideally the blood sugar levels in the blood are to be maintained between 100 and 150 units depending on whether this is measured as fasting or postprandial glucose. With voluminous data available on the scientific aspects of diabetes and its treatment, many drugs are in the market to manage blood glucose levels within the limits and avoid undesirable effect of diabetes on the general health of those afflicted.

Foods have been graded according to their Glycemic Index ( GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) and those foods which can release glucose into the blood faster have invariably high GI values, not to be consumed too much and too often by the diabetic population. Unrefined whole grains and legumes, though rich in carbohydrates tend to have low GI values and therefore considered diabetic-friendly foods. Unfortunately most of the foods being churned out by the processing industry are based on refined grain flours, sugar and other ingredients with high GI values. Legume consumption is very insignificant in Western population while they are cost prohibitive for those who like to consume them, especially the practicing vegetarians. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables also is known to be beneficial to diabetics, though in reality consumption of these protective foods is not up to the desired or recommended levels amongst many populations around the world.

There are many edible food materials claiming to have hypoglycemic effect viz for reducing blood sugar levels, if consumed regularly but their availability and amenability for being acceptable at the desired concentrations for exerting the beneficiary effect is rather limited. Some of these include Onion, Garlic, Mustard, Cruciferous vegetables, Fenugreek, Avocado, Cinnamon, Cherries, Nuts etc. Lack of unanimity amongst the scientists and physicians regarding the logistics of balancing the use of home "remedies" through food and herbs and modern drugs makes it difficult for consumers to adopt practical and effective synergistic daily practices that will ensure successful management of blood sugar. What is needed is a set of guidelines that can categorically lay down different drug-diet combination which will be safe and beneficial.

Latest to arrive on the scene is Vinegar and there are a few advocates espousing the cause of this food ingredient for regulating blood sugar. Taking this food adjunct regularly is claimed to retard glucose absorption from the GI tract. Some scientific studies over the past 10 years do indicate some benefits from vinegar consumption. According to them Vinegar decreases both fasting and postprandial (after-meal) glucose levels significantly and being a cheap food ingredient it can be easily incorporated into the diet. The biologically active constituent of vinegar is acetic acid ( 4-8% by volume) which is the source of pungency in many common food preparations, liked by most people. It is known that acetic acid can inhibit the activity of several enzymes, including amylase, sucrase, maltase, and lactase that break down carbohydrates into assimilable sugars. When vinegar is present in the intestines, probably a significant part of the sugars and starches can be expected to pass through without being digested with the consequent lower impact on blood sugar level. The bicarbonates necessary for glucose pump in the intestine for sending the glucose into the blood stream, is neutralized by acetic acid present in the vinegar. It was also observed that this is not a short term phenomenon because regular intake of vinegar also is reported to reduce the HbA1C values consistently and significantly.

Consuming a table spoon of vinegar before lunch and dinner is supposed to reduce one's weight by about a kg in 4 weeks. Similarly taking 4 table spoons of vinegar regularly is claimed to reduce the glycemic value of food by almost 30%. Interestingly taking vinegar along with the food can only be effective and therefore there appears to be ample scope for food scientists to come up with processed foods loaded with acetic acid without making them over acidic to taste. Vinegar is already established as a tenderizing agent for meat and fish while it is a major ingredient of most salad dressings. There are other acidic foods and adjuncts like pickles, sauerkraut, chutneys, lime juice, etc which also are supposed to exert same effect as vinegar. The findings, if universally accepted, will open up immense opportunities to the food industry to evolve foods that can be beneficial for calorie watchers and others with diet limitations.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010


How commercial interests can influence global food policies is illustrated by the manipulations and maneuvering going on at the Codex level to prevent mandatory labeling of GM foods. The stakes are high since Codex standards are bench mark parameters used to day to settle trade disputes amongst WTO member countries. Many countries have already put in place such mandatory label declaration so that the consumer can make an informed choice while scouting for purchase of foods in the market. Since GM foods are still under a cloud regarding their absolute safety, consumer has fundamental right to be informed whether a product being purchased has GM food ingredients or not. It is immoral for a country like the US to brow beat international community to toe its line viz labeling should be only voluntary, not mandatory.

A number of consumer groups, concerned scientists, progressive farming organizations and food processors are opposing the U.S. proposal that could forbid mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods in other countries. An influential coalition of organizations that includes the Consumers Union, The Organic Trade Association, Food and Water Watch and the Union of Concerned Scientists had earlier appealed to the US authorities to reconsider their decision to oppose compulsory labeling at the Codex Committee on Food Labeling meeting in Canada. The Codex Committee is a crucial technical body of the United Nations Organization that evolves food safety and labeling standards which are used to settle international differences in export-import business.

The paradox of the situation is that the current US position could potentially create significant problems for food producers within the US itself who want to indicate on the labels that their products contain no GE ingredients, including in organic food, where genetic engineering is a prohibited method. The FDA and USDA oppose allowing individual countries to adopt policies on mandatory labeling probably because it could be misleading, implying that GM/GE foods are not different from other foods. This is contrary to the belief of a vast majority of consumers that GE foods are definitely different from normal ones. The US position seems to be dictated by the apprehension that consumers in other countries may reject GM/GE foods from the US and it is reprehensible to force bodies like Codex to adopt the view of one country, how ever mighty it may be, that there are no differences between GM/GE foods and other foods. It is conveniently ignored that such a stand is contrary to scientific fact, USDA organic rules and existing FDA policy allowing for voluntary labeling.

The efforts of the US government are orchestrated by the GM food lobby in that country which, probably is concerned about the fate of GM foods from the country when exported to other countries where they are not considered safe. As most of the foods manufactured in the US contain one or the other ingredient originating from a GM food source, there could be real danger of the food industry losing its preeminent position in the country. If the US is able to get its way at the Codex level, other countries must join together to advice their food industry to insert a declaration in the label of all foods manufactured by them stating that they do not contain GM food ingredients. Sure no one should have any
objection to this practice which will serve the same purpose.

Thursday, May 13, 2010


National Technology Day was "celebrated" in India on May 11, 2010 and it is usually an occasion to "brag" about technological "achievements" made by the country in different spheres of national development. Those entrusted with development of technologies for food processing and preservation are not to be left behind in this "bragging" business and the two supposedly premier food technological institutions located at Mysore had their trumpets blown at high decibel strength to make sure that their voices are heard at right quarters that count. According to the reports appearing in the reputed Bangalore based news paper Deccan Herald of May 12, 2001, both the above institutions made elaborate arrangement to ensure that adequate coverage is given to what they have to say. Here is some excerpts from the paper for the benefit of the readers of this blog to decide about the credibility of these public funded food R & D organizations. First the civilian set up for food research in the country and part of the speech delivered on the occasion, quoted verbatim from the above paper.

"Director CFTRI, Dr V Prakash on Tuesday said that holistic approach is needed to understand issues like volcanic ash and many other natural disasters. He was delivering presidential address at National Technology Day celebrations 2010 at CFTRI premises in the city. Prakash said that there are several scientific evidence to say that global warming is happening at alarming rate. It has resulted in increased temperature and it can be easily checked at home or offices. But the problem is beyond that. Of every one degree Celsius rise in temperature in soil surface, there is 10% decrease in agriculture yield. This sprouts great concern for future's loss in crop production and also productivity. This apart, loss of surface water, loss of microbial population in the soil vanishing inter crop pattern, changing systems of agriculture aggravates the woes. Prakash said about 50000 liters of water will be lost annually if the leakages from the taps were not plugged. It calls for immediate need for minimizing the use of energy and also expenditure."

What food technology or the CFTRI has to do with the issues raised in the rambling exposition above is not clear. One can only guess that the purpose of the function was more to project the "wide knowledge" of the speaker beyond the realm of food technology, rather than highlighting the institutional strength. Probably the above speech has all the hallmarks of the Inter Country Panel on Climate Change of the UN (IPCC), recently disgraced because of the fudging of its climate change report. One can only pity the fall from grace of an institution founded, nurtured and established by eminent food scientists of yesteryear which contributed significantly to the development of food industry till early nineteen nineties.

In contrast the report emanating from the defense sector R & D set up is indeed interesting, revealing and informative to citizens in this country regarding the efforts put in by the scientists and technologists there in developing newer products for the army personnel. According to the reporter of the News Paper, the exhibition was able to arouse interest amongst the citizens of Mysore though many were disappointed by the absence of arrangements to offer some of the new products for tasting. Though seeing is believing, actual tasting is convincing.

"Aloe Vera based performance enhancement drink, spiced aloe squash, frozen chicken shreds, frozen mutton shami kabab, mutton sandwiches, protein bars, meal equivalent bars, fiber bars, appetizer bars, nutraceutical bars. This is not a list of menu from any hotel. But these items were put on exhibition by the Defense Food Research Laboratory in Mysore on Tuesday as part of National Technology Day.---DFRL highlighted achievements of food scientists in the field of food technology and their efforts to provide nutritious food for the soldiers guarding the country's borders in extreme weather conditions".

Indeed the exhibition provided an insight into its activities since 1961. To what extent the technologies developed here have been commercialized or estimate of production by the industry using these technologies are questions that should have been posed by the critical press corps who covered the above program. Of course some of the technologies appear familiar because they were cited earlier also but on the whole this institution has projected its strength in the area of its empowerment through public funding. It may be a different issue if some of the products developed were never accepted by the Jawans for whom they were intended.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010


According to some commentators of modern food eating concepts, fats contained in foods one eats are unnecessarily and illogically being blamed for all the ills man faces to day. Though this is contrary to the present knowledge of human nutrition as exemplified by modern nutrition science, a patient hearing to the view point of antagonists will provide a right perspective to the issue. The publishers of Readers Digest have the following advice to its Diabetes Advisory Service subscribers which is interesting.

"It's rare for the world of medical research to get something so wrong. But for nearly 30 years, one of the most pervasive "truisms" about healthy eating—that dietary fat is your enemy—has been incorrect. In the last five years, a wide breadth of research has proven conclusively that dietary fat is not the demon we've made it out to be. It's an amazing about-face—one with extraordinary implications for how we eat for good health. To understand the significance of this, take a look at your cookbook shelf. How many books have "Low-Fat" in their titles? The idea was that by removing fat from your diet, you'd automatically lose weight. But for many, the opposite has proven true: By replacing the fats in our diets with so many refined carbs, we've not only gained weight, but also launched a diabetes epidemic!" "Today, we're kicking off the first part of a week-long series on that three-letter word we've inappropriately come to abhor. There are so many misconceptions about fat, it's time to set the record straight. Over the course of the week, we'll tell you why you need it and which kinds to eat, as well as the types that are indeed dangerous for your health. Why did fat get such a bad rap for so long? For starters, when physicians began recommending the low-fat diet a generation ago, they simply assumed it would work. Population studies had shown that people who eat high-fat diets tend to have more heart attacks, so the low-fat concept seemed to make sense". "Still, the low-fat diet had never been formally tested on a large scale in humans. Years later, when researchers finally conducted clinical trials with people who adopted the "eat less fat" approach, it flopped. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association—the first long-term study of its kind—scientists followed almost 49,000 women for eight years and found that eating a low-fat diet did not protect against heart attacks, strokes, or any other form of cardiovascular disease. The same kind of flawed thinking was applied to the weight aspects of eating fat. While carbohydrates and proteins each deliver 4 calories for every gram you consume, fat is more than double that amount, at 9 calories per gram. So it makes sense that by eating fat rather than protein or carbs, you'll consume far more calories and will gain weight". But nothing is quite that simple. As it turns out, fat breaks down in your body very similar to the way protein does, which has implications both for weight gain and blood sugar control. For example, fat doesn't raise blood sugar, and it doesn't require any insulin in order to be metabolized (its Glycemic Load is zero). It also takes a while to digest, and therefore slows the rate at which food leaves your stomach. The upshot? Not only does fat fill you up longer, but it also blunts the blood-sugar-spike effect of a meal, even if that meal includes carbs. So why does fat still get such a bad rap? Because people confuse the different types. Some forms of dietary fat are extremely healthy for you—these good fats protect your heart, lower your cholesterol, and keep blood sugar swings in check. Other forms are as unhealthy as doctors have been saying all along. These types clog arteries, contribute to heart attacks and weight gain, and hinder blood sugar management".

If one is to go by this recommendation, taking mono unsaturated and poly unsaturated fats and avoiding saturated and trans fats, as part of one's diet would not do any harm at all. Probably there is some truth in such a statement, though even unsaturated fats, if consumed in excess can do harm to the human body. Also not to be forgotten is the fact that many cooking oils do contain significant proportions of saturated fats along with unsaturated ones and consumers have no choice but to use them in their day to day food preparations. If 100% unsaturated fats are to be consumed such fats will have to be made by suitable fractionating techniques but whether they will be acceptable from sensory perception is a matter of conjecture.



In the last 10 years sugar and other caloric sweeteners are at the receiving end, attracting attention from consumers, nutritionists, health professionals and governments world over, for all wrong reasons. There is no doubt that sugar based foods are liked by most consumers, especially children and young age population and this practice has been sited as the major reason for increased body weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) noticed lately amongst populations in some affluent countries. An average adult needs about 2000 kC of energy through the diet contributed by carbohydrates, proteins and fats present in the food. While fat calories are restricted by guidelines to provide no more than 30% of calories, there is no upper limits suggested for sugar.

Since protein requirement is about 50-60 gm for an average adult, the calorie contribution from this source does not exceed 11-13% of total calories and balance has to come mostly from carbohydrates which works out to less than 60%, equivalent to 250 to 300 gm of carbohydrates a day. Sugar and starch are the major carbohydrates present in foods and there is no accepted guidelines regarding the ideal proportion of sugar to total carbohydrates considered safe for regular consumption. While a daily consumption of 44 gm of sugar is suggested by some as ideal to keep away some of the life style disorders that afflict the humans, there is no scientific study reported any where to substantiate this contention. Food industry manufactures thousands of products containing sugars as high as 70-80% and focus has been on these products which are considered unhealthy and dangerous. To prevent people from consuming such sweetened products, radical policies like high taxation and state regulations to control their manufacture are being advocated.

During the last decade High Fructose Corn Syrup ( HFCS), made from corn starch through hydrolysis and isomerization was castigated as villain sparing white sugar from too aggressive adverse campaign. That HFCS contains same mono saccharides glucose and fructose present in white sugar, does not spare it from criticism by its antagonists and fact still remains that no shred of supporting scientific evidence has been forthcoming to support such a stand. Probably the observation that increasing incidence of obesity is almost parallel to the growth of HFCS industry, which may be coincidental, could have provided the temptation to critics to put it on the dock.

It is unfortunate that more than a century of research in nutrition has not been able to bring out the role of sugar clearly in human body leaving the mankind to second guess the probable role sugar plays in weight gain. It is only recently that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) came out categorically against blaming sugar for obesity, a stand opposite to the views of its counter part agency FDA of USA. According to EFSA not sufficient scientific evidence exists to fix any upper limit for daily sugar consumption. Further the data on obesity amongst the population in the US clearly shows that the epidemic is on the increase during the last decade while average sugar consumption in that country declined by more than 10%, clearly showing that the cause lies some where else.

Of course the above news could be sweet music to the ears of food industry, especially the caloric sweetener manufacturers but the views expressed by the EFSA should not be a blanket green signal for the industry to hook its consumers on nutritionally unbalanced products with high sensory pleasure. The key to over weight is often the excess calories consumed, be it from sugar or fat and psychologists have warned that high calorie foods are addictive in nature which should not be exploited by food manufacturers to inflict uncontrolled damage on the society. There must be synergy between consumer need and industry action.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010


With the food-borne diseases capturing world-wide attention, traceability has become a priority area of consideration so that such out breaks and costly market recall of suspected products can be avoided as much as possible. The problem assumes serious dimension under a global trade regime that depends on food resources and ingredients used by the industry from different corners of the world. While many developed countries are formulating policies for putting in place a dependable traceability program, some industry players are taking a proactive stand by implementing their own voluntary traceability plans.

Those products undergoing minimum processing and made from lesser number of ingredients are easily amenable to any new requirements for making the information about supply sources. But it becomes complicated bordering on nightmare when it comes to products containing dozens of ingredients sourced from different parts of the world. The "one up and one back" approach evolved a few years ago is relatively easy to be accomplished and possibly if every one in the supply chain keeps the supply source record, it should be possible to identify all the players involved through elaborate investigations, though it may take quiet some time to get the full details. The present clamor for full traceability vis-à-vis the final product by the manufacturer has to be understood in this context. The surmise is that in the event of any suspected episode, the entire sequence and the players involved can be traced instantly. Electronic tracing will eventually become an industry practice in future.

A manufacturer of chocolate bar in the US recently introduced a "choc-o-lot" code, a series of numbers that customers can plug into the company's website revealing where the cocoa beans in that bar were grown and who grew them. The idea is to introduce customers to the farmer in Ecuador, Mexico or the Philippines who cultivated the bar's essential ingredient. Tracing the chocolate from the bean to the bar is an elaborate exercise and this ability to track an ingredient from origin to destination is what is accomplished by this small chocolate company. Fritto-Lays Inc, the potato chips giant, initiated its own efforts under the "chip tracker" program under which consumers can track electronically the journey of potato from the farms to the factory. The fruit berry company, Driscoll's have the traceability sticker on the pack to inform its buyer about the history of the produce marketed by them while Chiquita company has put in place its "Leaf Locator" program for the lettuce it is marketing.

While 100% traceability is a desirable goal, whether it can be enforced across the entire spectrum of food industry under the prevailing situation is an issue that requires more attention to the details of logistics and other constraints coming in the way. Imagine the tribulations of a company dealing with a produce like tomato which are accessed from different sources for supply to the market after a series of operations. Tomatoes are plucked at different stages of half ripening, cleaned, sorted, packed, labeled and dispatched to the market. Naturally any given pack can have tomatoes coming from more than one farm and how difficult it can be to trace any contamination when suspected, to any original source. Under a strict traceability regime, the processor will have to have separate handling facilities for produce coming from different sources or at least separate storage facilities for each supplier. Same applies to all food materials as blending, mixing and pooling are standard operations in food processing industry for maximizing quality, safety and profitability.

In a country like India traceability will remain a pipe dream with millions of growers supplying the raw materials to the industry and millions of retailers peddling the processed products through their small outlets. Probably few retailers in the organized sector may be able to achieve some traceability because of their ability and capacity to link with large growers with traceable address. But eventually all countries have to fall in line if traceability becomes a pre-requisite for international trade under the WTO regime.


Thursday, May 6, 2010


Injera is considered the staple food preparation for most of the population in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen while Dosa is consumed widely in southern part of India. Both are fermented and baked in open stove for eating readily. Probably those who consume these two products would be totally ignorant about each other's food and one may not like the other because of perceptible differences in taste, texture and flavor. It will be interesting to know how similar and nutritious they are in terms of their various characteristics. While Injera is made from the unique coarse grain Teff, dosa batter is prepared using a blend of black gram and rice.

Teff is the smallest grain known to man with an average diameter of 1 mm. As early as 3359 BC, it was found in one of the Pyramids and it is grown in the northern highlands of Northeast Africa. it has some unique characteristics not found in any other food grains. Being rich in Calcium, Phosphorus, Copper, Aluminum, Barium, Iron and Thiamine, it comes with hues of colors ranging from white to brown depending on the cultivar grown. It is a grain containing 14% protein with balanced amino acid profile. Traditionally the fine flour from Teff is mixed with water and allowed to ferment for 2-3 days where upon the yeast present produces a dough or batter that can be poured on to a hot griddle for baking into slightly puffy pan cake like product with a pronounced sour flavor and taste.

Injera eating is also unique in that the product with a diameter of about 30-40 cm is consumed traditionally without a plate when stew preparations and salad are placed on the freshly baked Injera. Pieces are pulled out from the periphery and the accompaniments deposited at the center are scooped with the piece for eating. After finishing the stew, the remaining part of injera, soaked in the juice of the stew is directly eaten. Modern house holds how ever use stainless steel plates for serving Injera. R & D studies have made it possible to make injera with other cereal flours, often substituting them for the expensive Teff flour to a substantial extent. Even ready mixes that can be used to make instant Injera are now available.

Dosa, basically is made similar to Injera but using black lentils and rice. the fermentation time is
some what less, about 18-24 hours under warm climate or 36-48 hours under cooler weather conditions. For obtaining good dosa batter the proportion of rice to black lentil is 2:1 or 3:1, with the lentil ground fine incorporating lot of air during the grinding operation. Fenugreek is invariably added in small proportion which is supposed to provide better fermentation condition. There are indigenously designed stone grinders that make the batter without generating too much heat, considered harmful for promoting fermentation. Modern day electric grinders invariably give a much inferior batter and dosa made with such a better does not compare well with traditionally made products.

There are hundreds of versions of dosa with different recipes, ingredients, preparation procedure, taste, texture and flavor. Traditionally dosa is eaten with the side dish chutney mostly made from coconuts or sambar, the well established Indian curry or onion-potato masala. Open masala dosa is like Injera, eaten with the masala dish in the center. Same batter with varying water content can be used make uttappam, guliyappam etc with different shape, texture and taste. Pesarattu, Adai, Aappam, Uppupuli dosa, Rava dosa, Neer dosa, vegetable dosa, Urad dosa, Maida dosa etc are variations popular with different communities.

Both Injera and Dosa get their characteristic organoleptic characteristics from fermentation with natural microorganisms. The first face of the fermentation is dominated by bacteria like Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Streptococcus faecalis, Pediococcus cereviciae, , Lactobacillus plantarum, L.brevis, L.fermentum, Bacillus amyloliquefaciens etc followed by yeast strains like S.cerevisiae, Debaryomyces hausenii, Trichosporon beigelli etc. These microbes are contributed by the grains used for preparing the batter. Instant dosa mixes being offered by the food industry is based on chemical leavening agents and the end product is invariably inferior to traditionally made counterparts.

If Injera and Dosa are almost like "cousins" from two different continents, why not one think of creating an Indian Injera or an Ethiopian Dosa? Sounds exciting? Any takers?


Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Connoisseurs of Tea are known to pay sky high prices for high quality natural products grown in high ranges like Darjeeling because the flavor obtained from such sources are unique. There are reports that such tea leaves cost 100-500 % more compared to their counterparts from the plains. The reason for such variation in prices is attributed to the cocktail of delicate aroma developed at high altitudes. But can one imagine such a situation with regard to coffee beans? Apparently there seems to be a limited trade in high value coffee beans "produced" in some Asian countries like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia that can command prices as high as USD 2500 PER kg compared to less than $ 5 per kg for normal coffee, consumed world over! What is the "magic" involved in making such high priced coffee products from the very same varieties like Arabica, Robusta, Liberica, Excelsa etc?

As many of world's inventions are products of accidental events, the so called "civet coffee" known locally as Kopi Luwak, considered a gourmet product, also emerged from the jungles of Indonesia as an accidental discovery by the local population. To day this product is made in the islands of Sumatra, Java, Sulawezi in Indonesian Archipelago, in the Philippines, East Timur and Vietnam though it is known by different names in different countries. One wonders whether the so called connoisseurs of civet coffee would still enjoy the product if they really know the secrets involved in making this product with a halo around it.

Wild coffee plants that grow in certain regions where civet "cats" roam freely are the source from where civet coffee originates. Normal coffee berries are eaten by the animals when they are ripe and fleshy and after digesting the fruit pulp, the seeds are thrown out through the feces in about 36 hours' time which are collected by the locals for further processing. After gathering the beans from the feces, they are washed, sun-dried, lightly roasted, ground and brewed for obtaining an aromatic coffee with less bitterness and mild chocolaty after taste! The series of biological changes that take place in the digestive tract of the animal are due to action of several enzymes on the coffee berries and it is even reported that slight germination and mild Maillard reaction make the final coffee more aromatic and less bitter. Unlike normal coffee which requires admixture with Chicory to impart strength and body to the brewed beverage, civet coffee is reported to give a syrupy product with clean after taste. Why the western tourists who flock the tourist spots in South East Asia and enjoy the treat with civet coffee, with high sensitivity to food borne pathogens, is not concerned of E.coli or any other pathogens than can taint the final product remains a mystery!

Whether animal protectionists would like it or not there are captive civet farms being maintained in some coffee estates with closed boundaries to let the animals allowed to roam free during the nights to eat and defaecate for getting civet coffee of uniform quality. Asian Palm Civet is a small creature weighing hardly about 3 kg with the over all size of about 60 cm and a tail measuring about 45 cm. The anal scent glands secrete a fluid with a musky odor and whether this secretion plays any role in the characteristic traits of Civet coffee is not clear. Commercial considerations, with such high prices being fetched for this coffee, have led to artificial Civet coffee like products made by treating the harvested beans with a cocktail of enzymes that simulate the action in the digestive system in the animal, first pioneered by Vietnam. Civet coffee also goes by names such as Weasel coffee, Fox coffee, Cut chong, Squirrel coffee, Caphe chin etc. Kopi muncak is made from the dung of barking deer similar to civet coffee in some parts of Southeast Asia.

Considering that this highly priced coffee version is produced and consumed in limited quantities it is doubtful whether there is sufficient space for more players in the already crowded field. But for some limited studies by Vietnam on the biochemical aspects of converting fresh coffee berries into Civet coffee, no worth while scientific data exists on this unique bio-processed coffee. The need of the hour is to by-pass the animal and produce similar product with same characteristics and promote the product world wide. A cooperative effort amongst India, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam can put civet coffee on a better scientific and commercial footing in the coming years.


Monday, May 3, 2010


The rural development "mantra" was on the lips of every politician worth his salt till a few years ago as the national policy of rural upliftment was a top priority for all political parties. Even academia and research agencies were not spared and industries were pressurized for adopting villages for model development. The perception that more than 70% of the country's population lived in more than 0.6 million villages spread over all the states put some urgency in all the programs taken up by the governments at the state and federal levels. Billions of rupees were "spent" in the name of rural development though the results could at best be termed as "scratching the surface" of the Himalayan problem daunting the country. Even to day there are many programs with huge fund flow in different states for improving the living standards of rural people and probably the results are not going to be much different if one goes by the sincerity and intention of the bureaucratic and the political class that control the purse strings.

While the above scenario presents a bleak picture from the national perspective, the food industry pundits, promoters and policy makers have been singing the tune that food processing industry must come up in the rural backyard of the country where food is grown. Such a move was supposed to provide gainful employment to rural folks living in perjury for long due to marginal nature of agriculture. Philosophically this stand is logical because the easily perishable and not so easily perishable agricultural produce would have a better chance to maintain its quality if immediately processed, in stead of transporting to urban areas where most industries tend to locate their manufacturing facilities. But in practice many logistical problems like under developed infrastructure, power availability, personnel shortages, water shortages, etc in most of the rural areas are formidable constraints, especially for big players to locate their factories there.

The proactive policy of various governments extending financial and other favored considerations for setting up rural food industries, especially in backward regions, did not gel and entrepreneurs continued to flock around urban areas with better infrastructure to establish new ventures because of their conviction that projects were more viable and sustainable around urban consumption centers with assured demand. The setting up of the special purpose vehicle, in the shape of Ministry of Food Processing Industries did not change the situation very significantly in spite of massive funds made available to it for developing food industry. Is it the time to throw the towel now and express anguish at nation's inability to harness its agri-horticulture wealth for value addition, generate employment and ensure better returns to the growers who toil hard to raise crops against all odds?

A small program in Kerala, reported recently showed how the Panchayat administrations could be galvanized by an incentive based competition to change their attitude to common man, contains a clue to unlocking the inherent potential of people to demonstrate their capabilities in a succinct way. A collaborative venture between Doordarshan, Department of Local Self Government, State Suchitwa Mission and Center for Development of Imaging Technology, the program has enrolled 200 Panchayats for a competition to win Rs 10 million to be awarded to the most popular one with maximum citizen friendly activities. The way this program being telecast under the "Green Kerala Express" banner on every Friday on DD at Thiruvananthapuram seems to have changed the working style of most of the Panchayats in delivering services to the the citizens in double quick time compared to days and months it used to take for the same service under normal conditions!

If the same approach is used by different states to promote rural food industries at the Panchayat level, it may help entrepreneurs to set up such units with active help from the officials of the Panchayats. It is already known that in each state there are areas of plenty vis-à-vis food material produced locally and based on a master map some Panchayats can be selected for a special program for rural industrialization. Several financial incentives can be offered for those Panchayats achieving certain targets and nurturing the newly established processing units. One of the critical inputs required is the process technology and technical help to the entrepreneurs which will have to come from the District Industries Centers nearby. The Panchayats can even be given financial stakes in new enterprises for their continued involvement and prevent abandoning them after production is stabilized. This is where MFPI can play a vital role through escort service for the Panchayats selected under rural food industry programs. It is time GOI realizes that only rural food industries can provide socour to the farmers in this country though the organized sector may be more visible to the planners at Delhi!


Sunday, May 2, 2010


Many consumers must be wondering about the special attention being paid on declaration of trans fats (TFA) content in packed foods in some of the imported food products. The common perception is that saturated fat is not desirable and therefore foods that do not contain high levels of this category of fat are relatively safe. The health risks posed by TFA are well documented in western literature though Indian food safety agencies did not bother about it till recently. Hydrogenated fats which are the major sources of TFA still continue to be made in India with all its adverse impact on the consumer.

Trans fats are those containing the trans isomer of unsaturated fats, generated during the partial dehydrogenation (PHO) in order to modify the melting point to suit users like the bakery industry which could make superior baked goods when these plastic fats are incorporated in the recipes. The margarine industry also got into the PHO wagon when it found that butter substitutes made with PHO has vastly superior spreadability characteristics compared to that made with lard, as has been the practice before. Who does not like a butter like substance that can be taken out of the refrigerator and used straight away without waiting it to attain room temperature and this attribute was exploited by the industry to spawn out products that became instant hit with the consumer within a short time.

Why should TFA be condemned and avoided, if it is found in natural food items like milk, consumed widely world over? True not only animal milk, even human milk contains low levels of TFA, 1-7% of the total fat but these are comparatively harmless, especially the conjugated linoleyl acid (CLA) containing fats and mothers milk is a dilute product with low fat levels. When it comes to PHO, the situation is totally different because the TFA content in these man made products can be as high as 45% and most baked foods contain 35-50% fat in them. Though it was known almost 35 years ago that presence of TFA can cause high risk in terms of heart diseases, no worth while attempts were made to regulate their use by any country. The earliest to demonstrate the earnestness to tackle this menace was Denmark which banned use of PHO in foods by laying a very low limit of 2% in any oil or fat marketed in that country and 1 gm per day in human foods. World Health Organization has stipulated an upper limit of 1% of daily calories consumed that can be derived from trans fats in foods

As TFA is unnatural, the human system cannot break down it in the body leading to accumulation in the arteries causing the LDL levels to rise and HDL levels to go down. The LDL to HDL ratio consequently goes up, the rate in increase being more than double compared to saturated fats, spelling disaster in the form of Cardio Vascular Disease (CVD) to those consuming foods with high trans fats regularly. Besides There are scattered reports blaming consumption of TFA for many dreaded diseases like Alzheimer's, Cancer, Diabetes, Obesity, Liver dysfunction, Infertility in women etc most of which need further confirmation and consensus.

Indian authorities woke up to the dangers posed by TFA only recently, that too because of the dust and heat generated by the media and some health conscious consumer groups. Though the whole world is moving swiftly towards a regime free of TFA, there is no restraint on the domestic food industry which continues to manufacture hundreds of food items with high content of TFAs and the catering sector is slowly poisoning the consumers in this country by catering to them with high TFA containing foods. In the absence of any government regulations and absence of social accountability, one gets the unmistakable impression that hotels, restaurants, multi national fast food chains and the low profile street vendors are still using oils containing unacceptable levels of TFA with scant regard for human health.

According to knowledgeable sources it is time that the country wakes to the reality of TFA dangers and take concrete action on a long term basis. Such an action plan must include regulatory measures, by legislative action, to be adopted to put a threshold limit of TFAs levels, force the fat industry to make 'zero trans' fats, enforce mandatory labeling of packed food items and edible oils giving information about TFA content. Such a scheme must bring the catering sector into the ambit of compulsory declaration of TFA in their preparations and evolve compulsory logo for inclusion in the label to distinguish products that contain zero TFA, less fat, less sugar, less sodium, more proteins, more fibers and zero cholesterol.