Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Calorie restricted diet regime has been known to extend the life span significantly at least in animal experiments and a 1200 kC diet is generally considered beneficial for achieving sound health, freedom from diseases and longevity. Now comes the startling news, though very pleasant, that such a diet with limited calories, if practiced religiously, can even reverse Type II Diabetes within a matter of 16 weeks! If this is true this finding will give hope to millions of people suffering from this debilitating disease, if one call it a disease at all. To day diabetic people are not handicapped from this disease, being able to go on with their life practically normal. There are very effective medicines which are available in the market with minimum side effects. Life span of diabetics is not significantly affected if the blood glucose levels are not allowed to go beyond the safe limit and sugar peaks and surges due to uncontrolled eating are avoided consciously.
Dietary control does play a role in controlling ill effects arising out of Diabetes, though reversing the disease has never been an option available to the affected people so far. Diets based on complex carbohydrates, pulses, nuts, coarse and unrefined cereals, dietary fiber, resistant starch etc are known to be effective in controlling diabetes reasonably well. The concepts of GI (Glycemic Index) and GL (Glycemic Load) have helped in designing diets with slow release of glucose from the food ingested thereby preventing peaks in blood glucose level after a meal. Similarly changing the pattern of eating by pacing food ingestion every 3-4 hours in stead of the conventional 3 meal system also can help managing diabetes reasonably well. Diabetes is now considered to be linked to accumulation of fat in the body which some how upsets the insulin activity and over weight and obese people are the major victims of this disorder. In the past there have been special dietary formulations and treatment clinics for those whose BMI is beyond the magical figure of 25-30 which are supposed to help the "patients" loose weight over a period of few weeks. Similarly surgical intervention like bariatric surgery or gastric banding also is resorted to by people with BMI beyond 34. Liposuction is another technique to reduce the body fat and attain healthy weight. However none of these remedial measures is known to reverse the disease.
India is considered the diabetes capital of the world though percentage wise the figure may not be as high as that obtained in advanced countries like the UK, USA and others. There are about 300 million diabetic people in the world to day which is slated to increase to 450 million by the year 2030. In India as a percentage of country's population only 3.35% are reported to be affected which works out to about 40 million people! It was reported that in a tiny country like the UK with a population of 63 million, the number of diabetes has crossed 3 million while each year more than 117000 people are diagnosed with this disease. Imagine that country spending almost 9 billion pound sterling per year to treat this category of citizens under the National Health Service program! While Type I diabetes is genetically inherited and the numbers are rather limited, What is alarming is the extent of undiagnosed cases world over which is any body's guess! Type II diabetes is caused by the life style characterized by sedentary habits with no appreciable physical activity and dietary over indulgence with nutritionally unbalanced foods.
While diabetes is at least manageable, what is more disconcerting is the on set of other diseases like Heart disease, Stroke, kidney disease, neuropathy, retina detachment and other complications when diabetes is not properly managed through diet and exercise. It is estimated that diabetic people are 5 times more prone to heart attacks and strokes compared to normal individuals. The restricted calorie diet being advocated by scientists in the Netherlands is being hailed as a breakthrough and it is in the interest of the world community to give adequate attention to these scientific findings for adoption world wide. Restricted calorie diet has the twin advantages of preventing as well as reversing the diabetes while significantly extending the life span. How such a "dieting" can be achieved is a million dollar question considering that food has become an addiction in the modern society like tobacco and alcohol and specialized de-addiction centers may have to be set up in hospitals for treating people affected under the medical insurance coverage.

Food industry must step in to help diabetic people to manage the disease with appropriate designer foods with low calorie content but at the same time providing satiety with no feeling of the hunger pangs. One of the most difficult steps in controlling diet is the inability of people to gauge the calorie content of the servings though labels do indicate this information if packed foods are being consumed. Reported development of Mandometer, a device that tells the consumer about the calorie consumed with each mouthful and guides regarding the pace of eating. Slower the food is ingested, better will be the control on food intake. But it may take years before people take devices like Mandometer seriously. It is here where food industry must step in to evolve hundreds of variations of complete meals with serving size limited to provide less than 300-400 kC per serving. 


Wednesday, December 21, 2011


"Ignorance is bliss", so goes an old saying and to day's food landscape provides ample evidence about the validity of this dictum in the modern world. With millions of words spoken, written and published through the media, food remains an enigma to day as far as the citizen is concerned. It is true that education must educate people about the realities that confront the society and remove myths, superstitions and misconceptions in the minds of the citizen. When it comes to food there are lot of misconceptions compounded by gross ignorance regarding various facets of food including processing, preservation, packing, nutrition, health, safety, toxic effects, hygiene and sanitation etc and no doubt at specialized levels these are dealt with while training the practitioners. How about the common man who is bombarded with thousands of pieces of information blared through the popular media, often contradictory and confusing, making him apprehensive about the very food he takes day in day out?   

A Coffee consumer is pulled from opposing sides regarding the bad and good aspects of regularly drinking it every day. While it is consumed by millions of people in different parts of the world as a stimulating drink, its effect on health remains controversial. Its caffeine content is supposed to be making this drink addictive, pregnant women are advised not to take it, causing acid reflex, adversely affecting the absorption of some drugs taken regularly for some afflictions etc. While these are of negative implications, its beneficial effects include preventing depression, providing antioxidants, and many other benefits. Where lies the truth? Probably daily drinking a couple of cups of coffee cannot be considered dangerous!

Probiotic and Prebiotic foods have been considered the most useful products for counteracting many bowl disorders and prevent serious diseases but recently the European Union has rejected all such claims as not proven. Where does the consumer stand? Probably one can take these foods if one likes them and if there is some health benefit it could be a bonus! 

Has any one heard about Arsenic containing Apples? This is a hot current concern in the US and there has been numerous views regrading this issue. In spite of the denial by the FDA, many still consider Apple dangerous! What is lost in this debate is that presence of Arsenic in any natural food material depends largely on the soil in which they are raised and with Arsenic content in many places rising alarmingly there might be some cases where Apple grown in such soil has a higher Arsenic content. Does this mean people should avoid eating Apples altogether? Added to this confusion Apple was at the receiving end when scientists reported that eating Apple is "bad" for the teeth because of its acidity which can destroy the enamel coating of the tooth! Dentist seem to be recommending that in stead of biting the whole fruit, it would be better if its juice is swallowed or if the mouth is washed immediately after eating an Apple! What will the consumer do? If eating Apple is enjoyable one must continue to eat the same without any reservation. Unfortunately in India Apple is any how beyond the reach of most citizens as the price is as high as Rs 20 a piece!

Talking about Arsenic, recently Rice has been implicated as a high Arsenic containing food. True, Rice has the ability to absorb Arsenic more efficiently and Rice is a bulk food or a staple item of consumption. Fortunately it transpires that only Rice grown in industrially predominant places like Texas in the US contains high Arsenic levels and this country is not known as a Rice exporter. After all, the US population does not consume Rice to the same extent as Asians do, for whom it is staple cereal. If at all one wants to reduce Rice consumption, it should not be because of Arsenic scare but as a desirable step to cut down on refined carbohydrates for good health. 

Resveratrol is a chemical being touted as an "elixir" for long life and it is supposed to be present in some varieties of purple grapes. This has led to the promotion of Red Wine as a health drink that can ensure extension of life span if consumed regularly. It is rather queer that this wonder chemical is hardly soluble in water and it is beyond any body's comprehension as to how much Resveratrol can pass from the pomace into the fermented wine! Similarly Peanut is supposed to contain Resveratrol and when boiled the concentration is reported to increases ten fold. Does it make the boiled Peanut a magical food that will ensure long life? Probably true if it is taken in kilogram amounts which is not feasible. Eating peanuts is good for the health and also from the culinary senses. As long as it does not develop flatulence or increases body fat, one can eat the same with pleasure!

How about the safety of sugar substitutes, several of them safety cleared in many countries? Unfortunately the jury is still out on this issue, with no unanimity in sight. While those affected by Diabetes depend heavily on sugar substitutes for which they have to endure some risks, people wanting to reduce calorie intake for body weight reduction for a better health need to be sure that taking sugar substitutes should not have consequences worse than that due to over weight!. Recent decision by the EU to undertake a review regarding the safety of the most popular synthetic sweetener Aspartame and the clamor for similar review in the US can affect the confidence of the consumer regarding its safety. What is the alternate option? Simply try to take foods without any sweetener, natural or synthetic, if one can!

Imagine a life without consuming salt! That is what many nutritional and health pundits want the consumers to do for the sake of a good health. There are campaigns all over the world for cutting down salt in the diet limiting to about 5 gm a day per person.  While there was near unanimous agreement among scientists and medical practitioners regarding this restraint on salt consumption, now comes a large study by a reputed organization with unquestionable credibility that salt consumption does not influence the blood pressure and there is no connection between salt and a host of diseases including kidney damage. Where does the consumer stand in this controversy? Simply take the salt as required by the palate and nature has put a constraint that man cannot use too much salt that is not tolerated by the tongue! 

Modern day health experts consider sugar as white poison! Is there any valid scientific basis to call this food ingredient the "villain of peace"? Added to this there is the controversy about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) derived from corn starch and there is a belief that 
HFCS is responsible for the obesity epidemic that permeates the American society. The argument that fructose is metabolized differently than sucrose, which after all is a disaccharide containing glucose and fructose, may need undisputed evidence through unbiased human metabolic studies. What is the choice for the consumer? Take sugar in moderate quantities as per some suggestions, not exceeding 50 gm a day per person but ensure that this is "spent" by enough physical activity.

Coconut oil was once decried because it was "full" of saturated fats which are implicated in triglyceride and cholesterol build up in the human body. On the other hand Coconut is also hailed as one of the major sources of Medium Chain Fatty (MCF) acids with potential beneficial effects and has now become a most sought after edible oil. Scientifically MCF acids directly enter the liver to get metabolized without any chance to go through the heart for any possible deposition in the arteries and development of plaques.The global escalation in the price of this oil speaks volume about its present popularity all over the world. If one can tolerate the typical smell of Coconut oil there cannot be a better cooking oil than this one.

GM foods have become so omnipotent in the US there is an impression that they are absolutely safe. Are they really safe, beyond a shadow of doubt? If so why most countries including the EU have banned cultivation and import of GM foods? Unless the safety question is settled once for all, there is an element of risk in consuming these "unnatural" foods about which consumer must be aware of.

There are many other areas like safety of eggs from cage raised birds, direct consumption of raw milk, presence of fluoride in some foods, leaching of Bis-phenol A and some endocrine disruptors from plastic bottles, can coatings and packaging films used to day, hyper claims about the usefulness of tender coconut water, etc on which consumers find it difficult to believe or disbelieve the reports emanating from hundreds of sources. Is there no way to wade through these information bits and evolve a dietary practice that can protect the health from many problems associated with modern foods? But one thing is sure, that is, as long as a normally healthy person adopts a life style based on a mixed diet containing about a dozen commonly available foods, reasonable physical activity of walking for about 30 minutes daily and does not indulge in over eating, the chances of living long and comfortable without any major health afflictions are very high!      


Monday, December 19, 2011


Food industry in almost all countries are being forced to include nutritional information on the label so that consumers can have an idea as to the foods they are buying. Prominent nutrients to be declared include Protein, Sugar, Fat and dietary fiber besides the energy value per serving. While quantitative figures do give the extent of the nutrient present, there is no provision to indicate their quality. In the case of fat at least there is a direction to declare the extent of trans fats and sat fats. With wide variations in the quality of proteins from different sources and also the pace of  release of glucose from carbohydrates, a time has come probably to indicate the efficacy of these components in the food vis-a-vis nutrition. Probably the time has come to at least insist on stating the quality of the protein in the food on the label of the package and this assumes all the more significance when it comes to high protein foods being marketed by the well being industry.  

Even a child in to day's modern world knows how critical is protein in the food they consume for ensuring growth and high protein food products lead the portfolio of well being foods in the market. However what is not known so very well is the importance of quality of protein consumed that can make a difference in their effectiveness. In almost all food science courses it is dinned into the ears of the students that animal proteins are superior in quality to that contained in plant foods. Probably this assumption is based on the fact that the nutritional quality of a protein is closely related to the proportion of essential amino acids present in them and it may be true that some plant proteins do lack some of theses amino acids and different proteins may have different "limiting" amino acids bringing down their overall value as a complete protein source.

The concept of mutual supplementation evolved when limiting amino acid issue came to the fore and in order to overcome deficiency of any amino acid two or three sources of proteins are blended to neutralize such a draw back. For example it is presumed that groundnut protein is deficient in Lysine while cereal proteins do not contain adequate Methionine. Soybean is rich in Lysine A blend of groundnut protein and soy protein, therefore can be expected to be a more or less complete protein product, nearly equivalent to egg protein. In spite of the rapid advances made in the field of Biochemistry, there are widely differing perceptions regarding quality of protein and the vested interests in boosting one protein over others from different sources have clouded the understanding of real value of proteins in general. No matter what sophisticated instruments or techniques are employed for protein analysis ultimately what influences the real effectiveness is the extent of proteins that get into the body across the digestive tract which is influenced by many variable factors. This is a problem ignored when high protein foods are designed, produced and marketed by most of the players in this field.

Classically protein was always deduced by estimating the nitrogen present in the sample using the age old Kjeldahl Method and multiplying it with a factor varying from 5.46 to 6.38 which reflects the extent of Nitrogen present in relation to carbon, oxygen and hydrogen moieties in the protein under consideration. Nitrogen content is influenced by the extent of different amino acids present in the protein. Thus the factor used for Milk products is 6.38, for meat and egg 6.25, for grains 5.8 and for nuts 5.46. Unfortunately presence of nitrogenous compounds other than proteins vitiate the results so obtained, often giving a higher value for the protein content. Direct methods are also available based on specific chemical reactions but they are also influenced by chemical substances in the complex food system that can interfere with the results. As for quality of the protein both Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER) and Biological Value (BV) are the preferred tools in the hands of Biochemists and Nutritionists but they need experimental animals and require a few days to get the results. Net Protein Utilization ( NPU) is another indicator of protein quality and used by many to compare quality of different proteins in relative terms.

In a recent new study the present scenario vis-a-vis protein quality assessment has been critically evaluated and it has been found that most traditional assay methods do not present the real picture regarding the protein quality in foods. It was pointed out that the current methods  for determining protein quality shows most plant proteins as of lower quality compared to animal-based proteins. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend the protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) as a simple and scientific procedure for assessing protein quality. This methodology focuses on three different parameters which include the amount of each essential amino acid present in the protein, how easily it is digested and by taking both of those parameters into account, whether the protein meets the FAO/WHO's amino acid requirements set for children aged 2 to 5 years, as they have higher needs to support growth and development than adults.

According to the above method, a protein having a score of 1 in the PDCAAS scale is supposed to be the highest in quality whereas a zero scale makes it the lowest quality. Measured on this scale Casein, Egg White, Soy protein isolate and Whey proteins have PDCAAS scores of 1, Beef protein scores 0.92 while all proteins from plant sources have scores between 0.42 (whole wheat) and 0.9 (soybean). What is interesting is that when PDCAAS score is determined for plant sources except soybean, proteins were not isolated but assessment was made with the food materials themselves which could have vitiated the results very significantly. Also to be noted is that no human diet is made of a single protein source and when different food sources are combined in evolving a diet there is the distinct possibility that a mixed diet may have PDCAAS scores even beyond 1 if properly assessed.

It must be realized that precise methods for determining protein quality are critical for planning any healthy diet. Currently there is lot of interest in including plant-based proteins in the diet and accurate information on protein quality is needed to demonstrate that a diet can include quality plant-based proteins to achieve same results as with animal based proteins. Variations do occur in results from laboratory to laboratory in the amino acid analysis but if the PDCAAS determinations take nitrogen recovery into account necessary corrections can be made to counter act the analytical method error. Isolated soy proteins and soy concentrates are reported to have a PDCAAS of 1.00 indicating that plant proteins can also be as good as that in meat, egg and dairy products. Same may be true with many other plant proteins if they are isolated and quality assessed by the PDCAAS Method. Already Quinoa and Amaranth Seed have established themselves as sources containing high quality proteins similar to animal proteins. All said and done, consumers need not be too much concerned about protein quality if normal mixed diets are consumed regularly. However industry which designs high protein products must consider PDCAAS score of ingredients used in formulating their products and declare the same for justifying the claim that the high protein foods marketed by it is really efficient.


Friday, December 16, 2011


Government of India seems to be on the back foot while defending its sudden decision to allow foreign direct investment in the retail business with a hope to attract some of the global retail chains so that the rapid slide in Rupee's value could be stemmed. While there is considerable opposition to the move, some genuine and others political, there is no denying the fact that the decision was not timely and such a decision could have been taken after in-depth consideration of the impact of foreign retailing giants establishing their foot prints in the country. No doubt there are significant advantages as well as disadvantages for the country and a final decision can be taken only after the risk-benefit aspects are fully studied.

Look at the position taken by GOI as reflected by the grand statement by the Commerce Minister extolling the virtues of opening the retail sector to foreign direct investment through a series of glittering advertisements in almost all news papers immediately after the announcement. It gives a rosy picture to the citizens about the advantages of major global retail giants coming to India. However a close look at the ground reality will tell a different story.There appears to be a goof up regarding the number of towns, each with more than a million population eligible for setting up shop by the MNC retail chains and now it turns out that in stead of 53 cities mentioned by the minister, only 46 urban entities exist in the country that are eligible to attract FDI! Besides 25 of the above are under the administrative control of non-UPA governments which are hostile to the new policy leaving only 21 urban entities available to foreign companies to invest. The opposition party BJP is so hostile to the policy that one of its senior members from Uttar Pradesh even threatened to firebomb the foreign controlled super markets if established in that state!

Keeping aside the politics those who are stake holders in this development must introspect regarding the outcome of this policy under which global giants like the Wal-Mart, Tesco and others interested can set up modern state of the art super markets in some states in the country. A moot question is whether these MNCs will be interested in entering India under such a hostile environment and whether the potential business volume can justify huge investments in the area. Also to be pondered by these companies is how any one can manage access to agricultural and horticultural produce from the distant hinterlands of the country where average holding of a grower is hardly two acres. There are at least 200 million farmer families who need to be approached and linkage established for a cooperative partnership can only ensure regular supplies to the super markets. Is this not a mega nightmare that can haunt any investor? If GOI is to be believed these MNCs would invest 100 million dollars for back end operations like procurement, sorting, cold storage, refrigerated transportation etc and also would buy 30% of their product portfolio from SMEs though this provision does not apply to food products. But who will invest on the power generation, water accessing, roads and bridges and other accessory infrastructure so vital for protecting the quality and nutrition of the food handled by them? 

The claim that the new "policy" would generate 10 million jobs in 3 years seems to be a pipe dream and on the contrary with automated handling machines with capacity to be used by these giant companies, likelihood of some unemployment cannot be ruled out. Allowing for an attrition of 10% of the small traders, it is to be expected that about a million families will be adversely affected forcing them to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The earlier policy of allowing MNCs into wholesale sector was indeed sound because these outlets serve the small traders admirably well and many traders operating in far away areas, at considerable distances from major towns and cities use these "cash and carry" business organizations to procure their requirements for selling at a higher price locally, eking out a decent living. Even allowing 100% FDI in single brand retail may be acceptable because it can again serve as a feeder to thousands of small retailers operating in distant places.  

It is claimed that under the new FDI policy in retail, farmers would get a better price for their produce as there might not be middle men in such transactions between the Retailer and the Farmer but if the experience in other countries is seen such a dream may be transient till the competition from the local players is killed during the first few years. What prevents the MNCs from accessing materials from out side the country where they are cheaper and shun the local suppliers in the long run? China is a predatory country that can out price suppliers from any part of the world and some of the large retail players have established and cozy presence in this country. Under such a scenario can the farmers in the country expect higher prices to their commodities? If some of the large farmers in Punjab are to be believed entry of PepsiCo two decades ago has improved their productivity and profits very significantly but it must be borne in mind that PepsiCo is not known for its retailing business, being best in manufacturing processed food products of global repute. Will the retail MNCs provide support to the farmers the same way as PepsiCo has done for tomato and orange or ITC has done for wheat in Madhya Pradesh? Doubtful!

As for consumers there might be some initial advantages because of the ability of MNC retailers to practice predatory pricing for pushing out the local traders and domestic organized retail chains for establishing their supremacy in the market. The variable pricing practices in vogue in many developed countries cannot be repeated in India as the Maximum Retail Prices (MRP) have to be printed on the label as per Indian law. The usual strategy of a product being priced differently from shop to shop and for varying prices in the same shop over a period of time, for cross subsidization, cannot be deployed in this country because of the MRP provision. History is replete with examples as to the long term endurance of MNCs, sustaining losses for more than a decade, eventually able to recover their losses by extinguishing the competition. A look at the experience of Indian companies like Fortune group or Reliance group in retailing during the last 5 years will tell a different story and some of them have not been able to reach even 10% of their targeted volume of business with accumulated losses estimated at billions of rupees during this period. Domestic retailing giants have not been able to capture even 5% of the retail market which is predominated by more than 8 million small traders even to day.

There are some apprehensions that the unorganized sector of retailing might suffer if FDI is allowed but if the history of Indian retail industry is examined one can see the role played by them in making the life of Indian families comfortable through their friendly service in contrast to the "mechanical" or 'Robot" like service offered by super markets. Indian traders, most of them, thrive because of the confidence they enjoy from their customers and friendly service provided. It is inexcusable on the part of GOI not to have done a scientific study regarding the impact of large retail chains on small traders during the last few years from which valuable lessons could have been learned before formulating the new FDI policy. There is a feeling, not supported by any data, that Indian families are returning to their familiar "mom and pop" stores in increasing numbers after the initial euphoria of shopping experience in large super markets has declined. The reason for this, if true, must be found by field studies which only can bring out the ground realities.   

Whether the FDI policy on retail has been rolled back or suspended or on hold, the ability of the Central Government to clear the same is doubtful because of the "coalition dharma" to which most policy failures are attributed. Political survival seems to be more paramount than the interest of the country and if and when the policy is resurrected the country must  ask hard questions regarding various uncertainties cited above. Assuming that the doors are opened for retail FDI eventually, another million dollar question is how many major players will actually enter the country against the pre-conditions imposed and restricted areas of operation available to them. Any how the road ahead for the foreign companies may not be as smooth as they hope for and it may take years, if not decades, before they can establish any sizable presence on Indian soil!


Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Two of the most prevalent technological options for the food industry to process raw food materials into preserved or consumable products are chemical conversion or physical methods. Food technologists adapt various chemical engineering unit operations to food processing where generally no deliberate chemical reactions are involved. In contrast very few chemical reactions are in vogue in processing foods as the intention of processing is to preserve every nutrients, which are all chemicals with different molecular structure, as far as possible for delivery to the consumer. Of course there are unintentional consequences of processing, especially at temperatures above the ambient one and reactions involving amino acids, sugar, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, etc are unavoidable. Some of these reactions are considered desirable while many others are unacceptable as far as the consumer is concerned. Maillard reaction that progressively yields brown chemical artifacts are liked in products like baked foods while undesirable color tints imparted due this very same reaction is sought to be stopped, especially in products with natural white color. Use of chemicals like preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, antioxidants etc which are chemicals, some of them natural and others synthetic cannot make these foods chemically processed.

Physical processes like flour milling, grain polishing, flaking, puffing, popping, sugar recovery from cane, milk pasteurization, oil seed crushing and many others invariably depend on mechanical operations and temperature rise is very minimal. Of course there are high temperature processes like baking, coffee roasting, coco bean processing, extrusion cooking, canning, frying, cooking, grilling etc but temperatures generally do not exceed 200C. One of the unavoidable consequences of food processing or cooking is that there is a loss of nutrients like vitamins and others, thermally unstable, which varies from process to process and product to product. The fortification and enrichment technologies help the industry to make up for the nutrient losses albeit to a limited extent. Still the consumer is always skeptical about the healthiness of many products going through the industrial manufacturing hubs. Frozen foods are invariably preferred because of the perception that at sub-zero temperatures nutrients are stabilized, reducing the possibility of spoilage considerably. Besides these foods have relatively long shelf life that enables consumers to store them at home.

Fermented foods which are derived by the action of beneficial microorganisms belong to a group of products evolved historically over centuries of human civilization. Wine with a history of thousands of years are made from grapes and other high sugar fruits using yeast as the "biological converter". Same is true with regard to Beer made by fermentation from grains and hops. Products derived by fermentation of grains, fruits, molasses etc and after subsequent physical processing yield many established lines of product like Whiskey, Gin, Rum, Vodka, etc. The simplicity of yeast fermentation lends itself to house hold preparation of wines while the flourishing existence of illicit liquor making industry reflects the ease with which yeast fermented products can be made with minimum facilities. Another classical example is bread making where again yeast is involved under aerobic conditions. Then there are many other products like yogurt, cheese, Indian idli and dosa and a hundred other products made and eaten in over 70 countries of the world. One thing in common with all these products is that all of them involve use of one or more microorganisms with assured safety.

There are many processes employed by the food industry using enzyme preparations derived from microorganisms, plant and animal sources and by no stretch of imagination the end products can be called fermented foods. Conversion of starch into sugars catalyzed by amylase and amylo glucosidase enzymes or manufacture of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) through Glucose Isomerase or making Pectinase clarified fruit juices or tenderizing of meat using Papain and many such enzyme mediated processing cannot be classified as fermentation process. Similarly there is an important emerging area that has great relevance to food preservation and that is Bacteriocin class of Bio-preservatives obtained from safe bacterial species. Foods which can be preserved by these natural antibiotic substances will have to be considered as partly "Bioprocessed". Probably it would be more appropriate, when natural microorganisms and the derived enzymes from them or plant and animal based enzymes are used in preservation or conversion, if they are called Bioprocessed foods. Bioprocessing is relevant even to many non-food products also and one of the most promising areas for using this process is in the energy sector where non-food biomass is sought to be converted into readily usable energy forms like alcohol. 


Saturday, December 10, 2011


Chocolate is known to be a rich source of antioxidants but its consumption is constrained by the high levels of saturated fat and sugar present in these products, both dangerous food ingredients as far as human health is concerned. While consumption of high levels of fat, especially the saturated and trans fats, can cause atherosclerosis and consequent heart problem, high sugar intake is equally risky precipitating many ailments including diabetes. Chocolate making technology can be considered as one of the most foolish progresses made by mankind because a patently good food raw material is converted into a nutritionally absurd product for satisfying the palate of man. The cured raw cocoa bean is a source of many chemicals, many of them considered nutritionally beneficial to health. While it is a rich source of fat the ubiquitous cocoa press can remove most of them to give cocoa powder which is considered one of the richest sources of health-friendly bio-flavonols.

Cocoa has twice as much antioxidants as in red wine and three times the quantity present in green tea. The ORAC value of cocoa is about 25000 as compared to 18500 for Acai berry and 1540 for Strawberry. Cocoa is reported to have properties related to anti-aging and anti-inflammation. It is also a rich source of minerals that include Magnesium, Sulfur, Calcium, Potassium, Manganese besides some B-vitamins. The Bioflavonol  Epicatechin is reported to be effective in preventing fat accumulation in arteries and veins. Almost 10% by weight in cocoa is Bioflavonols and about 300 chemical compounds have been identified so far in this wonder food, the function of many of them  not yet unraveled so far. Dark chocolates with high cocoa solid content can improve insulin sensitivity significantly.

The chocolate making process uses the recovered fat from the cocoa pot to enrich the chocolate mass (finely ground cocoa mash) with more fat and uses copious amounts of white sugar to get the final product which is much sought after by consumers of all ages. The typical melting characteristics of cocoa butter confer on chocolate the unique "melt in the mouth" feeling associated with these products but the rich calorie and fat contents also make chocolate a "cat among the pigeon", being shunned increasingly by weight watchers and diet conscious people. It is against this background that chocolates are losing their luster as a culinary wonder in the present century with more and more people entering the "obesity" club world over. During the last one decade continuous efforts have been directed to modify chocolate products in such a way that they can be considered safe for consumption chucking the unhealthy tag commonly associated with it. Dark chocolates are now being offered by the industry containing almost 85% cocoa solids and less and less of sugar. Fat content is still a deterrent against its universal adoption by one and all.

A solution to high saturated fat content in chocolate has recently been found where normal fats are substituted with special fats with different metabolic characteristics. Diacylglycerols which are modified versions of normal fats with one fatty acid group less, behave differently when consumed compared to cocoa butter fat. Though both fats are commonly found in food, diacylglycerol is better known for its emulsifying properties rather than as a food fat. According to nutritionists since the normal fat molecules are too large to get across the intestinal wall in one piece, the body breaks them down into smaller components, which are reassembled once they cross the cell membranes of the intestine. Due to their different molecular structure diacylglycerols are not immediately reassembled after they cross the intestinal wall, unlike triglycerides and therefore are not stored in fat cells. They are broken down in the liver and used as energy. As it does not require for the body to carry them through the blood, unlike large triacylglycerol molecules, diacylglycerols are not expected to clog the arteries and veins in the same way as the former.  

While diacylglycerols have been used to produce vegetable cooking oils derived from canola and soybean oils for the health-food market, scientists and manufacturers have not had much success using them as confectionery fats. Most difficult part of substituting cocoa butter with any other fat is to simulate the unique melting properties of the former which influences the eating quality of a good chocolate product. Technologically this is a challenging area for fat technologists and almost all cocoa butter substitutes presently available are poor imitators of the real natural product. If the scientists who claim that diacylglycerols can be an effective substitute, are to be believed such products will be much more healthier while the sensory characteristics are not seriously affected. What is intriguing is that diacylglyceols are better known for their emulsifying properties especially in fat-water emulsions and whether it will have any constraint on the process itself. One is reminded of Olestra, a fat substitute made from sucrose and fatty acids with zero calorie density, which freaked out because of the unacceptable side effects caused in the intestine due to its ingestion. It is to be seen whether diacylglycerols will have similar effect in the GI tract though the developers preclude this possibility.

If fat saturated content is replaced with diacylglycerols will there be a calories saving for the consumer? Unfortunately the answer is in the negative because both triglycerides and digylcerides have almost same calorie count. Similarly as chocolate is a sugar rich product new formulations containing diglycerides will have no impact as far as weight reduction is concerned. Unless new chocolate formulations with low fat and low sugar contents are developed it is unlikely that these products will ever become a universal choice for all consumers across the spectrum.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011


Has any one bothered to ask the simple question as to why modern day youngsters are more enamored by foods from western countries rather than being proud of their heritage foods numbering over 5000, inherited from their forefathers? Why is that a kid, hardly 3 year old, craves for chocolate products and high sugar confectionery items like artificially colored candies in stead of hundreds of sweet meat products available in the corner shops of Halwaiwalla? Is it the taste that drives these kids to western foods or the habit formed during the early childhood due to over indulgence of the parents? Or could it be that the convenience factor, good product stability, attractive packing and massive promotion by the industry that tilt the scale in favor of confectionery products like candies and chocolates? Probably a combination of all the above must have caused this gross distortion in the food preferences of young generation.

There are thousands of ethnic foods originated in India during its 8000 years of history and these food products have been continuously evolving, influenced by successive cultures entering India from time to time. Whether it is a meal or a side dish or a snack or a sweet Indian population, as diverse as they are, can be proud of their indigenous foods which lately are captivating the taste buds of consumers all over the world. If Indian restaurants are becoming more and more popular these days, even over taking Chinese or Mexican cuisines, it can be attributed to the rich diversity of products representing more than a hundred ethnic communities in the country. These culinary treasure will only expand in the coming years if the enterprising restaurateurs pay more attention to the design of their eateries and hygiene and sanitation aspects. Indian "curries", though demonized for their strong smell and spicy and pungent taste, have become cynosure of all eyes because of the realization that spices and herbs are repository of a host of phytochemicals with health promoting properties. 

Emergence of "Retortable Pouch Process" as an industry standard during the last one decade made it possible to "stabilize" shelf life of a number of food preparations of Indian origin. Thanks to this technology there are over three dozen products of Indian origin on the shelves of super markets and retail out lets spanning the entire country. These RTE products faithfully represent the original fresh preparations with least distortion of flavor and taste. Who could have thought a few years ago that the famous Indian Pulav could be preserved for more than 9 months or for that matter the south Indian delicacy Bisibelebath for almost an year? Curry preparations like sambar, rasam, dal, aloo gobi, aloo palak, chole, paneer muttar, avial, kootu, etc are to day preservable for as long as an year. The country must salute the pioneering scientists whose committed work has resulted in making available these products to the Indian consumers in India as well as in other countries on a "platter". 

Snacks and savories which are mostly fried in edible oils are made by thousands of cottage scale operators and are sold fresh from small shops and bakeries with limited shelf life of a few days. Potato chips and extruded products, made by the organized sector enjoy a much longer shelf life because of the antioxidants and other stabilizers used during the process as well as the functionally superior packing materials but typical Indian snacks like Samosa, Vada, Bonda, Dal Vada, Chakli, Mixture, Kodubele, Vadian and Ghattia and many others are still being left in the lurch because of lack of interest among scientists to work on them as well as due to apprehension among the entrepreneurs regarding the difficulties in marketing them. Probably greater R & D efforts are called for in studying the basic aspects of their making that control the final product quality and to work out strategies to extend their shelf life. 

The Indian confectionery products like Chikki, Besan Laddu, Carrot Halwa, Doodhi Halwa, Son Papadi, Jangri, Badam Halwa, Khoa and Chhakka based items, etc are rich in nutrients like proteins derived from  milk, peanuts and Besan, micro nutrients derived from vegetables like Carrot and Ashgourd, PUFA from Almonds and other nuts, though some of them do contain high sugar and fat levels. Compare them with different type of sugar confections of the west which are practically based on white sugar and flavor. Unfortunately the processes to make Indian confections vary enormously from place to place and from person to person while there are no standard quality or safety parameters to be adhered to. No wonder the kids do not get "hooked" on such products so easily, driving them to western products like chocolates and candies.

Recent development of processes that ensure better shelf stability for some important sweetmeat products by a scientific group in CFTRI Mysore bodes well for this sector. Through this work the scientists are atoning for their past neglect of Indian traditional sweetmeat products which are universally liked in the world. For almost 3 decades the only products that could claim long life were Gulab Jamun and Rasagolla which were canned in open top sanitary cans for obtaining a shelf life of about an year without any significant quality deterioration. The CFTRI processes for preserving sweets  like Boondi Laddu, Bombay Halwa, Carrot Halwa, Doodhi Halwa, Doodh Peda, Milk Burfi and Coconut Burfi , without using any chemical preservatives are expected to kick start the revival of this sector in a big way if the technology transfer is not sought to be hampered through high price tags for selling them. As the packing technology is not matched by machinery development for their mass manufacture, it is unlikely that large players would be interested in this development. It is therefore advisable to pass on the technology through mass contact programs involving live demonstrations and some basic training of SMEs in different parts of the country.

Design of appropriate equipment portfolio for mass production of many India sweets are fraught with insurmountable technical difficulties which should be addressed immediately, if Indian sweetmeat products have to become a big hit with foreign buyers. This is an area with some dilemma for the country to decide because most of the traditional preparation processes are predominantly manual in nature involving skilled artisans and introduction of large scale automated machinery may see many of them thrown out of their jobs which may not be a desirable development in a socially sensitive country like India. Keeping this industry labor intensive also serves the purpose of keeping the process and recipe secrets within the country and ensure monopoly for years to come.       


Monday, December 5, 2011


Food technology strives to process and preserve food raw materials into consumable form for periods ranging from a few days to several years. But the consumer perception about fresh quality food does not help the technologists to actively pursue the research efforts to evolve processes that can ensure shelf stability beyond a certain extent. With the advent of refrigeration many foods can be preserved for a few days to a few weeks at temperatures ranging from 0C to 8C while most foods are preserved at sub-zero temperatures for a few months with minimum quality deterioration. While safety is of paramount importance, eating quality is the critical factor that decides the acceptability or other wise of the processed foods. It is always asked whether it is possible for food technologists to preserve food indefinitely or for long periods, say about 5 years. But a counter question would be who wants to eat a 5 year old food even if there is a workable technology?

A consumer is unlikely to pick up a product from the supermarket with 5 year shelf life if he has a choice of an alternative with two weeks life. Practically every house has a refrigerator with capacity ranging from 100 liters to more than 500 liters and the freezer chest coming with the Frig can carry a few items for consumption in 1-2 months. There are stand alone freezers with small to large capacities which are useful to larger families. These gadgets are normally useful for storing both short term needs as well as long period storage with the latter coming handy to "hoard" those products offered in the market from time to time at promotional or stock liquidation programs. The very fact that consumers have a tendency to pick up products from the shelves with most recent manufacturing date reflects their innate desire to buy products as fresh as possible. This again raises the question whether there will be any takers for products with extra long life?

Food is to be preserved from two angles. First and foremost it has to be safe. The eating quality comes next but it is crucial for a competitive market that food offered has most acceptable sensory quality which includes flavor, texture and taste. Historically preserved foods using salt, sugar, acidity and dehydration were only the choices till the middle of the last millennium and the consumers of yesteryear were contented with the same for want of an effective alternative. To day situation is different with a vast array of technologies available that include canning, aseptic packing, vacuum packing, retort pouch process, irradiation, high pressure processing etc that can give products with varying shelf life from a few months to a few years. The outer space missions by countries like the US, EU, China and Russia require long life food products while military missions in far away places also stock such products. Natural calamity, undeveloped remote areas, especially in the third world countries also depend on preserved products with long shelf life.

Another relevant question is who will make products with long shelf life? The food industry which works incessantly to lure the customers to the products turned out by it wants the customers to increase the frequency of purchase as much as possible and by putting long life products in the market the manufacturers naturally are bound to suffer due to slower turn over. The industry requirement is a maximum shelf life of 9-12 months which gives them sufficient time to distribute the products with least damage and minimum recall in large countries like India. One of the biggest problems faced by the industry is the mandatory provision under the labeling regulation to indicate the manufacturing date on the label which leads to the customers picking up the most recent ones which they believe to be of best quality. The possibility of products manufactured during earlier dates remaining on the shelf without sale and evetually being returned is very high. The market pull will always be the force that is capable of dictating terms to the food scientists for their development agenda and probably long life products will invariably be the ones with least priority.    


Saturday, December 3, 2011


Modern education in India and many developing countries is degree oriented with the students striving hard to get a University degree or Diploma entertaining serious hope of landing in a job, preferably in government sector. On the other hand there are many lower education centers where pupils are trained to sharpen a skill or develop a skill that will help to plunge into a job requiring that particular skill. Education is a broad term and it need not be University centered because every day it is a learning process if one has the common sense to observe and understand the environment. Unfortunately the current system of education does not value non-formal education and every job available has a qualification tag, generally a university degree. If the unemployment problem is acute in the country, blame squarely lies with the present education system. 

Life has to teach a lot of lesson to youngsters aspiring to be some body to be counted by the society. There are millions of so called skilled personnel with capabilities beyond the reach of their counterparts coming out of the formal education system and these skilled workers are invariably called artisans with experience in doing specific jobs with confidence and elan. Take the case of a Mason who may be an illiterate person with no formal education but he can be depended upon to do his construction work and if one looks at the evolution of this artisan the career must have started as a menial worker with practically no knowledge about any aspects of construction to begin with. Within a few years of watching his peers work at the construction sites and after a few hesitant steps towards practicing the masonry job in a small way, he may eventually become even a civil contractor undertaking construction work with increasing complexity over a period of time. Same is true with almost all skill oriented profession. 

Food industry is a classical example of artisan predominance as 75% of the food products marketed in the country comes from unorganized or informal sector, employing millions of artisans. Almost every traditional Indian foods which have been commercialized in India are produced using traditional technology with predominantly manual operations. The machinery content in the technology is limited to a few standard unit operations like grinding, mixing, heating and concentration. Modern packaging machinery, when deployed, are restricted to semi automatic types while most packing is done manually. The failure of mechanized gadgets to make khoa, paneer, roti, idli, vada, bonda, papads, Chakli, samosa and many snack products reflects the importance of skill in making the traditional food products of acceptable quality. 

There are many institutions and universities offering degrees in food technology all over the country and hundreds of graduates, post-graduates and doctorates are produced by them year after year. Where do they fit in as a responsible operator? Unfortunately, with multinational companies with least challenges to grow, 90% of the industry in the micro enterprise, small scale and medium scale sectors do not employ any university degree holder and this should wake up the education pundits in the country regarding the exact need of this industry to flourish. Besides the so called teachers with responsibility to impart training are them selves not fully conversant with developments in food technology, being out of touch with modern developments. To a very limited extent the certificate and diploma course do serve a purpose but in absence of hands-on training facilities in these teaching "shops", at best half baked products are turned out from these centers. Industry also must carry the blame partially because of its reluctance to join forces with teaching institutions in making the "products' of these centers fully "baked". 

Any course intended to train operators in a food processing facility must focus more on practical aspects rather than being heavy on academic content. Of course food technology is a vast area and it is humanly not possible to train every one in all areas. It is here that specialization is called for. One of the most shining examples of focused training comes from Mysore where specialist milling technicians are trained at CFTRI specifically for the flour milling industry. Why not such course be planned for every sector like fruits and vegetables, baking, confectionery, snack foods, dairy products, breweries and other food product categories based on a realistic assessment of country's need. The Ministry of Food Processing Industry, instead of behaving like a funding entity, must take lead in this area to generate thousands of skilled artisans who can provide a sound foundation to the food industry in general. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Agreed that fruits and vegetables come under the category of protective foods because they, if consumed in adequate quantities, can provide the precious micro nutrients like vitamins and minerals besides many health boosting phytochemicals and valuable dietary fiber. During the last hundred years the habit of consuming these foods is coming down dramatically with consumers increasingly craving for meat foods. It is forgotten that the tragic health slide being experienced by the population in rich and wealthy countries is to a large extent, attributable to this switch from fruits and vegetables to animal foods and carbohydrate/fat based products. The astronomical farm subsidies flowing into the farm sector due the folly of the governments in many advanced countries are distorting the dietary regimes in favor of cheap processed foods ignoring the crucial importance of fruits and vegetables in maintaining health. If this is so in the developed world, what is the fate of consumers in the developing countries?

Take the case of India. Theoretically it is one of the top fruit and vegetable producing nations in this globe though it is also the second most populous country after China. The mere size of the population can be daunting for any government to provide for the well being, health and safety of its subjects. It is well known that India is plagued by malnutrition and soaring inflation. But an in-depth reality check will reveal that it is not due to inadequate production that the country is suffering from lack of food. Though it is the world's second largest grower of fresh produce there is more or less unanimity that the country loses an estimated 40 percent ( or a guesstimate?) of its fruit and vegetables to rot because of gross deficiency in the infrastructure like cold stores, refrigerated trucking, negligence of railways to provide dedicated racks, poor roads, inclement weather and the despicable corruption that pervades the whole country. Of course it is a poor consolation that post-harvest food losses of the scale found in India are also a problem throughout the developing world and translate into lower incomes for farmers and higher prices for consumers.

Inflation is already undermining living standards across Asia with world food prices at record highs since December last year, according to the FAO of the U.N. In India, home to more than a third of the world's 150 million malnourished children under 5, food inflation hovers around 10 percent stubbornly. Is it not a criminal neglect on the part of the government to allow wastage of such magnitude when poverty is an omnipotent phenomenon? When will it dawn on the government that just reducing the waste could make a significant dent  in bringing down food inflation and making food more affordable to the vulnerable segment of the population? Visit any vegetable market in India and one cannot escape the heaps of rotten vegetables accumulating side by side with vendors selling salable commodities! Imagine the frustration faced by an average consumer when exorbitant prices are charged by the vendors who factor the cost of the wastage into the price charged to the consumer! How can the food inflation be controlled in this country under such a condition? The economists and the financial pundits seem to be barking at the wrong tree when the inflation is sought to be moderated through Reserve Bank by increasing the banking rates across the board, forgetting that the price distortion is purely a supply-demand distortion with too many people chasing too little food available in the market.  

it is not that sporadic efforts are not made to address the sad situation prevailing in the country by successive governments at Delhi. Recall the efforts made by the NDDB in early eighties, under direction from the government in power at that time, to organize fruit and vegetable industry under the cooperative mode, similar to milk. However while NDDB had achieved sterling success with milk, it could not boast of similar success in either the edible oil sector or horticulture produce sector. Why it has failed is a story that is not well known. Could it be because of the obsession of the government with cereal grains ignoring the fresh produce industry? In spite of the recent pompous announcement of a Horticulture Mission by the government of India to augment production of these commodities, nothing precious has happened at the ground level. One is familiar with the fate of similar Missions in the past on Pulses and edible oils and even to day the country is still dependent imports to bridge their demand-supply gap!

Is it not a shame that a consumer has to pay Rs 15-25 for an average sized Apple where as for the same amount one can get almost two kg of coarse cereal that can keep the body and soul together for a poor person as long as a week? If the poor villagers in the hinterlands live on leafy vegetables, mostly grown locally, unable to buy any normal fruit or vegetable during his life time, what quality of life he can hope to live? Practically every fruit or vegetable in the market costs upwards of Rs 20 per kg and if the NPC has defined poverty line at Rs 32 per day, what choice a poor person under the BPL category, has when it comes to buying his food? With fertile agricultural land being diverted to support the real estate business through out the country, where will be the land for increasing production of horticulture produce to meet the increasing demand for them. Horticulture scientists may be working hard to develop newer and better production technologies for many important horticultural crops but in the absence of government support for propagating these technologies nothing tangible can come out of such efforts.

If the government of the day is to be believed, it is also concerned about the situation and it has "begun" work on a strategy to cut post-harvest losses by building modern grain silos, cold storage warehouses and setting up farmers' markets in remote areas to link vegetable growers with retail outlets in the cities. If the track record of the past is any indication nothing substantial will happen, at least in the near future except frequent statements, repeated ad naseum by the concerned ministers and bureaucrats. Ask any farmer in the country and they will confess that they have no faith in the government and even the promised changes are years away if not decades. admittedly. It is recognized that growing vegetables and similar perishables in India is a business fraught with serious financial risks with the farmers finding it difficult to find ready buyers at for such perishables like tomatoes, capsicum, and other vegetables at reasonable price. They face the risk of these vegetables rotting at every stage, whether in the field, on the road, or in the markets. It is familiar sight in almost all major mandisin the country to see hundreds of vegetable and fruit trucks reach the wholesale market each morning and commission agents scouting for the best bargains in a frenzied atmosphere and most farmers are lost in this wheeling dealing atmosphere not able to strike a favorable bargain..

Paucity of refrigerated trucks means that delays at state border crossings, traffic jams, or the frequent landslides that clog hill roads can cause vegetables to wilt and rot. There are only a few trucks run by private firms, that are refrigerated. The rest are open trucks, with tarps or plastic sheets for cover in case it rains. People travelingin these trucks perched on the sacks of gunny bags containing the produce is a familiar sight to behold! Too often the contents are crushed with practically no life left when the destination is reached. The recent opening up of the retail sector to foreign investment is viewed with hope that supermarket giants such as Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour when start operating in India's multibilliondollar retail market, there could be success where the government has failed. The provision for backward integration and building infrastructure for preserving the fresh produce is cited as the reason for such a hope. One has to wait and see whether India will really attract FDI in this sector under such stringent preconditions. Even if they arrive, it is to be seen whether they can reform the fragmented farm sector ans improve the agricultural to any significant extent. 


Monday, November 28, 2011


It is the consumer psychology that the foods consumed by them must be as fresh as possible though health aspect also comes into reckoning with some segment of the consumers. The front of the pack label indicates when the product is manufactured and for how long the contents are good for eating. However this information does not guarantee that the food inside the unopened pack is still good, the consumer depending entirely on the label declaration to take the buying decision. Foods are packed in rigid as well as flexible containers and the packaging materials used can be metal, plastics, paper, laminates etc depending on the functionality and shelf life desired. While transparent packaging may provide some clue regarding the appearance of the product based on which some consumers decide whether they are good or bad, there is not sure way of arriving at a decision about the quality without opening the sealed pack. Recent news that scientists have come out with a a gadget that can "tell" whether the packed food is good for eating, is indeed a welcome news and it is worth evaluating the efficacy and relevance of the new gadget for the industry, retailer and consumer.

When a food is packed in any container the industry has a few options to extend the life of the product to some extent through manipulation of the gas composition inside. Most products are packed in plastic pouches and sealed under atmospheric condition. The head space with in the pack is air containing mostly about 21% oxygen, 78% Nitrogen, 1% Argon and some trace gases like Carbon Dioxide and others. It is the presence of Oxygen in the air which causes quality deterioration in food through oxidative chemical reactions and support for growth of microorganisms if the water activity in the product is conducive for them. Oxidation becomes a critical issue in dry products, especially if the concentration of oil component in the product is significantly high. Oxidative rancidity is one of the major problems for the fried product industry and there are many antioxidants deployed for retarding rancidity in such products. Vacuum packing and Nitrogen flushed packing are also employed to protect food from rancidity and consequent flavor deterioration. Use of modified atmosphere packing technology is based on controlling the composition of the gas inside a pack with predominance of CO2 which prevents growth of microorganisms, especially in high moisture products like fresh fruits and vegetables besides slowing down biological reactions to extend their effective life.  

A new laser technology developed in Sweden is claimed to be capable of detecting the gas composition inside packaged foods and determine the relative freshness of the content. Since It is a non-destructive method to test "freshness" of packaged foods, the developers feel that its utility would be of great relevance to all those involved in quality assessment of foods. Through measurements of the gas composition the product quality within can be monitored at different times effortlessly, enabling to check a much higher number of products than at present by the retailers as well as the industry. Most packaging practices use simple flexible pouches made from plastic films with varying gas permeability and oxygen is bound to seep in through the film surface into the pouch leading to oxidation, the growth of bacteria, and spoilage. The hand held instrument developed by the scientists is able to determines gas composition within food packaging using a laser spectroscopic technique which measures the absorption of light when the laser passes through the package and based on the signal, a computer provides the gas composition within. 

The only prerequisite for the technology to be successful is that light must pass through the package for measurement of the transmitted light and correlating to the gas composition. It appears almost all packaging materials currently in vogue allow at least some light to pass through making the method universally applicable. With the advent of lamination technology there are many permutations and combinations of films with Aluminum foil to control the gas and vapor transmission properties and the fact that even these packaging systems containing Aluminum foil can transmit light to the extent of as low as 0.001%, can make the laser technology relevant to almost all segments of food industry. Though technical soundness of the concept is well established beyond doubt there can be some challenges when commercial application becomes a reality.

A most critical question is whether the optical properties of the content inside can vitiate the result and if so to what extent. Similarly will there be variation from product to product and whether individual standardization will be required for each and every product. Ultimately who are the target users of this beautiful technology, whether the consumer, industry, quality monitoring agency or the retailer? Will there be a day in future when retail stores keep this instrument at each bay so that the consumers can check the products they want to buy for their freshness and if so how can the retailers avoid massive return of products left behind by the consumers to the manufacturers? Does this technology has a potential to disrupt the current food supply chain dynamics seriously? These are challenges that need to be addressed before mass deployment of this "toy"!


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Coffee, by any yardstick, cannot be termed a food as it does not provide any calories or nutrients by itself and often consumed for its beverage properties. If so why is it that Coffee is the second most traded commodity behind petroleum, in the world market? Global production touching 7 million tons can vouchsafe for the popularity of coffee in many parts of the world. Top coffee producers in the world include Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Honduras, Ethiopia and India, accounting for almost 80% of global out put and this commodity happens to be major sustaining economic force for 12 countries who dominate the global trade. Interestingly most of the top coffee consuming countries do not figure in the list of top producers and the per capita consumption in these coffee producing countries is some what insignificant compared to that in many countries in Europe. Why is that coffee has become an important part of the life styles in many western countries?

It is generally agreed that Western countries are more affluent and also generally better informed about nutrition and health. If so is it possible that they have realized the health advantage in consuming coffee regularly? Or is it because of the addiction quality of coffee that has hooked the consumers in these countries to regular consumption of coffee? It may also be due to the stimulating aroma of coffee that is liked by people in the West. Otherwise how one can explain away the high consumption level of coffee in countries like Finland (12 kg per person per year), Norway (9.9 kg), Ireland ( 9 kg ), Denmark (8.7 kg), the Netherlands (8.4 kg), Sweden (8.2 kg) or Switzerland (7.9 kg)? Compare to this, consumption in India is less than 100 gm per year per person! Probably the most compelling factor could be the environment in these countries where cold climates persist most of the year and a cup of coffee is the best "friend" to keep company ( of course next to alcohol)!

Is consumption of coffee really beneficial to the human health? There is no unanimity on this issue with most scientists supporting its health value while a few believe it could be injurious. A random sampling of international opinions on effect of coffee on health would reveal that its consumption can reduce the risk of a plethora of diseases that include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, CVD, Diabetes, Liver Cirrhosis and Gout. However coffee is implicated in acid influx, especially in old age people. Also coffee in implicated in increased LDL proteins and consequent heart problems, attributed to the diterpenes, Kahweol and Cafestol, present in coffee brew made without paper filter. It is universally accepted that roasted coffee can contain more than 1000 different chemical constituents including valuable lipophilic antioxidants which are effective in sweeping off the dangerous oxyradicals generated at the cellular level. Chlorogenic acid lactones, present in coffee, are reported to be effective in protecting neuronal cells.

A recent study, performed by a Harvard Medical School team, using a sample size of 50,000 women in the US over a span on of 10 years has brought out a startling fact that coffee consumption can be very effective in decreasing depression among them significantly. According to them those women not taking coffee regularly tended to have very high level of depression compared to others consuming the beverage regularly. Drinking two or more cups of coffee a day may reduce the risk of developing depression and the increase in coffee consumption correlated to a decrease depression risk. Those who drank 2 to 3 cups a day had a 15% decrease in depression risk; drinking 4 or more cups a day decreased the risk by 20%.  Drinking decaffeinated coffee did not have the same effect on depression prevention. This empirical correlation does not seem to have any scientific backing and only further studies can figure out the effects of caffeine on the brain. Scientifically it is established that caffeine, present in coffee does promote feelings of well-being and energy. The ability of Caffeine to block adenosine, a chemical produced by the brain that slows nerve cell activity in the brain and cause drowsiness, is well known. Similarly Caffeine also increases dopamine production which plays an important role in depression. It is also claimed that the tendency to commit suicide is very low among coffee drinkers and these findings can reinforce the basis for coffee's ability to counteract depression. 

Lack of unanimity that is eluding the researchers engaged in coffee related studies can be attributed to the confusion that prevails regarding the understanding of coffee and its processing. Coffee is roasted first before grinding into powders with varying particle size and variations can exist in roasting conditions depending on the type of product desired. The chemicals extracted into the brew can vary enormously depending on whether it is a light roast or medium, medium dark, dark or very dark roast. At 200C the process of caramelization is initiated when starch is broken down to sugars and Maillard reaction also begins giving the darker color. At 205C flavor chemicals like Caffeol start forming. As roasting proceeds many aromatic oils and acids are destroyed changing the composition dramatically. Added to this the powdering operation decides the efficiency of extraction whether by boiling with water or steeping or percolation or pressure extraction. This is borne out by the fact that a cup of coffee can have Caffeine in a wide range from 75 mg to 200 mg depending on how it is made! What role addition of whiteners like milk plays on the health front is not very clear. For comparison of any scientific study the basic material used must have uniformly defined characteristics and probably it may be time such studies are organized by the International Coffee Organization to dispel all doubts about the effect of coffee consumption on human beings. Till such times these studies are organized, consumers will have to go by impartial observers that coffee consumption has more beneficial value than any serious health risks.