Monday, January 24, 2011


There is an increasing tendency for people o go for "fresh", "local" "natural" or organic foods and the reason is not far to seek. It is simply the fear factor that is driving millions of consumers away from preserved or processed foods and the food industry is to blame itself for this sorry situation. Historically food technology was evolved over centuries to extend the supply chain so that adequate foods are available all year round. Use of salt or sugar which increases the osmotic pressure in food system to discourage proliferation of pathogens and many spoilage organisms continues even to day though from healthy angle they are shunned by a substantial strata of the society. While uncontrolled salt consumption is known to be linked to hyper tension and cardiovascular disease, high sugar can be responsible for dental decay, diabetes, obesity and other disorders. Organolepticaly too much sugar or salt can create quick satiety. Salt and sugar preserved food products can be farthest from the concept of fresh foods.

Sun drying or the more scientific mechanical drying of perishables which contain high levels of moisture gives products with altered textural features but it still served the purpose of extending the life of the food significantly due to low water activity in such foods after removing bulk of the water content. Besides, the reconstituted final product has drastically different eating quality, not often liked by consumers. Vast improvements in dehydration technology have contributed to better finished products and freeze drying can give a product that can be quite satisfactory though cost wise such products can be very expensive. However dehydrated foods can also never qualify to be called fresh.

One often hears about "Dairy Fresh" milk which is probably taken to mean that the milk is as fresh as the one milked directly from the cow! In reality milk travels over some distance from the point of milking, gets refrigerated, pasteurized and packed before reaching the consumer. In a country like the US raw milk is never allowed to be sold directly and therefore fresh milk in literal sense can never be seen by a US consumer while in India really fresh milk is sold directly to homes within a matter of minutes! Similarly fresh fruits and vegetables which are sold in many markets in India are considered really fresh because not much time elapses between their harvest and bringing to the market. In contrast most fresh produce sold in super markets cannot claim to be fresh because they undergo a series of "processing" involving cleaning, washing, sorting, trimming, cold storage and distribution over considerable distances.

Modern technologies like MAS and MAP in combination with cold storage can extend the life of fresh produce for weeks and months though quality-wise they will always be inferior to farm fresh counterparts. That raises the inevitable question as to what qualifies to be called "fresh"? The current understanding that any food put on sale as early as possible after harvesting is some what vague and there does not appear to be any scientific definition universally accepted. The perishable nature of foods in general calls for preservation, at least till they reach the market and ultimately the bottom line is that the eating quality and nutritive value should not be adversely affected to any significant extent.

As foods, especially the perishable ones are seasonal in nature, their year round availability and supply can be assured only if they are preserved for some time. While some foods like apple, potato, onion etc are amenable to long term storage under MAS and low temperature environment, others can still be stored under such conditions for limited periods. Frozen storage or freeze drying can be the best way of protecting a food from nutrition angle but the consumer will have to compromise on eating quality as there will be deterioration in this respect due to freezing. While under optimum frozen temperature conditions almost all foods can have storage life beyond an year, the sensory quality of products when thawed can never be the same as the fresh material before freezing.

While advances in technology and transportation extends the shelf life of food, there is a price for availability and convenience in terms of nutrition and taste. Probably obsession with the word "fresh" will have to be overcome eventually as it is impossible for the world to meet the demand for such "farm fresh" foods of every consumer in the world. While intense debate goes on regarding even the ability of man to meet the bare food needs of the ever expending population, the protagonists of fresh foods are well advised not to divert the attention of the world from the basic task of increasing food production and making them available to people with maximum nutrient content. The story of organic foods also bears a parallel to fresh foods as it is logistically impossible to raise and supply such foods to meet the needs of entire population! In spite of movements like Local Produce, Slow Foods, Urban Gardening, Roof-top farming, Organic farming etc, it is unlikely that every person on this planet can be provided with "fresh" foods as it is understood commonly.


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