Monday, February 28, 2011


Advent of fossil fuel based plastics has literally revolutionized the material foundation of the industrial world and there is no area of manufacturing which is untouched by plastics. Progress in plastic material development has made it possible to make plastics which are as strong as steel while soft plastics find extensive use as containers and bags. Though the convenience and cost factors have pitchforked plastics as the most preferred material of choice till recently, a rethinking about its impact on environment and sustainability is slowly putting a brake on its continued use. While cheap petroleum fuels from which most plastics are derived was justification enough to introduce them in place of traditional materials like glass and metals, this argument cannot hold any more since the cost of non-renewable fossil fuels increased several fold during the last 3 decades.

Plastics attracted severe criticism from the environmentalists because of its lack of biodegradability credentials. It is known that plastic materials take any where from 100 to 1000 years to degrade when used in landfills besides polluting air and water around. Land availability will pose a challenge in many countries if landfill practice is continued and restrictions are now being put in place to curtail this approach. Besides extremely thin plastic bags made from less than 20 micron thick films are choking the drains of many cities causing uncontrolled floods during rainy season. Plastics in garbage are estimated to be killing a million creatures in the sea every year. Littering with plastic bags has become such a nuisance that many countries have banned use of thin plastic bags by the consumer industry during retail sales of products. In some countries incentive schemes are in place for using packaging modes of sustainable nature. Free supply of plastic bags by the retail industry is sought to be discouraged through pricing the same so that consumers are dissuaded from using them. In some countries consumers are encouraged to bring their own bags while many retail stores provide facilities for collection of used plastics for sending to recycling plants.

In India also some of the states are in the forefront in banning plastic bags by grocery stores but implementation lacks the necessary teeth though such a process is bound to take time to assume critical level of efficiency. Surprisingly there is a silent consumer awareness about the adverse impact of plastics on the society and many of them are voluntarily shunning the use on their own without any compulsion. The biggest challenge for the objective of weeding out plastics is posed by lack of infrastructure in most places to segregate plastics from urban wastes generated from the garbage. It is true that in countries in Europe and others like the US there are well designed garbage segregation and collection facilities that enable easy recycling but such an approach is conspicuous by its absence in countries like India and most of the developing world. Unless this is done used plastics will continue to pose problem to the society at large.

While used plastics are often considered a waste, the facts reveal otherwise and it is not realized that throwing a plastic bag has much more connotation than any consumer realizes. Why is that many have come to the conclusion that used plastics must be recycled? There are strong reasons which include constraint on resources, conservation of energy, saving landfill space and avoiding environmental degradation. It is not realized that one ton of plastics, if recycled can save one ton of fossil fuel and it can spare more than 7 cubic meter of land space used for landfill. Recycling thus becomes an economic option and this is realized more by the industry which has led to increased demand for recycled plastics. More and more retailers and branded product companies are in the market looking for high quality recycled plastics. Many of them have already introduced pet bottles containing high percentage of recycled components with less and less virgin polymer. The UK dairy industry is reported to be committed to use up to 50% recycled HDPE in their bottles by 2020. To day about 22% of recycled HDPE plastics is used by the pipe manufacturers while 55% of recycled PET is used by the textile industry. Food industry is slow to catch up with the trend because of the rigid migration limits set for food contact application.

Recycling process is not as simple as one thinks because of the complex chemical and physical science involved in the process. Generally plastics have a low entropy of mixing because of high molecular weight and heating alone cannot ensure dissolving such large molecules. Similarly plastics have to be nearly identical in composition for the process to be efficient as different plastics if melted together can be vulnerable to phase separation with the phase boundaries susceptible to structural weakness. Presence of dyes, fillers and other additives make the recycling process more difficult as the melt becomes too viscous for removing them easily. Beverage bottles and plastic bags, however contain less additives and therefore are preferred for recycling. Sorting out as per Resin Identification Code of the Society of Plastic Industry can make the cycling much more easier.

An added incentive for the industry to look for recycled plastics is the carbon credits they will be able to get by shunning virgin polymeric materials. According to industry sources demand for recycled plastics will far exceed the production that can be achieved by the recycling industry and such a situation will make the recycled products somewhat costlier. Still user industries prefer them because of compulsions to reduce the carbon footprint of the manufacturing and retailing sector as a whole and to achieve increased resource efficiency in the coming years.


Friday, February 25, 2011


Starch in foods contribute a major portion of calories in human diets and most of the population in the world depend on rice, wheat, and other cereals as their staple diet. Almost all cereals contain high levels of starch and normal starch, when digested in the gastrointestinal tract, yields readily utilizable glucose which is absorbed across the intestinal wall for serving as energy source for the living cells. It is only during the last 3-4 decades that sugar and other non-starch carbohydrates have become major sources of energy because of the predominance of industrially processed food products in the daily diet. The modern weight watching community has invariably targeted the starch in their attempts to cut down weight and they may be right in so far as all products from the industry contain refined starch ingredients devoid of the innate nutrients like germ, bran and others. But all starches do not deserve to be condemned and the importance of resistant starch, a form of starch molecules different in physical structure from the conventional ones, can be extremely healthy for humans as being brought out by many studies.

Many consumers may be unaware of the existence of resistant starch which is present in almost all foods one consumes to varying extent. The name is derived from the fact that it resists digestion in the small intestine and ends up in the large intestine for doing its good work. Many nutritional experts believe that resistant starch should be considered as the third form of dietary fiber, the other two being soluble and insoluble fibers. It is generally agreed that there are four different types of resistant starches, all capable of functioning as dietary fiber with varying efficiency. Starch that cannot be accessed physically from the sources like seeds, legumes and whole grains constitutes the first category known as RS1 while starch present in uncooked materials like uncooked potato, raw green banana flour and high amylose corn comes under RS2. During cooking or processing resistant starch is generated like in cooked legumes, baked bread, corn flakes and others, known as RS3 while chemically modified starches like etherized, esterified and cross bonded starches, not occurring in nature constitute the RS4 category.

In nature resistant starch occurs at varying levels in foods like cooked Navy beans ( 10 gm per half cup), raw banana (5 gm per one fruit), cold potato ( 3 gm per half inch diameter sample), cooked lentils (2.5 gm per half cup), cold pasta (2 gm per cup), pearled barley (1.5 gm per half cup) and in smaller amounts in many others. One of the beneficial attributes of these starches is that they help the friendly microbes in the large intestine to grow and produce the much needed short chain fatty acids including butyrates in abundance which are implicated in healthy growth of colon cells, acting as anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic agents, abetting better absorption of Calcium and Magnesium, reducing cholesterol build up, over all reducing the intestinal pH and generation of potentially harmful secondary bile acids, ammonia and phenols.

The foods which are rich in resistant starch seems to have a role in aiding digestion since they provide fuel for bacteria in the colon that aid the process. Resistant starch has become a focal area of interest lately because they have been recognized by global agencies like the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO). Some researchers even claim that resistant starch is able to cause shrinkage of fat cells in the human body, simultaneously increasing the muscle mass. According to the findings by scientists from University of Colorado based on a massive study those who consumed most of their carbohydrates from whole grains, fruits and vegetables were slim while others who ate the least carbohydrates tended to over-weight. If WHO findings are true, resistant starch may be the future "weight buster" and "Health Mascot" as it promotes satiety while decreasing the cravings for energy- and fat-rich foods.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Food inflation is a worrying factor in many countries including India and opinions differ regarding the root causes for such distortions in the consumer prices of staple commodities like rice and wheat at global level. Sound economic principles always blame supply-demand distortions for the phenomenon of rise in market prices with demand out-stripping the supply. But a closer look will tell a different story. If per capita availability of food grains on a global level is calculated, the available stock is more than adequate to be distributed equitably but political and economic considerations do not permit such a simplistic interpretation of food inflation. Though world is supposed to be a global village after the setting up of WTO regime, blurring the national boundaries, the ground reality is different as each nation is still wedded to the welfare of its own citizens before considering the needs of others. Probably such practices can never be abolished as reflected by periodic export bans enforced by producing/exporting countries to prevent shortages and consequent price rise locally. According to FAO, frequent changes in export policies can cause distortions in global prices which should be avoided in the larger interest of humanity.

Probably in an idealistic world, sharing of happiness and sorrow equitably can make this planet a happier place to live but in the comity of nations all are not equal, some being poor, some rich and many others super-rich. It is only in countries practicing communism or socialism, remnants of equity can still be seen while in vast majority of countries the gap between the rich and the poor is widening significantly year after year. Take for instance the situation in the richest country in the world, the US where there is a substantial segment of population, being terribly impoverished and this most democratized country can do very little to bridge the ever widening gap. The agricultural policy in this country is so distorted that valuable foods that can feed millions of hungry people are being fed to meat animals and more are diverted to make ethanol for driving automobiles. Who can force this country to alter its policy to be fairer to fellow denizens? Probably none, as long as the pro-agriculture and pro-industry lobbyists have crucial influence on the government policies.

According to the FAO, the 2007-2008 food crisis in the world was mainly due to hastily taken decisions by some governments to ban exports in order to insulate their population from shortages and such knee-jerk reactions exacerbated the crisis, further aggravating the impact on over all food insecurity atmosphere around the world. The world body felt that export restrictions imposed by some surplus food-producing countries provoked more uncertainty and disruption on world markets, drove prices up further globally, while depressing prices domestically. This in turn acted as disincentive for the farmers to produce more food. It may be recalled that in 2008, India banned rice exports on lower procurement by the government while in 2006, it barred sugar exports as prices began to surge in the domestic market. Recently India banned onion exports after prices surged at retail outlets to nearly Rs 100 a kg. Russia banned wheat exports after its production dropped 5 million tonnes owing to the worst drought in five decades. It is true that such food inflation at a global level hits many poor countries which depend on imported foods for meeting the needs of their population as their food import bills reach non-affordable levels..

In principle what FAO says makes eminent sense but in practice putting it into practice is fraught with enormous implications. Does a country have no right to govern itself without interference from outside? Is the welfare of another country more important than that of the domestic population? What should be the criteria that should govern the export policies of a country? These are issues that must be addressed collectively by the countries who are members of the WTO to evolve a consensus. There are food security concerns facing practically every country in this planet, the degree of severity varying from one to the other. The experience and dilemma of a country like India must be a lesson for others. It was only recently that the government was hauled by the Supreme Court for allowing huge quantities of food grains to rot with no adequate storage facility available in the country. If even a part of the stock was offloaded into the global market , the world prices could have surged making the lives of many importing countries miserable. What options this country has under such circumstances?

Unless the world cooperates more meaningfully and sincerely, a solution to the surplus-shortage cycles vis-a-vis staple food grains and consequent price instability will refuse to go away. Either FAO must initiate action for setting regional food banks in different regions based on contributions from surplus countries or there must be inter-country cooperation mode for meeting one country's export obligations by another country with more favorable production situation. For example Russia, instead of abrogating its export obligations unilaterally last year could have requested India to help it out on a bilateral basis and settling the account on mutually accommodative terms. Same could have been done in the case of Onion where Pakistan could have helped India to pre-empt any supply problem and uncontrolled price escalation. The expected impact of the potential effect of the anticipated drought in China can be significantly lessened if appropriate arrangements are made by surplus producing countries to directly supply by-passing the global trade mechanism as an emergency basis. Recent pronouncements by the Prime Minister of India that environmental changes are responsible for food inflation is too simplistic a view that states the case but cites no solution!


Monday, February 14, 2011


Soybean oil is one of the major edible oils that dominates the global market. As an industrial fat it undergoes hydrogenation to generate solid and semi-sold fats with different melting point features suiting various applications in food industry. There was a time when hydrogenated fat products ruled the food world used practically in every processed food available in the market. How ever the "arrival" of trans fats on the safety front changed the situation dramatically with almost all sectors shunning their use for fear of offending the consumers. Trans fats are implicated in heart related diseases, similar to saturated fats and food scientists have been searching for acceptable and safe alternatives having similar functional properties without the presence of this offending substance. Fractionation techniques, interesterification process and similar technological approaches more or less have made hydrogenation a redundant technology, shunned by the food industry.

Amongst the frying oils Soy oil loses out to others like peanut oil, canola, coconut oil, corn oil etc because of its vulnerability to fast oxidation and consequent rancidity and polymerization leading to unacceptable changes in the properties due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures as encountered during frying. Cost consideration has pitchforked Soy oil as a major input material for catalytic hydrogenation and till the trans fat dangers surfaced it had practically no rival. The dynamics of oil trade changed causing a steep decline in the fortunes of Soy oil and it is estimated that due to sluggish demand Soy oil lost as much as 27% in its price during 2009 alone. Added to these woes, most of the Soy oil produced in the US is derived from the GM sources, unacceptable to many countries. Against such a background, relentless efforts were being made by the American Soy oil industry to revive its fortunes by exploring new uses for the oil which has resulted in developing a new variety of bean that contains higher proportion of oleic acid, more stable and can be used in place of hydrogenated fats by the food processing industry as being claimed by its developers.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "not only will high oleic Soybeans help provide a healthier alternative for consumers, they also will help increase demand for U.S. Soybean oil". So the main idea is to boost business for the American Soy beans, the nutritional consideration being secondary. Whether the high-oleic Soybean varieties could help the U.S. Soybean industry regain its lost edible oil market share is a question only time will tell. The US Soy bean Board which funded the development of new versions based on two high-oleic Soybean genes also is singing the same tune that the oil from high-oleic soybeans is healthier than partially hydrogenated vegetable oils because it requires no hydrogenation, a process that leads to trans fats. High-oleic oil also is also supposed to contain about 25 percent less saturated fat than Soybean oil processed from traditional soybeans. What is galling in these claims is the effort to down grade high-stability fats and oils, such as palm, that contain high levels of saturated fats.

In spite of such new approaches. Soybean oil can never be able to compete with edible oils like palm oil unless the western farmers are heavily subsidized by their governments. The fact still remains that it is not necessary to go through the GMO route to change the composition of an oil like that from Soybean to suit food industry when available technologies can convert conventional oils into fractions with any desired melting characteristics. If American consumers are so wedded to Soybean oil, they may have no choice but to accept the new GM version with all the claims being made by its promoters. But for others there are plenty of choices to go for and they do not need a GMO source.

Don't pick lemons.
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Tuesday, February 8, 2011


It is a Catch 22 situation for policy makers world over whether foods derived from cloned animals such as milk and meat should be cleared from safety angle and if so what should be the control measures to be put in place to prevent run-away flooding of market with such foods without knowing the long term repercussions to the Society at large. The issue gained some importance after recommendations, albeit limited, made by experts in the UK to allow foods from cloned animals for human consumption. Their view is based on some limited analyses of normal and products from cloned animals and finding no difference in terms of chemical, physical and nutritional angles. But safety in the short term may not qualify for clearance and a much wider study needs to be carried out to come to a meaningful conclusion. What is intriguing is the language used by the expert committee indicating that products derived from cloned animals are "unlikely to present any food safety risk", making the whole issue ambiguous!

Is it the greed for higher profitability for the farming community that drives the demand for clearing cloning technology in Europe and other western countries, though there appears to be many unanswered questions about the safety and ethical aspects of commercializing this infant technology? Probably many farmers expect that cloning would create new superlative animals which can yield very high quantities of meat and milk at relatively lower costs. It is not realized that the technology can inflict misery and cruelty to the animals and is questionable from ethical point of view. What is known to day indicates that the technique causes high levels of miscarriage, organ failure and gigantism among new-born clones and creates concern that such a system can push the farming operations into mega factory mode where animals are merely cogs in the machine.

Of course major concern is restricted to the fate of the cloned calves up to the first 6 months where as older ones do not present any major health problems. Many studies have brought out the fact that there are abnormalities in foetal development and in the new-born from the cloned mothers. It is possible that breeders may overcome these problems eventually as the cloning technology is barely 10 year old. If at all the cloning technology is to be cleared answers must be found for the ethical problems cited by the antagonists of this modern technique of breeding. The usefulness of the above technology in animal breeding must outweigh its impact on animal well-being and only a multi dimensional assessment can provide adequate basis to decide on the issue.

The labeling controversy regarding marketing of products from cloned animals refuses to die down and some surreptitious attempts recently in the UK to sell meat from cloned animals without letting the consumers know about it must be condemned in no uncertain terms. Consumers must have the ultimate right to accept or reject a food based on their perception and therefore products derived from clones must be distinguished, if and when they are approved, declaring the same on the label. It is unethical and devious to push them to the unassuming consumers and then make it a fait accompli. Probably when consumers accept them unreservedly, the label provision can be done away with.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


Wheat is the staple cereal for people in Europe, North America, Middle East Asia and North Africa. Major products made at home are yeast-leavened bread, cookies, pastry and porridge while there are hundreds of industrial products which include different types of bread, biscuits, cookies, crackers, various pastry preparations, pasta including macaroni etc. Though wheat was ground into flour as early as 9000 BC using stone grinders, industrial processing started towards the beginning of 20th century. The susceptibility of wheat flour to go rancid prevented its transportation and wide use because the germ portion rich in lipids undergoes oxidative deterioration giving foul smell and bitter taste.

The modern roller flour mills which break the wheat grain into progressively smaller particle size have provisions to extract bran as well as the germ fractions yielding pure white flour from the endosperm and this flour is the basis of almost all commercial products made in western countries. While bread making calls for strong or hard flours with gluten content more than 12%, soft flours with less than 10% protein are required for sheeted products like biscuits. In contrast the people in India consume wheat mostly after grinding it into 100% flour (Atta) which go into the making of staple foods like roti and chapathi, considered more nutritious because of the presence of bran and germ. Also whole wheat flour has a typical aroma when made into roti or chapathi considered delicious by the people. When multinational companies entered India some years ago, they found it difficult to make good quality Atta because only plate grinding (Chakki grinding), with high temperature generation due to friction can cause adequate starch damage, required to make high quality roti or chapati. To day many of them have installed large capacity Chakkis in their modern flour mills to make Atta!

People in South India who were predominantly rice eaters till a few years ago are increasingly switching over to wheat and historically shortage of rice in nineteen fifties and sixties can be cited as the major reason for this change in consumption habits. Parotha is a much sought after wheat based food item which is popular in Kerala and Tamilnadu. Recent news reports that there is a shortage of skilled artisans who can make Parotha are indeed alarming because during the last 6 decades no worthwhile research has been carried out on most of the traditional foods like Parotha and the art of preparing authentic foods, native to India is likely to disappear sooner than later. It appears many restaurants in Kerala are advertising for recruitment of Parotha makers at a monthly salary of Rs 10, 000 where as average salary of hotel workers rarely exceeds Rs 3000 per month. This is a reflection of the dearth of people who are well versant with various nuances involved in Parotha making! Is the Parotha story an exception or is it going to be same with other traditional foods also?

If the reports from Kerala are true Parotha making has been taken over by artisans from Bihar and restaurants are depending more and more on outsiders to include this item in the menu. Interestingly Parotha means different things to different people and there are several versions of this product popular in various parts of the country. For example a Punjabi will never miss muli Parotha or Gobi Parotha with thick curd for breakfast, especially during winter time. Frozen Parotha has become a major item for export from Kerala targeted at immigrant Indians in many countries who cannot make good quality Parotha at home. Though indigenous equipment for some of the traditional products like Idli, Dosa and Roti have been developed in the country, there are not many standard manufacturers who can supply commercial models with reliable performance criteria. How ever making Parotha in a machine is some what tricky and no indigenous fabricator is in a position to offer such equipment at present. It appears that one Taiwanese machinery firm has designed the necessary plant for manufacture of Parotha and such plants are in commercial operation in India mainly for export of the machine-made product.

Is it not a tragedy that hundreds of traditional Indian food products are languishing without any attention by the food scientists in the country and over obsession with western system of research on many products alien to India may ensure continued neglect of the native foods for years to come. Billions of rupees being invested by GOI on food research in India are being spent on "ivory tower" research with little relevance to the industry or to the society in the country. It was hoped that at least the new much hyped organization being set up by the MFPI for food research, training, management would take up on a priority development work on traditional foods but it is unlikely to happen as there is very little appreciation of the importance of the native foods inherited over centuries of evolution of Indian civilization. Probably future generations in India may forget their own foods and will depend more and more on drab bread, unhealthy breakfast cereals, French Fries, Hamburgers, Hot Dogs etc pushing Indian indigenous foods like Parotha into oblivion.