Wednesday, March 16, 2011


Water is a critical substance that is essential for sustaining life on this planet. The herculean efforts by the space exploring countries to find evidence of water in other planets are mainly to see whether they are habitable places for human beings. As most of the living systems have water content at levels between 55% and 78% depending on the body size, there are minimum requirements below which survival is not possible. A daily consumption of 1 ml of water for every calorie of food consumed is a bench mark standard agreed by many experts, which works out to about 2 liters a day for an average healthy adult. Intake of too much water can cause water intoxication leading eventually to death, while too little can contribute to dehydration and other lethal consequences.

Water bodies in the earth constitute more than 70% of the surface area and though there is abundance of this material, the only problem in utilizing them is the salt content in most of these water sources. Oceans contain more than 97% of the water on earth and the salinity of this water can be as high as 4%. Remaining 3% only has to bear the burden of meeting the fresh water needs of about 7 billion people in this world. While 0.9% of fresh water sources are locked up under the ground (30%) and in polar ice caps and glaciers (70%), remaining portion is spread over lakes (87%) and swamps (11%) in different continents. Over decades fresh water availability has been shrinking alarmingly because of increasing population and higher usage as demanded by the modern industrial society. In 1850 water availability was 43000 Cubic Meter (CM) per person per year which dramatically declined to 9000 CM in 1990. There is wide disparity in water availability in different countries. While countries like Canada, Norway etc have more than 1,00,000 CM some countries in North Africa and Middle East gets only 100 CM.

Water usage also shows wide disparity amongst nations with average American splurging on 1600 CM, European using 725 CM while the African has to be content with 250 CM. It is estimated that the minimum water need of a person is about 40 to 60 liters a day for domestic use though more than half the population in this planet does not have access to even a fraction of this quantity. Food and agriculture may be the single largest user of water and according to some estimates more than 70% of fresh water goes for irrigation. Here again there is some disparity in efficiency of water use as most developing countries draw more than 90% of their water resources for irrigation while in technologically advanced countries irrigation demand is less than 30%.

Profligacy of water use can be shocking to the conscience of every denizen on this planet living already with lot of uncertainties about future, especially dangers from man-made environmental degradation. If one wants to dramatize the relation between water consumption and some of our day to day activities, following illustrations will suffice. The cup that cheers viz Coffee requires about 140 liters of water to produce while its cousin viz tea requires 30 liters of water in its production cycle! It may be shocking to know that a quantity of 3400 is required for getting 1kg of rice, 1300 liters for 1kg of wheat or barley and 15,500 liters for 1kg of beef. This poses a serious challenge to water conservationists as to how to sensitize the world regarding the criticality of water for survival. The two major players involved in this scenario are the industrial sector including agriculture and the consumer community. While mandatory regulations can be put in place regarding scientific norms of water usage, who will generate future technologies for reduced water consumption for various industrial processes? Obviously the governments will have to do this through financial incentives and direct economic subsidies.

There is another area which needs consideration for driving the forces that will work continuously to achieve reduction of water used by the industry and that calls for mandatory information on water use per kg of any product to be declared on the label by all industries without exception. This will enable the consumers to shun those which are water guzzlers while favoring those with credible water saving credentials. if water conservationists have their say world should have a "water foot print" concept similar to the "carbon foot print" system which is being followed voluntarily by some food manufacturers in some countries. The much acclaimed "Energy Star" rating system that grades home appliances and electronic equipment based on electricity use efficiency. evolved by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, has almost become a global standard adopted in many countries. Of course in the case of energy utilization grading, consumer has an economic interest in the form of reduced energy bill which may automatically make the system universally acceptable.

The critical question that will have to be addressed is whether a standard methodology capable of producing results that will be consistent is available to day for assessing water utilization. In absence of such a universal system to estimate water input in various operations involved in manufacturing a particular product by different people in different countries, only chaos will rule giving room for unscrupulous players to misuse this concept claiming low water utilization by their products in front of the label. Global cooperation in evolving a dependable assessment technology, preferably under the aegis of UNIDO, WHO and FAO, will go a long way to introduce compulsory "water foot print" labeling over a period of time, say in about a decade.


Sunday, March 13, 2011


The debate concerning Man vs Machine is an age-old one with supporters on each side justifying their stand. Needless to say that machine based processes invariably outscore those involving heavy manual dependence when it comes to productivity. In the case of food processing there is the additional factor of hygiene that has a heavy bearing on the safety of the final product. Those countries like India with heavy unemployment and millions on the employment exchange rolls, employment generation has been the mantra all the way but here also it is increasingly being realized that appropriate equipment, even if they are not fully automated will have to take over some of the tasks being performed by humans as there is scarcity of people willing to work in food processing industry, if they can help. Besides the operation of GOI programs like NRGE which assures 100 days of work for every person, especially during non-agricultural season make it difficult for the food industry to attract quality and quantity of people required.

There is another dimension to the "man vs machine" issue that involves suitability of equipment available for making many foods which are of Indian origin. It will be easier for those in the food sector engaged in manufacture of western foods like bread, biscuits, confectionery etc to find suitable equipment with assured performance and endurance guarantees in India itself or can be accessed from foreign manufacturers. There are thousands of products of importance in India which are prepared at millions of households in different societies and ethnic groups spread across the country but their transition from home scale level to industrial scale has been rather slow. Though seminars, workshops, conferences and conventions are held frequently to debate the need for taking up organized scientific studies on at least some popular traditional foods and their preparing processes, unfortunately nothing much has happened during the last 3 decades which is really shameful for the industry, government and the food scientists.

Ministry of Food Processing Industry of Government of India, set up with great hype during late Rajiv Gandhi's regime has failed abysmally in galvanizing research and development in this sector in spite of enormous funds, running to hundreds of millions of rupees, for investment at its disposal. If some thing has been done with regard to these ethnic foods, credit goes to Pre-1990 CFTRI and DFRL at Mysore and many Instant Mixes, Retorted Foods and some of the equipment for making Idli, Dosa and Roti have all originated from theses institutions. It is another matter that post-1994 regimes in these institutions could not see any thing beyond their nose, let alone a long term distant vision! Referring specifically to equipment and machinery even those designed by these research institutions fell far short of expectations of the industry as well as the consumer. This is because of total lack of linkages that existed between the market-savvy industry and "cocooned" scientists having no real view about the need of the market. As for Universities, engaged as they are with "degree-awarding" research very little can be expected from them. Under these circumstances what are the chances of achieving some renaissance vis-a-vis these foods?

The above thoughts occurred to this Blogger while reading a recent report about a new approach being tried out in Western countries to persuade the machinery industry to link up with the University or a research institutions by donating a piece of their latest machinery free of cost so that the scientists are exposed to a multitude of latest equipment spurring them towards further innovation. It is a mutually inclusive arrangement whereby the donor gets almost free promotion of its name while trainees and teaching faculty get to know about "state of the art" developments in the fabrication sector. For example there is an urgent need for design and fabrication of a Laddu making machine for the famous Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh and a Neyyappam making unit for the Sabarimala temple in Kerala and why it has not been possible for the developmental food scientists have not been able to come out with a workable models so far? Similarly the popular "aravana payasam" of Sabarimala and the "panchamrutham" of Palani Temple, are even to day canned where as the Tetrapack's HTST technology would have been more appropriate for their long life safety. Why should the Voltas be peddling Taiwan made machines for making Indian Parothas, Vadas, Bondas, Samosas etc though Taiwanese are not known to have any affinity for these foods?

As long as patent protection system is in vogue in India as per WTO protocols, the food machinery industry should not have hesitation in parking their wares in such agencies and it is possible that such an initiative may spark hundreds of local innovations that can benefit many traditional food makers. Almost all manufacturers of ethnic foods have to restrict themselves to small scale batch operations which tell on the quality and safety of the final product. Whether it is making Khoa or Paneer or Chhakka from milk, or Chikki products based mainly on groundnuts or the mouth watering Soan Papadi or the much sought after Jilebi or the famous Mysorepak of the South or hundreds of other products that tickle the palate of millions of consumers, the story is the same and that is to make them by artisans squatting on the floor and making hardly 2-5 kg per batch! Is it not ridiculous that the food scientists are not even trying to cross fertilize ideas from other equipment predominant manufacturing industry sectors to explore the technical feasibility of adapting some of them for mechanizing at least a few of the unit operations involved for the ethnic food industry?

It is tragic that the traditional foods are a group of products orphaned by the absence of any interest amongst Indians themselves who probably expect that salvation has to come from outside, from countries like Taiwan, Korea etc. If there were some sense of pride, patriotism and loyalty to the country amongst the food industry planners, managers and the scientific community, such a sorry situation would not have come to pass!


Thursday, March 10, 2011


Mushrooms are cherished for their delicate flavor and texture. They belong to the fungi group and grow wildly as well as are "farmed" under controlled conditions. One of the most difficult problems when wild mushrooms are picked for consumption is the existence of many varieties of poisonous mushrooms some of them can be fatal and unless good knowledge about them is available eating wild mushrooms is considered some what risky. Why do people take mushroom? Obviously because they cherish its value as a delicate food. Though it is not a source of energy, presence of nutrients like vitamins such as Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic acid and minerals including Selenium, Copper and Potassium does make it a health product also. U V irradiated mushroom products are positioned as special healthy food because of the production of Vitamin D2 from the natural ergosterol during U V treatment.

There are basically 3 broad groups of mushrooms which include Agaricus bisporus, Basidomycota and Agaricamycetes. All these are fleshy spore bearing fruiting bodies of the fungi typically produced above ground. Mushroom invariably means to an average consumer the most common button mushroom produced in farms all over the world under controlled conditions and available in the market as fresh and dehydrated products. Though mushroom is consumed fresh as well as in cooked format, major use is for garnishing meat and in preparations like curries and soups. Chinese population consumes enormous quantities of mushroom and that country accounts for half the world production. Its per capita annual consumption of mushroom is about 2.7 kg, the highest in the world. Imagine a huge population of 1.2 billion consuming mushroom at this level and how it can be met. Mushroom farms, small and big have fail-proof production technology that ensures large production with minimum safety problems.

It is unbelievable that people can go to any length to lay their hands on some varieties of mushroom irrespective of the price commanded by them. For example the Morel mushroom or the Morchella variety is much sought after because of its characteristic taste and fetches much higher price in the market compared to button mushroom. Since they grow wildly there is no control on its availability in abundance. Interestingly their production increases dramatically in forests where forest fires are controlled, though the reason is not known. As it contains small amounts of toxic substances belonging to Hydrazine group Morel mushroom must be treated with respect. While it should never be consumed raw, even cooked version must be consumed in moderation. It is unimaginable that people can take risks to their lives by hankering for Morchella at any cost!

Truffle is another variety that commands astronomical prices world over and is limited supply due to uncertainties associated with its natural growth. Also known as Prigord Truffles as this region ion France has been the foremost in producing this variety. It is unimaginable that Truffle, especially the black variety can command prices as high as $ 6000 a kg probably because of its restricted market availability. This mushroom botanically known as Tuber melanosporum, needs a host tree such as Oak, Birch, Poplar, hazel, Pine etc and grows under some favorable conditions attached to their roots. Though the peak production was achieved in the year 1900, due to many reasons currently the annual production does not exceed 50 tons, creating a scarcity condition that has propelled the price to astronomical levels. Coaxing truffle to grow is a challenge and even if some entrepreneurs have successfully accomplished this, the technology is one of the most well guarded industrial secrets of the modern world.

With all the technological advances made in biotechnological sciences, it is hard to believe that scientists have not succeeded in evolving a reliable technology. Probably keeping the demand-supply position in a skewed fashion can only maintain the high price commanded by truffle to day. Large scale production is being aggressively resisted because of the possibility of the market prices crashing due to over supply and lower cost of production. Genuine Truffle comes from France (45%), Spain (35%) and Italy (20%) though inferior quality Truffle is grown in many countries, China being in the forefront. Chinese, as is usual, produces two other varieties Tuber indicum and Tuber himalayensis and often these versions are palmed of as genuine Truffle. Even artificial Truffle flavor has been developed and olive oil based 2,4 dithiapentane solution is being used in food preparations to simulate the fresh earthy flavor scent.

Is this not a crazy world where people are willing to go to any extent to have a taste of the Truffle which is at best a "reluctant" fungus, unwilling to oblige its admirers? Its reputation to provide values such as the musky aroma and even aphrodisiac attributes has further enhanced the mystery that surrounds it. Is it not a stupid high risk investment for entrepreneurs who want to take up Truffle farming because of the uncertainties involved in getting assured returns? If the reports about Truffle farming are to be believed, saplings of some host trees, roots of which are inoculated with Truffle spores are available for starting Truffle farms and it may take 5-10 years to start yielding if successful. Though it is claimed that an earning of $ 45000 per acre is possible, the risks in the form of diseases, adverse weather conditions and many unexplained factors are considered very high. Whether farmed Truffle will be acceptable to the connoisseurs as compared to that recovered from wild with the help of sniffing dogs and hogs is another issue to be reckoned with. All said and done Truffle still remains a mystery and this factor has built an aura around it attracting renowned chefs and ardent consumers from around the world.


Sunday, March 6, 2011


Chocolate industry in a tropical country like India is constrained by the hot weather that prevails over most of the regions in the country during major part of the year. Chocolate products have refined Cocoa Mass as the main base and Cocoa fat provides the typical texture and eating pleasure characteristic of these products. Though chocolate making was known since many years, technological advances during the last 4-5 decades have enabled the industry to produce chocolates of uniform and reliable quality. The chocolate consumption is wide spread in western countries enjoying temperate climates when the product quality can be maintained during manufacture and retailing. How ever the warm climates in tropical countries near the Equator adversely affect the characteristics and handling and distribution pose stiff challenges.

Theobroma cacao, the botanical name for Cocoa is grown largely in Africa in countries like Ivory Cost and Ghana but the business of making chocolate is concentrated in the hands of a few multi national companies operating from the US and European Union. Converting raw cocoa pod into cocoa nibs and then to cocoa mass is a technology intensive process and requires a high degree of expertise and large investments. After allowing the pods to ferment for extracting the beans from the mucilaginous matrix, they are dried, roasted, shelled to yield cocoa nibs and finally ground into fine chocolate liquor which the solidifies to a mass at temperatures below 17C. Chocolate mass is then subjected high hydraulic pressure to separate the cocoa butter which is valued very much for its typical melting characteristics.

In a typical formulation of a chocolate product, cocoa mass with additions of cocoa butter and sugar is mixed, tempered and molded to give the final product with a snappy texture. It is the cocoa butter and its crystalline structure that decide the final eating quality of the product. Cocoa butter has six different crystal structure each with a different melting point range between 17C and 36C and the technology and expertise involve creating a homogeneous crystal structure which melts at 34C. This is accomplished by melting the mass to 45C and then slowly cooling to 27C to form a predominant mix of type IV and V crystals. Final procedure involves heating the product from 27C to 31C to eliminate type IV crystals leaving only type V with a melting point of 34C. The chocolates as known to day to connoisseurs cannot be made with any other fat and attempts to replace cocoa butter will definitely end up with products with biting and eating characteristics some what different from normal chocolates.

Many attempts have been made in the past to evolve chocolates with higher melting point amenable for easy handling and storage. Main strategies tried out earlier to produce high melting chocolates include enhancing network microstructure of chocolate, the addition of oil or fat binding polymers to the formula, and increasing the melting point of the fat phase. There are also many techniques that exist to generate a sugar network in chocolate, which may prevent melting. Such techniques include the incorporation of water into formulations, and processing the chocolate in such a way that some surfaces of the sugar remain uncoated by fat. The addition of oat flour, gelatin or cornstarch to chocolate as a binding polymer has also been successful in increasing heat resistance. While achieving heat resistant characteristics is technically feasible, the products so made adversely affect the flavor and texture qualities very significantly. There are many edible fats available to day for use in heat resistant chocolates but their consumer acceptability is very poor. Probably development of truly heat resistant chocolates without compromising on the quality may remain a distant dream for years to come though a little compromise on quality can throw up chocolate-like products with hard texture and changed mouth feel.


Saturday, March 5, 2011


In a tropical country like India, Vitamin D deficiency may not have a critical dimension because it is supposed to be produced in adequate amounts in the skin by exposure to sun light, especially during the period 10 am to 3 pm. 7 dehydrocholesterol present in vertebrates is converted to Viamin D by the Ultraviolet B rays in the wave length range between 290 and 320 nm. The two physiologically active forms of this vitamin, Ergocalcferol (D2) and Cholecalciferol (D3) are necessary for many body functions though lot remains to be discovered regarding their role fully. Liver and Kidney convert the vitamin into biologically active molecule 25 hydroxy D (Calcidiol) and then to 1,25 hydroxy D (Calcitriol), the latter having a half life span of 15 hours in the blood. One of the major roles of Vit D is in bone mineralization which has been well studied. Deficiency of Vit D is manifested in childhood as Ricket while in adults it is osteomalacia. Weak, brittle and misshapened bones are attributed to Vit D defiency.Vit D is also involved in some immune functions when Calcitriol is made in monocute-macrophages in the immune system and it acts more or less as a cytokine defending the body against microbial invaders.

While the importance of Vit D to bone health has been scientifically understood since the 17th century, an area not well documented is its relation to heart health. According to one survey in USA, more than 40 percent of men and 50 percent of women have low Vit D levels and they are considered to be more vulnerable to coronary artery disease and heart failure. Other studies with European population have shown that they have low Vit D levels while in many northern hemisphere countries, Vit D deficiency seems to have reached nearly epidemic proportions. Vit D helps prevent high blood pressure, suppresses inflammation by protecting the cells that line the blood vessels and maintains blood-vessel flexibility. Analysis of data from some of the studies concerning connection between heart and Vit D has brought out that low levels of this vitamin make the heart work harder, establishing its role in protecting against cardiovascular disease. Vit D supplements, about 1000 IU a day, have also been suggested to provide protection to the heart and prevent the risk of congestive heart failure, especially amongst vulnerable and old age population.

While the precise mechanism as to how Vit D is involved in heart disease is not yet known, there are indications that it has some thing to do with atherosclerosis and plaque development. As Vit D plays an active role in mineralization of bone through activation and incorporation of Calcium into the bone matrix and Calcium blockers are routinely used for treating heart patients, plaque formation in arteries may possibly be influenced by Vit D levels in the blood. What is intriguing is that how both deficiency and excess of Vit D can contribute to plaque development, indicating much more needs to be known before coming to any conclusion. The reported high incidence of Ischemic Heart Disease in southern parts of India has been attributed to excess Vit D production in the body. Vit D deficiency is also implicated in Peripheral Arterial Disease and here again nothing much is known about the reason.

Vit D deficiency seems to have some connection with diabetes according to scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who noted that poor diabetes control in many subjects is invariably associated with Vitamin D deficiency. It is too premature to establish a cause-effect relationship but the fact still remains that higher the HbA1c value greater was the deficiency of Vit D. According to the most recent research, most people who live in the northern hemisphere, especially people over 50 and those who are overweight, may be benefited by Vitamin D supplementation. Though the current official recommendation is 400 IU for ages 51 to 70 and 600 IU for those over 71, there appears to be a tacit recognition that taking about1,000 to 4,000 IU per day could be more beneficial for such people. Between Vitamin D2 and D3, latter seems to be three times more effective in raising the vitamin level in the blood. Fatty fish, eggs and meat are reasonably good sources of Vit D but probably their regular consumption may not be adequate for meeting fully the body's need for this nutrient. U V irradiated mushrooms are now being offered in health stores as they contain good levels of Vit D formed from the natural Ergosterols present in this edible fungi.


Thursday, March 3, 2011


Dishonest practices by some segments of industry and trade are well known and invariably many of the violators get away with barely a knuckle on their knees. Inadequate supervision due to limited monitoring infrastructure and constraints on personnel are exploited by the consumer products industry to mislead the consumers through wrong labels and unsubstantiated claims. Of course such instances are far and few in countries like USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some developed countries though it is generally a "free for all" situation in most developing countries. Credit must go to watchful consumer protection organizations for bringing to surface such fraudulent cases and a recent report on this problem illustrates how such things take place in spite of extensive vigilance by the monitoring authorities.

In one of the incidences reported from the US, manufacturer of a major brand of soy milk surreptitiously downgraded its core product line from organic to conventional some time in the year 2009, dropping the organic food claims. What was objectionable in this change, concerned inaction to change its UPC (bar code) or product labeling, intentionally or otherwise and one can imagine the pecuniary benefit the manufacturer must have gained by such a devious practice. The hapless consumer, never expecting such unethical practices, continued to patronize the product believing that they are still organic. Even retailers were unaware of the changes for a considerable time till there were complaints by one of the consumer activist organizations.

Another instance of consumer cheating was reported with a cereal food manufacturer who, after launching a particular brand of organic cereal, changed the nature of the product, not conforming to organic food standards but without changing the UPC or the label profile. It makes a lot of difference to the consumers who are wedded to organic foods as they believe conventional foods from the processing industry are too risky to consume and are prepared to pay premium prices to lay their hands on organic labeled products. The most objectionable aspect of these cases is that when product is down graded the manufacturer did not bother to notify the change to the consumers or to the retailers which is considered unethical and improper. Added to this when such practices come to surface wide publicity that is generated can bring bad reputation to the integrity and reputation of organic food manufacturing sector in general.

These instances, though few in number, have prompted champions of organic foods to strive hard to bring about changes in the legal framework that is mandatory for the manufacturers to follow once they are registered with the concerned authorities. Present regulations that govern changes in the status of a product once it is down graded are ambiguous that enables some of the players to indulge in such dubious practices. Adequate deterrent provision is not there in the statute books to bring the violators to book. There must be a clear provision regarding the logistics of changing a certified brand of organic foods to conventional quality and mandatory re-registration must be insisted upon. Ultimately the buck stops at the consumer door and eternal vigilance is the price one has to pay to avoid being cheated. The bar code system and clear labeling requirements are intended for the consumer to exercise discretion in selecting the best product at least cost and consumers have to fully make use of the same for their own good.