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.
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.
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.