Sunday, October 30, 2011


Those who suffer from artery "clogging" due to high cholesterol content in the blood must be excited about the news that it is possible to de-clog the arteries without any medication like Statins. The multi billion dollar Statin industry that thrives on atherosclerosis disease affecting millions of people across the world is soon going to have a competitor with better credentials! Of course one will naturally ask the question as to why people suffer from clogging of arteries which can manifest in myocardial infarction or stroke, if adequate discipline is exercised regarding the diet one consumes. Unfortunately even the best psychologists in the world cannot answer the question because human behavior is not amenable to change easily and food consumption practices are evolved over years, influenced by economic factors and the living environment.

The most manifested symptom of arterial clogging, chest pain, is treated with prescription medicines but invariably the affected person ends up too often under the knife of a cardiac surgeon. As arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle gradually become blocked by plaques of cholesterol, fat, cells, and debris, the heart muscle is starved of oxygen. Drugs that are in the market may reduce the pain temporarily though eventually the patient has to seek surgical remedy. Coronary bypass operation or a plaque - busting angioplasty is necessary to restore blood flow to the heart. The alternative is a heart attack and such bypass operations are becoming routine these days in many affluent countries. The surgical intervention is not considered absolutely safe with some unable to survive the procedure. In about 6 percent of cases, it is known to cause brain damage. Another bitter fact is that it is not a permanent cure with the patient forced to go back to the hospital within six to eight years for a repeat of the surgery to repair the arteries again.

An oft repeated question is whether medical intervention is absolutely necessary to restore the health of the arteries and some believe there are alternative choices. It is now realized that clogging of arteries can be reversed through appropriate foods or supplements now being developed by some health products companies. Foods like garlic, oats, soy products, beans and walnuts seem to have the property to reverse clogging if consumed in optimal quantities regularly. The ability of arteries to clean themselves without the help of medicines, if simple diet and lifestyle changes are adopted, has been amply demonstrated and has been accepted by the medical fraternity. Under the right diet and exercise regimen, blockages in the arteries actually shrink significantly within an year. It was in 1990 that the role of diet in reducing atherosclerosis was brought out unambiguously when subjects with varying degree of atherosclerosis found their arteries getting rid of bad cholesterol on a vegetarian diet regimen compared to those consuming preparations with meat and fish regularly.  

The role of dietary fiber in reducing cholesterol levels in the blood is now well established. Its ability to "wash out" the cholesterol from the GI tract and not allowing it to be reabsorbed across the intestine is recognized. The recommendation to include 25-30 gm of fiber in daily diet has arisen out of the above conviction and dietary fiber has spawned an industry which sells fiber-rich supplements made from different sources. Even many "synthetic" dietary fiber preparations are being marketed though they cannot work as efficiently as natural fibers from whole cereal, pulses, fruits and vegetables. As the evidence about dietary fiber helping to reduce cholesterol has not been established conclusively through human studies of significant scale, any claim to be printed on the label of a food is some what premature. As the control regime on food supplements is not very strong, many manufacturers get away by making such claims to boost business.

The difficulty in accepting the limited evidence is due to the diverse nature of fibers used in different studies and the tendency to generalize the findings. To date FDA of the US had accorded approval to a Tomato extract that was proved to be effective as a blood thinner in place of Aspirin which is not recommended for normally healthy persons due to its adverse effect on gut health and hemoglobin level and its relatively long metabolic life of 20 days. How ever active efforts are on to get a few products cleared for arterial cleaning and one of them made from a Chitin-glucan fraction derived from Aspergillus niger seems to be promising. The human trials currently underway can only confirm its efficacy as an acceptable artery cleaning supplement.


Sunday, October 23, 2011


Man's quest for natural substances that can mimic sweet taste is never ending and it has assumed a new urgency because of the debilitating adverse effect of high intake of sugars like Sucrose in human body. The diabetic population that cannot ingest too much sugar and over weight consumers look for sugar substitutes which are safe for long term consumption. Almost all successful substitutes in the market to day are synthetic ones except Stevia Ribaudiosides and their safety status is always mired in controversy, leaving the consumers in a blind regarding the desirability of using them in daily diet. As for Stevia sugar, there is still some uncertainty regarding unreserved and universal clearance though consumers seem to be preferring this product increasingly these days.

Arrival of sweet tasting proteins has further kindled the interest in sugar substitutes and exciting developments are taking place to make some of these protein based natural sweeteners commercially available. A few of these proteins having potential to become acceptable sugar substitutes include Miraculin, Brazzein, Curculin, Monellin,Thaumatin, Pentadin and Mabilin, all natural substances present in plants growing in Africa and other places with traditional use well established. Of all these substances, Miraculin, a glycoprotein  occurring in the so called Miracle fruit from Africa has attracted world wide attention because of its peculiar property to impart sweetness in the mouth through molecular interaction on the tongue, without being sweet by itself. There are many commercial products based on this fruit that promise a lot to the consumers but unless more developmental work is done it is unlikely to go main stream immediately.

The Miracle fruit which is now grown in Ghana, Puerto Rico, Taiwan and Florida in the US is perishable, lasting for 2-3 days but can be processed to get the pulp which if freeze dried can be quite stable for more than 6 months. Most commercial preparations are based on freeze dried powder which can be formulated into convenient form of delivery such as tablets and capsules. When the fruit is chewed for some time in the mouth, Miraculin released from the fruit interacts with the taste buds linked to sweetness and the resultant coating causes any food at acidic pH tastes sweet. The sweetness created can be equivalent to a 17% sucrose solution but its effect can be varying depending on the acidity of the food consumed. It is not effective below a pH of 3 or above 12. Interestingly sweet modifying effect lasts for 6 months if stored at 5C. Being a protein, Miraculin is not very stable at high temperatures beyond 100C and hence not suitable to be used in baked foods.

Genetic engineering technology has been able to get the Miraculin expressed in E.coli, Lettuce and Tomato. 2 gm of GM Lettuce can express same amount of Miraculin as a single berry of Miracle fruit. However these products will remain unexploited for long because of lack of clearance by the safety authorities world over. One of the reasons for Miraculin not taking off as a sugar substitute is that there are not enough studies on its safety for long term human use as a food additive. The only country that allows use of Miraculin in foods is Japan where commercial products containing Miraculin are in the market.

Imagine the potential for designing hundreds of new products using Miraculin that can be a boon to millions of consumers around the world desperately yearning for sugarless products to sustain their life style, not willing or able to consume high sugar containing foods and beverages. If Miraculin can achieve sweetness equal to 17% of sugar syrup, new products with less sugar or no sugar can be easily developed, the only limitation being that this substance, a protein by nature, is not stable at high temperatures as being encountered in baking. Is it not fantastic that almost all synthetic beverages, most of them made with the much hated HFCS, can be made with zero sugar using Miraculin as an ingredient? How about chocolate products being manufactured using Miraculin that may enable millions of chocolate loving consumers to continue to eat them without any "guilt conscience"! Why not Miraculin containing preparations be made available for household use so that fresh food preparations with sweet taste can be made using significantly less sugar or no sugar at all?

Of course the food technologists will have to work around to evolve right conditions in new products to "activate" Miraculin effect at the point of consumption. This is now possible because the mechanism of action of this active chemical has been elucidated by scientists in Japan and France who report that Miraculin's interaction with the tongue's sweet sensors depends on the acidity of the local environment. At a pH of 4.8,  the sweet-tasting cells on the tongue respond twice as vigorously to Miraculin than they do at a less acidic pH of 5.7. With pH levels of 6.7 and higher, the protein seems to slightly change its molecular shape, blocking the sweet sensors but not activating them. Probably this accounts for the phenomenon that, under certain conditions, sweet foods may taste less flavorful after eating the berry. Plants are known to pack their fruits with sugars to attract animals, which after eating the fruit, distribute the seeds inside through their droppings. But, in a trick of nature, some plants like Miracle fruit, protein instead of sugar, is used to deliver a sweet taste. It is possible that these fruits, small in size with limited biochemical ability to synthesize sugar, have a different mechanism of synthesizing proteins that give the same effect. Interestingly Miraculin is the only one sweetness associated natural protein which does not taste sweet while all others, considered sugar substitutes, be it chemical or natural, are sweet themselves at relatively low concentrations.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011


When Western world is talking to day about urban gardens to encourage local production of some food crops and reduce the carbon foot print of foods consumed every day, in India such gardens have always been existing. In the South there is hardly a house without a coconut tree and there are many with fruit crops like Guava, Mango, Sapota or even a sprinkling of vegetable plants producing Pumpkins, Spinach, Beans, Okra etc. Of course this trend is declining with house sites getting smaller and smaller in many cities and water becoming a constraint. Coconut, one of the most favorite perennial crops is still valued as it is a staple food in some states like Kerala, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Goa. The catapulting of Coconut oil as a health ingredient because of its high medium chain fatty acids like Lauric acid has created a big demand for it through out the world.

There was a time when Coconut plants growing in places like Miami and Southern Florida in the US as kerbside plants and the nuts were swept off the roads as a litter material and even to day thousands of coconuts broken on the path of the deity Lord Ganesha during Thaipusam Festival in Malaysia find no takers, finally ending up in the landfill! In thousands of temples in India coconut is a part of the offering to God along with flowers, fruits, camphor and incense sticks. Coconut oil is also a much valued hair oil with large markets in the South and West Bengal. There are many uses for the coconut tree and its nuts and Kerala in India has large number of industries thriving on coconut, its husk, shell, leaves etc as it is a state where these trees thrive because of the favorable climate and profuse rains. The toddy industry in the state is dependent on tapping of the trees several times an year.

As a food coconut meat is used in many food preparations in the form of fresh gratings, extracted milk and desiccated powder. Water from tender coconut is a much valued beverage, often taken as a thirst quencher and healthy drink and in countries like the US this beverage is marketed as "equal" to blood because of its reported use as a substitute for blood for transfusion during World War II. With the role of Medium Chain Fatty acids in maintaining good health becoming apparent, demand for coconut oil in the international market has increased significantly recently causing a spurt in its price. World production of 61 million tons of coconut is contributed by 80 countries though Philippines, Indonesia and India account for more than 75%. In India four southern states of Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh produce more than 92% of the country's production.

Harvesting coconuts requires traditional skill for climbing the tree, which in some cases can be as tall as 70-80 ft and experience in picking up mature ones from several bunches and the frequency of harvesting can be once in 40 to 60 days. In Malaysia and Indonesia the nuts are picked by trained pig tailed Macaque monkeys and therefore human intervention is avoided. There are specialized training schools in these countries for training monkeys to climb and pluck mature nuts. But in India only human beings climb the trees to harvest the nuts and till recently adequate workers with necessary skills were available charging reasonably for the work. However during the last two years there has been a drastic reduction of the work force because of migration of these workers to other better paying avocations. This has led to a situation where those who still do the job charging exorbitantly for climbing coconut trees. There are many coconut plantations in Kerala looking for permanent employees for plucking coconut, willing to pay as much as Rs 15000 per month.

It is reported that dearth of coconut climbers is delaying harvest in many parts of the state and adversely affecting the productivity of the trees. Traditional climbers not only pluck coconuts but also take care of the trees, keeping them free of disease. This is reflected in the marginal dip in production in the state this year. It is a tribute to the Coconut Board at Kochi which has taken upon itself the task to address this problem on a war footing. Since the middle of August, the board has conducted free residential weekly training programs in 12 centers in Kerala, under a budget allocation of Rs 30 million which is expected to turn out about 5,000 climbers to pluck coconuts and identify diseases and spot seeds. They are also exposed to the technique of use of the tree climbing machine which are distributed free for practicing the profession amd make a career of it. The use of climbing machines also allows women to enter the traditionally male-dominated profession. Coconut plantation owners, as well as residents with coconut palms in their courtyards, will be hoping that the new crop of climbers start their work immediately. .

While Kerala is lucky to have the organizational backing of the Coconut Board, what about other states? What type of relief can be given to millions of house holds in these states who regret for having planted the trees in their premises considering the hassles involved in harvesting coconuts in time and avoiding unnecessary quarrel with their neighbors? Can there be tree crop harvesting companies formed here which can lend its workers for harvesting for a consideration? Entrepreneurship in this area can be a win-win situation for everybody.Already pre-harvest contractors are dominant in many states for crop harvesting and marketing and the tender coconut industry has evolved a system of contracting trees for harvesting tender ones based on an agreed price. These entrepreneurs must see an opportunity for a service business and form organizational entities with modern outlook. If this happens India can emerge as the top coconut producing country in the world within a short span of time.


Monday, October 17, 2011


In to day's world man suspects that every thing he comes into contact with, can be dangerous and with modern style of living, the number of chemicals used in thousands of consumer products is increasing every day. Many of these have been studied for their safety and clearance for use given based on available scientific data. However with widely divergent conclusions thrown up by such studies, no firm conclusion can be drawn regarding the safety of any chemical that comes into contact with human being or consumed through foods. To cite an example both Saccharine and Cyclamate were hailed, when they were introduced as sugar substitutes, as "God sent" and enjoyed wide scale acceptance, especially by the consumers who are sugar "intolerant"! A few years later both were implicated in many health disorders by toxicologists leading to their ban in many countries. This trend was reversed later after finding the earlier studies faulty and unreliable and to day both these sugar substitutes are allowed in many countries!

Recent uproar regarding Arsenic content in Apple juice is another example of misplaced concerns on the part of some consumers and activists, in spite of the fact that arsenic is a common contaminant in air since time immemorial. Finding fault with regulatory agencies for not banning the Apple juice is totally misconceived and deserves contempt and pity! Probably those who find danger in every food they eat must think of migrating to another planet where they may get the ideal living condition aspired by them. Life on earth is based on a balance of risks and benefits associated with any endeavor and one has to get reconciled to this truth. It is true that ingestion of Arsenic by humans at high doses can be dangerous and this trace mineral is implicated in development of cancer of Lungs, Bladder, GI Tract and Skin, especially when consumed through water containing more than 50 micro grams (ug)per liter. This is the reason why only a low level of 10 parts per billion of Arsenic is allowed in drinking water.

Arsenic concentration in air can be about 0.02 to 4 nano gram (ng) per cubic meter in rural areas where air is considered relatively pure. This can go up to 200 ng per cubic meter in urban areas where industrial emissions and other factors can contribute to higher Arsenic concentration. It can go as high as 1000 ng in areas near smelters. Sea water contains arsenic as high as 1000 to 2000 ng per liter while ground water may also have same levels of this toxic metal. There are reports that water sources near volcanic rocks, sulfur mineral deposits can have Arsenic as high as 3000 ug per liter! Normally soil samples contain about 1-40 mg of Arsenic per kg. While discussing about the toxicity of Arsenic it is to be noted that inorganic Arsenic is more dangerous and out of the average consumption of Arsenic through the food, about 20-300 ug/day, 25% is the inorganic version. There is the million dollar question as to why no agency has set an upper limit for Arsenic that can be considered safe when ingested through food and probably this may be exercising the mind of many people who entertain apprehension on this score.

It is true that long term exposure to Arsenic, especially at high levels is injurious but setting up an upper limit for safety for every food is not considered practical. Water is a critical material consumed in large quantities, 2-3 liters a day and greater precaution is necessary in avoiding unsafe levels. Therefore such limits have been incorporated in potable water standards. One of the reasons for giving priority to water is that most Arsenic present in water is inorganic in nature and hence more dangerous. In contrast Arsenic present in foods is organic type with considerably less toxicity. So far no food product has been reported to have Arsenic content more than that set for water and therefore the apprehension on this score may be misplaced.

According to present data available Sea foods including fish contribute about 77% of the Arsenic exposure by average person while cereal products, vegetables, meat products and dairy products account for 10%, 6%, 4% and 3% respectively. Further the present safe Arsenic intake level is 15 ug per kg body weight per week (PTIW) while through all sources the average intake is reported to be less than 7 PTIW as per some studies. Rice is one of the food materials, suspected to have a tendency to absorb Arsenic from the soil because of profuse water use and rice products originating from the US and France have been reported to contain 0.24 to 0.28 mg per kg posing some concern at one time. Use of Arsenic containing crop protectants in the field also has been implicated in accumulation of the metal in paddy crops. Fortunately in high rice consuming countries like India and Egypt, the Arsenic levels in the rice are never known to be above 0.1 mg per kg. While continued monitoring of foods for Arsenic level is necessary to pre-empt any possible poisoning episode in future, consumers should not be unduly worried about Arsenic at least for the time being.


Saturday, October 15, 2011


It is said that India lives in rural areas because as a country predominantly agrarian in nature, agriculture was the backbone of the economy till recently. It is another matter that economic liberalization policies ushered two decades ago have pushed the agriculture to the background though it still contributes substantially to the GDP of the country. With a population of more than 1.1 billion, India has the unenviable task of producing adequate foods to feed its citizens qualitatively and quantitatively. To achieve this agriculture must receive adequate focus by the Planning Commission and the government and neglecting the farmers may not be best way to achieve food security. if the spate of suicides by farmers in all parts of the country is any any indication, there is some thing radically wrong with the governing system in place in this country.

The attitude of the government, that massive subsidies are being given in every budget that comes each year and therefore the farmers should have no grouse, is seriously misplaced. Does not the government understand that there is massive leakage of funds intended for agricultural subsidy, only a portion of it reaching the intended beneficiaries. Due to inadequate oversight farmers find it hard to access right type of inputs including seeds and erratic rains make their cup of misery full! Crop insurance schemes are not working as intended to be and drought is a common recurrence in many parts of the country. Remunerative price to the farmers for their crops is still a mirage and agriculture in India has never been viable in the past or present. What is the option for the hapless farmer to keep his soul and body together? Migration to urban areas in search of better earning opportunities? This is what is happening in the country, leading to swelling of the population in urban areas due to continuous and unhindered influx of rural folks day and night!

Look at the statistics relating to urbanization in the country which can be quite perplexing for any concerned citizen. In 1947 only 15% of the population was residing in Urban areas as against 30% plus to day. Between 1991 and 2001 urban population grew by a staggering 31% while growth of rural population was just 18%. It is estimated by experts that another 95 million people will be added to the existing 300 million plus population in in urban areas by the year 2020! Why are the rural folks so enamored by the city life? Major reason is that an average urban dweller earns almost 4 times the earning of a rural resident. But do they realize that by leaving the serene and unpolluted environment in their native villages, they are going to end up in a highly polluted settlement where more than 30% stay in ghettos or slums with hardly any facility for protected water or toilet or waste water drainage. As against just 2% population growth in the country as a whole, slum population in the cities grows by a whopping 9% annually. Still rural people rush to the cities hoping for a better living standard!

What can be done to reverse this trend? Of course even discussing this issue by an ordinary mortal like this blogger may be frowned upon by hundreds of so called "experts" but as a citizen every one has a right to express individual views which may be laughable for some. It is often not realized that the three important yardstick that can be used to gauge the success of rural development programs are the natural environment within which people live, social well being that ensures good quality life and the economic security for long term happiness. Why is that urban elites yearn for visiting rural areas as a part of their leisure and pleasure style of life? Why not the unspoiled environment of rural settings be exploited as a part of tourism which can boost the income levels of the local population? Rural population can stay back in their villages only if their social well being is boosted by economic activities which in turn can come only if educational facilities are established. If GOI is serious about uplifting of rural economy, industrialization is a must and if agricultural crops are the main strength of the rural areas, agriculture specific industries must be thought of in a big way.

Why is that every industry wants to set up their operations in cities or nearby? Obviously because of decent infrastructure, easy availability of literate workers and proximity to the market. Why not the Government provide at least two of the above prerequisites so that industry can be attracted in large numbers? If infrastructure in terms of good roads, abundant water supply and power and reasonable educational facilities are ensured other things will take care of themselves. It is often said that if industry is set up in rural settings, it has the potential to starve the agricultural activities like tilling, sowing, crop tending, harvesting, threshing and bagging, of workers as industry invariably pays higher wages. Besides there is more job security with assured work through out the year. This is a warped argument because if industrialization takes place there will be reverse migration from cities to villages by people in search of jobs! It is well to remember the prophetic words of our our vice, knowledgeable past President Abdul Kalam about converting the "villages into cities" by providing various services and facilities as being enjoyed by the urban residents.

It is well known that the food processing industry generates added value by transforming agricultural raw materials into products that are easily marketable because of improved storability and nutritive value and appropriate linkage to farms can enhance income and profitability of producers very significantly. Why is this country perpetuating a system of exploitation of the farmers by traders and brokers who profit the most from agricultural products due to their direct access to market and it is only the food processing activities in rural area that can reduce the role of these intermediaries. Since the food processing industry needs educated people with modern knowledge and technical skills, a positive push will be provided to encourage people in rural areas to improve their education to meet the standard of industrial workers. Probably such a push can spur the growth of educational institutions which can supply the needs of the industry.

The debate, whether rural industry has to be small in size or large industries can also play the role of rural development, is irrelevant because all types of food industry are people oriented though large industry does deploy lot of automatic machinery for many operations. Of course small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may have better chance of success because they are generally seen as having a higher propensity to innovate than larger firms due to their amenability to be more flexible, dynamic and responsive to shifts in demand and changes in economic conditions. Giving the food processing SMEs the lead role in rural development can stimulate other sectors to grow. A good quality of life in rural areas will definitely discourage any exodus to urban areas. It is time India sheds its "Elephantine" image because of its size and slow progress and acts more like a tiger with springiness in its strides when it comes to rural development and urbanization.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Who is not scared of a viral or bacterial infection these days with many pathogenic vectors floating around unseen but still omnipotent? Whether it is Hong Kong Flu or Avian Flu or Swine Flu or Chickungunya, it is not easy to forget the trauma through which people all over the world have gone through, being constantly afraid of contracting the infection and undergoing the consequences. While it is easy to maintain a clean, hygienic and healthy environment within the four walls of the home, there is the inevitability for human beings to be in contact for social, professional and other activities and it is such a situation that brings people close to sources of infection leading to development of various infectious diseases. Infectious diseases can spread through air-borne vectors or through food and water or through contact with infected persons. Most feared mode of infection is through air-borne pathogenic organisms which has a potential to develop into an epidemic, difficult to contain in spite of all progress made by humanity in contagious disease front.

There are well laid down guidelines as to how one can avoid contracting a contagious disease but recommended practices are rarely followed unless there is a grave threat from an epidemic. Personal hygiene counts a lot in resisting infections and there are hundreds of sanitation products helping man to keep himself clean with minimum risk of falling sick. Frequent hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent infectious bugs reaching the oral or nasal area while during a pandemic, use of masks is often resorted to for reducing the chances of infection reaching the vulnerable points in the body. The sources of serious infecting agents can include the air one breathes, contributed by infected persons coughing or sneezing or norting in public places. The infecting vectors like Virus can stay alive for 24 hours and therefore their density can increase astronomically during day time and normal people exposed to such an environment can get easily infected. Similarly there are many contact sources in public places like door handles, walls, furniture, public transport, hospitals, offices etc where people can contract the infection through unconscious contact.

If the world we live in is so dangerous vis-a-vis infectious diseases which can be spread easily, what prevents frequent major catastrophe in the form of epidemics that can be fatal to many people? One of the factors that protect people from these diseases is their immunity system which can over power, up to a limit, any invasion by foreign bodies and stronger the immune system, lesser will be the chance of suffering from many infections. But expecting that all people will have strong immunity may be a bit too far fetched because human body needs many nutrients through the foods consumed to maintain strong health and according to hunger pundits there are at least a billion people in this planet spread across all the continents, going hungry every day due to lack of access to goof food! Imagine the condition of their immune system and obviously they will be the most vulnerable target for contagious diseases. Vaccination against more than 25 diseases is now being practiced during very early stages of life and putting emphasis and priority for such preventive programs will go a long way to protect people from known diseases. But it the unknown and surprisingly new variants of pathogens that cause occasional infectious epidemic against which pre-emptive action cannot be taken.

Has culture some thing to do with spread of infection? Obviously there appears to be a connection. There are several ways of greeting being practiced by different societies. These include the famous Indian Namaste with folded hands which does not call for contact between the person greeted and the one who greets and this may the safest way with no danger of infection getting transmitted. Then comes the Japanese "bowing" practice which is also safe. In some communities embracing and/ or cheek to cheek contact symbolize bon homie but chance of transfer of infection is greatest here. Hand shaking is, by far, the most accepted international norm of greeting and if the latest research is any indication it is time this practice is shunned if spread of infection is to be avoided because hands, especially the right hand palm used for the "shake hand" mode of greeting may be a major source of infection in all people who are active in public life and the vastly expanded communication and transportation infrastructure the world enjoys to day, it makes every person vulnerable to be infected through the "shake hand" process.

In to day's modern world it is difficult to avoid contact with hundreds of sources of infection, in spite of meticulous care taken to keep oneself clean and hygienic. Is it possible in any modern office to avoid touching files, using computers, telephones and other office gadgets, going to canteen, using the lifts and escalators, operating electric switches, shaking hand with fellow workers and visitors, going to toilets and many other activities that can pass on the infection from one to the other through these carriers? Of course sanitation pundits may say that frequent washing of hands can help minimizing the potential of spread of infection but not avoiding it altogether. A suggestion has been made recently that in stead of shake hand, international community should consider "touching the elbow" which after all does not come in contact with any contaminated surface. How far this suggestion will go down well with people remains to be seen. There is a possibility that such gestures may be misconstrued for "patronizing" of one person by a superior person! Considering all these factors why not settle for the Indian "Namaste" or Japanese "Bow" for international fraternization?


Sunday, October 9, 2011


There are many virtues one expects from men and women aspiring to be leaders of scientific pursuits and the most critical one is integrity. Of course there are other qualities like knowledge, experience, good track record and leadership quality to inspire colleagues. It is known that many scientific and technical institutions in India are headed by "round holes in the square pegs" and these undeserving persons get to the top through political patronage with their Godfathers at Delhi standing behind them for necessary protection if they are caught at some time or the other! Scientists are supposed to pursue truth through their research and the very same people becoming corrupt in thoughts and action is a sad commentary on Indian science!

Close on the heels of some enlightened and eminent persons questioning the real worth of the faculty at IITs under the HRD Ministry and the quality of students gaining admission, comes the news about the damning of the Directors of two IITs in the country which caused some consternation among all sections of Indian society. It appears that these two Directors were indicted by the highest crime investigating agency in the country and despite this they continue to be supported by the government allowing them to function unhindered with no punishment of any nature. Millions of law abiding Indians, having faith in the constitution and believing in the philosophy that "retribution must follow wrong doers" are appalled by the indifference or support or condoning the wrong doings, by higher ups with clout and power base. As for the scientists who are found guilty of wrong doing, if they have even an iota of conscience and shame they should have put in their papers long ago. Unfortunately these values are no more important in to day's India with politicians and bureaucrats setting the example for violating all decent norms of life. Look at the corruption, financial scams, looting of public funds, criminal activities and other undesirable doings across the country with no political party above this shameful practices and naturally no Delhi-based or controlled administrator can be expected to be immune to this "gravy train"!

One is reminded of another Director in an established CSIR Laboratory specialized in food research who was recently "allowed" to go "Scot free" in spite of solid evidence of nepotism, corruption, financial misappropriation and literally "killing" the organization through brutal suppression of decent scientists, not towing his line! It is not that GOI did not know about his wrong doings because almost all investigating arms of the government had damned him for his dereliction of duty and unethical management of this great scientific institution for almost 17 years! His strength was his political muscle with almost all parties though what cost he had paid for their patronage is not known still. How such a person was allowed to go on "voluntary" retirement without even an admonition, is known only to the Director General of CSIR, Minister for Science and Technology and the Prime Minister who chairs the Governing Council of CSIR. Is it not callousness, indifference and insensitivity on the part of the GOI to allow this person to go without any accountability? Not only that CSIR was "magnanimous" in rewarding this person with "Distinguished Scientist" though no one knows what distinction he was able to bring to food science during his pedestrian career.

Can good Science survive in this country with a government bent on supporting mediocrity and corruption ridden scientists? There are hundreds of good honest scientists in the country with high technical and achievement credentials who are never allowed to come up due to this unfortunate phenomenon requiring people to be sycophants and "feet touching" champions if to be in power in government institutions. It is time that the main stream scientists rise against this deplorable situation and make research and technical institutions more democratic and upright. Leaders must be chosen based on acceptance by the scientific staff who are more tuned to the needs of the organization rather than through a charade involving pliable selectors with doubtful credentials. May be there is a need for the rise of an "Anna Hazare" from the scientific group to raise sane voice against corruption in science. Why not a special "scientists malpractice" punishing system where those caught practicing plagiarism, becoming corrupt and mismanaging science can be brought to book and deter others from indulging in such wrong doings? Of course this is possible only if sufficient honest scientist-cum administrators are still left in the country for doing this thankless job!


Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The US is a country with innovation fore most in the minds of its population in practically every field of human endeavor. When it comes to food their innovative spirit has thrown up new products with a regularity that can be termed as mind boggling. If the food processing sector in the US is considered, it outpaces that in any other country whether in product formulation, ingredient development, packaging, machinery or nutrition and no wonder their insatiable quest for new things has led them to a situation that is threatening their population in terms of ill health and "over nutrition". Interestingly the processing industry riding on modern knowledge driven technologies seems to have let out a "tiger" in the form of junk foods and other types of products with nutritional imbalance which refuses to be tamed! Neither the Government there nor the industry has any clue as to how best the American citizens can be saved from food-driven suicide!

Interestingly the spark for the distortion in food consumption habits was provided by the economic boom that country was experiencing with rich citizens able to buy food far beyond their actual need. After all a human being requires requires hardly 2000-3000 kC and 50-60 gms of proteins along with micro nutrients to maintain decent health but the calories requirement is closely linked to the physical efforts including daily chores and workplace activities. The pronounced shift from a diet rich in whole cereals, fruits, vegetables and other wholesome and nutritious foods to one rich in refined cereals and animal products has precipitated the current crisis. Added to this the government policy of heavily subsidizing wrong foods like Corn, Soybean etc and neglect of fruits and vegetables has made animal foods significantly cheaper driving even low income groups to such foods with low credentials vis-a-vis health protection.

Another dimension to the food and health crisis facing that country is indifferent safety of foods emanating from large industrial conglomerates using unsafe chemicals like antibiotics, pesticides and other inputs considered dangerous. Added to this aggressive popularization of GM foods with controversial safety credentials is considered to be adding to the woes of the American consumer. The highly profit motivated food industry does not seem to be too much concerned about the well being of the consumers and its attitude can be summed up as " profit at any cost" and it is up to the consumer to moderate food consumption and maintain health through exercise!
No wonder organic food industry is making considerable in roads into the main food portfolio as citizens are increasingly being scared about the safety of most of the foods offered in the market. It is a matter for serious introspection why food poisoning episodes due to contamination with deadly pathogens is recurring with sickening regularity in this country and there are many documentary evidence to show that the callous attitude and unpardonable mistakes of the industry are responsible for many of the market recalls of products billions of dollars.

In spite of the above serious lacunae America is also the land where innovative people's movements such as local foods, farmers market, urban garden, gorilla garden, terrace garden, community garden, corporate garden etc had started by people concerned with the quality and safety of foods consumed by them every day. The Food Truck phenomenon which has taken roots in this country is a development worth watching because unlike main stream restaurants these mobile vending units serve nutritionally better food at relatively low cost besides procuring their input materials locally. Latest concept to "arrive" is "Campus Garden" created and nurtured by the student community to feel the real thrill in growing food. Though it remains to be seen how far this phenomenon will last, there is good possibility the movement may spread across the continent considering the potential it holds in accessing safe and nutritious foods for the campus community.

The benefits of community gardens can be considerable. A community garden will promote health and wellness, provide a place for leisure and offer food for those in need. Indirectly it can promote wildlife habitats, storm water control and water quality improvement. One of the limitations of modern society is that students in schools are totally cut off from rural areas where food is produced and have no clue as to how farming activities ensure regular supply food for them. If teaching fraternity can be roped in, it will enrich the knowledge of students about agriculture. Imaginative design of such gardens can contribute to the development of good and constructive relationship with the surrounding community, leading to an environment of peace and tranquility. According to the most recent estimates there are 100 colleges and universities with community gardens on campus in the US, working harmoniously with the neighborhood. .

Why not the above experiment be started in various campuses across the country? Many college campuses have hundreds of hectares of land available that can be put to better use rather than allowing them to remain fallow. While Agricultural colleges in the country, many in number can lead the way, other teaching institutions also can follow them and there will be an impact of far reaching dimension in a few years time. What is needed is a set of standardized kits with necessary guidelines for raising some of the fruits and vegetables of short duration. One of the indirect benefits that may eventually flow out of such innovative development is that institutions with community gardens will turn out much better graduates with high sensitivity to nature and environment. Besides the "destructive" energy that is characteristic of modern youngsters can be channeled for a better cause through campus gardens.


Fight between man and insects for accessing available food on the earth is as old as the planet itself and many insecticides and pesticides have been evolved as a part of the armory against these vectors. There are thousands of insects that roam allover but food industry is bothered by a few of them which infest foods during production, handling, storage and processing. Though lately use of chemical insecticides is not favored by consumers and health activists, it is difficult to envision a world without the use of one or the other chemicals to prevent spoilage and irreparable loss of many types of foods. It is variably estimated that a significant proportion of food is lost during its travel from the farm to the consumer table and such losses could be as high as 30% in many cases. The million dollar question that faces the humanity is whether the world can afford to loose this much food for the spoilage vectors while a substantial segment of the population go hungry being denied access to limited food resources.  

Organic food movement which started in a small way is becoming a force to reckon with because of the apprehension weighing heavily in the minds of people regarding the uncertainties associated with many chemicals used at different stages while growing and processing of food crops. Many of such chemicals have been implicated in diverse health disorders including different types of cancer. There are many chemicals, used extensively earlier, now being discontinued after reliable scientific findings raised serious doubts about their safety for use in foods or processing facilities because the levels of residues left over can expose the consumer to unpredictable adverse health consequences. One major reason for the emerging clarity on safety is the advancement in residue analysis methods and more reliable research tools capable of monitoring residues in parts per billion concentration. For example Aflatoxin levels in peanuts and derived products which pose high risks of damage to liver can now be estimated in ultra low level concentrations and safety standards for limits for this mold derived toxin are continuously going down during the last few years. Same is true in many cases with buyers increasingly demanding zero level contaminants.

Recent proposal in the US regarding banning of a widely used pesticide Sulfuryl Fluoride (SF) is raising shackles in the food industry because of the repercussions such an action can cause to the present infestation control protocols. This chemical was in wide use in non food area, especially in the treatment of wood products against termite attack and it became an option for the food industry after the ban of Methyl Bromide (MB) in the year 2005 because of its role in depleting ozone layer in the atmosphere and consequent global warming process. It may be recalled that MB was a very effective fumigant because of its quick action and SF became the next option as it is equally effective against many stored products insects. The basis for present rethinking is the apprehension about the likely deleterious effect of fluoride on dental health causing fluorosis leading to tooth pitting and destruction of the enamel cover of the teeth. Conclusive evidence is still lacking whether the level of residues in treated products can cause any such harm as being claimed by the antagonists of SF. 

A point which has been overlooked is that only a few food products like cereal grains, dried fruits, coffee beans, cocoa beans and tree nuts are exposed to SH fumigation and there is no clear data as to how much is left behind as a residue in these treated products. SH fumigation usually for about 18 hours at controlled levels, is always followed by aeration for at least 6 hours and it may be too presumptuous to expect large scale absorption or chemical interaction of SH with the foods treated. Is it not odd that on one side WHO is promoting Fluoridation of water and inclusion of Fluorides in tooth pastes for the protection of teeth while SH use in small quantities for protecting foods is opposed by some! It is well known that exposure to fluorides through residues remaining in treated food products constitutes less than 3% of the total exposure of the population from other sources like tooth pastes, mouth wash products and fluoridated water. Yet the US government wants to single out SH for a ban in 3 years' time! The logic used for justifying the ban is that certain categories of population like children under the age of seven and those living in areas where water contains high levels of fluorides are more vulnerable to any additional exposure to fluorides through foods. 

It is not that there are no alternatives available to the industry beyond Sulfuryl Fluoride because chemicals like Phosphene, Ethyl Formate,  Ethylene Oxide etc are still "usable" chemicals against many species but most of them are not favored for one or the other reason. Alternatives being suggested by those proposing to ban this chemical include use of phosphene gas and heat which in theory can achieve disinfestation satisfactorily. But from a practical view Phosphene takes any where from 3-15 days of contact application to have kill all insects besides it being a fire hazard. Also true is that Phosphene can seriously damage monitoring instruments due to its highly corrosive nature. As for heat bringing the environmental temperature to 69C can kill most insects but practically it is not possible to put into practice a reliable heating system that can ensure uniform temperature in large establishments. One has to also keep in mind the adverse impact such high temperature may have on the equipment and other facilities in food processing and storage places. To come up with an equally effective pesticide like SF, it may take years of research and safety assessment and can the world wait for so long while food losses may mount to uncontrollable levels?. World should unite to discourage the US from going ahead with the ban and agencies like the WHO must advise its member countries to desist from following the unjustified course of action of the US.   



Sterilization of food products at ambient conditions is a dream every food scientist entertains and if this can be achieved in sealed packs it can be a bonus! Of course the Gamma Radiation or ionizing radiation technology is there readily available for the food industry to be tapped and optimum dosage levels for different foods have been worked out long ago. Unfortunately this technology is shunned by the user industry because of fear of consumer backlash from misapprehensions about the safety of foods irradiated and government policies have not helped the cause of this extremely efficient technology to take roots. One single most crucial impediment is the discriminatory labeling rules that make it mandatory for irradiated foods to be declared on the label though genetically modified foods can be marketed without the consumers knowing about through distinct labeling!

There are other similar processes which deploy pulse electric fields or ultra high pressure to achieve sterilization and it is a question of time before these technologies find industry wide application. A relatively new entrant to this field is Plasma Field sterilization which has hit the headlines recently. Though it may take years before the limited studies in this area can become an accepted technology, there is excellent potential for it to become an industry standard eventually. What is interesting in this case is that unlike other similar technologies, Plasma Field technology may not be investment intensive and energy guzzling and even SMEs may be able to afford the process easily. One of the uncertainties that can cloud any futuristic expectations is that adequate efforts have not been made to calibrate the process using different food products and probably wide scale studies with a variety of products may be undertaken world wide because of the commercial potential this technology has. 

The spark for development of plasma energy for food preservation seems to have been provided by scientists at Purdue University in the US who found a way to eliminate bacteria in packaged foods such as spinach and tomatoes to make them safe for use in products like salads. The facilities for achieving such a feat consist of a set of high-voltage coils attached to a small transformer that generates a room-temperature plasma field inside a package, ionizing the gases inside. The process was found to kill many harmful bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which have caused major public health concerns, in some parts of the world. If the concept can be effectively exploited it should be possible to sterilize any packed foods within a package exposing them to a Plasma field

The Plasma field is created easily, at least under the laboratory conditions, by placing two high-voltage, low-watt coils on the outside a sealed food package. A plasma field is formed which is a charged cloud of gas where oxygen is ionized and turned into ozone. According to available information the treatment time can vary from 30 seconds to about five minutes depending on many variable factors. It is well known that ozone gas can kill many pathogenic bacteria and the kill rate is proportional to the time the gas remains ionized. The life time of ozone so formed is limited and it gets back to molecular oxygen in no time once the plasma field is removed. Interestingly the process uses only 30-40 watts of electricity while the temperature remains almost same as room temperature, with only a few degree rise outside the treatment chamber, not sufficient to heat the packed product or alter its quality characteristics. Naturally if ozone can be used directly in the pack same effect can be achieved. But such treatments require packing the product in an ozone atmosphere which has its own logistical difficulties. It is interesting that the technology is suitable for many containers that include glass, plastic bags, plastic bottles and cartons.

Though the scientists who innovated this development have every right to indulge in claims regarding their discovery, the ground reality is that they have been able to establish a concept only with its technical feasibility. There is a long way to go before commercial models with large capacity, beyond the small gadget designed by them, are built for treating not a few grams of the product but in tons on a continuous mode. The effect of plasma field on the quality of the products is still unclear though it is claimed that nothing untoward happens to them. As many food products have different composition, their vulnerability to exposure to ozone may also be varying and these aspects need to be explored. On the legal side ozone is a permitted water treatment chemical but its use for preserving food does not seem to have any official sanction and this aspect requires attention.


Sunday, October 2, 2011


Agreed, lately India has attained notoriety with many scams under investigation but India is also a land of schemes where there are hundreds of programs funded by the governments at the Center as well as in various States. All government schemes have the avowed objective of uplifting the status of the citizens, especially the poor and down trodden ones with no hope for a secure future. Of course whether the money, in billions of rupees booked to the public exchequer, really reaches the beneficiaries is a matter of speculation though the estimated diversion or looting of the resources may be any where from 40-100% of the budgeted amount! Social activists still take heart from the fact that at least some are benefited to some extent, believing in the old adage that "some thing is better than nothing" ! A pitiable state of affairs where decent citizens are forced to condone misappropriation of public funds having no other option but to acquicise! ,

Here is the latest Scheme under the centrally sponsored projects under the banner of "Sabala" which appears to be thought of with noble intention, viz helping females between the age of 11 and 18 to develop into responsible future women with multiple skills and good health. As a first step the scheme is expected to be launched as a pilot trail in 100 districts across the country with a budget of Rs 1000 crore for the current financial year 2011-2012. Once the concept of this scheme is proved to be effective GOI is expected to provide adequate funds to spread the same through out the country. Though details about the program are not yet available, one must admire the intention behind this action because nutrition needs of females change dramatically during this period of growth when they attain puberty and under nutrition and anemia are rampant among this vulnerable group. Added to this the country is in an unenviable position with one out of four girls dropping out of the school during early stages of education and child marriages are very common in many states. The Scheme is all the more praise worthy considering that many families shun girl child if they can help and ultra sound screening to day is common for determining the sex of the child during early periods of pregnancy with temptation for abortion very high.

Sabala scheme, besides its emphasis on health and nutrition, also envisages development of the girls into a responsible woman with focus on upgrading the skill level to equip them with earning capability and improving the home environment with better welfare activities, family health and hygiene. While 100% of girls dropping out of the school between the age 11 and 15 will only be covered, those between 15 and 18 are expected to be fully covered. It is not clear why such a distinction is made though it might be due to the fact this age group is vulnerable to early child bearing with its attendant undesirable consequences in the long run. Considered from any angle this is a gigantic scheme with vast resources being pumped in and extra precaution, better management practices and close monitoring can only achieve even a fraction of the targets set for the scheme.

It is interesting that GOI is willing to shoulder 100% of the expenditure on non- nutrition component of the program but wants the States to share 50% of the expenditure on the food component. Whether health and nutrition will suffer because of the reluctance and economic weakness of the States, that some of them may default on their commitments to share the expenditure on this count is a valid concern. The ceiling limit of Rs 5 for the food component for each beneficiary may be too small to deliver any meaningful food qualitatively and quantitatively and like the mid-day meal program Sabala scheme may also suffer to achieve any tangible result. It is not realized by GOI that good nutrition cannot be envisaged with just food grains but inclusion of pulses, fruits and vegetables in the menu is a must to raise the health status of the beneficiaries. Depending on Anganwadis to deliver the food service also may be fraught with many uncertainties and whether the girls will queue up for cooked foods of indifferent quality in these feeding centers remains to be seen.

A strategy based on ready to eat foods with extended storage life should have been conceived in stead of hot cooked foods served every day at feeding centers. There will be opposition from vested interests because manufacture and distribution of pre-packed RTE foods will have far lesser scope for pilferage and misappropriation of scheme funds by those managing the same. Fortifying cereal based food preparation with proteins, vitamins and minerals as is being done in some food products supplied for applied nutrition programs may not be the best way to deliver "nutrition" and this should have dawned on the planners who came out with the Sabala scheme from past experiences. Food scientists will confirm that Milk and or egg can be the best nutritious source and it must be left to the food technologists to come up with shelf stable products requiring no cooking for such mass distribution programs. If the cost is higher there is no alternative but to increase the outgo on the food component to meet the need.