Monday, November 28, 2011


It is the consumer psychology that the foods consumed by them must be as fresh as possible though health aspect also comes into reckoning with some segment of the consumers. The front of the pack label indicates when the product is manufactured and for how long the contents are good for eating. However this information does not guarantee that the food inside the unopened pack is still good, the consumer depending entirely on the label declaration to take the buying decision. Foods are packed in rigid as well as flexible containers and the packaging materials used can be metal, plastics, paper, laminates etc depending on the functionality and shelf life desired. While transparent packaging may provide some clue regarding the appearance of the product based on which some consumers decide whether they are good or bad, there is not sure way of arriving at a decision about the quality without opening the sealed pack. Recent news that scientists have come out with a a gadget that can "tell" whether the packed food is good for eating, is indeed a welcome news and it is worth evaluating the efficacy and relevance of the new gadget for the industry, retailer and consumer.

When a food is packed in any container the industry has a few options to extend the life of the product to some extent through manipulation of the gas composition inside. Most products are packed in plastic pouches and sealed under atmospheric condition. The head space with in the pack is air containing mostly about 21% oxygen, 78% Nitrogen, 1% Argon and some trace gases like Carbon Dioxide and others. It is the presence of Oxygen in the air which causes quality deterioration in food through oxidative chemical reactions and support for growth of microorganisms if the water activity in the product is conducive for them. Oxidation becomes a critical issue in dry products, especially if the concentration of oil component in the product is significantly high. Oxidative rancidity is one of the major problems for the fried product industry and there are many antioxidants deployed for retarding rancidity in such products. Vacuum packing and Nitrogen flushed packing are also employed to protect food from rancidity and consequent flavor deterioration. Use of modified atmosphere packing technology is based on controlling the composition of the gas inside a pack with predominance of CO2 which prevents growth of microorganisms, especially in high moisture products like fresh fruits and vegetables besides slowing down biological reactions to extend their effective life.  

A new laser technology developed in Sweden is claimed to be capable of detecting the gas composition inside packaged foods and determine the relative freshness of the content. Since It is a non-destructive method to test "freshness" of packaged foods, the developers feel that its utility would be of great relevance to all those involved in quality assessment of foods. Through measurements of the gas composition the product quality within can be monitored at different times effortlessly, enabling to check a much higher number of products than at present by the retailers as well as the industry. Most packaging practices use simple flexible pouches made from plastic films with varying gas permeability and oxygen is bound to seep in through the film surface into the pouch leading to oxidation, the growth of bacteria, and spoilage. The hand held instrument developed by the scientists is able to determines gas composition within food packaging using a laser spectroscopic technique which measures the absorption of light when the laser passes through the package and based on the signal, a computer provides the gas composition within. 

The only prerequisite for the technology to be successful is that light must pass through the package for measurement of the transmitted light and correlating to the gas composition. It appears almost all packaging materials currently in vogue allow at least some light to pass through making the method universally applicable. With the advent of lamination technology there are many permutations and combinations of films with Aluminum foil to control the gas and vapor transmission properties and the fact that even these packaging systems containing Aluminum foil can transmit light to the extent of as low as 0.001%, can make the laser technology relevant to almost all segments of food industry. Though technical soundness of the concept is well established beyond doubt there can be some challenges when commercial application becomes a reality.

A most critical question is whether the optical properties of the content inside can vitiate the result and if so to what extent. Similarly will there be variation from product to product and whether individual standardization will be required for each and every product. Ultimately who are the target users of this beautiful technology, whether the consumer, industry, quality monitoring agency or the retailer? Will there be a day in future when retail stores keep this instrument at each bay so that the consumers can check the products they want to buy for their freshness and if so how can the retailers avoid massive return of products left behind by the consumers to the manufacturers? Does this technology has a potential to disrupt the current food supply chain dynamics seriously? These are challenges that need to be addressed before mass deployment of this "toy"!


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Coffee, by any yardstick, cannot be termed a food as it does not provide any calories or nutrients by itself and often consumed for its beverage properties. If so why is it that Coffee is the second most traded commodity behind petroleum, in the world market? Global production touching 7 million tons can vouchsafe for the popularity of coffee in many parts of the world. Top coffee producers in the world include Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Honduras, Ethiopia and India, accounting for almost 80% of global out put and this commodity happens to be major sustaining economic force for 12 countries who dominate the global trade. Interestingly most of the top coffee consuming countries do not figure in the list of top producers and the per capita consumption in these coffee producing countries is some what insignificant compared to that in many countries in Europe. Why is that coffee has become an important part of the life styles in many western countries?

It is generally agreed that Western countries are more affluent and also generally better informed about nutrition and health. If so is it possible that they have realized the health advantage in consuming coffee regularly? Or is it because of the addiction quality of coffee that has hooked the consumers in these countries to regular consumption of coffee? It may also be due to the stimulating aroma of coffee that is liked by people in the West. Otherwise how one can explain away the high consumption level of coffee in countries like Finland (12 kg per person per year), Norway (9.9 kg), Ireland ( 9 kg ), Denmark (8.7 kg), the Netherlands (8.4 kg), Sweden (8.2 kg) or Switzerland (7.9 kg)? Compare to this, consumption in India is less than 100 gm per year per person! Probably the most compelling factor could be the environment in these countries where cold climates persist most of the year and a cup of coffee is the best "friend" to keep company ( of course next to alcohol)!

Is consumption of coffee really beneficial to the human health? There is no unanimity on this issue with most scientists supporting its health value while a few believe it could be injurious. A random sampling of international opinions on effect of coffee on health would reveal that its consumption can reduce the risk of a plethora of diseases that include Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, CVD, Diabetes, Liver Cirrhosis and Gout. However coffee is implicated in acid influx, especially in old age people. Also coffee in implicated in increased LDL proteins and consequent heart problems, attributed to the diterpenes, Kahweol and Cafestol, present in coffee brew made without paper filter. It is universally accepted that roasted coffee can contain more than 1000 different chemical constituents including valuable lipophilic antioxidants which are effective in sweeping off the dangerous oxyradicals generated at the cellular level. Chlorogenic acid lactones, present in coffee, are reported to be effective in protecting neuronal cells.

A recent study, performed by a Harvard Medical School team, using a sample size of 50,000 women in the US over a span on of 10 years has brought out a startling fact that coffee consumption can be very effective in decreasing depression among them significantly. According to them those women not taking coffee regularly tended to have very high level of depression compared to others consuming the beverage regularly. Drinking two or more cups of coffee a day may reduce the risk of developing depression and the increase in coffee consumption correlated to a decrease depression risk. Those who drank 2 to 3 cups a day had a 15% decrease in depression risk; drinking 4 or more cups a day decreased the risk by 20%.  Drinking decaffeinated coffee did not have the same effect on depression prevention. This empirical correlation does not seem to have any scientific backing and only further studies can figure out the effects of caffeine on the brain. Scientifically it is established that caffeine, present in coffee does promote feelings of well-being and energy. The ability of Caffeine to block adenosine, a chemical produced by the brain that slows nerve cell activity in the brain and cause drowsiness, is well known. Similarly Caffeine also increases dopamine production which plays an important role in depression. It is also claimed that the tendency to commit suicide is very low among coffee drinkers and these findings can reinforce the basis for coffee's ability to counteract depression. 

Lack of unanimity that is eluding the researchers engaged in coffee related studies can be attributed to the confusion that prevails regarding the understanding of coffee and its processing. Coffee is roasted first before grinding into powders with varying particle size and variations can exist in roasting conditions depending on the type of product desired. The chemicals extracted into the brew can vary enormously depending on whether it is a light roast or medium, medium dark, dark or very dark roast. At 200C the process of caramelization is initiated when starch is broken down to sugars and Maillard reaction also begins giving the darker color. At 205C flavor chemicals like Caffeol start forming. As roasting proceeds many aromatic oils and acids are destroyed changing the composition dramatically. Added to this the powdering operation decides the efficiency of extraction whether by boiling with water or steeping or percolation or pressure extraction. This is borne out by the fact that a cup of coffee can have Caffeine in a wide range from 75 mg to 200 mg depending on how it is made! What role addition of whiteners like milk plays on the health front is not very clear. For comparison of any scientific study the basic material used must have uniformly defined characteristics and probably it may be time such studies are organized by the International Coffee Organization to dispel all doubts about the effect of coffee consumption on human beings. Till such times these studies are organized, consumers will have to go by impartial observers that coffee consumption has more beneficial value than any serious health risks.


Thursday, November 17, 2011


In a recent news item, a claim was being made regarding a new sanitary agent under the name HPV that is supposed to be ideal for use by the medical and food industry. The terminology used to describe the process of disinfection was "BIO-DECONTAMINATION" giving an impression that it is not based on any chemicals but uses biotechnological technique. As it is a proprietary  product only sketchy details were offered leaving lot to guessing regarding this "innovation". The acronym HPV refers to Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor and bio-decontamination refers to killing all biological contaminants like virus, bacteria and mold. It is well known that H2O2 is a powerful oxidizing agent used commonly for room disinfection and what is new in this much touted technology is not clear.

There are hundreds of chemical substances approved for use as disinfectants world over and the most popular ones are based on their oxidizing capacity. These include Sodium Hypochlorite, Calcium Hypochlorite, Electrolyzed Water, Chloramine and Chloramine T, Chlorine Dioxide, Hydrogen Peroxide solution, Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide solution containing surfactants and organic acids, Potassium Permanganate, Iodine, Peracetic Acid, Performic Acid and Potassium Peroxy Mono Sulfate. Hydrogen Peroxide offers several advantages when used in formulating sanitizers which include: no residue is left behind, the decomposition products are non-toxic, no preconditioning is necessary for ensuring its effectiveness and relatively less hazardous in using it. Important attributes for any disinfectant to be universally acceptable include the degree of effectiveness in achieving 100% kill of microbes, safety for the users, zero residue or non-toxicity of residues if left over, stability of the chemical(s) at room temperature, safety of storage and distribution and cost effectiveness.

H2O2 based disinfectants are increasingly becoming popular though it can be toxic if not properly handled. The principle of disinfection is based on evolution of nascent oxygen from H2O2 which can destroy almost all microorganisms on contact. The Virosil product developed in Switzerland has been an established disinfectant since a long time and the biggest advantage is its stability ( 1 year at ambient condition) though H2O2 by itself in not very stable. The product is based on 12% H2O2 and 0.01% Silver Nitrate and the nascent oxygen generated and the Silver ions present in the product act synergistically to kill all microorganisms including viruses, bacteria, fungi, yeasts, molds and algae. Its users include hospitals, pharma companies, dairies, poultry farms, cooling towers, effluent treatment, food processing, drinking water, agriculture, aquaculture. There are reports that this product is even being used as a preservative for some foods though no country has approved such a direct use. However there is natural constraint in using H2O2 directly any complex organic chemical mix that most foods are, as the nascent oxygen generated can change the flavor and other quality characteristics of the product adversely and irreversibly by oxidation. Therefore water is the only substance in which H2O2 is directly used for disinfection.

The newly developed HPV product is claimed to achieve 100% decontamination when used in solutions and said to be accepted widely within food manufacturing applications owing to a number of factors almost same as those for Virosil. Further the bioburden reduction is achieved in a relatively short time. Of course traditional manual cleaning still remains the main method of managing this critical process within the industry though its effectiveness is variable and dependent on the skill of the individual operators. Aseptic food processing is also an increasing trend in food production technology, extending product shelf life and avoiding the challenge of cold chain logistics but here also fool proof disinfection of the machinery is a prerequisite for the success of the process. Among the three products HPV solution, Virosil solution and Accelerated Hydrogen Peroxide solution, which one will become more popular ultimately will depend on the cost factor.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011


For a healthy life man must have certain minimum requirements of energy and nutrients which are provided by carbohydrates, proteins, fats, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. Though there is no uniformity of norms, qualitative and quantitative, diets are recommended based on a consensus in each country. Food requirements vary among people and they are governed by factors like environment, life style, physical activities and personal likes and dislikes. The science of nutrition is still not well defined with gaps of information evident in some areas and this is compounded by inadequate research on many traditional food preparations popular in different regions of the world. It is rather paradoxical that man seems to be knowing more about the negative aspects of food than the positive factors that boost health. Thus ill effects of saturated fats, trans fats, refined cereals, too much carbohydrates and fats, deficiencies vis-a-vis many nutrients, over consumption of sugar and salt are well known. But what is best to maintain robust health or boost the health is still controversial areas with business interests exploiting limited data on this score.

The US Food Pyramid System for recommended good diet was a bible for every dietitian and nutritionist till recently when it was replaced by the MyPlate System, both of them laying emphasis on the role of fruits and vegetables for good health. However both these systems seem to have ignored the cardinal principle that all carbohydrates cannot be considered good. Modern living style has seen a progressive shift from unrefined carbohydrates to refined ones, probably due to the compulsions of processing industry to achieve value addition ( or profit addition?) and to get high sensory quality foods satisfying to the palates of new generation of people. Thus whole wheat flour yielded to refined white flour, raw sugar and jaggery have been replaced with ultra white crystalline sugar, ghanny pressed and expeller oils losing their market after the arrival of crystal clear super refined oils, snow white rice pushing more nutritious red rice to the background and many other similar distortions with disastrous consequences. The result is for every one to see with half the world population already sick with a plethora of diseases, spending trillions of dollars for medical intervention for ameliorating the deteriorating health status.

The debate about the "chicken or egg first" will always continue as long as humanity exists on the planet and such a debate is also thriving in the food area ever since food processing started taking hold of the human weakness for convenient and tasty foods in preference to healthy products. If to day's life style in many affluent countries depend too much on so called junk foods or calorie rich and nutrient light products, blame has to be apportioned to both the consumer and the industry. Where does the government come into the picture is a valid question. Is it not the responsibility of a government to create conditions that will ensure optimum health to its citizens? Can any serious governing system ignore this aspect and promote business interests that deal a body blow to the health standards of the population? It is a bitter truth that "money" is the ultimate tool for influencing any decision by public institutions and this has been amply demonstrated in India where there are innumerate financial scams which have become the landmark of the current governance! It is an indisputable fact that GM foods, created and nurtured  by a handful of business monopolists have overwhelmingly captured the American food market only through their money power for influencing government decisions in their favor!

There are hints now emerging that the new dietary guideline being promoted now under the "MyPlate' icon is also driven by business, especially when it comes to carbohydrate component in the plate. Qualitatively there is a big difference in the nutritional value between whole cereals and refined cereal flours and whether the omission to indicate the quality of carbohydrate, is deliberate or not is an issue meriting consideration. The Glycemic index values (GI) of different carbohydrate ingredients give a clear picture regarding their health promoting capacity and probably the carbohydrate components could have been further split into low GI and high GI factions to help the consumers to evolve their own diets. The allegation that failure to mention this important aspect in the Food Pyramid system has some thing to do with the influence of processing industry which manufactures more than 80% of its products from refined carbohydrate components with high GI values, may have some substance. Also this negligence must have had a role in the obesity epidemic America is facing to day.  The GI value is the only scientific measure of how fast and how high a carbohydrate containing food raises blood sugar when consumed and the lower and slower the better. Refined grains and processed carbohydrates, are known to rank high on the GI scale because they are easily digested, causing a rapid and significant rise of blood sugar and insulin levels. In contrast, low-GI foods, have been shown to be more healthy after clinical validation. They have a much more gradual and healthy effect on blood sugar, raising it more slowly which is considered to be better for managing weight, sustaining energy and disease prevention.


Monday, November 14, 2011


Cruciferous vegetables constitute one of the most widely consumed food items in the world and the major ones in this family include Cauliflower,Cabbage, Cress, Bok choy, and Broccoli. They contain significant levels of vitamin C, soluble fiber and many nutrients and beneficial phytochemicals with health protecting properties. Diindolylmethane, Sulfaraphane and Selenium are the three constituents present in these vegetables that make them nutritionally unique. But they also carry possible goitrogenic agents that can disrupt thyroid formation resulting in goiter if consumed in large quantities without cooking. However since most vegetables are cooked the goitrogenicity is more than off set by the beneficial phytochemicals with far reaching impact on health.

Broccoli recently caught the attention world wide because of the successful efforts in Britain where scientists were reported to have developed a super version containing higher levels of the phytochemical Glucoraphanin, almost 3 times the amount compared to its normal counterpart. Interestingly Broccoli sprouts are known to contain 10 times more Glucoraphanin compared to that in the mature vegetable and health conscious consumers buy them purely for protecting their health. Glucoraphanin is the precursor of the active constituent Sulforaphane that is considered almost a wonder nutrient.. The new version has been patented in Europe and safety cleared before entering the market. Normal Broccoli has sufficient Vitamin C to provide 107% of RDA in a 100 gm serving, besides 97% of RDA for Vitamin K and varying levels of others like dietary fiber etc..Whether the new super Broccoli  contains same levels or more of the these micro nutrients is not clear from available reports.

Diindolylmethane present is considered potent moderator of innate immune response system with antiviral, antibacterial and anticancer activities. Similarly Glucoraphanin is another chemical entity present that is implicated in reduction of fat in the body, cholesterol cutting and heart protective functions. Indole-3-Carbinol, another substance in Broccoli is reported to be effective in boosting the ability of cells to repair DNA damage and block the growth of cancer cells. it is well known that Broccoli has the highest levels of carotenoids in the brassica family, being particularly rich in inlutein. It also provides a modest amount of beta-carotene. A high intake of Broccoli has been found to reduce the risk of aggressive prostate cancer. Broccoli consumption has also been shown to be beneficial in the prevention of heart disease though its consumption is associated with malodorous flatulence, from metabolism of the sulfur-containing compounds it contains.

Vegetables are invariably described by many experts as a veritable medicine chest and it is he failure of consumers to open this "chest" that leads to various diseases like CVD, Cancer, Blood Pressure etc. When it comes to Broccoli, it is unique in providing adequate levels of these health protective phytochemicals and no wonder it has become synonymous with good health similar to Asparagus. One of the problems in consuming adequate quantity of Broccoli is that if cooked in water the functional properties are lost significantly and this loss can be as high as 77% when cooking is prolonged for 30 minutes. Steaming, microwaving and stir frying are recommended for preserving these vital nutrients. However it is not clear whether these methods of cooking can also achieve freedom from goitrogenic property.

Interestingly the scientists who developed super Broccoli deployed conventional breeding techniques of crossing a traditional local variety with a wild, bitter Sicilian variety that has no no flowery head but was rich in glucoraphanin resulting in the new variety. No wonder it took the group more than 14 years to come out with a product with high concentration of this active ingredient. Probably if GM technology was deployed same result would have been possible in a fraction of the time spent by the research group. Obviously the same product derived with GM technology would have been confined to history because of the difficulty involved in getting safety clearance from the authorities concerned for universal marketing, One has to admire the foresight of the developers in developing such a product as there is a perceptible tendency among producers to inject extra nutrients into foods, ranging from calcium-enriched orange juice to fortified sugary cereals and milk with added omega 3 fatty acids. The new broccoli is sold as part of a line of vegetables that includes mushrooms with extra vitamin D, and tomatoes and potatoes with added selenium.

An interesting question that may still pose problem for sustaining the marketing of super Broccoli is about any safety risks associated with over consumption. Not sufficient data exists to know if anyone could overdose on glucoraphanin, but vitamin D and selenium in very high quantities can be toxic. Impending human trials using super Broccoli to compare its efficacy with normal version of the vegetable in improving heart health and other claimed benefits only will lay sufficient ground work to get necessary clearance from the European Food Safety Agency for advertising the claims. Of course there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that supports the efficacy of glucoraphanin and related compounds as an important preventive agents against heart attacks and certain cancers. Glucoraphanin is a mildly toxic compound used by plants to fight insects. In humans, glucoraphanin may stimulate the body's natural chemical defenses, potentially making the body stronger at removing dangerous compounds. Some experts believe that eating foods packed with extra nutrients would probably have only a minimal impact compared with other lifestyle choices, like not smoking and exercising. It is true that eating the super Broccoli is not going to counteract one's bad habits and there is considerable misgivings whether such nutrient boosted products like super Broccoli, if added to more popular foods would work to improve people's overall health. Because of the higher price tag, almost 35% more than that of normal Broccoli, how far the new version will become popular remains to be seen. If increasing acceptance of organic foods which are costlier than their industrially produced counterparts is any indication, super Broccoli may capture the imagination of the consumers who are becoming more and more sensitive to food safety and general health.


Saturday, November 12, 2011


If recent international reports are any indication, sugar market is in for some turbulence in the next two years due to fast depletion of sugar stocks world wide and demand from industry as well as the consumers increasing at a fast pace. There are many disturbing questions which are going to daunt the producing countries as well as those countries depending on imported sugar to meet domestic demand. Will there be a massive increase in world prices and if so will it be tolerated by the consumers including the food industry? Will this curb sugar consumption considered desirable by nutritional pundits? Sugar is one of the most reviled food commodities in the world and cause of practically every disease that afflicts humans is attributed to this so called "white poison". What will be the impact of increased price of sugar on the "Gasohol" industry in Brazil? Will the bio-fuel industry be affected seriously? Sugar is enmeshed in politics with many politicians having a finger in the pie, controlling production in the cooperative sector in India and if there is substantial price increase will the additional benefits be passed on to the grower by way of increased Minimum Support Price for the cane? Probably there may not be any ready answer to any of the above questions right now.

If the new price levels are substantially higher than what they are today, sugar exporting countries can be expected to benefit through increased realization for their exports. But what effect such a policy will have on domestic food inflation needs to be anticipated. Whether one likes it or not any increase in domestic sugar prices will have political consequences for the ruling dispensation and therefore it will pose challenges for the government of present day to orchestrate any clear export policy. This was amply demonstrated recently with food grains in India. Despite the overflowing granaries and extensive rotting of grains in the open due to paucity of storage space, Indian Government could not take any sound decision regarding exports due conflicting pressures from different stake holders. Same can happen with sugar also.

One of the two reasons attributed to the scarcity condition is the "demonizing" of Hugh Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) world over for its alleged role in spreading obesity in the US and it was not long ago that the beverage and food industry switched over to HFCS because of economic advantages. There are conflicting views among the scientific community regarding the ill effects of HFCS but even a small doubt raised on the safety of a food ingredient can spell doom for it because of strong consumer backlash. Same thing happened with HFCS. Though no safety agency in the world has banned HFCS, user industry is voluntarily switching back to white sugar due to fierce consumer perception regarding the long term effect of HFCS on human body, setting in motion a higher demand pull for sugar. Other reason for depletion of international sugar stock is the increasing demand for sugar among population in developing economies in Asia which is not matched by concomitant production rise, necessitating drawing from stocks being held from previous years. It appears the current deficit of sugar is about 15 million tons that could not be bridged through increased production. Droughts and floods which have ravaged the land in major sugar producing countries like Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Thailand have seriously affected their ability to match even previous year's production, let alone achieve increased productivity.

Interestingly there was an increase of 10% in sugar production achieved in developing countries while that from developed world contracted by 4%. In the year 2010-11 developed countries produced about 32 million tons of sugar while other countries put together recorded a production of 128 million tons. Why there should be a shortage in future is not clearly evident if one goes by the statistics, especially when sugar consumption growth is hardly 1.5% globally. Added to this the present forecasts by both the FAO and the USDA  
indicate a good sugar year across the world which has the potential to trigger a price crash affecting the fortunes of farmers in countries like Brazil in a significant way. The possibility of HFCS regaining its popularity may further threaten a drastic reduction in sugar demand in the coming years. On the whole there may not be any disaster waiting to happen in the sugar front, at least in the immediate future with any serious repercussions on the economies of sugar producing countries.

Viewed from another point, is the dramatic increase in sugar consumption in countries like India, Vietnam and other developing regions health wise desirable, knowing well about the potential for life style diseases caused by high sugar consumption? It is mind boggling to note that during the last 5 years sugar consumption in these countries has increased by 66%, an average rise of almost 12.5% per year where as world average is only one eighth of this figure!  Are these countries going the American way due to their newly acquired economic prosperity? Is it not time for the governments in these countries to evolve suitable policies that has the potential to curb sugar consumption drastically for the sake of a healthy future? It is most unfortunate that organized sugarcane crushing industry in India has virtually decimated the small scale jaggery industry and in many markets jaggery is more expensive than industrial sugar. Indisputably jaggery and similar unrefined sweetener products from sugarcane and palm tress are much more nutritious than white refined sugar. A differential pricing mechanism orchestrated through fiscal measures can make the sugar very expensive while jaggery and similar products can become highly affordable. The million dollar question is whether the political set up in the country in the vice-like grip of sugar lobby will allow such a thing to happen!

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Peanuts are nutritionally a much acclaimed food with high levels of protein, fat, fiber and some micro nutrients. The "war of nuts" between peanut and soybean for market supremacy has given prominence to both these oil seeds though the protein in peanut is always looked down because of low levels of the essential amino acid Lysine present in this oil seed. In contrast peanut oil has much better stability as a cooking oil while soybean oil is more nutritious because of higher content of unsaturated fats. As a food peanut is a main stream component of diets in India and a few other countries. Soybean is invariably called the "cow of the orient" because of the popularity of soy milk among people in South East Asia. With relatively low consumption of animal milk in many Asian countries, soybean milk presents itself as a highly acceptable alternative. Industrially peanut lags behind soybean which is used extensively to manufacture hundreds of products with high consumer acceptability. Meat substitutes made from soybean are relatively cheap and are considered poor man's meat with almost same texture.

Peanut is consumed at the consumer level as snack items and products like roasted, coated and fried peanut snacks are popular in many countries. Confectionery products made from peanuts, called "Chikkis" using Jaggery or sugar are produced in India by thousands of cottage scale units working in the informal sector. Soybean takes a beating on this score as its major use is confined to extraction of oil and using the residue in animal feed formulations. Soybean curd or Toffu is a favored item liked by Asians and is becoming popular like cheese in other countries also. The processing methods are distinctively different with these two crops. While peanut seeds are processed in Expeller presses followed by solvent extraction, soybean, due to its low oil content goes straight for solvent extraction and refining. 

Peanuts hit the headlines recently because of the claims made by some scientific groups that it is rich in a rare phytochemical Resveratrol with supposed credentials for achieving longevity. It was a news because a major source of Resveratrol was red wine about which lot has been written. While Red wine contains this chemical in the range of 0.2 to 12.59 mg per liter, raw Peanut has less than 2 mg per kg. What caught the attention of the world was that the same peanut when boiled increased its Resveratrol level to about 9 mg per kg. However such arithmatic jugglery cannot conceal the fact that while wine can be easily consumed one or two glasses a day, it is unimaginable that one can eat 300 gm of peanut a day to deliver the same quantity. Also not understandable is the loud claims being made about the capability of Resveratrol to prolong life without any human trials so far. At best this phytochemical has been proved to be helpful in keeping at bay diseases like cancers, diabetes etc only in animal experiments. Probably sensationalism and vested commercial interests seem to be floating such claims with practically no scientific basis.

It is true that nature has equipped many plants with toxic chemicals for fighting against pathogens and  other marauders and Resveratrol present mostly in the skin of fruits like Red grapes is a proven fighter against bacteria and fungi. Interestingly, during wine production the pomace, rich in Resveratrol is discarded and only a small portion of this chemical is passed on to the juice. Therefore it makes more sense to eat fresh grapes or drink crushed grape juice than the wine to get full benefit of the fruit's Resveratrol content. Is it not a commercial ploy by the wine industry to tout about the ability of wine to prolong life? Same appears to be true in the case of peanuts also as consumption of this oil seed directly as food is limited and a major portion goes for recovery of edible oil leaving the residue for feeding cattle. Whether Resveratrol is more concentrated in the pressed residue or in the oil fraction is some what not clear but refined peanut oil
definitely cannot be a source because of the severe refining process the raw oil has to go through under which Resveratrol cannot be expected to be stable.

Another side of Resveratrol story is still more fascinating. It concerns about its solubility, biological absorption and metabolism. Being practically insoluble in water delivery of Resveratrol to the cells is fraught with many uncertainties. Buccal delivery (by chewing in the mouth) is supposed to be some what better and based on this finding by some scientists, chewing gum formulations containing Resveratrol are already in some markets. Oral ingestion is supposed to be very inefficient with not even 5% of the administered quantity ending up in the blood stream. Both small intestine and liver are known to conjugate Resveratrol into glucuronate and sulfonate, both inactive in any way. Synthetic versions and bio-technologically made products are available but due to uncertainty about the real effect of Resveratrol in human body, no approved drug formulations have been marketed though some major drug companies are reported to be investing in this area with the hope of coming out with a successful product eventually. If they succeed humanity may have an effective drug that can counteract many diseases including cancers, severe inflammation, diabetes and cardiovascular aberrations. 


Sunday, November 6, 2011


Why is that almost all food related poisoning incidences are reported from the developed world? The much maligned developing countries do not "boast" of even a single major out break of food poisoning though there might have been occasional reports of minor nature. why is that tourists from Western world are afraid of visiting many poor countries in the world where majority of the population is concentrated? Obviously because they are afraid of polluted atmosphere, unsafe water and food, unhygienic habitats and unreliable medical facilities. But look at the mortality rate due to food poisoning! Very few deaths are attributed to food poisoning, most fatalities attributed to diseases, infectious as well other types. Is there any convincing scientific reason for such a paradox? 

There is always the temptation to correlate affluence with food poisoning but is there really such a relationship? No one is sure though circumstantial evidence do point out such a nexus. Most of the pathogenic bacteria involved in food poisoning are more frequently reported in animal foods like meat and egg and this naturally raises the question whether food poisoning has any connection with increased meat production and consumption. Since there are no cultural constraint in mixing meat products and non-meat products as most consumers in the West are meat eaters, scrupulous segregation of these products may not happen in many cases and such a situation can cause cross contamination from these sources. Similarly irrigation water used in cultivation can become contaminated in areas where slaughter houses and meat handling facilities are located and migration of bacteria from water into fruits and vegetables is a distinct possibility.  This can explain frequent reporting of contamination of fresh produce such as Spinach, Tomato, Peanuts, Cucumber etc in the US.

One must recall the recent out break of virulent E.coli related food poisoning which killed several persons besides causing damage to the health of hundreds of people in Europe, boasting of high standards of living and modern living facilities and still it is not clear what really caused such an incidence. Though the blame game was going on for some time regarding the culprit for the incidence, finally culminating in putting the blame on an Egyptian consignment of Fenugreek imported for sprouting, the moot question is why it did not happen in the country of origin and why the "monster killer" waited till it landed in Europe to bare its fangs? This is scary situation where no one seems to know which pathogen is going to strike when and where! If a small out break like this could claim several lives in Europe with high standards of living, what if the same kind of poisoning happens in a thickly populated country like India or China? 

Most recent food poisoning was reported from the US where the innocuous Cantaloupe became the carrier for Listeria, another little monster with deadly credentials, killing 13 people and affecting many people who were hospitalized. Imagine the fate of many people who had the misfortune to eat this fruit when it is known that the food poisoning manifestations from Listeria can appear several weeks after the consumption of the contaminated fruit. Though several theories float around regarding the reason for this fruit to get contaminated, no one seems to have a sure answer. It is admitted by Microbiologists familiar with the episode that finding out the reason may not be easy. Probably the contamination must have occurred due to improper washing process allowing the bacteria to migrate into the inside of the fruit. Fortunately due to recall of about 300,000 cases of the suspected fruit the damage was some what contained. The stark question that confront countries like the US is whether prevention of such episodes can be more effective than spending time and resources to chase the problem after such episodes are allowed to occur. 
Food poisoning is reported to affect an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths and such food-borne illnesses cost the nation's economy about $152 billion annually in health-care expenses and lost productivity. It is time to reinvent the meaning of food safety and new rules are necessary to ensure food does not become contaminated due to callous handling to limit illnesses. The last word on Cantaloupe tainting has not been heard because there may be thousands of households in the country holding the contaminated fruit in their refrigerators waiting to be consumed without the consumers unaware of the consequences awaiting them if and when they eat them. Mandatory rules, not guidelines, are needed to force the industry to adopt correct practices to prevent illnesses arising out of contamination of foods with a plethora of more and more virulent bacteria.


Thursday, November 3, 2011


Antioxidants are to day more or less recognized as the saviors of mankind from many non-infectious diseases like cancer. Such a situation has come about after it was found by many scientific studies about the ability of antioxidants to scavenge free radicals from the body. Oxy radicals generated in the human body due to various metabolic reactions, if not removed promptly, are believed to cause damage to DNA which can cause various types of cancers affecting different organs and other vital functions. It is believed that fruits provide high levels of antioxidants, mainly in the form of poly phenols and a generous consumption of these protective foods can keep many diseases away. The latest dietary recommendations suggest that almost half the plate of foods consumed every day should be contributed by fruits and vegetables.

It is believed that human body makes its own anti oxidants to neutralize the day to day generation of oxy radicals there by protecting it from many serious diseases but modern day life contributes a much larger levels of oxy radicals which need more anti oxidants to make them innocuous. Optimum health to day means ensuring taking adequate amounts of anti oxidants through daily diet. This naturally raises the question regarding the relative efficiency of various food sources in providing high levels of antioxidants to the body. Poly phenols which are natural constituents of many foods consumed daily are considered to be of efficient antioxidant credentials though there is always the question of their absorption across the GI tract under normal conditions. For these antioxidants to be effective they are required to be delivered to the cells in their active form and it is here where some confusion still exists. If a product claims it is rich in antioxidants, it may not be telling a lie but if the claim refers to health advantages by consuming them, same may not be tenable because of uncertainties regarding the actual absorption and delivery to the cells for making them work.

ORAC Value proposed by the National Institute on Aging under National Institution of Health, Bethesda, USA is widely used to assess the efficacy of foods as a source of antioxidants. ORAC value simply predicts the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity of a substance through laboratory analyzes and is widely used in estimating the antioxidant value of different foods. It was the USDA which first brought out a compendium of foods with different ORAC values to help the consumers to select antioxidant rich foods in their daily diet. Recently the Institute of Nutrition and Food Technology in Chile has brought out the ORAC values of 140 different fruits grown all over the world, besides providing useful information about other nutrients present in them. Unfortunately the world has not reached a stage where ORAC values can be used as a reliable indicator for making legally health claims by different food resources. But it till serves the purpose of helping the consumers to select the ones with highest ORAC value for his continued well being. 

Many people may be unaware that Sorghum, considered a poor man's staple in many countries is a rich source of antioxidants boasting of a high ORAC value of 45,400! Compare this with the ORAC value of 290,285 for a spice like Cloves or 131, 420 for Cinnamon or 127,068 for Turmeric. The much ridiculed Curry Powder of India can boast of an ORAC value of 48, 504. Some times it is intriguing to see many published scientific papers touting about high ORAC values for fruits like Blackberries, Blueberries and other berries like Calafate, Macqui, Murtilla etc because these are not produced in substantial quantities to be available year around, if the demand rises rapidly. Besides they are not consumed in big quantities to deliver high levels of antioxidants. On the other hand take the case of foods like Sorghum which is taken to meet bulk of the energy needs in some parts of the world and the impact can be quite high. Of course a good balanced diet containing different sources of antioxidants like Berries and other colored fruits and vegetables, grains like Sorghum, Spices like Turmeric, Cumin, Black Pepper etc will always be a sure bet against accumulation of Oxy radicals in the body as they can effectively scavenge them regularly. 

The Compilations by the USDA and the Chile Institute are considered a great service to humanity because of the educational value they have on the food consumption behavior of the population at large. With such readily available data, industry must be encouraged to use ORAC value of every food marketed by it and such a step can hope to tide over the increasing wave of Cancer and other diseases in the coming years.


Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Aging is an unstoppable process while dying is a natural culmination of aging. In many countries there is a retirement age, generally 60 years after which the person enters the "senior citizen " category. To soften the shock of retirement many governments roll out welfare schemes and many senior citizen friendly policies which are supposed to make the life some what less "miserable"! The real crunch of old age comes beyond the age of 70-75 years when various faculties start declining rapidly while mental agility is affected by gradual lose of cognitive ability. Help and assistance can make the misery of old age less daunting and children of senior citizens are supposed to provide physical and mental solace to their old age parents. Unfortunately in these "dog eating dog" days, many children forget the sacrifices made by their parents and look out for old age homes to "push" them for ensuring their own pleasure and comfort. 

imagine the conditions of 100 million people in India who are considered old with most of them left to fend for themselves without any assistance because of many reasons, some genuine while most of them due to sheer callousness and selfish nature of their children. Added to this there are many parents unwilling to be considered dependents of their children either due to extra ordinary affection for their off springs or high sense of self respect choosing a life of misery. Besides there are many old people suffering from diseases like CVD, cancer, BP, kidney problems etc who need constant and committed care and it is very difficult for their children, even if they love them, to provide such services without sacrificing their own career and endangering their future. Though children have a "duty" to take care of their old age parents, Society also must bear some responsibility and it is the Government that can do maximum through institutional arrangements of good quality. Private players can lessen the burden of the government through setting up elderly friendly retirement homes for well to do people.

NGOs, many of which do excellent social work, are doing yeomen service to the community through setting up old age homes and operating them satisfactorily in many parts of the country. Due to the enormity of the logistics involved, these voluntary agencies are not able to make any dent on this vexed problem. There are some private players in the field offering some what better quality live-in places for senior people charging heavily and those who have regular pension income of substantial sums or with good financial resources can only afford such places. Some people, seeing the writing on the wall vis-a-vis the fate of old age people in the society, provide for them selves through investments while they are still earning, to ensure comfortable and livable places offered by private builders. Of course with the real estate sector, being what it is to day, there is no guarantee that these people would not be left high and dry at old age by unscrupulous builders. There are no legal frame work that will ensure justice for such people.

Old age is cruel because of another reason. Food and nutrition needs are different as people go through the biological process of aging and it is rarely that old age residential facilities as they operate to day have any health or nutrition experts providing the required inputs to food preparations and their recipes. Particularly troubling are the failing eye sight, failing hearing faculty and decreasing appetite combined with declining taste buds. Design of old age homes requires lot of special considerations as the facilities should have adequate scope for entertainment, activities that can give mental and physical stimulation, walking area with minimum vulnerability to bone fracture, services of qualified physicians and many other features to make the life free from worries and tension normally associated with active life. Probably established hospitals should consider establishing such homes for old people in proximity to their existing facilities and government must provide adequate "motivating" incentives for major hospitals to create such "centers of excellence" for comfortable living of old age population, especially those affected by various ailments requiring medical attention.

Recent reports from some of the wealthy countries where prevalence of old age homes is a boon to the citizens indicate that there are gross deficiencies in their services. After unannounced visits to 100 NHS hospitals in UK by an empowered group, called Care Quality Commission, it was found that fewer than half of them feed old people properly or treat them with compassion and dignity. According to this report one out of three hospitals inspected needed to make significant improvements in one or both areas. One in five were so bad they were actually breaking the law in their treatment of the elderly.  Of course there are also excellent hospitals, few in number with highly motivated nurses, ancillary staff and doctors with some of them professionally caring and deeply committed with personal kindness.
While this is the case with hospitals, what about old age homes? Probably they could be worse than these care centers. One of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs could be because of the government bureaucracy that pervades all public institutions world over. The old age homes run by the government are a shame on the society with over crowding, starvation diet and unkind attitude and behavior of the staff being their hall mark!