Wednesday, December 21, 2011


"Ignorance is bliss", so goes an old saying and to day's food landscape provides ample evidence about the validity of this dictum in the modern world. With millions of words spoken, written and published through the media, food remains an enigma to day as far as the citizen is concerned. It is true that education must educate people about the realities that confront the society and remove myths, superstitions and misconceptions in the minds of the citizen. When it comes to food there are lot of misconceptions compounded by gross ignorance regarding various facets of food including processing, preservation, packing, nutrition, health, safety, toxic effects, hygiene and sanitation etc and no doubt at specialized levels these are dealt with while training the practitioners. How about the common man who is bombarded with thousands of pieces of information blared through the popular media, often contradictory and confusing, making him apprehensive about the very food he takes day in day out?   

A Coffee consumer is pulled from opposing sides regarding the bad and good aspects of regularly drinking it every day. While it is consumed by millions of people in different parts of the world as a stimulating drink, its effect on health remains controversial. Its caffeine content is supposed to be making this drink addictive, pregnant women are advised not to take it, causing acid reflex, adversely affecting the absorption of some drugs taken regularly for some afflictions etc. While these are of negative implications, its beneficial effects include preventing depression, providing antioxidants, and many other benefits. Where lies the truth? Probably daily drinking a couple of cups of coffee cannot be considered dangerous!

Probiotic and Prebiotic foods have been considered the most useful products for counteracting many bowl disorders and prevent serious diseases but recently the European Union has rejected all such claims as not proven. Where does the consumer stand? Probably one can take these foods if one likes them and if there is some health benefit it could be a bonus! 

Has any one heard about Arsenic containing Apples? This is a hot current concern in the US and there has been numerous views regrading this issue. In spite of the denial by the FDA, many still consider Apple dangerous! What is lost in this debate is that presence of Arsenic in any natural food material depends largely on the soil in which they are raised and with Arsenic content in many places rising alarmingly there might be some cases where Apple grown in such soil has a higher Arsenic content. Does this mean people should avoid eating Apples altogether? Added to this confusion Apple was at the receiving end when scientists reported that eating Apple is "bad" for the teeth because of its acidity which can destroy the enamel coating of the tooth! Dentist seem to be recommending that in stead of biting the whole fruit, it would be better if its juice is swallowed or if the mouth is washed immediately after eating an Apple! What will the consumer do? If eating Apple is enjoyable one must continue to eat the same without any reservation. Unfortunately in India Apple is any how beyond the reach of most citizens as the price is as high as Rs 20 a piece!

Talking about Arsenic, recently Rice has been implicated as a high Arsenic containing food. True, Rice has the ability to absorb Arsenic more efficiently and Rice is a bulk food or a staple item of consumption. Fortunately it transpires that only Rice grown in industrially predominant places like Texas in the US contains high Arsenic levels and this country is not known as a Rice exporter. After all, the US population does not consume Rice to the same extent as Asians do, for whom it is staple cereal. If at all one wants to reduce Rice consumption, it should not be because of Arsenic scare but as a desirable step to cut down on refined carbohydrates for good health. 

Resveratrol is a chemical being touted as an "elixir" for long life and it is supposed to be present in some varieties of purple grapes. This has led to the promotion of Red Wine as a health drink that can ensure extension of life span if consumed regularly. It is rather queer that this wonder chemical is hardly soluble in water and it is beyond any body's comprehension as to how much Resveratrol can pass from the pomace into the fermented wine! Similarly Peanut is supposed to contain Resveratrol and when boiled the concentration is reported to increases ten fold. Does it make the boiled Peanut a magical food that will ensure long life? Probably true if it is taken in kilogram amounts which is not feasible. Eating peanuts is good for the health and also from the culinary senses. As long as it does not develop flatulence or increases body fat, one can eat the same with pleasure!

How about the safety of sugar substitutes, several of them safety cleared in many countries? Unfortunately the jury is still out on this issue, with no unanimity in sight. While those affected by Diabetes depend heavily on sugar substitutes for which they have to endure some risks, people wanting to reduce calorie intake for body weight reduction for a better health need to be sure that taking sugar substitutes should not have consequences worse than that due to over weight!. Recent decision by the EU to undertake a review regarding the safety of the most popular synthetic sweetener Aspartame and the clamor for similar review in the US can affect the confidence of the consumer regarding its safety. What is the alternate option? Simply try to take foods without any sweetener, natural or synthetic, if one can!

Imagine a life without consuming salt! That is what many nutritional and health pundits want the consumers to do for the sake of a good health. There are campaigns all over the world for cutting down salt in the diet limiting to about 5 gm a day per person.  While there was near unanimous agreement among scientists and medical practitioners regarding this restraint on salt consumption, now comes a large study by a reputed organization with unquestionable credibility that salt consumption does not influence the blood pressure and there is no connection between salt and a host of diseases including kidney damage. Where does the consumer stand in this controversy? Simply take the salt as required by the palate and nature has put a constraint that man cannot use too much salt that is not tolerated by the tongue! 

Modern day health experts consider sugar as white poison! Is there any valid scientific basis to call this food ingredient the "villain of peace"? Added to this there is the controversy about High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) derived from corn starch and there is a belief that 
HFCS is responsible for the obesity epidemic that permeates the American society. The argument that fructose is metabolized differently than sucrose, which after all is a disaccharide containing glucose and fructose, may need undisputed evidence through unbiased human metabolic studies. What is the choice for the consumer? Take sugar in moderate quantities as per some suggestions, not exceeding 50 gm a day per person but ensure that this is "spent" by enough physical activity.

Coconut oil was once decried because it was "full" of saturated fats which are implicated in triglyceride and cholesterol build up in the human body. On the other hand Coconut is also hailed as one of the major sources of Medium Chain Fatty (MCF) acids with potential beneficial effects and has now become a most sought after edible oil. Scientifically MCF acids directly enter the liver to get metabolized without any chance to go through the heart for any possible deposition in the arteries and development of plaques.The global escalation in the price of this oil speaks volume about its present popularity all over the world. If one can tolerate the typical smell of Coconut oil there cannot be a better cooking oil than this one.

GM foods have become so omnipotent in the US there is an impression that they are absolutely safe. Are they really safe, beyond a shadow of doubt? If so why most countries including the EU have banned cultivation and import of GM foods? Unless the safety question is settled once for all, there is an element of risk in consuming these "unnatural" foods about which consumer must be aware of.

There are many other areas like safety of eggs from cage raised birds, direct consumption of raw milk, presence of fluoride in some foods, leaching of Bis-phenol A and some endocrine disruptors from plastic bottles, can coatings and packaging films used to day, hyper claims about the usefulness of tender coconut water, etc on which consumers find it difficult to believe or disbelieve the reports emanating from hundreds of sources. Is there no way to wade through these information bits and evolve a dietary practice that can protect the health from many problems associated with modern foods? But one thing is sure, that is, as long as a normally healthy person adopts a life style based on a mixed diet containing about a dozen commonly available foods, reasonable physical activity of walking for about 30 minutes daily and does not indulge in over eating, the chances of living long and comfortable without any major health afflictions are very high!      


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