There is a general perception that foods frozen and stored at -18C can be preserved indefinitely and of course there is some truth in this belief. A product well prepared through sound processing techniques to attain commercial sterility can be "preserved" for long and can be considered safe for human consumption. At temperatures below -18C no microorganism can survive and therefore from that angle the food is safe from any hazards of microbial origin. If this is so why is that manufacturers put a "best before date" on the label which makes many consumers throw the food after that date? There is a logic in such an approach because for a common consumer a good food has to provide sensory satisfaction besides being safe.
It is an elementary knowledge that physical changes do take place in frozen foods that can affect the texture in a significant way and the pace of such changes can vary from food to food. There are well documented data regarding the shelf life of different foods and invariably most foods taste different after 6-9 months frozen storage. There are color changes that may occur in meat, poultry and some vegetables while freezer burns often appear as brown spots on the surface of the product. Inadequate packaging can dry out the product causing undesirable textural changes. Improper storage conditions with fluctuating temperatures cause changes in crystal structure of the ice particles which again adversely affect the texture of many frozen food articles.
Commercial freezing is based on well established modern technologies and there can be no comparison of freezing with any other technology in keeping the original quality of food in tact. If most of the foods available in the western markets belong to the frozen category, the reason is that consumers have come to recognize that these products meet with their expectations fully. Further fillip to the frozen food industry was received when microwave heating system became omnipotent in almost all kitchens making it easier to thaw and reheat for consumption. The extraordinary success of frozen food industry in many rich countries is also attributable to the high per capita income, excellent transportation facilities, efficient nation-wide infrastructure, adequate storage facilities at homes and above all the predominance of animal based diet that cannot be preserved by other processes as efficiently as the freezing process.
Why is that frozen foods have not got a footing in India? Seminar after seminar it has been proclaimed since last fifty years that food industry in the country could not develop because of woefully inadequate infrastructure for manufacture, distribution, storage and retailing. This applies to frozen food industry also as efficient processing machinery is not easily available, required cold chain does not exist, frozen display facilities at the retail level are inadequate and storage capacity for frozen foods in the house hold kitchen is very small. Even the consumers find it difficult to buy frozen foods regularly as ferrying them from the retail store to homes takes time causing some thawing before reaching their refrigerators. Yet very little is being done to address this problem either by the industry or the government. Added to this the frozen foods costs are very high in India due to limited production volumes and unfavorable scale of operation. Unless there is a close linkage between the farms and the processing centers the viability of the industry cannot be assured and such linkages are conspicuous by its absence in India.
It is an irony that thousands of ethnic foods for which India is famous cannot be preserved even for a few days using any technology other than freezing and unfortunately practically no R & D work takes place in any of the two dozen food research set ups in the country, boasting of reasonably good development facilities. While through common sense many traditional products are being marketed under frozen conditions in some of the urban regions in the UK and the US to cater to the immigrant populations there, the processes adopted by the entrepreneurs cannot be considered optimum, requiring further research inputs to make them technologically efficient. National food research organizations like CFTRI, DFRL and major Universities carrying out food research must focus on this area as frozen foods will eventually become a main stream food industry out pacing all others within a decade.
If there will ever be a "Nobel Price" for "food innovation" (read adulteration!), the contest for this award will be a close one between India and China! while Chinese adulterators have global reputation ( or notoriety?) Indians are satisfied with local "achievements". Probably international community might not bother about adulteration as long the tainted foods are not exported, poor citizens in countries with loose vigilance system with no teeth are the silent sufferers. The notorious "Melamine" milk from China exported to a number of countries last year brought the focus light on the "ingenuity" of Chinese fraudsters and some credit must go to the government there for taking drastic action of summarily executing two of the "culprits" found "responsible" for the crime. Look at India where adulteration of food seems to have become one of the "fundamental rights" of unscrupulous traders and business people as there are no deterrent mechanism to punish the guilty. Other wise how can one justify country-wide adulteration of milk, considered the most protective foods, especially for vegetarians with spurious ingredients like detergents, urea, animal fat etc with authorities least concerned about such incidences and the so called synthetic milk brings windfall profit for the perpetrators. There are hundreds of such instances of food adulteration through out the country with practically no one caught and punished for the heinous crime.
From China comes another innovation reported as "Leather Milk" made from leather proteins using ingenuity that must be admired! It was "discovered" recently, if one is to believe the official story, the dairy industry is making milk powder with no milk solids at all and earning windfall profits through their illegal activities. Leather scraps commonly available in slaughter houses contain collagen in plenty and when hydrolyzed they yield protein hydrolyzates with high nitrogen content. As milk is priced based on protein levels in China and since protein content is assessed through estimation of nitrogen, any substance, especially organic in nature containing nitrogenous material, when added to milk can boost the protein value and high protein values can bring high income to the milk "producers". If normal milk is diluted and then "fortified" with leather protein hydrolyzate (LPH) to bring up the protein level and get high prices, no one will be wiser to this fraud. Detecting qualitatively and quantitatively presence of LPH is not easy unless sophisticated laboratory facilities are used and the process can be time consuming. As collagen is a rich source of hydroxy proline, one may have to go for detecting the presence of this characteristic amino acid in suspected samples.
While small addition of LPH may not be unsafe to any serious extent, production of milk like preparations devoid of milk solids is a crime that deserves severest punishment. As milk flavors of high quality are available, LPH can be a base that can be formulated into 100% synthetic milk conforming to a few chemical specifications laid for genuine milk. It is not that concerned people were unaware of this deplorable practice because demand for slaughter house waste has been high in China obviously under the pretext that they are used in animal feed. LPH manufacture is a thriving business and its current cost is about $ 120 per ton whereas milk powder market commands more than $ 2000 per ton. Even if LPH is used for adulteration of normal milk at the minimum level, powder made from it can be as cheap as $ 500 per ton. Why such an obnoxious practice was allowed to be perpetuated till now is one of mysteries of Chinese style of governance. It is unfortunate that the milk powder such as the one produced by the fraudsters is consumed predominantly by children and one can imagine its consequences on the health and development of these kids. It is well known that chemicals like dichromates, sulfuric acid etc are routinely used to soften the leather during processing and these chemicals are still present in LPH which go into adulterated milk.
Why it should take so many years for the Chinese government to ban use of LPH to edible foods defies logic and the ban in 2009 can at best be termed as "better late than never". Whether the adulteration business has covert sanction of the government is a point that perplexes many impartial observers. In India one hopes that the technology for leather milk will not be smuggled from China for the benefit of local fellow adulterators as the climate in India may be more conducive to such practices.
When sugar is heated to about 170C, its molecule breaks down and the artifacts so generated recombine into compounds with characteristic color and flavor liked universally by most people. Basically the reaction is initiated by the removal of water from the sugar molecules, isomerization and polymerization into high molecular weight compounds of non-homogeneous nature. Since time immemorial caramel color as well as flavor were liked by the consumers, establishing it as a GRAS additive for addition in most foods consumed to day. Though there were periodic questions raised against uncontrolled use of caramel in a wide spectrum of foods, it is only recently that serious attempts are being made to curtail its use because of some studies highlighting its role in some health hazards, mainly based on animal experiments.
There are distinct four types of Caramel preparations with code numbers E150a, E150b, E150c and E150d, each with different properties and characteristics. By simply heating sugar without any additives yields the Type E150a, inclusion of sulfite compounds during heating generate Type 150b, use of Ammonia but without the presence of sulfites gives rise to Type 150c and if both Ammonia and Sulfites are used during the process Type 150d is formed. Alcoholic beverages like Whiskey incorporate Type150a caramel to provide the attractive mild brown color while Beer, synthetic soy sauce, confectionery etc contain Type 150c for the necessary color tint. Type 150d caramel is used extensively in acidic products like soft drinks and this version is considered the most dangerous by the toxicologists.
Due to persistent efforts by some consumer groups in some states in the US for banning this coloring substance, attention is being received at the national level to review its use in a limited way. The Food and Drug Administration of the US was petitioned recently by the reputed Center for Science in the Public Interest, long associated with efforts to ban potentially harmful foods, charging that the caramel coloring contains two cancer-causing chemicals, requesting that it should be banned. The chemicals in question are 2-methylimidazole (2-MEI) and 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI). Studies published in 2003 and 2005 by the National Toxicology Program of NIH are reported to have found that these chemicals caused cancer in some mice and rats and raises serious concerns regarding the advisability of continuing its uncontrolled use in various products, from pharmaceuticals to rubber. Other studies also found some evidence for cancer in lungs, liver, thyroid and leukemia in experimental animals. It may be illogical to take any risk whatsoever from a purely cosmetic coloring angle and such a situation may not justify the use of caramel in foods. As is to be expected beverage industry maintains that there's no evidence that the chemical, 4-MEI, causes cancer in humans but in its own interest it must take action to voluntarily cut down on the use of caramel in some of its products.
For some time there was this illusory feeling that caramel with a reported ADI of about 200 mg per kg body weight cannot cause any health damage. How ever with new scientific evidence emerging, even an exposure of 16 mcg per day is considered risky and therefore giving warning to consumers on the label of products with more than this limit may be an appropriate step to safe guard the safety of the consumers in the long run. Some cola beverages are known to contain more than 100 mcg of 4 -MEI alone per a 12 oz can and there may be many products which may contain this chemical, much more than this level.
There is an increasing tendency for people to go for "fresh", "local", "natural" or organic foods and the reason is not far to seek. It is simply the fear factor that is driving millions of consumers away from preserved or processed foods and the food industry is to blame itself for this sorry situation. Historically food technology evolved over centuries to extend the supply chain so that adequate foods are available all year round. Use of salt or sugar which increases the osmotic pressure in food system to discourage proliferation of pathogens and many spoilage organisms continues even to day though from healthy angle they are shunned by a substantial strata of the society. While uncontrolled salt consumption is known to be linked to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, high sugar can be responsible for dental decay, diabetes, obesity and other disorders. Organoleptically too much sugar or salt can create quick satiety. Salt and sugar preserved food products can be farthest from the concept of fresh foods.
Sun drying or the more scientific mechanical drying of perishables which contain high levels of moisture gives products with altered textural features but it still served the purpose of extending the life of the food significantly due to low water activity in such foods after removing bulk of the water content. Besides, the reconstituted final product has drastically different eating quality, not often liked by consumers. Vast improvements in dehydration technology have contributed to better finished products and freeze drying can give a product that can be quite satisfactory though cost wise such products can be very expensive. However dehydrated foods can also never qualify to be called fresh.
It is true that while advances in technology and transportation can extend the shelf life of food, consumer always will have to pay a price for availability and convenience in terms of nutrition and taste. Relentless progress of food science and technology has made it possible to have a wide choice of processing methods for the industry and techniques like atmospheric packs, storage of apples in 1-methylcyclopropene (1-MCP), vacuum packing with carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and refrigeration have provided reliable tools to extend the shelf life very significantly. While most technologies are able to ensure safety of most foods for a long time, what happens to the quality of these preserved foods is an issue often ignored. For example most frozen foods when stored at a constant temperature of -18C can stay safe beyond an year but whether the consumer will accept the eating quality of these long term preserved foods is a genuine concern. Same is true with all preserved foods what ever be the technique used.
It is disputable whether the industry can call any of these foods "fresh"because they can never be equal in sensory quality and nutritive value to freshly harvested produce. According to common sense 'fresh' can only be those foods put on sale as early as possible after the time of picking, catching or producing. True, developments in food technology and storage ensure that the consumer has a wide range of fruit and vegetables available all year round, but it is not correct to call apples that are nine months old truly fresh. Similarly spinach refrigerated for just eight days is known to loose more than 50% of its key nutrients and consumer is never aware of this fact while buying a "fresh looking" spinach from the supermarket. Same is true with most fruits and vegetables seen in these markets. Probably some awareness has been generated amongst the minds of consumers about the relatively lower quality of retailed fresh produce which has spawned the "farmers markets" and "locavore" phenomena in some countries in Europe and the US.
Compared to many technologies freezing process provides the best product approximating to quality as close to its field fresh counterpart and this may be the reason why frozen food industry has made rapid strides world over during the last 3 decades. They are definitely superior to the so called fresh produce offered by supermarkets procured from far away places and transported over long distances. Here again if the consumer is quality conscious long time stored frozen foods must be avoided since even under frozen conditions quality loss does occur, albeit slowly. In the interest of the consumer no processed food industry players must be allowed to use the terminology "fresh" to describe their products, no matter what technology is used..
A recent report about development of an ice cream type product from human milk in the UK has raised many questions regarding the ethical, legal and safety aspects of peddling such a product in the open market. No doubt this product will have many takers because human milk is supposed to have many advantages as compared to normal dairy milk in terms of nutrition and health benefits. Massive promotion of of breast feeding at least till about 12 months of baby's life has further given an aura to the human milk. The fact that human milk is not freely available makes it all the more desirable like the mythological "forbidden fruit"! The innovators who mooted the idea, developed the product and introduced it in the market, had to discontinue the product at least temporarily till the food safety authorities wanted it to be tested and assessed for any potential safety hazards.
Human milk is a precious commodity and a baby's survival and active development depend very much on breast feeding. Though some mothers do wean away their babies from breast milk due to some reasons or the other, a vast majority do nurse their babies with religious fervor to ensure their even and robust development. If this is so the very concept of any commercial product derived from human milk cannot have a sustainable source for making the project financially viable. According to the innovators their initial product offering was based on donations of breast milk received from volunteers though it is not clear as to the motivation of these mothers in parting with this precious fluid. Probably extenuating circumstances could have persuaded these mothers to make such donations with a perceived sense of commitment to help fellow citizens in a small way.
An important issue that cropped up during the marketing of human milk derived ice cream was whether the mothers were screened for any diseases, especially viral ones, which could be transmitted to others through the breast milk. Dairy milk industry is so well organized that every drop of milk marketed can be traced to the source for taking remedial action in the event of any communicable disease caused by it. The health authorities are to be lauded for becoming alert as soon as the product went on sale and subjecting the product to tests for hepatitis. How ever the larger question still remains unanswered and that is how regular testing can be organized for such a low volume product industry. Besides there are no well laid down standards for the product and no one is sure how much superior such a product would be to the traditional dairy based ice cream products. How far some of the unique biological substances that distinguish human milk from dairy milk will remain active after the processing is another critical issue.
What is interesting is the reported readiness by more than 200 mothers to donate their milk for making ice cream, though the manufacturer swears by the "donation" story. If an industry based on human milk is allowed to be established, what would be its repercussions on the society? Will it be like the "blood donation" industry where pecuniary benefits do play a part in maintaining the stock in many blood banks? Will the poor be attracted to sell their milk, starving their own children, for making an extra buck that may put the life of the children in great jeopardy? What is the motivation for the crazy consumers who do not mind paying a premium price to lay their hands on breast milk ice cream? One really has no answer to these logical questions.
Recent reports about development of GM animals for yielding milk similar to that of humans again raises perturbing questions regarding the direction of scientific research which can cause unknown miseries to millions of people in this universe. There are many, many areas of food research that cry for attention which can benefit common man and it is better that food scientists concentrate their energy in these fields for most wide spread benefits.