Monday, December 31, 2012


Food quality and safety are concerns for both the governments as well as the consumers. While governments world over have the onerous responsibility to protect the lives of its citizens besides preventing quality related frauds, consumer community is helpless in deciding on its own whether a particular product offered in the market is good and safe. It is creditable that the modern food regulations make it easier for the consumers to understand better what is inside a packet of food and the front of the pack labeling rules combined with the weights and measures control regulations are indeed revolutionary in nature. Implementing these rules and regulations calls for a sound infrastructure, adequately trained enforcement personnel and stern deterrent regime which are lacking in many countries, even if the food laws are excellent on paper.

Take for instance countries like China and India, both together accounting for more than 35% of world population, most of them not considered rich enough to lead a good quality life. But food frauds and adulteration are so rampant that it is difficult to keep track of violations that take place every day in these countries. The fraudsters and food criminals are so ruthless that they have no consideration or value for the lives of even children and old age population. On the other hand many unscrupulous manufacturers exploit the ignorance of the citizens in churning out inferior quality and safety suspect foods. Look at a super rich country like the US which boasts one of the best food quality monitoring infrastructures in the world and all one can see is a population most of which are big, fat, obese in appearance causing a big health crisis of unparalleled dimension.

Having stated the obvious, who is to be blamed for such a sorry situation which affects both rich and poor countries, whether under eating or over eating? Of course every one with a stake in food sector has to bear the blame to varying extent. Governments have invariably failed the citizens by not carrying out its sacred responsibility in disciplining the food industry in making healthy and safe foods. Industry pursuing a relentless strategy of earning more and more with least concern to the well being of the consumers, though there are some exceptions with some players still being honest. As for consumers, a reckless life style of eating unhealthy but tasty foods in quantities more than that required by the body is creating an increasingly morbid society afflicted by many health disorders. Added to this, most consumers lead sedentary living style with practically no regular exercise, needed to maintain a good health. If such a situation continues what will be the future of humanity in 100 years from now?

If excuses can solve the problem there are plenty being touted by all thes above stake holders. Some of them may be genuine which must be more carefully looked into. For example in a country like India, more than 75% of the food products available comes from the small scale processors with practically no adequate resources to carry out their operations in a way that can ensure safety of their products. On paper, India can claim to have a good food quality and safety law under the much vaunted Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) but at the ground level practically nothing is happening with the infrastructure for enforcement in tatters! If there is a modicum of order in this area thanks are due to the prevalence of a few giant food players with deep pockets setting up their most state of art facilities for quality control. However the small players in the country have no access to such facilities for periodic testing of their products as establishing such captive laboratories is beyond their means. The question is where will they go and how can they maintain quality and safety of products churned out by them?

There are many universities and food research institutions in the country which do have some decent facilities for food testing but they are mired in bureaucratic procedures which cause considerable delay in getting the results. Besides their testing fees are not low enough to be affordable to every one. From time to time grand statements emanate from the industry saying that it would set up modern facilities on its own to help those who cannot afford to spend too much on testing their products regularly. It is in this context one has to listen to a recent declaration by the hospitality industry regarding its intention to set up cost-effective alternative food testing facilities as per the norms of NABL across the country with easy access by the small scale entrepreneurs. Similar initiatives have to come from the processed food industry also sooner or later as neither the government is capable of addressing the issue nor the private testing laboratories are going to reduce they charges.    


Thursday, December 27, 2012


The "Tea Vs Coffee" debate is an ever interesting one with people from southern part of India strongly backing coffee with out which their day does not start! In contrast those from the north, pitch for tea, not because it is better health-wise but for its characteristic flavor. No doubt both Tea and Coffee contain the stimulant Caffeine which makes one more alert and relaxing. That said, the distinction between tea and coffee is getting blurred day by day as India is progressively becoming a national village without any restraining state borders. Efforts of Indian Coffee Board years ago to popularize coffee in the north were some what futile as even to day tea continues to be the dominant beverage in most of the northern states. One of the reasons could be that the taste and flavor of brewed coffee are widely varying, depending on the variety of seed, seed processing method, roasting practice, particle size of the ground coffee and method of brewing. This makes coffee making an extremely adventurous task. As coffee drinking was prevalent in the south for centuries, the art of making good coffee got transferred from generation to generation. In spite of this situation, surprisingly tea gained a firm foot hold in the south during the last 5 decades with many people opting for tea as a change from the coffee drinking routine.

Tea is a historical beverage with its origin attributed to China. There seems to be evidence that tea was a popular drink in both China and India almost 5000 years ago, though its discovery was attributed to Chinese royalty. It was an accidental contamination of hot water with tea leaves and the finding that the tea leaves soaked water was flavorful to the King, led to popularity of tea in China. Its origin in India is shrouded in mystery. Interestingly Chinese discovered that the tea leaves soaked hot water was not only refreshing but also health protective which helped tea to be propagated all over the world. As fresh tea leaves were some what perishable, drying was resorted to reduce moisture and extend its life for some time. Again the observation that bruised tea leaves tended to darken with time and produced aromatic flavors, led to the modern CTD tea technology widely used in the manufacture of black tea. Coincidentally most of the world liked black tea in preference to green tea which led to a thriving tea industry that produces about 2.5 million tons of tea world wide out of which green tea constitutes roughly 20%.

One of the influencing factors that made Chinese population healthier than others might be that they consume green tea regularly in their daily lives and therefore it can be probably considered as their national drink. If that is so what does green tea contain which is not present in black tea? A look back at the massive scientific literature available to day, dwelling on various aspects of tea, will reveal that tea the leaves are a rich source of poly phenols, accounting for about 8-12% of its solid content. These include a number of flavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, epicatechin gallate, epigallocatechin gallate (better known as EGCG) and proanthocyanidinsmost of them with high antioxidant properties. As antioxidants play a vital role in neutralizing oxyradicals in the human body that is considered one of the causative factors in cancer development, tea with its rich antioxidant content is the darling of the health purists world over.

One of the most startling discoveries during the last few years of research on tea poly phenols was that all of them are not equal in conferring health benefits on human beings and the most important component that makes the difference is EGCG which was found to have a significant but specific influence on boosting many enzymes involved in neutralizing oxyradicals at the cellular level and prevent on set of cancers of various types. Unfortunately during the extreme processing conditions involved in converting green tea leaves into black tea, EGCG is converted to theaflavins and thearubigins  with no therapeutic properties. Logically therefore green tea beverage will have to be consumed if the benefit of EGCG is desired. The bud and the first leaves of the tea plant contain highest concentration of EGCG and are therefore plucked for making green tea products.

Green tea poly phenols in general were found to increase the biological activity of several enzymes involved in neutralizing the activity of oxyradicals and detoxification and EGCG is the most potent one. The enzyme found to be positively influenced include glutathione reductase, glutathione peroxidase, glutathione S transferase, catalase and quinine reductase in small intestine, liver and lungs. EGCG is considered to have excellent therapeutical significance in preventing and treating a host of disease that include HIV, cancers affecting prostaglandin, brain, cervix and bladder, besides neurodegeneration. Drinking about two cups of green tea a day can confer most of the benefits attributed to EGCG, while consuming 4-6 cups a day is considered a therapeutic dose.

The health supplement industry seems to have got into the EGCG band wagon by putting in the market many products containing this phytochemical though most of them are non-standard ones containing very little or no EGCG at all! In the absence of a regulatory environment these fly by night operators are able to catch the attention of gullible consumers, laughing all the way to their banks! The most blatant use ( or misuse?) of green tea credentials is by the weight reduction products industry which is offering green tea solids containing health supplements based on some studies that a combination of EGCG and caffeine, when consumed,  produces thermogenesis in the body leading to depletion of fat, causing some weight reduction. However there is no standardization of these products and the claims are not substantiated by real time studies involving human subjects. 

One of the most surprising off shoots of studies using green tea  and the EGCG is the finding that sugar spikes that occur after carbohydrate ingestion by diabetic patients can be reduced significantly by consumption of green tea, provided they are consumed together. The scientific logic is that EGCG has an inhibitory effect on starch degrading enzyme alpha amylase which in turn slow down break down of starch into maltose and glucose in vitro. As the ptylin enzyme present in the saliva has also starch digesting ability, the starch hydrolysis which starts immediately after ingestion in the oral cavity itself is retarded. Further exposure in the small intestine to alpha amylase as the food is swallowed and as it travels down the digestive tract, glucose generation is significantly retarded in presence of EGCG. According to recent findings if Egcg and a starchy food are consumed without any gap of time, glucose spike can be slowed down by almost 50% which by itself is remarkable. This finding confers additional benefits on those consuming green tea regularly  include insurance against a host of modern day diseases affecting almost all organs in the body. Probably the health food industry will latch on to this discovery and it is a question of time before health supplements containing EGCG or green tea solids are marketed both for targeted consumer groups as well as general population.   


Thursday, December 13, 2012


India is currently going through a crisis that has the potential to cause civil unrest unless some thing dramatic happens to pull back the country from the brink. While the government is getting increasingly isolated because of its wrong moves, actions and financial mismanagement, the alternative option to the citizens seems to be not rosy with every political party being tainted with corruption wherever they are in power. It is a reflection on the sorry situation prevailing in the country that economists and policy pundits are more concerned about rate of GDP growth which is anticipated to slide down to five percent plus from a heady nine percent plus 3 years ago rather than the crushing burden on the "aam aadmi" or the common man caused by inflation all around. The inflation may not be staggering measured by standards used for rating in the world of economics: it is nonetheless a frustrating situation to more than 90% of the population that takes pride as being Indian.

Ever since the opening up of the Indian economy (what ever that means!) in early 1990s, the country has seen the lot of poor people getting worse progressively because the environment created then was just the one needed for corporates to make money through the so called crony capitalism route. The public sector organizations were systematically destroyed in the name of under performance and practically every policy that encourages small scale industry was cast away. The process of enrichment of a few citizens was started by the government of India by favoring its employees as as well as the pensioners (also those in State governments) with massive increase in salaries and perks unheard in the annals of Indian history or any where in the world. With more money in their hands this segment of the population became part of the elite society with high buying power. On a conservative estimate these employees with their families form a substantial part of Indian population, about 50 million.The trading community with more than 30 million members was given a unrestricted environment to make money by slack enforcement of the laws of the country. If those in the corporate world are also added the total "consumer" population which can buy whatever they want can run to more than 100 million, sufficient to get attention by any investor in the world for a slice of the pie that is called Indian market.

The above factor is precisely playing out currently with GOI opening up the retail market to foreign investment. Those global giants are not pitching their tent in India to help Indian citizens but to sell their products to the rich Indians with plenty of cash living in comfort in towns and cities across the country. Interestingly GOI has laid down a condition in its policy orchestration that foreign retail stores can be opened only in urban areas as if it is a stringent condition! Even a child knows that more than 80% of the rural population can never aspire to step into a Super Market or a Mall with their limited income and the stipulation contained in the policy declaration is some what hollow. It is never clear as to which side the big retailers will take when it comes to clash of interest between the farmer and the consumer? If farmer is to be paid decently for his produce, consumer price will reflect that and if it is the other way of reducing consumer price, the farmer can never be paid what he deserves! Past history of big retailers tells a different story with both farmer and the consumer suffering equally, the only gainer being the "super middleman", viz the retailer!

For any one going around the Indian market will  be struck by
the incongruous situation prevailing in the country vis-a-vis prices of various products prevailing in the country. How can a common man buy an apple, priced Rs 25-30 a piece or any other fruit which costs not less than Rs 50 per kg? Even the common man's fruits Banana sells at Rs 3-5 a piece if it is a smaller variety and this can shoot up further during Hindu festival seasons (at least a dozen every year). Papaiya which was sold at Rs 10 per kg till recently shot p to Rs 40 per kg during the Ramzan season and never came back to the original price. It is unbelievable that a piece of cashewnut or Almond, those aspirational foods, can be as high as Rs 3 per nut, the retail price being in the vicinity of Rs 800-1000 per kg. According to nutrition pundits an average adult in India is supposed to consume daily about 300 gm of cereals, 30-60 gm of pulses, 0-30 gm of meat, 300 gm of vegetables, 100 gm of fruits, 300 gm of milk and milk products, 20 gm of sugar and 20 gm of fats for maintaining the health. How can a family of four (parents plus two siblings), belonging to low income categories can access to these essential foods with their current income at current prices? If one draws the graph of price fluctuations that is experienced during different part of the year, it may look like the print out of an EEG or ECG of a person with several peaks and valleys occurring with a sickening regularity! Unless GOI comes out with policies that will make available these foods to these vulnerable population at affordable prices, the country is bound to slide into a situation where proportion of undernourished and malnourished citizens will reach unbearable levels, affecting the quality of human resources required for nation building.

Leave out the fruits and nuts and shift the focus to vegetables which are supposed to fill out half the plate during a meal. It is just maddening to see tomato being sold at Rs 5/kg one day and within a few days it climbs to Rs 25/kg. Same is true with practically every vegetable grown in the country. Interestingly many studies have shown that the farmer who grows these produce does not get even a fraction of the consumer price, the majorportion being being swallowed by the so called middle men! Will the new players who are being offered a red carpet by the government help the farmer by putting more money in his hands. Experience in other countries where these high profile market oriented monoliths work shows that farmers will be the least beneficiary in this charade.

Maximum Retail Price (MRP) declaration is often touted as the instrument of GOI to control prices. This is a hollow claim because this provision of the law applies to packed products whereas only a small percentage of foods is branded and sold in sealed packs. Here again MRP indicated cannot be taken at its face value because many smaller brands inflate the same allowing the retailers sizable elbow room to reduce the actual selling price, some times as much as 50% of MRP, but still keeping sizable margin! Besides many retailing giants have their own in-house brands and they can always print inflated MRP figures with scandalous margins. Interestingly the much touted Package Commodities Act is a curse for the most unfortunate citizens in this country because, the moment the food is packed and sealed it enables the packer to add "value" which is nothing but a higher profit in disguise! For example a kilogram of Atta costs around Rs 40 if it is branded but at the street corner petty shop it is available at about 25 per kg.     Sugar when it is branded costs the consumer upwards of Rs 54 per kg while the small gives the same at Rs 30 per kg. This happens across the food spectrum and the high end retailers earn a killing profit in the name of better quality and shopping ambiance!

According to the National Planning Commission an income blow Rs 32 per day for a person is the cut off level to define him as belonging to the below poverty level group. Probably this is enough to buy adequate food to keep the body and soul together! But what about the other needs like shelter, clothing and other daily essentials? Unfortunately GOI seems to think that keeping the people alive is the only responsibility vested on it and by providing subsidies worth three half lakh crore rupees every year to its citizens, the people will cruise comfortably in the turbulent waters, that is called life! According to some statistics, almost one third of Indian population earns less than Rs 32 a day putting them in the category of people below the poverty line for whom the
supermarkets do not make any sense. Imagine how a country where only 3% of the population (about 35 million people) pay income tax can gloat over the entry of multinational retailers from western countries where more than 50% pay taxes regularly?

Looking at the statistics a little bit closely, the bitter reality can dawn on many honest citizens in this country that GOI is opening up the retail sector only to serve the top 6.2 million families, each earning an annual income of the order of 2, 15,000 per year plus and to a limited extent a small percentage of the so called middle class families of about 91 million, earning between Rs 45,000 and 2,15,000 per year. It is debatable whether even at this level of income these families can afford to buy an apple every day! Families with annual income below Rs 22,000 numbering about 102 million are never counted in GOI calculations. After the opening of the economy, between 1996 and 2010 there was a 419% jump in the number of top earning families which will be the focus of all foreign marauders getting into the country in the name of helping the nation to attain prosperity and upliftment of the poor!   


Thursday, December 6, 2012


Most Indians have a weakness for traditional sweets and consumption of these food items increase very significantly during festive occasions. In contrast western population is hooked on to other sweet tasting products like puff pastry, ice cream and such modern foods. In the absence of any reliable statistics it is too hazardous to make any meaningful estimate regarding the size of the industry or the per capita consumption of sweetmeats in India. Considering that a substantial portion of sugar manufactured and jaggery produced in the cottage sector are going for preparation of various sweetmeat products, the per capita consumption can be phenomenal.

There are many sweets made and consumed in different parts of the country and almost all of them have a history dating back to centuries past. What is amazing is that the art of making sweetmeats is still preserved in the country even after the onslaught by western civilization 300 years ago in india and the skill required for making each one of them is passed on from generation to generation through a process of assimilation when children were growing in joint family system prevalent till a few years ago. It is only after the relentless urbanization trend witnessed by the country and evolution of nuclear families that the sweetmeat making capabilities started getting diluted progressively. Consequent to it the urban areas saw commercialization of sweetmeats which were sold through the so called "Halwais" located in every neighborhood.

Progressive shrinking of kitchen size in many high rise apartment complexes spelt further doom to the ability of modern day house wives to prepare good quality Indian sweets. Credit must go to Central Food Technological Research Institute at Mysore for foreseeing the trend and developing "ready mixes" for popular sweets like Gulab Jamun and Jilebi which to day adore most retail store shelves and the simplicity of preparation of the ready to eat product from these mixes at home kitchens ensured that next generation population is exposed to the pleasure of appreciating the fine characteristic taste of such traditional sweets. Some sweets like Gulab Jamun, Rasogolla, Bakerwadi, Shrikand etc are available in stabilized packs with a few months of shelf life.

Failure of food scientists and technologists to research into the basics of most sweetmeats made in India in the unorganized sector is responsible for the sorry state of affairs that exist to day vis-a-vis this industry. In a recent report in one of the reputed news publications, the pathetic condition that prevails in the preparation kitchens that churn out high volumes of these products have been brought out.  Preparations like Rasogolla or Laddus are  "made in the dingy lanes" of the Capital in "filthy shanties" in the buzzing presence of  worms and mosquitoes and if any consumer has the stomach to see these facilities, the craving for sweets offered by the Halwais would be killed once for all! Most shops peddling their products depend on supplies coming from these dirty shanties as they do not have their own kitchens to meet the demand, especially during festival seasons. Besides expert skilled artisans are required to make many special sweets like sonpapadi and these artisans are in short supply besides being very costly to maintain. Either due to negligence or ignorance, both the preparation kitchens as well as the personnel working there are dangerous from sanitary and hygiene perspectives. God only knows what quality ingredients are used to prepare these products and whether additives used are legally permissible. Neither the shop owners nor the vast safety assessment system of Delhi administration seems to be bothered about this sorry state of affairs which can be a potential time bomb waiting to explode one day in the form of mass food poisoning.

Indian ethnic preparations like sweets and savories have a huge potential for development and growth and this can be realized only if the working conditions and technologies used are drastically improved. While mechanization and automation of the processes may be a distant dream, at least the preparation environment can be monitored more rigorously, with those not conforming to minimum safety standards severely punished and restrained from continuing with their business once for all. There are many unit operations while making a product which are amenable to use of simple gadgets and equipment already available and this industry deserves some attention at the hands food engineers to help them in this area. Are the MFPI and FSSAI at Delhi listening? Some thing needs to be done immediately to streamline this industry so that consumer safety is not compromised any longer.


Saturday, December 1, 2012


Almost 4 decades back that Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) conceived a novel concept of a food industrial estate which would become a cluster of food processing units with complimentary functions and for mutual benefits. Under such a concept CFTRI identified about 20 food processing projects based on its own technologies and approached the Karnataka State Government for implementing the same at Mysore which was country's most prominent food research and development corridor. The basis of this concept was that most small scale entrepreneurs are starved of appropriate technologies based on which only one can plan a manufacturing venture. With a single window clearance facility offered to the identified entrepreneurs, Government did provide land and other infrastructure to selected entrepreneurs to locate them selves and start manufacturing activities. Unfortunately the Food Industrial Estate in Mysore never attained full bloom with hardly half a dozen units coming up. The reasons for such a dismal failure are many and based on this experience this concept could have been developed further. Nothing happened thereafter!

It was during 1989-1990 Government of India (GOI), in response to continuous pressure from the food sector decided to set up a special dedicated Ministry for development of food industry in the country. Whether one likes it or not the basic contours of the ministry and its objectives were written in Mysore and after the formation of the ministry, called Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) CFTRI provided lot of inputs to this ministry in preparing their program for the five year plans, at least in its formative years. The first Secretary Mr Murari and Deputy Secretary Gopalan were involved in this exercise. Beginning its function with a Minister of State holding independent charge, it became a full fledged ministry later headed by a cabinet rank minister. In spite of limitations on the functioning styles of government agencies MFPI was able to provide some useful inputs to the development of food industry in the country. Whether it has justified its creation during the last two decades of work should be left to historians to judge.

Though GOI has never been short of funds, one of the major fault lines vis-a-vis food related priorities of the government was the low priority accorded to this sector by government as a whole, making MFPI a minor player in the scheme of things. Food industry continued to suffer in spite of the presence of MFPI which had very little influence on the policy making level. Interestingly almost all ministers and secretaries who were holding charge in MFPI considered their posting as insignificant and were reluctant players in taking responsibilities and path breaking decisions. Those who worked for MFPI were invariably bureaucrats with very little place for technocrats, knowledgeable about food industry problems and understanding technical needs of the entrepreneurs. If to day MFPI has become a "fund disburser" only and not involved in providing any other inputs to development of industry, GOI has to take the blame squarely.

Coming back to the issue of food parks, the MFPI conceived "Mega Food Park Scheme" (MFPS) is nothing but a glorified version of the original CFTRI conceived food industrial estate with the major exception that the participating ventures probably will all be large players. There are very good features associated with MFPS but whether they will really work remains to be seen. One of the lurking suspicions is whether those Mega Parks will become attractive only for the reason that availability of land becomes easy as land procurement is a big constraint to day under the present government rules. Though MFPI is planning for a total of 30 such mega parks and the first one was inaugurated recently after a delay of 3-4 years, it is difficult to anticipate how successful these parks will be as the logistics of implementing them are awesome. According to MFPI officials another seven such mega parks are in "advanced" stages of "completion". The out come of this experiment can be uncertain and depends on many factors beyond the control of the ministry.

A preliminary report on the first mega park functionalized in Chittoor in AP claims that the set up has world-class facilities for pulping, IQF, bottling, tetra packing, modular cold storage, warehousing and advanced testing lab. It boasts of basic and supply chain infrastructure, cluster farming, backed by field collection centers, self help groups and individual farmers, sprawling over an area 147-acres. One of the most critical factors on which such multi products manufacturing complex depend, will be the ready willingness of right type of personnel, in quality and quantity, with different background and qualification to settle in country sides, where mega parks are going to be located. Availability of high class educational facilities nearby can be the best incentive for attracting talents to come and work at these parks. It must be remembered that the preference of many industrial units to establish their operations in urban areas is due to the difficulties involved in imparting decent education to the siblings of those working in the plants in rural areas. Mega parks should not fail on this account and creation of an educational institution, at least up to the level of matriculation, in the proximity of each park must be an integral part of the scheme. Probably experience gained during the operationalization of first few parks may give further insight into this likely problem.


Monday, November 26, 2012


Here is a quote from the Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar recently: "food processing is growing more than agri and manufacturing sectors, turning farmers into entrepreneurs. If there is one sector that has been growing faster than agriculture as well as manufacturing sectors, has the potential to create jobs in the rural areas, bridge the gap between the price paid by the consumer and that received by the farmer and create value addition and earn foreign exchange by export of value-added farm produce, it is the Food Processing Sector," "In addition, this sector does not only remain a bridge between farmers and entrepreneurs, it converts the farmer into an entrepreneur," A well "written" speech containing all the glib words in the dictionary related to food, without actually meaning any thing to millions of people in this poor country, who have been hearing these sentiments during the last 6 decades but nothing happening at the ground level!

Guess when and where such a knowledgeable minister made this grandiose statement? He was speaking after inaugurating National Institute of Food Technology Entrepreneurship and Management (NIFTEM), claiming to be a world-class institution in food processing sector, at Kundli, Haryana. It is imperative for all right thinking persons in this country to ponder on the words uttered by this minister because a look back at the step-motherly attitude shown by successive governments in Delhi ever since the independence of this country, makes the pompous declaration sound hollow. The minister seems to be under the impression that setting up a 5-star bureaucratic institution under the fanciful name of NIFTEM would solve all the problems faced by the food processing industry in this country. For those who have been espousing the cause of food industry during the last 5 decades may wonder whether they should cry or laugh at these ministerial pronouncements with no sincerity and commitment.

It is very true that the food industry has huge potential to be developed in India and there exist formidable challenges in the form of grossly under developed infrastructure, unsatisfactory food quality and safety environment, lack of trained manpower at all levels, lousy food laws, great vulnerability of small scale and micro-enterprises to industrial sickness, uncertain marketing environment and above all government tendency to impose multiple financial levies on food raw materials as well as processed products. The organizers of NIFTEM seem to be in cloud nine, imagining (or self deceiving?) that their pet project would solve all the problems of farmers as well the processing industry! It is sweet to hear from a senior minister of Union Cabinet that NIFTEM would provide a "one-stop solution" to the industry! How can Government of India claim that an infant institution that was just inaugurated would do all the work mandated to it like developing managerial talent, advancement of food science and technology, creation of a repository of knowledge on all facets of food processing, conducting frontier area research, etc, etc, etc for meeting the needs of a huge food industry consisting of millions of micro-enterprises and small industries spread across this vast country? 

Has the government of India forgotten the fate of a similar effort way back in 1950 when late C.Rajagopalachari, the first Governor General of independent India inaugurated the currently "limping" Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) at Mysore echoing practically same sentiments as expressed by the Agriculture Minister when he dedicated NIFTEM to the nation recently. With what face GOI will convince the nation that NIFTEM will succeed where CFTRI is supposed to have failed? Has any independent commission or evaluation group ever investigated the cause of the supposed failure of CFTRI? If this was not done what guarantee is there that NIFTEM will not go the same way as CFTRI? Does GOI believe that association with an American University would make NIFTEM a glowing success? Why not understand the basic truth that America cannot solve Indian food industry problems for which only indigenous solution has to be found.

Coming to CFTRI, this august organization had also foreign association with FAO, United Nations University and many other international agencies at one time or the other but still this did not make it an enduring institution in the eyes of citizens as well the industry in the country. Looking back one can only regret for the enormous amounts invested by GOI on it ( Rs 650 million on an average during the lat 3 years alone!), knowing pretty well, especially after 1993 that it had become redundant in the eyes of the users for which it was established. Putting incompetent and inexperienced people with inappropriate qualification and lack of industrial experience at the top during the last two decades seems to have destroyed what ever little credibility it had to justify its continued existence. A vibrant institution, once considered the Mecca of food technology in whole of the Asian continent, it had about 1200 employees with a strong group of food scientists, technologists and engineers which now has dwindled to just 600!. Its regional centers, considered "eyes and ears" of the institute set up to help entrepreneurs in important areas like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh etc were systematically starved of attention and resources and eventually forced to close down which is a tragedy of great proportion. The newly formed Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) set up at Delhi during early 1990s did very little to prop up CFTRI and now suddenly it wakes up to set up a brand new institution, investing hundreds of crore of rupees, to achieve the very same goals which CFTRI was mandated to do! 

No body is holding any brief for CFTRI which has to blame itself, facilitated by its insensitive parent body CSIR, for the sorry state of affairs it is in to day. It all started in early 1990s when a green-horn person with almost zero credentials, imported from the US, was foisted on the organization as the Head and it is history what mess this gentleman created during his short tenure of 3 years, running away before even completing half of his term!. This disaster was followed by another one when an equally unfit person from within the institute was put at the top, over taking 48 senior scientists above him, on considerations other than merit and past track record. This era, considered the darkest in the history of CFTRI, was marked by mindless push for increasing the number of publications of no use to the industry, frenetic chase for filing record number of impractical patents for record purpose, self glorification of the individual at the expense of the organization, deliberate shunning of small industrial entrepreneurs, gross mismanagement, unsustainable attrition rate of good scientists, stink of corruption and malpractices and rapid sliding of the morale of the employees. Though there was a change at the helm of affairs in 2012, it was like jumping from the frying pan to the fire with the new incumbent, probably a well meaning person, who does not have necessary industry background and food science strength, being appointed to lead the organization. Claiming to be a devoted scientist of some repute he seems to have very little comprehension about food technology and hence can do very little to bring the institute from its present state of morbidity. What can the industry expect from such an organization?  

NIFTEM cannot be a monument with large sophisticated and architectural building being put up at enormous cost but it needs people with necessary background to run it efficiently. Right now it does not make sense from where NIFTEM is going to get hundreds of trained food experts with adequate experience in food industry working, as there is a severe dearth of such personnel in the country at present. True there are mushrooming universities all over the country offering "courses" for a variety of degrees with "Food" prefixes but most of them are teaching shops, capable of transferring text book information to the entrants, with practically no facilities for hands on practical experience. Even the old training set ups in Mumbai, Kanpur, Kolkatta and to some extent in Nagpur and Ludhiana do not have adequate training infrastructure of high quality and if this is so one can imagine the conditions in other training places located in universities. It is no wonder that the food technology graduates from CFTRI are preferably picked up by the industry as it has still the best infrastructure and experts to churn out reasonably good materials. 

This Blogger was, is and will be of the view that setting up NIFTEM was a wrong move on the part of GOI whatever be the political compulsions for such a project. In stead, it would have been far better and effective to rejuvenate CFTRI by bringing in an industry experienced leader in stead of all sorts of people with absolutely no insight about the industry and with limited vision who can only think of irrelevant projects like milk from drumstick leaves or development of non-caloric fats or other nonsensical subjects of no interest to the industry or the farmers or the citizens at large. Re-establishing regional centers in as many states as possible is the need of the hour. Changing the present culture of servicing only large and transnational food companies and barring easy access to the fruits of research for unorganized and small industries as well as new entrepreneurs need to be reversed. Thousands of ethnic foods for which India is renowned must be taken up for "technologizing" their mass production as a priority. There is even justification to make all food technology institutions in the public sector like NIFTEM, DFRL and others in the country as regional arms of CFTRI so that an integrated approach with multipronged thrust for accelerating industry development can be achieved in a holistic way. These centers can have "food business incubators" for helping local entrepreneurs to launch new ventures and provide the much needed escort service  to make them really viable.


Thursday, November 22, 2012


No matter who governs, feeding a nation is an onerous responsibility. A vibrant government should always foresee food security problems well in advance and drought or floods should not be excuses for food shortages and unreasonable price escalation. Food security of a country hinges on a number of factors and adequate buffer stock as per universal norms can be a cushion for absorbing shocks due to occasional production falls on account of any reason. That way India has been well served by the huge grain stocks being held by the government during recent years though one can fault the government for not ensuring they are held in sound storage conditions. If the government did not plan in advance building of adequate storage infrastructure for food grains, what can be done with the surplus production?. Here is where there is dilemma, whether the country should export or distribute it free as being suggested by the Supreme Court some time back. If adequate planning is done the government could have managed such situations more efficiently in stead of resorting to last minute fire fighting mode. Unless there is a long term export policy in place, country cannot get maximum returns on its agricultural products and this is what is being debated during the last few decades but with no firm plan still emerging.      

If recent reports are to be believed India wants to be projected as a reliable source of agriculture commodities and the federal government is "toying" with the "idea" to "formulate" a long-term export-import policy for farm products. What has opened the eyes of the government is the bumper crop production of 257.4 million tonne last year and the huge surplus created by that situation. It is reported that government has at least about 45-50 million tons surplus after meeting the buffer stock need of about 21 million tonnes. It is true that, as a temporary export initiative, government did allow grain exports, mainly because of good global prices prevailing then. Export of agricultural commodities was invariably being determined by the perception about domestic need which rightly has a priority always and threat posed by any eventual shortages. But in the absence of a sustainable export policy, India has been finding it difficult to penetrate into new markets even in the years of surplus production resulting in losses to farmers as well as the government. This "switch-on" and "switch-off" policy on exports has not helped the country's image as a reliable supplier of commodities like rice wheat and sugar in the world market place. During the last two years it has been proved that any apprehension regarding adverse impact of food exports is misplaced and such exports should be part of a long term national policy, not to be tinkered every now and then. 

The excuse that large scale exports will depress international prices for some of the commodities like rice and wheat may be valid to some extent but if the country can strike long term agreements for mutual import-export of these vital food commodities with countries identified as friendly, it should be possible to over come deficit or surplus conditions without any major hiccup. Alternately surplus, if cannot be scientifically stored with available storage capacity, must be exported without bothering to care about international prices. After all many times in the past India had imported foods at high costs to meet food shortages without bothering about the cost. It is better to get some returns through export rather than allowing them to rot. 

Suggestions have also been made in the past to have a policy under which the surplus grains that cannot be stored must be
converted to alcohol which is after all not perishable, for commercial use while during shortage period alcohol from grains must be curtailed. If there is a flexible gasohol policy the alcohol produced can  easily be absorbed by the fuel industry. Alcohol is a vital industrial commodity with scores of uses and inter linking surplus gain production with alcohol production can ameliorate the situation to a great extent. This also calls into question the advisability of encouraging sugar cane cultivation in the country as this crop, not considered an essential nutrient source, locks up considerable extent of fertile land which other wise could have been used for pulses and oil seeds which are imported to day at great costs. It may be true that sugar cane cultivation brings in returns much higher than that by any other crop to day and hence suitable financial incentives will have to be given to the sugar cane farmers to switch over to pulses or oil seeds. Only such forward and daring policies can solve India's food problems. 

Will it be Utopian to think in terms of a world bank for food grains that can get contributions from different countries to build up a buffer stock at least for rice, wheat and corn which will be available for member countries for drawing at times of emergency to prevent domestic shortages?. It is like the present World Bank which lends money to member countries from its funds for developmental projects to be returned in due course. How far the rich nations will cooperate is a valid question and the third world countries must press for such a cooperative move to insure their population against food shortages from time to time. Already regional groups like SAARC have limited food grain banks though the magnitude of stocks held by them is minuscule compared to actual need.

Amid all these discussions, a moot question is whether there will be any surplus situation at all in future once the "charitable" food policy of the government distributing food grains to 65-70% of the population, deserving as well undeserving, at throw away prices comes into vogue soon. According to some experts the procurement of food grains to meet such an obligation will be huge and practically the entire surplus as being seen to day may evaporate! If that happens, government need not "toy" with any plan to have an export policy at all! 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


It was not long ago that the Supreme Court in India admonished the Government for its "pussy footing" about problem of rotting wheat in its granaries. The court went to the extent of even suggesting distribution of the enormous quantity of wheat that could not be stored safely because of lack of storage capacity in its warehouses. Many observers even suggested that wheat should be exported to fetch valuable foreign exchange in stead allowing it to be spoiled because of exposure to weather elements under the CAP storage system. After almost an year GOI seems to have woken up to the reality and the hopelessness of the condition that exists in the country, it has recently allowed limited exports of wheat as well as sugar based on a "stop and go" policy.

According to recent reports GOI estimates that the country should be able to export about 5.5 million tons (mt) during the present financial year if the present trend is sustained till March. While a country like the US is expected to export more than 32 mt, Canada and Australia 18 mt each India's share in the world trade of 135 mt in wheat is less than 5%. Probably India can take consolation that its rank among the wheat exporting countries rose from being 16th last year to 7th this year!. Even the projection of 5.5 mt this year is based on the first half of the year performance which stood at 2.43 mt. Whether the simple arithmetic projection will materialize remains to be see under a regime which is not considered very stable politically. It may be recalled that only in September last year that GOI lifted the ban on wheat export, probably realizing that the available stock would be more than sufficient for ensuring food security.

A worrying factor that can still derail the progressive export policy now in place is the proposed Food Security Bill that will cover almost 70% of the country's population, offering rice and wheat practically free and whether the grains, available in its granaries presently and procured in future, would be adequate to meet this emerging demand. As per the records, GOI is holding a grain stock of about 43 mt presently which is much more than the 22 mt required as buffer stock according to global norms. If and when the Food Security Bill is passed and when the new policy is implemented, the situation may change dramatically and it should not come as a surprise if GOI again clamps on exports.

Any nation wishing to be a significant player in the global trade regime must have a stable and continuing export policy which only can generate the required confidence among the buyers. A fair weather exporter like India cannot be relied upon if the country does not strive to put in place a dynamic export policy which can instill confidence in the international market. If GOI can allow unrestricted exports, it is a question of time before the country can become a major player and such exports can be expected to create a positive backlash in the form of more production, better price realization to the farmer and creation of required infrastructure to maintain international quality for Indian products. What type of justification GOI can provide for exporting wheat at a price of $ 270 per ton, about Rs 14 per kg when the procurement price itself is about that and consumers pay almost double this price in the open market?

Export is inevitable whether one likes it or not because the country produces far in excess of the consumption need of the domestic market. As against an estimated production of 90 mt in the current year, Indian domestic consumption is only about 75 mt and the storage capacity in the country is far less than the surplus generated year after year. Indian agriculture is robust enough to maintain the present level of wheat production more or less and GOI should not have any apprehension in this regard. It is time the country invests on grain storage infrastructure and deploys most modern technologies for safe storage of grains for long time so that India becomes a quality and quantity player in grain exports in the coming years.

One of the excuses trotted out for not allowing export of wheat and sugar was that by doing that world prices would crash affecting global trade adversely. There were also fears that exports would affect domestic prices creating short supply in the market place. Did the export ban prevent price rise of sugar and wheat in the market in India? Absolutely not as Indian consumers have been buying these commodities in the open market at prices at least 10% more than that prevailed last year which is even higher than global prices. Now that limited exports under a controlled regime are allowed, countries like Bangladesh and other developing countries will be benefited to a great extent by getting Indian wheat, the price of which is almost 20-30% cheaper than that being realized by other exporting countries. It is a shame that India wheat cannot fetch good prices in the global market which may probably due to failure to adhere to quality norms set by other importing countries.  


Saturday, November 17, 2012


The fact that over 80% of antibiotics produced in the US is consumed by the animal food industry has been explained away by the need for keeping the meat products safe from contamination by pathogenic bacteria like virulent E.coli, Salmonella and Listeria. However it was later realized that the real purpose of using antibiotics in feed for animals was increasing the weight of the animals before slaughtering which in turn increased the profits of the industry very significantly. Though the meat industry does not admit to this fact, independent studies have confirmed that antibiotics do influence the body mass of the animals in a way not properly understood so far. Of course reducing incidence of contamination is a welcome development though the cost at which this is achieved is some what dubious. If mankind is running out of effective and reliable pool of antibiotics that fight many human diseases, the single most responsible factor is this indiscriminate use (or rather the misuse?) of these life saving drugs for purposes other than saving human lives. Large scale resistance by some of the mutated microorganisms to practically every known antibiotic is an area of intense concern at present.

Why should antibiotics contribute to increased body mass, first observed in laboratory animals a few years ago? Are they really obesogens which interfere with the hormone systems like many endocrine disruptors (ED)? Recent studies connecting antibiotic consumption to body weight increase indicate that they do not work within the body system, their influence being restricted inside the gastro-intestinal tract. It is a common knowledge that most antibiotics knock down intestinal microbial colonies irrespective of whether they are friendly or hostile. One of the earliest empirical observations was that those afflicted by typhoid tend to put on weight after going through the Chloramphenicol antibiotic therapy though the exact cause was not well understood. Also known was the need to replenish the gut microbes through administration of lyophilized cultures of Lactobacilli but the Lactobacilli cultures do not restore fully the profile of microorganisms which were original inhabitants in the gut. Probably this knowledge should have made scientists wiser about likely role of those microbes killed by the antibiotics in body weight increase but not replenished by the standard Lacobacilli therapy.

Now comes the confirmation through recent studies that gut microbes do play a role in fat accumulation in the body though the exact mechanism is yet to be elucidated. Even the identification of these species causing the body to accumulate fat has not been made yet. Only this throws more challenges in elucidating this area further through more detailed and wider studies. Some believe that those microorganisms not killed by the antibiotics become super efficient in extracting calories and converting them into fat. In studies using animals it was found that a gain of 2-4% fat was achieved when they were subjected to administration of low doses of antibiotics for a few weeks. Many farmers do use antibiotics in animals to achieve about 15% body weight on an average. Interestingly the make up of bacteria in animals becoming fatter due to antibiotic consumption resembles that which are present in obese animals, probably lending further weight to the argument that gut microbes are involved in obesity epidemic besides the foods which are rich in sugar and fat.

Against such a background will the world turn its back on reckless use of antibiotics for pecuniary benefits? If this does not happen a tragedy of bigger dimension is waiting to happen. Indirect indication that administration of antibiotics to children during early growth phase could be the real cause of obesity has come out from field studies linking obesity to antibiotic consumption during early childhood. It is alarming to know hear the disturbing possibilities that up to the age of 7 years children could be vulnerable to obesity if frequently treated with antibiotics and the risks are more within the first six months of birth. In a country like the UK it was reported that about 30% of children below the age of 6 months received antibiotic treatment a decade ago. Better sense has prevailed since and physicians seem to be more circumspect in prescribing antibiotics to tender children A consoling factor in this depressing scenario is that adults are not as much in danger as the children are, in getting fatter due to antibiotics.

What are the implications of the above studies on mankind? On one hand here is a situation where the present options vis-a-vis antibiotics are getting more and more limited due to wide scale antibiotic resistance being encountered while no new ones are being developed to counteract more and virulent Frankenstein bugs emerging with each passing day. On top of it wide scale misuse of existing antibiotics, besides not serving the purpose of killing disease causing microbes, tends to make people obese! according to one estimate such antibiotic induced obesity may enlarge the over weight population to the extent of 1.5-2% in the coming years.


Friday, November 9, 2012


If seminars, workshops, conferences, meetings etc can trigger industrial development, India should have been a top industrialized nation long ago. Every stake holder in food industry development needs to take take brunt of the blame for the present condition of Indian food industry which is more or less monopolized by a few giants with very little elbow room available to the country's unorganized processing sector. During the last 6 decades India must have seen at least 20-25000 seminars and similar types of meetings and gatherings spending millions of rupees and wasting millions of man days. The result is pathetic to see. While Indian banks are flush with money, availability of the same to cottage scale and small scale industries is often constrained by the unwillingness of these financial institutions, most of the being part of Government of India, to take reasonable risks in advancing money to the them. Banks seem to be more enamored by the glitter and reputation of big players for whom money is readily available!

Recent public events organized by the apex business body in India, Federation of Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) under the banner  Food 360 Degrees, whatever it may mean, is an illuminating example of the mindset in India where holding such events is mistaken for real ground level action. While lot of pains are taken to organize such gatherings with exalted objectives, what is missing is the follow up action on what has been decided at these meetings. According to FICCI, the Food 360 Degree initiative it has taken, is intended to take food industry development to rural areas and interestingly the latest event was organized in Hyderabad, no rural area by any stretch of imagination! Interestingly FICCI claims that "a number of farmers and other stakeholders representing food processing industry" participated in the program though what benefits farmers can derive from such a gathering is not clear. FICCI wants to organize such events in a "toned down" version in 10-12 other places. At best these gatherings, invariably held in 5-star hotels, are nothing but social networking with very little impact on industrial development.

Who does the FICCI represent? How many small industries are part of its system? While there are specialized food industry organizations like All India Food Processors Association or others representing sectors like baked foods, flour mills, fish processing, meat processing etc what can FICCI contribute to the development of food industry? This is not to question the bonafides of this body in organizing such get-together but what needs to be realized is such exercises can have only limited impact at the ground level. Ideally there should be a holistic linkage between the unorganized and small industries and the big players to transfer knowledge and support marketing of products made by the former though it is doubtful whether such a thing will ever happen in India.

It is true that any food industry development in India must take into consideration the inescapable fact that the raw materials or the feed stock for processing industry are generated in the vast hinterland  of the country or the villages which happen to be living place for more than 70% of the country's population. The fact that the food needs of more than 350 million people residing in urbanized regions of the country like towns and cities are to be supplied from agricultural areas cannot be ignored. Naturally the food industry development has to take place in these rural hinterland and not in Hyderabad, Mumbai or Kolkatta. A body like FICCI has very limited role to play in such a scenario with major burden to be borne by governments in the states and at the Center.

Who must bear the responsibility for the gross negligence of rural areas while formulating the food industry development policy? As industry is supposed to be a state subject under the Indian constitution, the primary responsibility does fall on the states but it is also necessary that such developments must be coordinated under a national food industry policy. The Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) in Delhi is vested with the responsibility to help the states to promote food industry and this ministry has come up with a few funding schemes for disbursement to entrepreneurs or to existing industries to grow further, though how far these financial schemes have served the purpose is a debatable point. MFPI's initiative to set up the brand new food technology research cum management institute under the banner NIFTEM which was recently inaugurated is another issue that can be very controversial. If past experience is any indication NIFTEM also will go the way CFTRI has gone, if the cause for failure of the latter is not properly diagnosed.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Food safety management can be a thankless job for any government because of the sensitivity of consumers to food shortages and price rise. Recent ban on entry of eggs produced from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu by the government is expected to create a no-win situation for both the government as well as the consumers. Out of about 15 million eggs consumed every day in Kerala, bulk of it comes from Tamil Nadu, almost 90%, while Karnataka sends about a million eggs. The reported prevalence of Avian Flu in Karnataka seems to be the provocation for Kerala to put in place such a ban and it is not clear whether this ban is justifiable at all considering that this viral disease is not easily transferable through eggs to human beings. As for infecting birds in Kerala, the poultry industry in Kerala is practically non-existent and such a possibility can be discounted. While as a precaution such temporary measures are in order, prolonging it can cause acute shortage and very high prices for eggs available in the market. Besides such long time ban can throw out of business many traders dealing with egg marketing.

It is but logical to expect that scarcity of eggs is going to create shortage in the market causing all round concern with most Keralites being non-vegetarians by nature. Looking at the chronology of events, it may be recalled that the ban was imposed by the State on the eggs and poultry coming from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka a few days ago. If reports are to be believed many traders depending on egg business have shut down their outlets because of stop of flow of eggs from out side consequent to the ban and one can imagine its economic impact on the industry. According to some observers, eggs and poultry products being brought from Tamil Nadu are certified by veterinary doctors. and only broiler chicken and eggs for incubation purpose are brought from Karnataka. Also to be noted is that the bird flue was reported in a farm in Karnataka a week ago and the authorities there had taken steps to destroy the affected product. It is in this context that the industry feels the ban makes little sense. The poultry industry in Tamil Nadu is also incurring huge losses on account of the development and about 120 loads of eggs are reported to be awaiting clearance at check posts between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Imagine the consequences of these eggs getting spoiled due to slow clearance at the border check posts. How the situation is going to be handled remains to be seen with the possibility of substantial portion of the eggs getting perished.

The price of eggs for both direct consumers as well as others like bakeries, restaurants and road side vendors is bound to shoot up due to the prevailing ban. Interestingly same eggs are being marketed in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as these states have not banned them as a knee-jerk response to isolated detection of bird flu there. What will be a worrying factor is regarding the fate of eggs losing their quality due to disruption of the flow into Kerala. Are they going to be sorted out and fed to the market or there will be compulsory destruction of the entire lot? Who will be responsible to look into these aspects? Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka? While the right of any state to prohibit entry of unsafe foods into its territory is to be respected, same has to be exercised with utmost caution. Though the bakery industry is most vociferous in criticizing the ban as they fear that with Christmas season fast approaching their business is going to be seriously impacted, there is a general concern that Kerala will witness serious turmoil if the ban is not lifted soon.

It is interesting to note the relatively high consumption of eggs in Kerala which works out to about 4 eggs per week per person or 220 eggs per year compared to 43 eggs annual per capita consumption in whole of the country. Of course in comparison, countries like Japan, Mexico etc consume more than 300 eggs per year per person. According to the nutritional norms of the GOI, on an average a person must consume 180 eggs an year for good health. While egg consumption is generally discouraged among well fed population due to its high cholesterol content, for those who are not in their pink of health due to limited access to good food, egg is an excellent source of balanced nutrition. While population in the industrialized world need to curtail their egg consumption, in a country like India egg consumption needs to be encouraged. 

The poultry industry in Kerala is practically non existent with average daily production being about 60, 000 eggs! Coming back to the ban, it is not clear why the Kerala government has not taken pro-active steps to encourage poultry industry in that state, making the population there vulnerable to such a situation. Is it that the high humidity in most parts of the state is not conducive to poultry birds? Probably not. A puzzling factor is that when there is a huge growing market for eggs, the state depends on imports from neighboring states. It is time that the state wakes up to the real potential of poultry industry and encourage setting up huge poultry farms in the state, probably with foreign technology with high efficiency. A ban probably may not be the answer under the present circumstances and a cooperative effort among the three governments concerned can find an immediate solution, in stead of taking such unilateral action to ban the trading in eggs, putting lot of people in these states in difficulty in terms of food shortage and business loss.


Monday, October 29, 2012


Wheat is the staple food grain to millions of people around the world but unlike other grains wheat also offers some problems for some when it is consumed as part of a diet. Gluten allergy or sensitivity which affects about 10% of world population is a problem that cannot be easily wished away. The symptoms of gluten allergy can be almost same as that for celiac disease and wheat allergy, some of them being bloating, abdominal discomfort, head ache, migraines, muscular and bone joint pains, schizophrenia etc. Though wheat may not pose any risk to life as the symptoms can be easily treated, it does affect the quality of life for those diagnosed with wheat allergy. This is where the ancient Einkorn comes to their help as it has been found that the type of gluten in this grain is some what different from wheat gluten and therefore does not pose any threat. The science behind this is that to days wheat, Triticum aestivum is not a pure grain but evolved over thousands of years of history exposing it to natural hybridization process, changing the composition very significantly.

According to historical evidence Einkorn, Triticum boeoticum was consumed since BC 7000 and therefore had about 9000 years for changing some of its characteristics through cross pollination with wild grass species and other similar grains into modern day wheat. According to geneticists a major difference is in the number of chromosomes present in the grains with Einkorn possessing only 14 whereas that in wheat is either 28 or 42 and naturally this should have an influence in the protein make up of these grains. Wheat allergy is often attributed to the properties of the gliadin component in gluten present in modern wheat. Probably Einkorn gluten with different gliadin component is better tolerated by wheat sensitive population and this has given a new status to this ancient grain as a health food. New products based on Einkorn in place of wheat are continuously being developed targeting gluten sensitive consumers.

There are a number of reasons why health food industry is lately focusing attention on Einkorn and if availability is not a critical factor, products made from this unique grain would have captured a sizable market in the wheat based food products. The fact that it is a hulled grain like Paddy grain makes it immune to contamination by pesticides and other man made chemicals. It has one of the highest protein content viz about 18-20% compared to 10-12% in normal wheat. Besides it has 3-4 times more beta carotene (for boosting immunity, prevent cancers and CVD), 2 times more Vitamin A (for healthy eyes, reproductive system and preventing certain cancers), 3-4 times more Lutein ( for preventing macular degeneration and cataracts) and 4-5 times more Riboflavin (more efficient energy metabolism). One of the most interesting data is that in Einkorn gluten the ratio of gliadin fraction to glutelin fraction is about 2:1 while the corresponding ratio in wheat is 0.8:1 which probably may explain the relatively better tolerance of Einkorn by gluten sensitive consumers. One of the constraints in popularizing any food as a replacement for some thing already well established  in the minds of consumers is the quality of products made and it is here that Einkorn may be some what inferior to modern wheat, making it difficult to be seen as a competitor to normal wheat.

Information is scanty regarding the suitability of Einkorn flour for making many popular products like different varieties of bread, biscuits and crackers, pastries etc though with the range of baking technologies available to day it is not beyond the capabilities of baking technologists to develop products comparable in quality to that of similar products made from normal wheat. It appears the dough characteristics of Einkorn grain is some what inferior and water retention lower giving it a sticky characteristics. The dough is similar to that made from soft wheat and hence it should be possible to make biscuit type of products from it with acceptable quality. Some of the bread making studies indicated that white bread made from Einkorn flour was inferior to that from wheat in almost all parameters associated with good quality bread. Similarly pasta products made from Einkorn also are not comparable in quality to normal pasta though some consumers rated them as more pleasant to taste. Ultimately Einkprn will have to exploit its higher nutritive value and practically insignificant gluten sensitivity for establishing any sizable market.

Commercially no relative of the modern wheat Triticum aestivum can compete against it because of the tremendous advances made in the field of wheat science by thousands of scientists across the Globe and there is not much that is not known as far this modern day staple grain is concerned. Closely related grains like diploidal Einkorn (T. boeticum wild or T.monococcum cultivated)  or tetrapoidal Emmer grains or Hexaploidal Spelt grains do not have same properties like the present day wheat which are essential for making high quality processed food products.


Friday, October 26, 2012


Organic foods ,which have provided big relief to millions of consumers world over who are concerned about the healthiness and safety of commercially grown and processed food products, seem to be heading for uncertain days if attempts by some of the biggest names in food industry succeed in hijacking the business through devious means as being reported. The movement which started in a small way two decades ago has become synonymous with providing safe foods to the children as well as population requiring reassurance that food they consume is safe. Every school child knows about the advantages of organic food and why it costs more than the market foods offered by the commercial players who seem to be getting more and more insensitive to the well being of consumers, obviously in pursuit of unlimited profits. Organic food industry owes its growth to mindless practices of the conventional industry such as massive use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, synthetic chemical additives, many preservatives with doubtful safety credentials and above all the aggressive inroad of genetically modified food ingredients into main stream industry. What will be the impact of large food industry giants taking over smaller players through their unlimited financial resources?

The foundation for successful promotion and marketing of organic foods was the reliable certification system that guarantees the consumer that these products are grown and processed differently and can be depended upon for safeguarding health. There are many certification agencies which have the license to assess the food growing and processing facilities as per national or international standards and provide the certification. Generally the standards lay down a set of production parameters for growing, storage, processing, packaging and shipping. Most important features of these standards include non-use of human sewage sullage for irrigation, avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs at any stage, cultivating only in lands free from traces of chemical substances, elaborate and clear documentation of the practices followed and allowing periodic on-site inspection to ensure implementation of all guidelines prescribed. One of the reasons for limited growth of organic food industry is the increased cost incurred by the farmers and processors while conforming to the laid down standards. According to one estimate the organic food industry just accounts for less than 5% of the total food market globally. The stealthy entry of established large industry conglomerates into this sector may change the face of the organic food industry beyond recognition.

One of the flip sides of organic certification system is the exorbitant cost involved in getting the coveted recognition from the governments involving rigorous steps and considerable time which are not affordable to many small scale players. This is working in favor of large producers and global food giants who have deep pockets to "manage" the system. Realizing such limitations small growers have formed their own association which provides them with a different type of certification almost synonymous with that of organic foods. Such foods carry the declaration "Certified Naturally Grown", though consumers still seem to be preferring the organic food certification. Interestingly new variants of organic food certification are now being recognized in the US, probably to oblige the large industry which finds it difficult to adhere to strict standards imposed for pure organic foods. Here there are 100% organic, 95% organic and 70% organic versions permitting some relaxation in the standards in the latter two cases. It is difficult for any consumer to comprehend why there should be any organic food in the market at all if it is not 100% organically produced! Probably this is one of the consequences of the entry of big fish into this sector which was an exclusive preserve of small enterprises as government appears to be bending backwards to oblige the former by diluting the standards.

Recent developments in the US where organic food industry is worth about $ 30 billion, do not give any hope that organic foods as seen to day will survive for another decade because of large scale devouring of small producers by the large players through enormous money clout. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is the governing body which oversees development of standards and once approved by the US government become industry standards. According to one report approval of many non-organic chemicals for use in organic foods is a sure sign of the diminishing value of the certified organic food which suits the large players. While there were only 77 essential non-organic chemicals such as baking powder, allowed for use in organic products in 2002, to day that number has bloated up to more than 250! Most recent additions like the controversial carrageenan ( doubtful safety credentials) and synthetic Inositol are examples of mindless tampering of the standards and as the NOSB is overwhelmingly staffed with representatives and sympathizers of big industry, such approvals are easy to come by.

The million dollar question is what is the role of US government in ensuring the integrity of organic food certification system that is in vogue in the country and there is a lingering suspicion that the well organized processed food industry is having enormous influence on the government in modifying many standards. However in defense of the government it must be stated that the list of organic foods seeking certification have expanded exponentially and the list of permitted non-organic ingredients must reflect that development necessitating additions from time to time. Besides the NOSB never had more than 30% representation from organized big players while government is still calling the shots. Probably a better approach to prevent developing monopoly in organic foods market by a few players can be prevented through more realistic policy orchestration like preserving it for small and medium players thus automatically precluding any undue influence from the Goliaths of food business.    


Monday, October 22, 2012


It is universally accepted that eating vegetables in recommended quantities regularly can ensure good health as most of them are rich in many nutrients as well dietary fiber. However with meat products predominating the diet of people in many affluent countries vegetable consumption has fallen dramatically during the last 4-5 decades endangering the health of the population giving rise to a number diseases which can reduce the quality of life and some being fatal. Kids are generally averse to eating vegetables, the main reason being the typical smell and flavor associated with each vegetable. Once the eating habits are established during early stages of life, it becomes impossible to change them unless late realization dawns on them regarding the crucial role vegetables play in longevity and trouble free old age living. Probably the enormous promotion of sugar and fat rich foods during younger days make the kids addicts to these instant pleasure providing foods, leaving no space for scientifically established nutritious items like fruits and vegetables.

What is astonishing is the craze for sprouts in the diet under the impression they are the ultimate sources of good nutrition! There was a time when sprouts were an indispensable part of high quality food preparations whether in the family dining room or in public eating places. Of course sprouts can be as nutritious as the seeds used for producing the sprouts but to infer that they are superior to the seeds may be some what far fetched. After all the basic reservoir of nutrients present in a seed is utilized for germination and there has to be some depletion of carbohydrates, proteins and fat present in the seed for the germination process. If one claims that sprouts are more easily digested, it may be true. A normal human being has all the paraphernalia within the body system to assimilate any edible material without depending on the enzymes present in the seed. Some reports indicate that during germination there is significant increase in some vitamins like thiamine, riboflavin, alpha carotene, tocopherol etc but such increased vitamins can be obtained even by mere soaking the seeds for a few hours in water. Another advantage claimed for sprouting is that due to chelation many minerals become more bio-available while nutrition inhibitors like phytins are reduced.

Miniaturization of fruits and vegetables through biotechnological means has been going on in many countries and Baby corn is an excellent example. Bonsai system of gardening is a well established way of making the plant a dwarf through "training", requiring enormous patience. The purpose of Bonsai is to enjoy the pleasure of growing large plants without actually allowing them to grow naturally without any restriction. Thus there is this human tendency to see many things appearing big in nature as mini versions while there are also enthusiasts who enjoy jumbo sized versions of natural plant crops. Also to be borne in mind is the general perception that good quality, especially in vegetables, is linked to their tenderness. Tea leaves are plucked when the "two leaves and the bud" appear because maximum flavor is provided at this stage. Same is true with almost all vegetables, be it Okhra, Beans, Squash, Spinach, Knol Kol or Drumstick. Over mature vegetables invariably are more fibrous and less tastier. For farmers it is a dilemma as to when their produce needs to be harvested to be acceptable without allowing them to grow further to get a higher yield.

While sprouting is fairly popular with many consumers, a new trend is emerging where seeds after germination are allowed to grow further for a week or two till they become 1-2 inches tall with first flush of leaves and harvesting the same for use in food preparations. Decreasing popularity of sprouts lately is attributed to frequent food poisoning episodes caused by contamination with Salmonella and E.coli 0157:H7, deadly pathogens with high mortality potential. Last year there were at least a dozen recalls in the US and more than 50 people were reported to have perished due to such contamination cases. Seed, root and undeveloped leaves form the sprout and contamination mostly comes from poor quality of soaking water and unsatisfactory hygienic conditions prevailing in germination chambers. Many reputed restaurants world over have removed sprouts from their menu because of the potential threat from pathogenic contamination. Compared to sprouts which are produced in moisture medium, 7-14 days old baby plants are grown by regular planting of seeds in specially prepared beds or containers and boxes or indoors. Harvesting is done by sniping the stem at a point just above the soil which avoids carrying any contaminants into the final product. Called Microgreens, this new version of popular vegetables and herbs are becoming increasingly popular as it is perceived that they are more tasty, flavorful and have better textural characteristics loved by most consumers. Most popular Microgreens being marketed are raised from Mustard, Kale, Endive, Arugula, Beet greens, Spinach, Basil, Celery, Cress, Dill and Fennel.

The advantages of these tiny leaves present in Microgreens, less than 14 days old, can be many. According to food connoisseurs they make excellent garnishes to salads, sandwiches and soups and whether they're spinach, pea, beet or purple mustard, microgreens are supposed to pack even more nutrients that their adult versions. According to USDA scientists who have conducted the first scientific analysis of nutrients in 25 different Microgreens, especially with regard to vitamins and other phytochemicals, there is some substance in the claim that they are rich in many vitamins. The contents of vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene in the leaves of Microgreenst leaves were almost four to six times more compared to the mature leaves of the same plant. Wide variations were observed in nutrition levels and a vegetable like red cabbage was highest in vitamin C while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E. This is an emerging area where further studies are needed to confirm many claims of superior nutrition for Microgreens. Interestingly most consumers rate the Microgreens for their special eating quality, nutrition taking a back seat in their calculations.