Sunday, January 29, 2012


According to Global Hunger Index (GHI) India ranks 67 on its scale, with many sub-saharan African countries doing much better than it on the hunger scale.  GHI is a calculated indicator based on statistics provided by national governments and combines three critical factors that include proportion of undernourished people as percentage of total population, prevalence of underweight children lesser than 5 years of age and mortality rate of children. Between 1990 and 2011, world, as a whole has been able bring down GHI from 19.7 to 14.6 reflecting the success of projects initiated to tackle this human problem. However the progress has not been even with some countries achieving creditable performance while many others struggle to make any dramatic break through.

Take the case of India which is reported to have a score of 23.7 in 2011, considered reasonable compared to its GHI score of 30.4 in 1990. The concept of GHI is based on the scores calculated from published data and lower the score better would be performance of a country. A score of less than 5 is considered to be synonymous with low prevalence of hunger, between 5 and 9.9 moderate, 10-19.9 serious, 20-29.9 alarming and beyond 30 extremely alarming. It cannot be a consolation for India that it has reduced the GHI score significantly during the last 20 years, a decline of almost 20% but further scrutiny of the data reveals the despicable truth that since 2001 the GHI figure is almost static hovering around 23-24 reflecting nil progress in its fight against hunger. The ruling political dispensation at Delhi will always have excuses for this moribund state of affairs vis-a-vis hunger and poverty.

While government data cannot be believed totally, there are a few Non-Government Organizations (NGO) which have high credibility and reliability among the people concerned with the health of the nation. According to a recent survey by Naandi Foundation, an NGO with considerable reputation, 42% of Indian children under the age of 5 years are malnourished while 59% suffer from various degree of stunting and underweight. What are the chances of these children ever growing to be a normal citizen when they are able grow to become adults? Probably very low because the critical phase of development in humans take place in the first two years after birth and after the age of 5 years the odds of reversing the consequences of childhood nutrition insufficiency are very great. Mr Prime Minister of this country is right in at least asserting that such a situation is serious and admitting it as a national shame! Why his team which has been ruling the country since 2004 has not been able to make any dent in the hunger front, in spite of squandering billions of rupees on different programs touted to be designed to tackle this very same problem? Added to this, country's farmers are committing suicide at the rate of 48 per day with no end in sight for stopping this trend.       

If impartial observers are to be believed more shocking fact emerging out of the survey by Naandi Foundation covering 70000 house holds is that almost 60% of the children under the age of 5 years are under weight with stunted growth. In contrast children from rich families "suffer" from eating too much foods, rich in fat, but poor in proteins and micronutrients, leading to overweight and even obesity. Lack of education for the rural mothers, inadequate sanitary awareness, unsatisfactory personal hygiene, delivery of children in make shift facilities in stead of decently equipped hospitals, inappropriate diet, wrong feeding habits all contribute to sub-par health of the children born in rural areas. Can the Rs 32 per day per person poverty line as propounded by the National Planning Commission  eradicate hunger? Will the proposed Food Security Bill offering cereals at throw way prices to vulnerable families in rural and urban areas make any dramatic impact on the hunger front? Unlikely because the much discredited PDS system, on which the distribution logistics are to be entrusted, has proved beyond doubt its "impotence" to deliver the food to the beneficiary in quality and quantity due to miserable management and massive pilferage. 


Saturday, January 21, 2012


It is a well known adage that an "army marches on its stomachs", implying that the fighting spirit of a defense force can be maintained only if the foods served are of good quality and organoleptically acceptable. As far as Government of India is concerned it does not seem to be subscribing to the above age old wisdom if the ongoing criticism against food supply system prevalent in the armed forces now has any basis. There may not be any doubt about the veracity of the criticism considering that they are made by two of the most respected arms of the government-Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Parliament and the constitutional watch dog Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), that too repeatedly during the last few years. It is just sad that government does not give any seriousness to these reports and continue to close its eyes towards corruption and mismanagement of food supply system in vogue.

Taking first the PAC report, it has been alleged that army personnel even in the border posts are being supplied with date expired products which are normally not consumed by the general public. While the Defense Forces may have its own compulsions to continue with this system which, any how, has not been made public so far, no date expired food is accepted by any consumer any where in the world. Food industry generally withdraws such products from the market and either destroy them or test and reprocess with a new date of expiry. It is true that some agencies like Food Banks do accept date expired foods from retail markets but make sure they are safe before distributing to their beneficiaries. There is also a section of safety experts group which feels expiry of date need not necessarily mean they are unsafe but their quality might be less than optimum due to storage on the shelves for long time. It is difficult to say whether the army supplies which are date expired come under this category. 

The other agency, CAG made a more scathing attack on army's food supply system by citing the obnoxious practice on the part of the testing laboratories to unilaterally revise the expiry period with no scientific basis. Such a practice of extending the shelf life given by the manufacturer by the testing laboratories may not pass muster because this means only that the food might be safe from microbiological spoilage angle. What about the impact of myriad chemical reactions and physical changes taking place under ambient conditions inside the sealed pack and their possible role in making the food not so safe after all?. Recent uproar about the findings that toxic Bis-Phenol A is leached out into the food contents of cans cannot be ignored so easily. Similarly all plastic containers and films do contribute to migration of unsafe chemical entities into the contents and longer the storage time more dangerous can be the levels of these undesirable and unsafe leachates.

One may recall an earlier episode when looking back at army food supply and its logistics, an expensive high technology plant was established at enormous cost near Agra to process meat into dehydrated products using Freeze Drying process several decades ago. Though quality wise and from safety considerations, this technology was indeed one of the best available in the world, the plant had to be junked because the product was totally unacceptable to army personnel because of textural deficiencies. The Defense Food Research Laboratory (DFRL) at Mysore has been doing yeoman service for quite some time though its out put value is progressively coming down with practically nothing of significant user value coming out of this once reputed food R & D wing in the Defense Sector. There was a time in the history that the yearning for fresh foods which every one likes cannot be accessed easily due to the perishable nature of all foods. But emergence of new technologies to day like High Pressure Processing, Modified Atmosphere Storage/packing, aseptic packing, fast freezing process, vacuum packing etc makes it possible to deliver foods as fresh as possible with far better acceptability. Why not serve the armed forces of the country only the very best foods which are nutritious, healthy and safe?  At least this is one way of repaying country's debts for the sacrifices they are making day in and day out for safeguarding the integrity of the country under harsh conditions.


Thursday, January 19, 2012


The controversy surrounding Genetically Modified foods and food ingredients refuses to die down though activists opposing these foods based on safety and environmental considerations are being smothered by the money power of the GM lobby. GM foods derived through transgenic process is mired in disputes between those who feel they are safe and others taking the stand that sufficient scientific evidence does not exist guaranteeing its safety. As far as environmentalists are concerned there is a potential danger in cultivating GM crops which may cause cross contamination of normal crops thus destroying the traditional normal crops. It is a pity that these two warring groups cannot sit across a table and thrash out their differences to evolve a consensus on the issue.

There are many countries in the world where cultivation of GM crops are totally banned or restricted by local regulations. The US is the only country which has allowed a free run to the GM crop industry to produce foods which are tampered with genetically changing their original character. Some of the countries which permit GM crops have put restrictions on their cultivation under a strict regulatory regime. In Europe GM crops are allowed to a limited extent but the products containing GM food raw materials or ingredients derived from them will have to declare their presence on the label. One is reminded of irradiated foods which also require the label to declare the same. Why a country like the US does not regulate GM foods as in Europe is a big mystery. 

An incisive analysis of the US Food System brings about.the stranglehold the giant monopoly food companies have over the food and farming system in that country. In a scathing revelation recently, it was revealed that the GM lobby has financed the election of many senators and law makers of the country to retain policies which are subservient to the financial interest of the former, ignoring the welfare. of the citizens, considered a serious distortion of the essence of democracy. Unfortunately precious little has been done during the last two decades to set right this distortion and more than 80% of American foods offered by industry has one or more GM food ingredients forcing the consumer to eat the same without even knowing about it! It is true that during the last two decades the antagonists of GM foods have not been able to pinpoint any specific damage to the health of the population solely due to consumption of GM foods. But the million dollar question is whether GM foods have played any role at all in the transformation of American society into a predominantly obese population.

It is interesting to hear about the great march of thousands of people feeling strongly about the safety of GM foods from New York to Washington DC to impress upon their President the urgent need to introduce mandatory legislation to label GM foods to distinguish from normal, natural foods. No doubt such a move is most welcome which may resonate throughout that country, motivating more people to express their concerns in a peaceful manner. The US President must see the writing on the wall and bring out legislation in tune with the aspirations of common man. What is more interesting is the move now being initiated in California in the US to fight against GM foods and to force compulsory labeling. What will be the fate of the papers filed with the California Attorney General's office to place a citizen's initiative on the 2012 November ballot that would require labeling of genetically engineered food and ingredients derived from them, remains to be seen. One thing however is sure that if California voters pass the ballot initiative, it could likely be the beginning of the end for many companies engaged in genetically engineered food in the U.S. After 20 years of bullying by biotech companies and being fed unlabeled and "potentially" hazardous genetically modified foods, a critical mass of food and health activists have come forward start the the offensive against GM food perpetrators. Probably this fight over labeling genetically engineered food will have to be taken at the national level at Washington DC, where these powerful companies exercise vice-like grip on the government.  

Recent polls in the US show that 80 to 85 percent of the people want mandatory labeling. They point out that there are no genetically engineered foods or crops anywhere in Europe, while almost all foods in the U.S. supermarket contain GMOs. In Europe, genetically engineered foods and ingredients have to be labeled which is a distinct disincentive for the manufacturers considering the strong undercurrent of universal hostility towards GM foods. The GM food manufacturers are sure that such labeling provision could be a threat for their bottom line. If and when GM food labeling is made mandatory in the U.S., there is the potential for millions of consumers who will read these labels to react and shun them, switching over to foods that are organic or at least GMO-free. Once enough consumers start complaining about genetically engineered foods and ingredients, stores will stop selling them while farmers will have no more incentive to plant them.
 Also to be noted is that once the California voters pass the GMO labeling law in 2012, the biotech and food industry will face an intractable dilemma as to whether they could put labels on their branded food products in just one state, admitting those products contain genetically engineered ingredients and then withhold ingredient label information in other states. It worth watching the unfolding drama in this fight between GM food lobby and the consumer alliance that is spearheading the anti-GM movement.


Thursday, January 12, 2012


According to a recent report people should change their diet to prevent falling hair and promote its growth, instead of depending on hundreds of lotions, creams, treatments and other therapies. Baldness and thin tress are generally associated with genetic inheritance but falling of hair is considered to be due to deficiencies in diet which is possible to be treated with appropriate foods containing the nutrients that strengthen hair and stimulate its growth. But is there sufficient clarity regarding the type of foods that can really ensure healthy hair? Unfortunately this is an area of cosmetology which is being exploited by the industry for its own gains rather than helping the desperate consumers longing for improving their appearance.

Looking at the science of hair development in humans, it is well known that each strand of hair is based on an individual follicle on the scalp of the head and there are about 100,000 such follicles for each human being. When the number is low one tends to have a less dense hair and more the number thicker will be the tress. Similarly each hair strand has the potential to grow as long as 2 meters and here again the growth rate depends on the metabolic proclivity of individuals. Generally a hair strand grows at the rate of 0.4 mm per day or on average it can grow 1.2 cm per month. A person may have curly hair if the follicles are not straight and the health of the hair is intricately linked to that of the follicles. Each hair has a life cycle made of anagen or growth phase, catagen or regression phase and telogen or resting phase. It is at the end of the telogen phase that one loses about 100 hair strands a day. The length of the hair is determined by its life cycle. A typical hair follicle spends about 2-7 years under the anagen phase when the length of the hair grows to its maximum potential. In contrast the follicles above eye brows spend only 7 months under anagen phase limiting the length of the hair there.

Hair is a structural protein going under the name Keratin and same protein occurs in nails and the outer skin also. Only mammals have the necessary mechanism for producing hair and the health of the hair in general is influenced by the diet one consumes for a normal being. Most crucial requirement in the diet is proteins while there are many auxiliary biochemicals associated with the quality of hair one may have. Zinc and Vitamin A have been reported to be important to maintain the health of the hair. Other nutrients mentioned include antioxidants, Biotin, Pantothenate etc though their exact role has not yet been elucidated clearly, though their involvement in protein synthesis could be the reason. Biotin deficiency has been shown to result in heavy loss of hair while connection between pantothenate and hair health is still not established. Biotin is a Coenzyme in the biosynthesis of fatty acids and amino acids Isoleucine and Valine. Its deficiency in normal humans is very rare since foods like peanut, egg yolk, liver, some vegetables contain adequate amounts needed daily. Besides gut microorganisms make plenty of Biotin, more than sufficient for day to day requirement. Naturally added Biotin cannot be expected to be of any benefit for improving quality of hair, unless there is a deficiency. 

The practice by the cosmetic industry to add pantothenates in shampoo, touted to be good for hair color is still an issue not proven beyond any doubt. Pantothenate is a part of Coenzyme A, a key biochemical involved in synthesis and metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats and as such it is natural to expect this vitamin to play a role in Keratin synthesis also with the possibility of improved hair quality. But deficiency of Pantothenate has not been prevalent in any part of the world as practically every food humans eat has this vitamin in varying concentrations. Most conspicuous sources include whole cereal grains, legumes, egg, meat, yogurt etc. Shampoo manufacturers, at least some, still make products containing Pantothenate derivatives, claiming improvement in hair quality but it has been proved beyond doubt that such shampoo preparations do not have any impact at all. . 

Including Keratin in food does not help any way because this protein is not digested in the gut, simply passing through without any nutrient being made available for absorption across the intestine. Composition wise Keratin, like other proteins, contains at least 16 amino acids, with Cysteine , Serine and Glutamic acid constituting almost 41%. The strong sulfide bonds between the peptide strands make it resistant to breakdown chemically or enzymatically under normal conditions. Therefore in stead of thinking of consumption of Keratin for improvement of hair, it is more appropriate if the constituent amino acids are ingested through easily digestible foods. The foolishness in using shampoo containing Keratin can be evident from the fact that this protein is not absorbed into hair follicles and is washed away without any real benefit. 

It is but natural to wonder whether there is any single food ingredient that can help grow hair healthy and rich and the inevitable conclusion is that one can have normal hair with no fear of shedding or graying if a balanced diet containing a variety of components like vegetables, whole grains, legumes, egg, yogurt, meat etc. Symptoms of hair loss may occur if there is imbalance in the action of Testosterone which has an influence on hair growth. Of course serious cases of hair loss may have to be treated from a medical angle and there are approved drugs like Minoxidil and Propecia which are extensively used to treat baldness in many countries.     


Food consumption habits differ from people to people depending on many variable factors and these have been evolved over centuries of traditions, societal interactions and the environment where people have been living. Stresses and strains in the modern society have compelled many people to modify their consumption behavior and adopt foods which are more convenient to make or factory processed foods to save time and focus on their professional career. The busy city lives, opportunities to eat out side home, exciting new products coming to the market and mega promotions by the food industry have all contributed to a slow shift in the emphasis on food from healthines to convenience and this seems to have made a heavy adverse impact on the health status of the people all over the world.  

Advent of diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disorder, high blood pressure, kidney problems, constipation, GI tract ailments all are caused by continued consumption of nutritionally imbalanced foods turned out by the processing industry. Repeated attempts by governments every where, impleading the citizens to consume more fruits and vegetables, high fiber foods, low salt products, low sugar foods, low fat items, coarse cereal based products, less consumption of meat etc are falling on deaf years with practically no impact on the deteriorating health status of the population in general. It is sad that such a helpless condition of the society is being exploited by a section of the industry by touting special foods and functional foods with claims, not substantiated by scientific proof leading to all pervasive criticism about the real intention of the main stream industry.

Imagine the situation in which a consumer finds himself, saddled with any of the diseases cited above with no practical way to get solace and comfort from market products of doubtful benefits. These foods are invariably loaded with too much energy, fat, salt, sugar, refined carbohydrates of high GI values, undesirable and unsafe chemicals etc but with practically no fiber, natural micronutrients and unsaturated fats. It is true that consumer gets lot of useful information from the nutrient labels supposed to be truthful but he is lost completely regarding the importance or irrelevance of such information in taking a decision in the market aisles. The MyPlate icon now being popularized advocates that the fruit and vegetable content in a diet must be almost 50% of the volume of food consumed and how is it possible that a consumer can stick to this advice without spending substantial time in the kitchen? Here is where enlightened industry must come to the aid of consumers who cannot eat most of the commercial food products because one or the other dietary restrictions. 

Those requiring specially designed foods cannot take too much sugar, too much salt, too much saturated fats, too much carbohydrates whereas they need adequate dietary fiber, proteins, natural micronutrients, mono and poly unsaturated fats, low GI food materials besides yearning for high palatability and diversity. Can these requirements be factored into the design of a food product which can be a foundation recipe to build variety into it?  It is time such an attempt is made and the product should have the following characteristics:adaptability to use in the preparation of different types of products and beverages from a single formulation, diverse flavors and tastes to avoid monotony, portioning flexibility, good shelf life, optimum nutrition, depression avoiding, sleep inducing, obesity avoiding etc. 

The ingredients that can go into such a product include coarse grains, pulses, quinoa, oats, barley, low sodium salt, non-metabolized sweeteners, bran fractions, stabilized mono and poly unsaturated fat sources, dehydrated vegetables and fruits, spices and herbs, nuts etc all of which can support life when used in various proportions. Such a master food mix can be converted into various shapes and textures for ready to eat or can be converted into various products similar to mainstream items prepared by cooking, steaming, roasting, baking, frying and other means at the kitchen. There are products in the market that contain multiple grains both as grain blends or in powder form for the consumers to use in their day to day preparations but such product formulations need to be refined further in the light of to day's technological prowess.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Hummus is a chick pea based product with wide international popularity and interestingly it is a relatively stable product with reasonable shelf life. high Pressure Processing Technology (HPP), Chemical preservatives like citric acid, benzoate, pasteurization, hot fill, Tetrapack are all suitable for extending shelf life of this product for a few days. Though it is claimed to be an Arab preparation used by the people in the Middle East for centuries as a dip, this is hotly contested by the Jews who consider it their ethnic food. Interestingly Jews are reported to be consuming double the quantity of Hummus as compared to that by the Arab population. Who ever is responsible for the birth of Hummus, the fact remains that it is a ell established dip or spread product through out the world. Major ingredients in preparing a good authentic Hummus include cooked and mashed chick pea, blended Tahini, Olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. There are dozens of variations evolved over the last few decades to suit the palates of different segments of population. 

Nutritionally it is a well balanced food adjunct containing 166 kC of energy per 100 gm, 14.3% carbohydrate, 9.6% fat and 7.9% proteins. Besides it is also a significant source of iron, Vitamin C, Folates and Pyridoxine. Since it contains solids derived from Sesame, its Methionine content gives a high protein efficiency value to the product while its monounsaturated fat content further boosts up its nutritive value. no wonder Hummus is a $ 300 million business in the US and growing fast among the ethnic foods. One of the variations of Hummus contains coriander making it distinctly Indian reminding many about the chutney preparations in South India, used as an adjunct for ethnic foods like Idli, Dosa, Vada etc. The product is highly perishable with hardly a couple of days shelf life under ambient conditions. It is further known that the life can be extended in the refrigerator up to 7 days while it can last up to 2 months in a freezer chest. Also reported is its ability to stay long if pasteurized and stored at 4C up to 3-18 months. Tetrapack technology claims that the product can be preserved for months if properly processed. Same is true with High Pressure Processing Technology which is recommended for long term storage of Hummus.

According to some experts if packed Hummus is unopened, some pasteurized Hummus brands keep well for periods up to 18 months!. In general, pasteurized brands are known to keep well for 2-3 months. The differences in shelf life between brands can be attributed to variations in the recipe as well as pasteurization methods. While Citric acid and salt are preferred natural preservatives, artificial preservatives like sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate find extensive use by the industry. A growing number of pasteurized Hummus brands are shelf stable and do not require refrigeration. Brands that contain preservatives are safe for up to 60 days while those without preservatives are often marketed as natural or organic, provided they adhere to the standards  required for such labeling. Preservative-free Hummus brands must be stored under refrigerated conditions for good shelf life. Some processors of unpasteurized foods contend that pasteurization destroys nutrients and this is true with any food processing when there is lowering of nutritive vale to some extent. After all processing is based on the concept that there is a trade of between nutritive value and convenience. Because Hummus is marketed as a healthful snack it is natural to expect most brands claiming they are free from artificial preservatives.

Chutneys in South India are many in varieties but commonly they suffer from microbial spoilage, rancidity, staling, discoloration etc and they have never been standardized to the extent that any single product can be said to represent typical home made product in traditional homes in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. While scientific work on Chutneys is far and few, its popularity is such that most people find it difficult to eat traditional break fast foods without this ubiquitous adjunct. Why Indian Food Scientists have not looked at the preservation technology used by the Hummus industry is really baffling. The similarities between Hummus and Chutney are so much that even in the profile of ingredients used there is some commonality. These preparations have a protein source, a fat source, a spice source, a sourant or a pH modifier and salt. In Chutney coconut serves as a source of fat as well as protein while the sourant may be tamarind, amchur or lime juice. The spice component in Hummus is Garlic while in Chutney it is Chilli. 

The above comparison makes it clear that whatever technologies are used by the Hummus industry can be effective in preserving Chutneys also without any major change. Of course the vulnerability of coconut oil to hydrolytic rancidity is a problem that needs to be tackled. Probably roasting the coconut gratings sufficiently to inactivate lipase enzyme may retard such rancidity. Pasteurization, use of preservatives, Tetrapack technology, HPP Technology, Gamma irradiation, Hurdle technology all may work in getting reasonable extension of shelf life for Indian chutneys. Food industry must put pressure on Public R & D institutions in the country to take up some basic work as well as evolving preservation commercial processes by giving priority it deserves.



Agriculture is vital to the survival of this planet and as long as each human being needs 2000 kC energy equivalent of food every day, the land has to provide it not only for the present generation but also for all those arriving in future perpetually. Historically agricultural practices have evolved from a purely manual operation into industrial scale deploying many mechanized contraptions for tilling, harvesting, threshing, cleaning and storage. Of course the degree of mechanization may vary from country to country depending on the extent of manpower involved in agriculture. In an affluent country like the US a very minuscule segment of the population is associated with food production with high degree of agricultural mechanization becoming inevitable while in India more than 70% of the population living in rural areas are involved in one way or the other with agricultural avocation. In such a diverse situation how is this planet going to meet its food needs in the coming years? An interesting question indeed!

If one looks at the evolution of agriculture in most industrialized countries, there have been sufficient incentives and opportunities for the farming community members to migrate to industrial areas to make fortunes. A farmer family invariably lost its able bodied members who did not opt for agriculture and progressively the number of farming people started dwindling with fewer men available for tilling the land. This was the driver for mechanization which required fewer and fewer people to manage cultivation and larger and larger farms emerging during this transition period. Naturally those who still continue tilling their land are aging and naturally with progress of time average age of the farmer tends to go high. If this trend is continued how many farmers will be left to manage the land and how long these "old" hands continue to be active? Naturally such an attrition trend can grievously hurt food production adversely when the need of the hour is increasing the production to keep in step with the population growth.    

In a provocative report recently, California, the biggest state in the US had an introspection regarding the future of its agriculture in the light of its aging farmer population. As the average age of farmers in this state inch toward 60, the state which contributes 12% of that country's exports of agri-products is at its wits end as to how agriculture can be made more attractive to younger generation who only can sustain its pre-eminent role in the country. According to the experts this state will have to double its food out put by 2050 to meet the increasing food needs which can be achieved only if new players emerge in the agri-sector. More over the agri-industry employs more than 0.8 million people indirectly highlighting its economic importance for the state. The realization, that the age profile of the farmer population needs to be reversed for the survival of the industry, is prompting the state to consider taking pro-active actions now so that any major crisis in the food front is avoided.

One redeeming feature in the political and social environment in the US is the new awakening among the citizens regarding the critical importance of food safety and adequacy which has spawned citizen led movements in many urban areas to plunge into agriculture and produce foods locally from available urban lands. Though this phenomenon cannot be viewed as a movement back to the land but reflects the concern of average citizen to contribute his might to solve the food problem. More aptly it can be called some sort of a revolution happening in American agriculture production front with its own humble contribution. One can only appreciate the new spirit among new entrepreneurs who are installing mini-farms on rooftops in urban areas and market gardens in back and front yards across the country. Vacant city lots are more and more being employed as community gardens, with plots available for any resident to rent. Many suburban residents are combining their capital to lease land, and organize community-supported agriculture programs where shares of farm produce are sold directly to the public, cutting out expensive corporate middlemen like packers, distributors and grocers. In short, demand for local food is booming and so is production. 

Spare a thought to a country like India where the planners are blissfully engaged in activities of self perpetuation ignoring the future. All that the government is concerned centers around vote banks and massive subsidies and distributing foods at throw away prices in the name of hunger and poverty to increase the vote share of the ruling parties. There is not even a whiff of reforms in the agricultural sector and mass suicides of farmers continue unabated with no one at Delhi too much bothered about it. While two decades of open economy has served to boost the industry, both manufacturing as well as service sectors, agriculture is progressively being marginalized putting the national food security at grave risk.

With Green Revolution practically killing the soil health across the width and length of the country, increased productivity remains a pipe dream and added to this the farmer population is aging fast with no replacement in sight due to high rate of urban migration. Look at the two critical food areas-edible oil and pulses where perennial imports are sustaining the population and in spite of the knowledge that these two areas required critical government inputs for the last two decades, nothing much has been done. While China has seized its opportunities to expand agriculture dramatically during last few years, Indian efforts have been too meager to make any impact. At this rate, just like the farmer looking at the heaven praying for rains, the citizens in this country may also have to do the same to have a decent life keeping the hunger pangs away!


Wednesday, January 4, 2012


There are increasing concerns among the consumers regarding the safety of many processed food products they consume every day. In many wealthy countries processed foods form more than 80% of their daily diet and it is easy to comprehend what would be the consequences if unsafe foods are ingested day in day out. While most concerns are based on the food industry practices of using hundreds of chemicals while manufacturing or cross contamination of foods with deadly bacteria and mold, there is also grave apprehension regarding the potential health damage some of the artifacts generated during processing can cause. Recent focus on such chemicals like acrylamide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene and furan is because of the above concerns. 

Furan is not a new chemical discovered as it was known for ages and lot of studies regarding its synthesis and properties have been published. Furan and its derivatives are naturally occurring compounds found at very low levels in many foods and drinks and their association with the typical flavor of many foods is well known. They are a major class of compounds formed during the Maillard reactions and under pyrolytic conditions. Ascorbic acid and related compounds and Maillard type systems containing amino acids and reducing sugars, lipid oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids or triglycerides and carotenoids all contribute to formation of Furan during processing. Ionising radiation on the Furan formation in apple and orange juice products as well as in model systems has also been reported. Of course these basic knowledge did not raise much concern earlier but their detection in many industry processed foods became a matter of speculation regarding their effect on human health.

What is new is the detection of Furan in some foods using sophisticated analytical techniques in 2004 which raised some alarm regarding its impact on human health. It is rather surprising that a simple hetero cyclic organic compound like Furan with a 5-membered aromatic structure, made of 4 carbon atoms and an oxygen atom, can be a potentially toxic artifact capable of causing harm to human beings. Furan should not be confused with Furans, a separate category of chemical compounds broadly called Chlorinated di benzofurans coming under Dioxins. They however do not occur in any foods and hence not of much concern to the food industry as of now. According to International Agency for Research on Carcinogens, Furan is considered a carcinogen in human beings though evidence is yet to emerge with studies using human subjects.

Of a number of food samples from the industry analysed by the US Authorities, occurrence of Furan was confirmed in all products in concentrations in the range of 3 parts per billion (ppb) to 112 ppb. Almost all these products are either canned or bottled having undergone the sterilization process at high temperatures. Interestingly products containing sweet potato as a component invariably showed higher levels of Furan. Also Coffee, meat soups, stews, Chilli are other major sources of Furan. One redeeming feature in this scenario is that Furan is highly volatile and due to this furan is easily analyzed using a head space or SPME coupled with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Furan is rapidly and extensively absorbed from the intestine and the lung. It can pass through biological membranes and enter various organs.  Experiments have shown that furan is carcinogenic to rats and mice, showing a dose-dependent increase in hepatocellular adenomas and carcinomas, though preliminary exposure data suggest that the levels of Furan found in foods are well below the levels that would cause harmful effects.

What is the consumer to make out of these startling revelations? Probably sufficient data still do not exist to try for a zero tolerance level of Furan in foods though efforts are being made to find more about the safety aspects of this chemical. Since Furan is highly volatile normal open pan cooking and vigorous stirring can be expected to expel most of it through evaporation. A safe guideline is not to consume foods found to be very rich in Furan  and for maintaining good health consumer is well advised to eat a balanced diet, choosing a variety of foods that are low in trans-fat and saturated fat, and rich in high-fibre grains, fruits, and vegetables. Of course this easier said than done!