Tuesday, March 13, 2012


People are increasingly getting aware about the nuances of healthy foods thanks to a barrage of information blared through the idiot box and "writings and lecturing" from many informed as well as misinformed "pundits". The result is that every product in the market is being scrutinized critically before making a purchasing decision. Whether this is good for the industry or not, is a million dollar question. Obviously industry feels that front of the pack label is an important medium for communication with the consumer and therefore try to cram it with as much information about the product to win over them. Though there are still some questions regarding the adequacy of information provided on a label, it still serves a useful purpose as far as a discerning consumer is concerned and both industry and consumer activists must sit together to improve upon it as much as possible to serve the purpose of transparency and fulfilling the right to information for the citizens.

Label claims as being made on labels are invariably questioned with regard to their veracity and regulatory authorities need to be more careful in permitting printing of such claims. It was not long ago that that European food authorities evaluated health claims by hundreds of products and found most of them based on flimsy scientific data. That only a few could get through their critical lens speaks volume about the mechanism in place in the EU countries that favors the citizens. Many heath claims are made with barely any reliable data but drawing on some academic research by students in Universities. Human health parameters have many features similar to that of animals but there are also major differences which necessitate cautious interpretation of results generated through animal experiments. 

There is a subtle distinction between a health food and a well being food. While a health food must have specific advantages in restoring or promoting on or the other aspect of human health, a well being product just needs to prove that it is good for preventing any diseases and disorders afflicting humans as long as they are not harmful. Many  nutrient fortified and enriched foods come under the category of well being products and cannot be called a health food. There are hundreds of such products already in the market well accepted by the consumers all over the world. Foods supplemented with Omega-3 oil from other sources can be considered as health products and there are similar products coming into the market to address specific health related need. Of course there can be a totally fabricated or designer food containing sch health boosting ingredients and such products are becoming main stream consumer items patronized by health conscious consumers.

In India there are a few natural products already in the market containing increased amounts of vitamins, minerals and other special micro nutrients which are popular with people in spite of the stiff price tags on them. There are also designer products made with permitted ingredients and offering diverse flavor and tastes making tall claims regarding their usefulness to improve health if consumed regularly. Unfortunately there is no effective mechanism in the country to bring to books the manufacturers of such products who are able to get away with impunity while making money riding on unproven claims. Some of the claims include fantastic brain development, fast body growth, getting tall in no time, increasing memory and many others. What is unfortunate is that respected nutritionists and University academics are drawn into this racket for pecuniary benefits! 

Amid such a scenario recent launch of two products by well established industry players provides a sharp contrast. The first one containing Oats and dehydrated vegetables deserve some applause for it fulfills the need for a ready to cook Oatmeal preparation for the well being of most of the consumers including diabetics. Most products based on Oats in western countries are rich in sugar and these are not considered desirable for regular consumption. This Indian product is superior to others in that it contains a variety of vegetables in dehydrated format. Cooking this with sufficient water provides a ready to consume product rich in beta glucans and nutrients contained in the vegetable ingredients. Most importantly they come in diverse tastes and organoleptically superb. Of course there is some scope to improve this product further and the same can be expected soon once the product gets established.

Another product is a malted beverage boasting of the health advantage of Oats. It is not clear whether Oats and Malt extract are compatible in nature and how much oats can be loaded into a beverage. Besides oats need cooking to disperse while a malted beverage is just mixed with hot milk. Though this product has been launched through out the country, the relevance and acceptability are factors that will determine its success. From a food technologist's perception malted beverage is a poor carrier for oats and there is a limit as to how much oats can be consumed through this products. Normally 50-100 gm of oats only can confer any health advantage and this fact goes against the soundness of the product design.   

Unless products are developed keeping in mind the basic concepts of nutrition and health promoting nutrients, there is every likelihood of such products falling on the way side during their progress towards a viable one. One or two products like the oats+vegetables cannot make the well being industry a mature one and unless many major players pitch in with similar products with undoubted positive health benefits India will continue to be a market for only fast foods and not-so-healthy foods.   


Many countries depend on private auditors with good reputation for ensuring sound food safety practices are followed by the industry. There are international protocols for enrolling and evaluating the competence and capability of these private players and their assessments are generally accepted as valid. But the million dollar question that is rattling the safety agencies is whether these technical auditors are really doing a good job or they make only superfluous  and perfunctory inspection not caring to be critical in bringing out deficiencies in the manufacturing environment. It is a pity that several cases of negligence and callousness on the part of the private auditors were brought out which were responsible for many food poisoning episodes in the last two-three years and no action seems to have been taken to book them for such mishaps. Added to this the processors are prosecuted and made to suffer though they ultimately have to bear the cross for their negligence knowingly or otherwise. 

The private auditing system serves admirably well in the US where the retailers blindly accept their certification with no questions asked. If frequent food mishaps do happen with origin in such "inspected" facilities, it is a moot question as to what has been the function of such inspectors who charge their clients heavily and accept their hospitality? Is it not a risk on the part of these auditors to pass bad facilities as satisfactory?  Do they have patrons at the higher echelons to protect them from the consequences arising out of any potential mishap? Consumers do expect the food safety agencies to regulate private auditors and exercise authority to take them to task for dereliction of duty. Unfortunately the much acclaimed FDA of the US does not have such a power to discipline the third party auditors at present. 

If the current system is flawed what ought to be done to rectify and remodel the system in favor of the industry and the consuming public?. It does not bode well for the country if only setting up of food standards comes under the purview of the FDA. Look at Indian situation where there is an Authority without any real power or wherewithal to protect the consumer because food processing comes under the purview of the states, most of which have practically no infrastructure and personnel to monitor the safety and quality of products in the market. Though recognition is being accorded to private auditors for issuing safety certification under some circumstances such a practice is far and few. But if it becomes predominant one day, one can be assured that a lethal combination of private auditors and unscrupulous industry players can take the country for a ride making the fate of the citizen worse than what is to day!. 

Industry is caught between the deep sea and the devil when it comes to food safety assurance. Most industrial units do not have adequate resources to set up their own testing facilities and government controlled laboratories are conspicuous by their inertia and lack of dynamism resulting in inordinate delays in getting the test results. A few private laboratories are having flourishing business but they suffer from serious lack of credibility making their reports some what suspect especially in the eyes of government agencies. Under these circumstances the industry has to face incredible risks to be above water when it comes to safety of their products. A random check on the integrity of auditors by government appointed auditors from time to time may make the private auditors more effective as those found guilty can lose their auditor license.        


Sunday, March 11, 2012


The current state of knowledge regarding food technology and relation between food and health cannot be considered complete with many fundamental questions still remaining unanswered. That a human being needs 2000-2500 kC a day to cover the basal metabolism and the energy needed to carry out day to day physical activities is the global standard on which every body swears. Even here doubts are being raised if this theory holds good universally with all population because there are many instances where communities are known to flourish with lesser calorie intake. Also true is the fact that life duration is extendable by restricting the diet to contain only about 1200 kC. There are many nutrients considered essential for survival like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals but whether the current recommendations regarding their optimum requirements for healthy living, are the gospel truth may be debatable.

What can be construed as too much or too less? This is a question no body will be able to answer convincingly. There are millions of people in different parts of the world surviving with low quantum of foods, often considered low quality by to day's standards and according to pundits these populations must have disappeared long ago because of gross deficiency of every nutrient man knows! How about the people engaged in physical labor for at least 8 hours a day, 6 days a week with food which will be considered as subsistence? The ground reality is that not only they are surviving but many of them are more robust than their urban cousins! In India, the ancestors of to day's generation had very simple eating habits and deficiency diseases and physical disability was practically unknown. This Blogger's grandfather lived 100 years in a remote village in Karnataka with no known ailment though his diet was basically made of greens and rice. Most villages do not have access to milk by which modern health pundits swear for good health if a vegetarian.  From a simple citizen's view can there be more to life than numbers in terms of nutrients considered essential to live? This is some thing worth pondering about.

Despite the gap in knowledge and ever expanding scientific information on food, often contradictory in nature, it is understandable that world has to adopt a median guideline applicable to most human beings. So far the experience has been more or less satisfactory though there are variations found in many cases. One of the offshoots of increased knowledge is its exploitation by the health industry for making money at the expense of the consumer. To day's multi billion dollar well being and health peddling industry is offering hundreds of products to the gullible consumers based on information generated in Universities by academic scholars and these are again data derived from limited animal studies. In many countries strict regulatory controls are in place for allowing health claims and it is increasingly being realized that health claims need to be confirmed by clinical trials under actual living conditions. One of the curious facts about health foods is that those who make claims generally get away with just a rap on their knuckle while the consumer suffers significant economic loss in buying and trying out these products.

As the debate about obesity rages every where it is the usual fashion for many, knowledgeable as well as others to repeat ad libitum that ideally consumers must shun all refined foods and opt for unrefined and coarse foods. Top on the list are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains like oats, barley, quinoa etc because they contain more fiber, lower carbohydrates and small levels of fat. Added to this they boast of lower Glycemic Index that is considered good for reducing the chances of developing diseases like Diabetes, CVD, Blood Pressure, Kidney Diseases, Cancer etc. The euphoria about Fruit and vegetables reached its peak when USDA recommended 50% of daily meal plate should be made of fruits and vegetables without bothering to understand the difficulty of the consumer to gorge such large quantities. After all food is consumed not only to meet the nutritional needs of the body but also derive oral and mental satisfaction and no standard recipe, however nutritive it may be, can be forced down the throat of a consumer!

While it is conceded that obesity is the result of consuming foods which are not balanced what is not realized is that even the so called junk foods would not be that bad if consumed in moderate quantities. Basically the body has no alternative but to convert the food calories consumed in excess of its needs to fat which is manifested in the form of bloated body. The cardinal principle of eating food is that under the dynamic metabolic system of human body, input calories need to be in harmony with the out put in the form of basal metabolism and physical work. If this harmony is disturbed the consequences can be either losing weight if input calorie is less or weight gain if the same is more. There appears to be a mistaken belief that "good" foods can be consumed ad libitum while restrictions on food is intended only for "bad" foods.

Nutrition and health experts with good intention suggest that diet should be rich in healthy ingredients but it is rarely stated how much can be consumed without any adverse consequences. In a country like the US the food industry as well as the regulators seem to be ignoring the unjustifiable practice of using serving sizes too large, giving an impression to the consumer that it is safe to consume the amount. Similarly playing with the pricing of the product which favors large packs or serving sizes while smaller sizes are priced disproportionately high, is very common. It is slowly being realized that label declarations about nutrients must be expressed on smaller serving sizes and single serve pack sizes need to be scaled down significantly to make consumers accept them more readily. After all all food products contain either one or more of all bulk nutrients like carbohydrate, fat and proteins. Just because whole grains contain high fiber and other beneficial components, over-consumption can still lead to gaining weight. Same is true with nuts like Almonds, Walnuts, Pecan, Cashew nut etc which contain good quality fats but uncontrolled consumption can still be dangerous. Whether it is a fruit or a vegetable rich in carbohydrate or legumes rich in proteins, consumption beyond a limit can be harmful. This basic message must percolate down to the masses for a better diet and a more disciplined eating.


Friday, March 9, 2012


Packaging provides protection to the contents in a variety of ways and starting from bottles during the early stages of development of food industry there has been a phenomenal change in the type of packs used through years. Even to day glass bottles are the most ideal form of packing material for food as it is neutral to reactions under all conditions with the constituents present in most food materials. Its only limitation was vulnerability to easy breakage under stress conditions and low tolerance to high temperatures often encountered during thermal processing. To day there are special quality glass that can resist breakage, withstand high temperatures and are light weight. Still glass has lost out to plastics some where on the way probably because of rapid developments in plastics with a wide range of them emerging with versatile performance quality.

Cans which ruled the roost at one time got its boost during the wars as they were found ideal with high tolerance to extreme conditions, often encountered during hostile operations. "Ancient" sanitary cans based on steel have given way to modern cans with more neutral qualities and improved closure capabilities and canning is not completely obsolete as some believe it to be. Here again plastics have made inroads and there are high quality plastic cans being made for use in packing mostly powdered products like baby foods. In spite of all progress made by food technology, Armed forces still prefer metal cans, especially for use in forward areas where hostilities persist. Composite cans were once preferred by the industry but it has to yield place to plastics because of cost and other considerations.

In the packaging field one of the fast growing sectors is film based packs which are at least a dozen in number using different combinations. From the earliest and simplest polyethylene film to the most sophisticated multilayer laminates with fantastic range of functional performance, almost equaling metal cans, packaging industry has come a long way and food and pharmaceutical industries are increasingly embracing these new materials for their packaging needs. The cause of flexible packs is helped significantly by design of machines for forming and closing pouches with very high productivity unrivaled by any other packaging format.. Tetrapack company developed one of the most amazing packaging materials based on paper laminate for aseptic packing of practically any food with some flowing characteristics. If milk, juices, beverages, soups, curries, dals, etc are being produced with long life, it is because of the versatility of Tetrapack machines and the packaging materials pioneered by the company.

 According to recent reports a new trend is seen to be emerging in the food industry which is increasingly opting for pouch packaging, weeding out their traditional formats due to many reasons. Imagine traditional products like soups, ketch ups etc are now being offered in special pouches with attractive presentation which otherwise was not possible with bottles or cans. Many food producers are gravitating towards pouches as their preferred packaging this year for a variety of products and it is believed that there are "weighty" reasons for this new trend emerging. Savings on packaging and shipping costs due to pouches' lightweight nature and lack of relative bulk, are important consideration, while improved protection afforded by pouches is a bonus. New technologies in pouch packaging are ensuring that the average shelf life of products is literally doubled while cost of packaging is reduced by about 15% in many cases.:Another feature of pouch packing is that they are amenable to trendy designs and convenient dispensing liked by the consumer who relishes it because of the fatigue generated by the old style caps and closures. Besides pouch materials are suitable for highly attractive multi color printing, graphically intensive to compel attention of the consumer. Most importantly these attractive pouches are compatible with the new aspirations and moods of the younger generation. Pouch packing using material that is microwave compatible has the added advantage of convenience in serving. 

Interestingly while talking about pouch packing which is now getting international attention, India is considered the pioneer in small pouches. One of the earliest products, chewing tobacco was made popular almost two decades ago deploying this marketing mode. To day there are scores of products in pouches with price tags of Re 1 to Rs 10 available to Indian consumers which are made not by small players but by reputed brand leaders churning the market to no end. Look at the Dairy industry in India which distributes millions of pasteurized milk pouches each with 100 ml to 1 liter capacity serving a large segment of middle class and poor population across the country. This singular action by the industry has enabled millions of Indians to avoid consumption of spurious, adulterated and contaminated milk vended by the proverbial and  unscrupulous milkman!

A social aspect that is intimately linked to pouch packing is that costly products which were sold in larger packs hitherto are offered in small pouches at easily affordable prices for mass consumption. These include high cost products like Complan, Boost, Horlicks, Instant Coffee, Tea, Badam drink powder, snacks like potato chips etc and low cost items such as soft drink mixes, pickles and pickle mixes, Ketchup, Sauce, soup powder, curry powders, spice powders, biscuits, candies, chocolates etc. It is amazing that these low priced small  pouches are offered even in street corner kirana shops while larger packs are sold mostly in super markets and high end shops. Government of India which moderated the tax incidence on food packing materials some years ago to make them affordable and the ever innovative packaging industry, both deserve appreciation for the revolutionary changes taking place in food retailing in the country.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012


In spite of all progress food technology has made, food safety environment has not improved much with scores of food poisoning episodes reported from all over the world. Whether the contamination comes from microbes or chemical substances or processing artifacts, existing knowledge and capability are insufficient to deal with the situation. Interestingly most serious cases of food contamination come from the developed world either due to the extremely sensitive GI system the population there has or because of highly efficient reporting and documentation system in place for food related incidences.

It is true that many types of biological, chemical and physical sources of contamination do exist and newer sources are emerging constantly due to recycling efforts, product reformulation, product counterfeiting and other such activities. Neither the food industry nor the safety management agencies are keeping quite, constantly developing improved technology and practices to help further protect the consuming public. These efforts involve continuous quality verification, state-of-the-art analytics-based risk assessment procedures besides quick "track and trace" systems. Industry cannot be faulted if it strives to reduce input costs for manufacturing the products without compromising on quality and safety. It must be admitted that most technical break through developments in risk alleviation have come from industry, especially the instrumentation group though Universities and public funded scientific organizations also pitch in with their own contribution.

The problems of food industry are understandable because the very face of this industry has seen tremendous changes during the last two decades. With the world moving towards a conceptual "village without borders" due to the advent of WTO, global sourcing and fast distribution contingencies have greatly accentuated the risk of large-scale food contamination incidences. One has to only recall the recent Sudan I dye ingredient episode which created quite a stir among food safety agencies world over. This dye, long banned from using in food products, is a proven carcinogen but was used for admixing with natural red chili powder to enhance product appeal. Imagine the scare this had generated necessitating a host of product recalls and causing a major global incident. It was much later that safety authorities realized that this contaminated product had entered the supply chain which prompted the recall of over 600  processed food products made with this ingredient causing heavy financial losses to many major international food companies. 

Food industry being a dynamic sector strives continuously to innovate and in this process many new sources of contamination are created unknowingly though they are traced later for avoiding or minimizing their adverse effect on the consumer. After all product reformulation, material recycling and constant unearthing of evidence against safety of one or the other ingredients being used are inevitable for which remedial measures need to be found. Similarly many processors constantly try to reformulate their food products with ingredients that help lower costs or improve the health benefits. Such attempts can trigger of unanticipated changes in the anti-bacterial properties like water activity which needs to be addressed.  

Though one can derive satisfaction from the extent of progress achieved by food scientists in evolving safer processes and more sensitive testing protocols, the ground reality is that the number of incidents of food borne illnesses reported world over does not reflect any serious decline in food related health afflictions. The number of incidents and their severity seem to be relatively constant year to year and in a country like the US, this translates into 76 million gastrointestinal illnesses, 325 000 hospitalizations, 5000 deaths and billions of dollars in costs. This can be attributed to poor producing and manufacturing operations by the industry and indifferent food safety practices on the part of the consumer. It is not realized that a single, highly publicized incident of food poisoning has the potential to devastate brand value or even destroy an enterprise. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for the industry is to identify and deploy new technologies that can prevent contaminated product from reaching the consumer more effectively as well as technology that can help minimize the impact of incidents that do occur.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Fast dwindling fossil fuel reserves make it imperative that their consumption is progressively brought down all over the world and renewable sources of energy are discovered on a a priority consideration. Solar energy, Wind energy, Wave energy, Geothermal energy etc have shown enough promises but requires higher investment and efforts to get translated into commercially viable technologies for mass adoption. Ultimately the cost consideration far outweighs any technological challenge since scientists have enough foundation to come out with technically feasible ideas. So far many of the renewable energy production has been sustained by supportive fiscal policies of many governments but if these alternative options are to be a permanent feature, generation cost and capital cost intensity will have to come down drastically.

Food packaging, intended to give protection to the food inside, has been depending on glass bottles and sanitary cans till about 4-5 decades ago. But there has been a paradigm shift in the packaging industry practices since then with more emphasis on plastics of different types. There are at least a dozen fundamental plastics, most of them polymers, made from petroleum chemicals and with various combinations they provide almost 90% of the packaging resources to the food and pharmaceutical industry. It has not been easy for the packaging industry to win approval of the plastics for packing foods because of the fear of migration of unsafe chemicals that may leach into the food during processing and storage. Well laid down protocols of safety and standard testing practices have made it  possible to get many plastic materials safety cleared during the last two decades.

If plastics are safe and universally acceptable to one and all, plastic industry should have been the happiest lot but one factor that weighs heavily against plastics is their indestructibility and lack of biodegradability. It takes almost 800 years for most plastics to get degraded and even when they are degraded the artifacts produced tend to pollute the environment inviting the wrath of the "Green Movement". Besides recycled plastics do not appear to have all the original functional properties characteristic of the virgin material. Due to innovative policy orchestrations at the level of the governments in many countries, use of plastics is increasingly being frowned upon mainly because of their pollution potential and use of ultra thin films with 20 microns or less are banned in many places. Many shopping malls are charging extra for providing carry bags made from plastics, forcing many consumers to take their own bags for shopping. Of all the plastic materials used by the food and beverage industry Poly (ethylene Terephthalate) commonly known as PET is most conspicuous by its extensive use for manufacture of bottles for soft drinks and bottled water.

PET is a polymer of ethyleneterephthalate monomer and its transparency, physical strength and amenability to easy fabrication, make it eminently suited for bottling operations. Especially its low oxygen permeability allows the content inside immune to oxidative spoilage and consequent quality deterioration. To day almost all soft drinks manufactured in the world are packed in PET bottles. More than 60% of the world production of PET resins is absorbed by the fiber industry for the manufacture of textile yarns while about 30% goes to the bottling industry. As this is derived from petroleum chemicals and their biodegradability credentials are poor, the soft drink industry is strenuously striving to replace these bottles with more sustainable materials. It is true PET bottles do undergo recycling, most of the recycled material going to the carpet industry and some for recycled bottles but still the industry is not happy with its dependence on fossil fuel.     

Beverage bottles, made from PET has two main components. MEG (Mono Ethylene Glycol) makes up about 30 percent of a bottle's weight and it has been possible to make the same from plant sources, especially sugarcane, grown abundantly in Brazil, India and other countries. The other component, called PTA (Purified Tere Phthalic Acid), makes up 70 percent of a bottle's weight. Though scientists have been able to make PTA from plant materials at laboratory level, manufacture on an industrial scale has posed severe challenges. According to recent reports production capacity for MEG is slated to increase dramatically and from one plant producing it to day, there are others getting ready to take up production soon. The environmental groups agitating against plastics are extending massive public support for creating plastics from plant sources as they generate smaller amounts of greenhouse gases, compared to plastics made from petroleum.

A larger issue is whether the world can afford to divert an edible source of food like sugarcane for non-edible packaging materials. Probably a more appropriate approach would be to develop technology for using agricultural waste products, like corn stalks or other materials left over from farming, as feed material for producing plastics. Growing crops for plastic can also cause a lot of land diversion which in turn may affect the price of food to a significant extent. Though some of the beverage giants have declared their intent to use agricultural waste products, such as corn husks, pine bark or orange peels etc, to make its plastic bottles, how far and how long it will take is any body's guess. Regardless of how they are produced, plant based plastics can still create litter and solid waste problems posing another challenge. it is time appropriate legislation is considered for forcing the industry to finance recycling operations and facilitate more increased plastic recycling without creating environmental problems and save water and energy use as much as possible. Considering all these uncertainties, a 100% "green" bottle remains a mirage though in future one cannot rule out dramatic breakthrough in this area.