Wednesday, April 25, 2012


From day one since the advent of the much "acclaimed" Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) with a hard core bureaucrat at the helm of affairs, it was pointed out by many with a fair knowledge of Indian food industry that nothing much was going to happen by changing PFA to FSSAI unless this body is equipped with experts in the field of food science and technology and vested with real Authority to chase the fraudsters for bringing them to books. Unfortunately people in Delhi with power to do any thing they want, have neither the time nor the inclination to listen to the views of others opposing their policies. The result is the creation of a moribund organization going in circles, in the face of a serious crisis that threatens the health of citizens with foods most of which are sold in the marker after adulteration, not knowing how to tackle the situation.

The very foundation of India's food safety program is shaky as Government of India has passed the buck for protecting food supply to its citizens to the states under the pretext of constitutional propriety. The resulting dichotomy is a ripe recipe for disaster as neither the Center nor the States do any thing substantial to establish the required infrastructure to monitor foods, commodities as well as that manufactured by the industry, and book the culprits who indulge in selling unsafe and unfit foods day in and day out. Poverty of ideas, lack of vision, low sensitivity to the sufferings of the citizen and practically no dedication are the hallmarks that exemplifies the food safety program in the country. 

Look at the situation in the country to day! For a nation with a population of 1.2 billion plus, the food requirement is huge and the country is fortunate in managing to produce adequate food grains to feed the nation, thanks to the hard work and sacrifice by its farmers. But due to mismanagement by the government, poverty and hunger are rampant and the country continues to be at the top when international hunger index ranking is considered with many African countries faring much better! The quality of food grains distributed under the PDS is scandalous and if FSSAI conducts a serious check on them real truth will come out.Take the quality of milk supplied by many vendors which are worse than poisons and the cooperative diaries do not fare better. FSSAI or the State safety authorities seem to have an unwritten understanding that milk quality of these diaries need not be checked at all with the result most of the time sub-standard quality product is supplied to the unsuspecting citizens.

While the criticism is a well intentioned one, probably it might have no impact at all since all government controlled consumer products industries are totally insensitive to any sufferings of people as they are "drunk" with power entertaining the notion that they are all "mini Gods" with license to do any thing! Take for instance the recent introduction of Masala Butter Milk by a cooperative diary in Karnataka and if one has to believe the label declaration the product as 10% fat, 13% carbohydrate and 11% proteins! Probably these diaries are manned by personnel who do not know even the fundamentals of food! The tragedy is that the Dairy still gets away with such rabid misdeeds. 

In an interesting case that reached the High Court in Delhi recently, no less an Authority than FSSAI submits an affidavit declaring that "there is a well established system to monitor presence of pesticides in fruits, vegetables and other food items in the country"! Can there be a bigger "lie" than this and fortunately the honorable judges were able to see through this "fraud" pulling up the Authority for misleading the court. The court rubbished the declaration of the FSSAI" in the light of facts" available with the court! Further the court had the wisdom to say that on many occasions non-permissible pesticides have been found in vegetables sold in Delhi and surrounding areas and dubbed the "tall claims" of the FSSAI as "surprising" after perusing their affidavit, which informed the court that there were 68 state pesticide testing laboratories, besides regional and the referral central insecticides laboratory for monitoring food products in the country. Similarly court also had to ridicule the stand of FSSAI that the presence of Endosulfan in food items, despite the pesticide being banned, is due to its presence in water used for irrigation, already contaminated years ago! These instances show that FSSAI is not all equipped to deal with country's food safety program as they have neither the manpower to fulfill their responsibility nor necessary knowledge about the ground reality in the country.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Sugar, that historic source of sweetness is traditionally used for preparing almost all foods that need sweet taste. It is derived from Sugar cane in many countries while a few producing countries use Sugar beets as a source. Chemically both are same, viz Sucrose, a disacharide containing the monomers Glucose and Fructose. Sugar cane cultivation was mentioned in history as early as 8000 BC as being grown in Africa, According to some reports India was the first nation to make crytal sugar in 350 A.D though regular production started only in 500 A.D. The major competitor for sugar cane as a source of sugar,viz Sugar Beets made its appearance relatively late in 19th century in Europe and to day this accounts for 30% of global sugar production.

Is there any difference between sugar from the above two sources? Theoretically both are sucrose and taste wise there ought not to be ant difference. One major difference in to day's modern world is that R & D on sugar beets has been substantial while sugar cane production continues without much of a new development either in cultivation or in processing except for use of stainless machinery for most of the unit operations in newly set up factories. Another positive development has been in the area of utilization of Bagasse, the left over residue during crushing, with most modern sugar mills having co-generating facilities using it as a fuel. Besides the molasses left over after recovery of crystal sugar became the major source of alcohol for chemical industry, beverage industry and Gasohol industry. Brazil one of the major growers of sugar cane produces huge quantity of alcohol used in automobile industry.

Not till 1975 any one heard about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is made from corn through hydrolysis of starch extracted from it and conversion to a product containing glucose and fructose by chemical or enzymatic isomerization process. As the American corn is dirt cheap, being priced low because of heavy subsidization of corn production by the government there, food industry adopted this sweetener immediately to improve their bottom line. On sweetness scale sucrose and HFCS score equally with practically no difference in their taste perception. While HFCS was hailed as a harbinger of good things to come for the industry as well as the consumer, there was a sour note a few years ago that threatened to mar the explosive growth of HFCS industry. With the rabid spread of obesity in the US, threatening the health security of the country seriously, HFCS became the "whipping boy" and serious questions were raised regarding the role of HFCS in making people obese.

It is to be conceded that Sucrose and HFCS are almost same in terms of chemistry, the only difference being that gluose and fructose are in free form in HFCS whereas they are chemically bound in sucrose. Theoretically when sucrose is digested in GI by sucrase enzyme within a few minutes of ingestion, the result is a mixture of glucose and fructose, almost in the same proportion as in HFCS. If this is so the logical question is why should HFCS behave differently than sucrose as being claimed by some credible scientific studies? It is by now well established that fructose metabolism in human body differs sharply compared to that of glucose but whether ingesting both together as with HFCS intake will make a difference is the subject matter of current day controversy.  

Further confusion is created by a recent finding by a group of scientists that there are two forms of enzymes that metabolize fructose. This is being touted as a reason for the behavior of fructose differently compared to other sugars. It is suggested that human body is not designed to handle fructose in high quantities unlike glucose which is fast metabolized into energy through Citric Acid Cycle. It seems that the two isoforms of the enzyme Fructokinase-C and A have different functions in the body. While one form causes fatty liver, obesity and insulin resistance the other one protects the body from on set of these disorders. What triggers this switch between these two forms is still not clear. There is also the suggestion that fructose, in presence of glucose behaves differently while high load of fructose can behave differently. These findings still do not answer the question as to why HFCS is more obesogenic than sucrose alone. For centuries humans have been consuming sugar and no adverse findings have been recorded in history due to this. Probably there may be other factors not currently understood as to why Sugar and HFCS do cause health disorders to day as diet and living styles have undergone sea change during the last 100 years.      

Friday, April 20, 2012


Moringa oleifera, more commonly known as Drumstick, a popular vegetable in India is in the news lately and many hail it as a miracle tree, attributing many features unique to it. The latest to come in full blare is its effectiveness in water purification as the powdered preparations made from the seed can produce clean water. It is called the miracle tree because this plant, commonly found in equatorial region as a food tree, also finds extensive use in traditional medicine and as a biofuel. Here is an excerpt from a report circulating in the web about its new role as a water disinfectant:

"Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania  State University wanted to develop a simpler and less expensive way to harness the seed's power. To do that they added an extract of the seed containing the positively charged moringa protein which led to sediment and kill microbes, to negatively charged sand. The resulting functionalized sand or "f-sand" proved effective in capturing lab-grown E.coli and damaging their membrane. The results open the possibility that f-sand can provide a simple, locally sustainable process for producing storable drinking water."

Whether these studies carried out by research scholars are really ground breaking or just an academic exercise remains to be seen. If it is a feasible concept, the findings will have far reaching implications in providing clean and potable water to millions of people living in country side in many developing countries where lack of access to safe water is causing serious diseases and avoidable mortality. Probably considerable further research efforts are required to transform this concept into a workable technology. WHO which is seriously concerned about epidemic diseases caused by unsafe drinking water in tropical countries in Asia, Africa and South America must take up this responsibility for the benefit of humanity. After all Moringa oleifera is one of the hardiest plants ever known requiring practically no care and mass production of the seed powder can easily be accomplished. Whether this powder itself has the binding property is not known.

The above property of drumstick seed has been known for a long time and the deoiled residue of the seed was used as a flocculent in water treatment traditionally. The dried seed contains about 40% oil which has commercial value though the current practice of growing the plant does not permit its large scale utilization. What is new in these findings is the anti-septic value of the proteins present in the seed and the potential it offers in making drinking water safe with no infection possibilities. Interestingly the oil is also known as Ben oil because of high content of Behenic acid in it. Its special property of absorbing and retaining odoriferous materials makes it valuable for perfumery industry.

According to some reports, India is the leading grower of Moringa plant, accounting for about 1.5 million tons of the fruit production annually though the reliability of this figure is some what doubtful because of its scattered growth in patches across the country. Still it is a very common vegetable consumed, especially in South India and production may be substantial. Besides India, this useful plant is found in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, some parts of Africa and Central and South America. Moringa pods when plucked tender is claimed to have a taste and flavor similar to that of Asparagus while its flowers remind one of mushroom. Roots are some time used as a condiment but contains Spirachin, a nerve paralyzing agent. 

If the admirers of Drumstick tree are to be believed its leaves contain more Vitamin A than that in Carrot, more Vitamin C than that in orange, more Iron than that in Spinach, more Potassium than that in Banana, more Calcium than that in Milk and its protein quality is comparable to that of Milk and Egg. While these are admirable traits, the bio-efficacy of various nutrients in humans is not well known. An interesting claim about the medicinal value of Moringa seed is its use in special drugs recommended for increased sexual virility while its role in enhancing breast milk supply is also being reported. Interestingly Moringa tree parts like Bark, Sap, Roots, dried Leaves, Seed and its oil, flowers, all find extensive use in traditional medicines in some tropical countries, probably justifying its promotion as a "Miracle Tree".    

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The important players involved in supplying processed food products to consumers are the manufacturer and the retailer and unless there is a close liaison between them the market cannot satisfy the consumer fully. It is rarely understood that the retailer acts as a conduit for feed back information from the consumer regarding the quality of a new product launched by the industry and similarly valuable data regarding sales of a product in a given time allows the industry to do mid-course correction to its products to augment the sales. Industry also gets valuable information regarding the competitors which is helpful in planning corporate policies and evolving market strategies to score over competitors. Retailers can favor some manufacturers over others by manipulating the shelf space given to each of the brand offered by them in their aisles. It is well known that some good brands are destroyed some times by the retailers while bad products get promoted through such shelf space maneuvering.

Are the retailers really so powerful that many industry players dread them for various reasons? Probably yes, depending on the extent of market dominance by the organized retailers. In many countries, especially the developing ones, market is largely controlled by small retailers or the so called traders or family stores with limited shelf space and low business volume. In such a situation it is usually the industry which dominates them because of the dynamics of business that prevail in these countries. While famous brands can dictate terms to small traders, the very same brands pay obeisance to supermarkets enjoying enormous clout. Many established brands refuse to supply products to the distributors who supply the products to traders unless the price is paid in advance and there are instances when even the loaded transport vehicle does not leave the premises of the factory unless Demand Drafts worth the value of the consignments are received by the manufacturer! Such a situation is possible only when organized retailing does not make up much of the consumer goods business in a country.

Another feature of organized retailing is that with its enormous financial muscle small manufacturers can be bludgeoned into submission and get as much as 40-50% margin in selling the products from the latter. Many small scale manufacturers are ruined because of this unjustified and irrational practice by big retailers. On the other hand retailing chains deploy another strategy in tackling the big brand owners by creating their own brands or in-house compete with the former and this more or less works when such shop brands are priced marginally lower. This is what is happening in many countries where organized retailing in the form of super markets, Departmental stores and Malls have practically monopoly of the market with very little presence of small players. Probably this is one of the fears that has barred the entry of multinational brands in processed foods into India. Not allowing foreign investment in multi-brand retailing so far has allowed a thriving small business community to grow so far unhindered or without any fear about the financial muscle of international retailing giants. Whether this situation, where not even 5% of the retail market is in the hands of organized business houses, will continue or not, depends on Government of India's policy orchestration in the coming months.

It is unusual for food industry, that too for large manufacturers to complain against monolithic retailing companies regarding the unfair practices indulged in by the latter adversely affecting their fortunes in a wealthy country like Canada as is being reported. What is true for Canada can be true in other countries too. The core of the complaint is that some giant retailers are slowly weeding out reputed brands by introducing their own shop brands which are sold cheaply. Besides affecting their business, food industry feels that such unfair trade practices destroy innovation at the ground level and by "copying" these brands retailers are able to reap a rich harvest at the expense of the innovating industry. Many retailing organizations do not have the wherewithal to come up with good new products as they lack expertise, personnel and infrastructure facilities, all of which cost lot of money. Other unfair tactics include prolonging the lead time for clearing new products, restricting shelf space arbitrarily and larger returns of unsold materials all having a bearing on the viability of new brands.  

The only way the mainstream industry can fight this new trend is to set up its own "Cash and Carry" stores where the branded products are sold in bulk, acting as a feeder source to small retailers who in turn can add their margin while selling them to the consumers. Already this concept has been established in Western countries and in India too there are some such wholesale stores where customer entry is restricted by pre-registered membership system. Imagine operation of such wholesale shops in large numbers in a country like India and what benefits this will confer on the small traders who operate even in remote rural areas carrying out their business earning a few rupees that sustain them. As it is, the small retail business community in the country is a vibrant one and it is not easy for foreign companies to dislodge them from the retail landscape so easily as they seem to be imagining. A few big domestic retailing giants have already learned their lesson as their big plans, started in 2005 to establish dominance in the retail market in India has come to naught forcing them to linger on without any appreciable presence during the last seven years!


Friday, April 13, 2012


Children are generally the focus of almost all family system because they are vulnerable to many problems at least till they cross 6 years of age. Human child is one of the rare creatures in nature requiring all the help and attention from the parents till it is able to do its daily chores on its own. Imagine how helpless a human child is as soon as it is born and it is a series of trials and tribulations every second it lives. Only around the age of 1 year it is able to stand, takes another year to walk freely and the learning process starts seriously when it is 3 years old. Even at this stage it needs undivided attention of the parents till self-confident to go to school on its own. The logistics of child bearing and rearing can be awesome and most mothers do well by instinct and some guidance.

Another aspect of child rearing is the adequacy of nutrition available to the child. Quality and quantity of food consumed by a child till the age of 5 determines its brain development and physical growth. While breast feeding is insisted upon by child specialists for at least one year but preferably for two years, there are many problems connected with this desirable practice and many children start on formula milk as early as 6 months of age. If proper nutrition is neglected at this stage, stunted development of body and brain is certain to happen. A country like India cannot afford to leave behind millions of kids with improper and insufficient food from its ambit of development because of poverty and lack of accessibility to good food. It took independent India more than 25 years to realize the significance of poverty and its impact on proper development of the child born in this country and in 1975 the government started the much acclaimed Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) to provide institutional support to poor children in a substantial way.

It is true that even to day more than 47% of children in the country are malnourished according to reliable statistics acknowledged by international agencies though infant mortality has come down significantly after 35 years of operation of ICDS system. Probably the situation could have been worse if this service were not in place. Full credit must go to the government for conceptualizing the Scheme which is one of the most effective programs any where in the world, at least on paper. The Anganwadis, the very foundation of this program is a well conceived one where children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and women in the age group 15-49 years are "supposed" to find solace for all their problems. Can any country on earth has such a system that cares for these vulnerable groups all round the year? Probably not.

According to the government there is supposed to be one Anganwadi for every 1000 persons and at present 1.053 million Anganwadis are providing the services to 58.1 million children and 12.23 million pregnant women and nursing mothers across the country. What a massive operation! According to experts the number of Anganwadis needs to be increased to 1.6 million if 100% coverage is to be targeted and what prevents the government to expand the scheme is somewhat a mystery. After all billions of rupees are poured into the country's wasteful subsidy system and finding the resources must be a priority for the government if every child is to be protected from under development and multitude of diseases that ravage the infants if not cared for suitably.

Organizationally ICDS is a well structured net work with Anganwadi worker at the bottom of the service pyramid, supervised by Mukhyasevikas and managed at the top by Child Development Project Officer. The Anganwadi workers, mostly women are expected to be committed and sincere judicially spending the funds for the betterment of the children under their jurisdiction. Though they receive 4 months training to handle the job reasonably well, their service conditions are not good enough to lead a honest life with practically no job security and absence of post retirement benefits. It is not realized that people will give respect and recognition only if these Anganwadi workers are provided good service conditions and a place of honor. Government must not delay in revisiting the crucial role of more than 1.6 million workers presently working in ICDS program.          

If dispassionate observers are to be believed there are two issues that confront ICDS program affecting its efficiency. While quality of service provided is often unsatisfactory, gross corruption in management is debilitating this useful scheme, which must be addressed immediately without further delay. It appears many intended beneficiaries are in the dark regarding this scheme and therefore are ignorant about their entitlement. What is needed is the involvement of local people in guiding the needy people to Anganwadis. A proactive approach on the part of the worker to establish contact with all those eligible for benefits under ICDS will further strengthen the efficacy of the program. If the local people, who are an important stakeholder in the ICDS program, do not have the information on what to get, what is available and what their legitimate rights are under the scheme, they are in no position to question the way it functions and cannot demand their rights. This is probably what is happening now and sooner some degree of transparency is insisted upon better it will be for its effectiveness. 

The ICDS can educate the community about the objectives of the scheme and the benefits they can derive by cooperating with the Anganwadi programs. It is unfortunate that in these days of dominance of private sector in practically every endeavor in the country, here is an example of disaster when private parties were brought in to supply foods for serving in the Anganwadis.  Many don't know that a Bal Vikas Samiti (BVS) should have mothers whose children go to anganwadis and local body representatives as members. The BVS, which is supposed to monitor procurement of ration, use of stock and supply of food to children by the anganwadis, is not properly empowered and has now been reduced to a mere rubber stamp with the introduction of a private party in the supply chain. In stead of local foods prepared and served private players are introducing processed foods of little relevance in this program. Of course Involving private parties also promotes  corruption, besides compromising on the quality of food served to children. 

With the rudimentary infrastructure already in place, India can increase the efficacy of this program manifold. But for this to happen the quality of Anganwadi worker must be upgraded. He or she should be the focal development of the village giving some security to the women, most of whom are generally illiterate. This is possible only if these personnel are adequately equipped with the wherewithal to instill confidence, respect and appreciation from the beneficiaries. Many Anganwadis are run from dilapidated buildings with practically no facility for doing what they are supposed to do. After all the very name of Anganwadi was derived from the traditional system of living where the typical "courtyard shelter' in the house or in the community settlement is a place of social interaction and development of kinship. Modern Anganwadis must reflect this spirit in creating the right atmosphere for cordiality, mutual respect and help besides generating a sense of sacredness associated with all activities. Probably after 35 years of past experience, time has come to reassess the impact of ICDS program as it runs to day and take appropriate action for making this institution more relevant and useful.

Instead of running under the bureaucratic control of the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare, a more practical approach would be to set up a national apex body with statutory powers and annual grants from the government. Such a body must manage the program in a professional way with modern management tools. If this happens, there is a distinct possibility to rope in large industrial giants for funding and patronizing the program in different geographical areas. Also there are hundreds of NGOs, Stree Shakti Groups, Charitable organizations, Social networks and foreign aid agencies doing yeoman service to the welfare of Indian children. Government owes this to the citizens of this country in stead of continuing to run a dilapidated scheme as is being done now with bad reputation for its inefficiency and corruption.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


From time immemorial there has been a persistent question whether human beings are designed to eat meat and it continues to be a raging debate even to day. Looking back in history eating of animal foods got established only after the advent of Christianity while vegetarianism ruled the world during millennium preceding this era. If one probes further back man was transformed into a hunter with omnivorous instincts millions of years ago. Vegans and thorough bred vegetarians swear by the non-essentiality of animal based food products as plant kingdom provide adequate nutrition and health protecting substances for a long life of high quality. In contrast meat foods with high density of nutrients like iron, proteins and many micro nutrients but have the handicap of containing high levels of artery clogging saturated fat. Meat is also devoid the much needed dietary fiber for which humans will have to fall back on plant foods.If these are the stark realities what should be the choice before an intelligent consumer? it may be too much to expect a simple consumer to understand the complexities of the situation and take a life-time decision. Many campaigns and organized programs across the world have not made much of a dent on the extent of meat consumption though there are significant converts to vegetarianism during the last few years. 

One of the tenets of peace on this earth is non-violence, be it against fellow humans or co-inhabitants that live along with them and if this philosophy takes hold on the lives of people, it is possible that one day the whole planet will adopt vegetarianism. But for this to achieve there are a number of interconnected issue which are to be sorted out. Under such an environment what will happen to the trillion dollar industry that piles money killing billions of animals including poultry bird, cows, buffaloes, sheep and goat and pigs? Is it logical to expect these "high muscled" players to give in so easily to the demands made by vegetarian champions? Take the example of a country like India where killing of cows is considered a crime and there are millions of cows with no economic value sought to be protected at enormous cost while the very same cows are slaughtered in millions every day in many countries predominantly beef eating in nature! If governments all over the world are subscribing the view that jungles, forests and wild animals need protection why not the same principle apply to domesticated animals also? A clear dichotomy indeed!

During these days of so much hype generated over climate changes taking place due to many human activities and unlimited burning of fossil fuels, a little noticed aspect is the role meat eaters play in further aggravating the present intolerable situation. There have been high pitch noises coming out of climate control conferences held periodically which any how do not serve any useful purpose with developed countries demanding "sacrifices" from poor developing countries to cut down emissions thus tramping on latter's aspiration to achieve economic prosperity for their citizens. It is unfortunate that these countries where meat eating practice is omnipotent, do not introspect the damage meat consumption is doing for the health of their citizens as well as that of the environment. According knowledgeable experts if Americans can switch over to vegetarian diets, the reduction of green gas emission will be far more substantial than that managed by changing their fossil fuel cars to hybrid versions. It was in 2008 world realized that meat based diets contribute seven times as much green house gas emission as vegetarian diet does!     

According to diet and health experts across the world "a properly planned vegetarian diet is healthy, nutritionally adequate and provides health benefits to prevent diseases" and it has been proved beyond doubt that vegetarian population has lower Body Mass Index, lower cholesterol, lower incidence of blood pressure and hypertension and fewer cases of disorders  Ischemic Heart Disease, renal damage, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. International Vegetarian Union, started in 1908, relentlessly works for convincing people to shun meat foods and become healthy without most of the diseases associated with meat consumption. why is that meat is not good for humans? Because raw meat, it has been confirmed by a number of studies, can reduce the life expectancy by 13%, increase the chances of death from CVD by 18% and that by cancer by 10%. The risk factors get further enhanced if processed meat consumption and its consequence are critically assessed. Processed meat consumption can decrease life expectancy by 20%, by CVD by 21% and cancer by 16%.  

An innocuous piece of news which appeared recently which caught the attention of many critical observers about the loss of sweet sensing ability among some carnivorous animals, domesticated as well as in wild due to gene mutation over a long time which may have some implications in human evolution. The two sweet receptor genes Tas1r2 and Tas1r3 if do not find expression the ability to taste and enjoy sweetness is permanently lost. Disturbingly such mutation has taken its toll due to predominant consumption of meat. What could be the implication of these findings on humans on a long term basis? Is it possible that humans who are non-vegetarians also lose their sweet tasting ability in future over a long period? Or will the drug industry come out with a prescription drug that can make the sweet receptor genes redundant? Can such a situation bring down the incidence of diseases associated with too much consumption of sugar? May not be practical but not impossible!