Monday, October 29, 2012


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

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

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

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

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


Friday, October 26, 2012


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

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

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

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

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


Monday, October 22, 2012


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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, October 11, 2012


The role of microorganisms in maintaining health and preventing diseases in human beings is well known. Most diseases known to man are caused by microbes like mold, bacteria and virus and hundreds of medicines have been evolved over the last one century to deal with them. One often wonders how the ancestors of to day's population managed to keep the diseases at bay before the advent of supha drugs and antibiotics. Of course the mortality during olden days has been much more than what it is to day. Knowledge gained regarding the beneficial effects of some species of microorganisms gave rise to a whole new sector of industry that peddled pro biotics and pre biotics to amass a fortune during the last two decades, though how effective these commercially designed products are, still remains a matter of speculation. Rejection of many of the health claims by this industry in Europe by the regulatory agencies forcing them to withdraw most of the extravagant claims on the labels, shows the uncertainties associated with health foods based on microorganisms. This situation is compounded by incomplete and unproven scientific data relating to the association and interaction between microbes and human beings.

There are thousands of studies and publications highlighting the beneficial effects of many bacterial species, most studies being confined to in vitro and in animals. The Human Microbiome which is the sum of all the microbes that inhabit human body has been found to be an important factor in determining the relative health status of each individual. It was in 2007 that an earnest effort was made through the Human Microbiome Project under the aegis of the National Institute of Health at Bethesda, USA to study and map out the genetic make up of more than 10000 species of microorganisms present in different parts of human body and the knowledge already generated presents an amazing picture about the role played by these tiny creatures in maintaining optimum health in humans. More revealingly it was brought out that harmful bacteria of which people are too much concerned with, live in perfect harmony with their host and in co-existence with the beneficial organisms with no dangers posed to people who are healthy and have normal immune functions. Interestingly all the microbes that colonize human body, trillions in number, outnumber human cells 10 to 1 reflecting their inevitable role in shaping the health of mankind.  Microbiome makes up almost 1-3% of human body mass, highlighting their crucial importance.

So far more attention has been focused on gut microorganisms which play a crucial role in helping digestion of food, strengthening and fighting many dangerous pathogens every day. But the human microbiome is spread all over the body, being present in every nook and corner playing a positive role in protecting the humans from a variety of diseases. Interestingly different body sites are colonized by different communities of microbes, differing from each other substantially in terms of their biological activity. For example the microbial colony living in the forehead area carries a significantly different signature compared to the one that inhabit on the feet. Thus the microbiome that thrive on skin, nose, mouth, elbow, lower intestine etc vary enormously . Generally healthy people carry low levels of harmful bacteria and their population is controlled by friendly organisms present in overwhelming numbers. Also true is the fact that friendly organisms like L.reuteri secretes antibiotic like substances with devastating effect on many pathogens and there may be many such organisms which if present in substantial numbers can confer immunity against many pathogens. This qualitative information however does not answer the million dollar question as to how and why the small colonies of disease causing bacteria become destructive to the host. Probably the study using purified DNA samples from human beings and the microbiome and mapping out the sequences by DNA by the sequencing machines may eventually evolve reliable methodology to monitor genetic signals present only in bacteria to detect diseases instead of the time consuming culturing of suspected pathogens.

The study has already identified more than 10000 microbial species that inhabit human Eco-system and almost 81-99% of all genera of microbes are present in people of American continent. Considering that skin is the main barrier between the body and the out side world, maximum diversity was observed in the microbial make up on the skin surface. Similarly dramatic differences have been observed in the profile of gut microbes among American and people in other countries like Malawi, Venezuela etc while there were marked differences between microbes in adults and children. Development of human microbiome in different parts of the body from infancy to adulthood is determined by many factors like environment, food habits and community living. Interestingly it is a startling revelation that most of the genes that influence human metabolism are in microbiome and not in human genome. While human genome has only about 22000 genes for encoding proteins, human microbiome has about 8 million unique genes that encode different proteins.

According to the researchers, more than 200 in number working on the project, human beings will not be able to fully digest the food they eat or utilize vital food nutrients from these foods but for the bacterial colonies that inhabit the the gut region. It is already known that gut bacteria produce many vitamins and anti-inflammatory substances that prevent precipitation of many ailments. Generation of crucial medium chain fatty acids in the small intestine is suspected to be responsible for preventing many disorders in humans. It has been further observed that during illnesses lot of antibiotics are taken through the oral route and this results in considerable destruction of native beneficial organisms while killing the pathogens and once the equilibrium is disturbed, it takes quite some time for the population to grow back to the original density but the make up of the species changes markedly with its attended consequences. Sensitivity to antibiotics can vary enormously and some species are destroyed more extensively while others survive to varying extent. One of the reasons that antibiotics are not recommended often is this irreversible change in gut microorganism profile after recovering from the illness.  Post illness treatment with freeze dried and encapsulated lactic acid bacteria cannot restore completely the gut microbiome to its original state.

There are two critical questions that concern the dynamics of human microbiome. Extensive use of chemical sanitizing agents and personal hygienic products churned out by the industry  could have debilitating effect on the nature and type of microorganisms that thrive in those using them regularly and this may be one of the reasons why Americans are more vulnerable to infectious GI related disorders, having continuously depleted the colonies of friendly microbes. No wonder that unexplained fevers in kids below 3 years of age, now commonly encountered through out the world, were attributed to proliferation of more species of virus in the nasal region as well as in the blood. Similarly increased use of antibiotics by the people and consumption of antibiotic treated meat products invariably can lead to progressive emergence of virulent pathogens not amenable to known antibiotics. It is a fact that more than 80% of the antibiotics produced in the US is consumed by the meat industry and one can imagine the impact of such a skewed practice on human health there.

In a hilarious report an American commentator, despairing about the low immunity of his fellow citizens declared that American foods "can do with a little dirt" so that they are slowly immunized back to the desired extent. It is presumed that local
foods, farmers market foods, urban garden raised produce and others that do not involve extensive application of chemical inputs and not ferried from across the world are much more preferable than the current industrial foods undergoing severe cleaning and sanitizing by the handlers at different stages. Massive transport of fresh as well as frozen foods, both vulnerable to cross contamination during their long journey and subsequent storage for long periods are considered the root cause of the present day food poisoning episodes encountered so frequently. Emergence of Frankenstein bacteria with massive kill potential, not treatable by existing array of drugs is an indicator of the disaster waiting to confront human race in coming years, all avoidable if natural way of living is restored relying on natural resources without tampering.


Thursday, October 4, 2012


The Indian traditional culinary preparation, "The Curry" has been ridiculed so often by those who cannot tolerate the spices contained in the product that new generation products, modified curries, are being made in many modern day homes and restaurants, which are practically bland devoid of important spices like Chilli, Turmeric, Coriander, Asafoetida etc. Is it not a tragedy that the modern day generation of youngsters born to Indian parents shy away from such traditional preparations and flock to junk foods like burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, pizza etc? It has been known for quite some time that many spices and herbs are treasure houses of many proven health protecting phytochemicals and older generation Indians and Chinese to some extent recognized the precious value of these ingredients hundreds of years ago, making their regular consumption as a part of daily diet. Chilli is a spice studiously avoided by the western population, possibly because of the "heat" it generates on the palate not generally tolerated by them. But is it not a fact that Mexican foods reputed for high pungency are popular in many parts of the world including the US and Europe and restaurant chains like Chipotle, Taco Bell etc are omnipotent by their presence every where?  Recent assertion by a group of scientists that Chilli can be beneficial in reducing body weight  through busting the belly fat and suppressing hunger significantly is bound to bring more focus on this simple spice in coming years.  

A research group in Netherlands has  recently come out with its findings on the effect of Chilli on weight reduction According to them this hot spice can work in three different ways, the ultimate effect being a net lose of body weight. They are capable of burning fat, suppress hunger pangs and boost overall calorie-burning rates in the body. It appears that the chemical capsaicin in Chilli responsible for its heat, triggers rapid secretion of the hormone adrenalin  from the glands which in turn stimulates the brain to send messages to burn fat cells selectively. Interestingly such a fat burning spree is confined to that present around the belly which was found to be burned most rapidly. Midriff fat is considered the most dangerous because it significantly increases the risk of heart disease in human beings.

Scientific evidence to support the above claims may not be very substantial but what ever data have been generated do show that there is some thing significant about the effect of Capsaicin on humans that deserves to be investigated further. For example this Chilli constituent has been found to be suppressing action of Ghrelin, a hormone known to be involved in promoting hunger which indirectly goes to show that Chilli consumption can suppress appetite. Studies with human beings who consumed Chillies before a meal showed significantly lesser appetite than normal subjects. Similarly Chilli consumption considerably rev up thermogenesis in the body and since there was no perceptible increase in metabolic activity, it is assumed that fat is being burned in preference to carbohydrates. Both these deductions may be valid and appetite suppression combined with preferential fat burning can accomplish weight reduction over a continued period of Chilli consumption. It is however not clear whether other analogs of Capsaicin like Dihydrocapsaicin, Nordihydrocapsaicin, Homocapsaicin and Homodihydrocapsaicin will also be effective in fighting obesity. The synthetic version Nonivamide is also another candidate worth testing.

Capsaicin is suggested as a supplement for aiding digestion as it stimulates production of digestive juices in the stomach besides fighting undesirable bacteria with pathogenic potential. Capsaicin is also implicated in preventing heart disease as it appears to retard blood clotting, reduce blood cholesterol and prevent hardening of arteries. But its fat busting properties are only reported now and it is theorized with some evidence that Capsaicin stimulates certain proteins that is known to break down fat while inhibiting action of other proteins that synthesize fat in the body. An imponderable factor in using Capsaicin for weight reduction programs is whether the lost weight will return once the consumption is stopped and this needs to be explored before it can become a standard diet supplement for people intending to lose weight..

Even assuming that there is adequate scientific support to the above claim, the million dollar question is how can people intolerant to Chilli heat can be made to consume the same without creating any trauma? Response to Chilli ingestion varies from person to person with some people seriously affected by even small levels of Chilli in the food. In some consumers it causes diarrhea while in others it creates intense discomfort in the GI tract. Probably technologies like encapsulation and micro encapsulation can by pass the palate reducing the intense pungency in the mouth. Organic chemists may even come out with modified Capsaicin molecules which can exert same effect as natural Capsaicin on the metabolic dynamics of human body. Another route to is to train people slowly in consuming Chilli over a period of time as there are hundreds of varieties of Chilli with varying "Scoville" score, reflecting the heat generating capacity on the tongue. Possibly those varieties with lower heat value can be made popular in the first instant among Chilli "haters" to get them acquainted with the heat properties and it is a question of time before they can be hooked on to regular Chillies.