Sunday, October 13, 2013


How desperate people can be when all measures to control body weight come to naught and drastic approaches like bariatric surgery become the most practical step. However such strategies cannot be a standard solution to the problems of millions of people who are confronted by the weight gain syndrome. It is true that the basic scientific foundation for explaining body weight gain is the excess intake of calories through carbohydrates and fats in the diet that become fat deposits in different parts of the body causing weight gain. Balancing of the diet with regard to calories is a prerequisite for avoiding weight gain.

The million dollar question is how to balance the diet vis-a-vis calories? Unless one is aware of the calorie expenditure through physical activity it is next to impossible to decide what and how much to eat. Though a 2000 calories diet is recommended for a healthy normal human, it can be insufficient if the physical activity is too high as encountered by athletes and others doing heavy work. On the other hand a sedentary person with minimum physical activity does not need that much calories through the daily diet. While obesity is an ugly disease with the person suffering from it presenting a grotesque picture and bloated body cynosure of all eyes in public places! While physical appearance is one undesirable feature of obesity, much more crucial is the vulnerability of these unfortunate victims to serious diseases like heart attack, stroke, diabetes, kidney disorders etc.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is supposed to tell whether one is obese or not and generally any figure beyond 30 is considered dangerous while BMI in the range 20-25 is desirable. There can be many contradictions in putting obesity on a BMI scale with some persons having normal health even when BMI exceeds 25 while some low BMI individuals do suffer from many diseases like diabetes and heart ailments, obviously due to reasons other than high body weight. Though there is a general belief that food intake and exercise can minimize the chances of obesity there can be other reasons for individuals to get high BMI in spite of low calorie diet and regular exercise. Unfortunately the current understanding of this area of human science is not complete and with each passing day new information is emerging regarding the various factors that play different roles in causing obesity.

It was quite recently that scientists discovered about the role of gut bacteria in human health and hundreds of studies have brought about the fact that bacteria in general and intestinal bacteria in particular play an important role in maintaining good health. The fact that new born babies with practically a sterile intestine acquire rapidly a host of bacteria through mother's milk indicating that even different bacteria residing in different parts of the body of a human being play decisive roles in protecting the person as a natural defense and use of chemicals and other antibacterial materials used liberally for keeping away disease causing pathogens can be, in reality, a foolish thing to do in the long run! No one knows precisely how much damage such sanitizing agents can cause to disturb the equilibrium that exists among different species of bacteria that colonize human body.

"Fecal transplant" which has become a standard treatment regime for patients suffering from incurable diseases like Crohn's diseas, Irritable bowel syndrome and others is a telling commentary on the usefulness of bacteria in providing relief to human beings from serious diseases. Though it may sound repulsive to think about transferring feces from one person to another one,  the success of this approach has been so dramatic that thousands of people are becoming candidates for fecal transplant every year all over the world. What is not clearly understood is the identity of the particular species or combinations of them that is providing the relief to the recipients and how long it will take to come out with an answer is any body's guess. But dramatic break through can be expected in the foreseeable future in this critical area.                      

Recent studies focusing on the likely role of gut bacteria on development of obesity are no less dramatic in unfolding another dimension to the beneficiary role played by bugs. in what is considered a solid evidence researchers used pairs of human twins in which one was obese and the other lean. On transfer of gut bacteria from these twins into mice revealed some startling facts which may have long term implications on obesity research. The mice with bacteria from fat twins grew fat while those that received bacteria from lean twins stayed lean! (those that got bacteria from lean twins stayed lean). It is just an empirical observation which needs to be interpreted carefully without drawing any definitive conclusion. With these studies it does not become logical for obese people to become right candidates for fecal transplant. Unless scientists are able to isolate most important bacterial species present in the feces which are responsible for the effect, the scientific theory behind such treatments cannot be unraveled.

What is not to be forgotten is that human biology is so complex it is difficult to pin point what all factors contribute to the phenomenon of obesity. These include genetics, diets and living styles followed by different people. Interestingly it has been shown that with the right diet it should be possible to  change the bacteria in a fat person's gut so that they promote leanness rather than obesity. Further in the presence of a low-fat diet, bacteria from a lean twin can take over the gut of a mouse that already had bacteria from a fat twin causing significant weight loss in the latter but the opposite does not happen and no matter what the diet, bacteria from a fat mouse do not take over in a mouse that is thin. It really adds up to a quiet riddle which needs some unraveling by the scientific community.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Any chemical entity with some destructive potential is viewed with fear by humans and Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2) is no exception to it. This is a chemical which can kill most bugs at optimum concentrations and cause grievous injury to human beings if not handled carefully. No wonder it is declared as a hazardous material when it comes to handling, storage, transportation and use. As it is not a stable chemical, tending to decompose into water and nascent oxygen at higher temperatures with high oxidizing potential, its concentration for different applications will require careful calibration for getting optimum result. Though it is historically established as a powerful disinfectant from time immemorial, only recently its use without any harm for applications in ensuring bacterial and viral disinfection is being appreciated. Probably its dirt cheap price is responsible for it being overlooked by the chemical and pharmaceutical industry which always go for high vale business! If H2O2 has been fully exploited, many of those expensive chemicals used to fight infections would not have been there at all, saving billions of rupees for the public!   

The atmospheric ozone is responsible for generating H2O2 through interaction with water and the so ubiquitous rain water which falls on the earth is, in fact, a solution of H2O2 that has many beneficial effects to protect environment and vegetation. It is believed, supported by some scientific studies, that rain water is much superior to irrigation water for better plant growth because of the H2O2 content in it. Interestingly rain water that falls through highly polluted atmosphere containing many chemical substances contains much less H2O2 because of its reaction with such oxidizable pollutants. Probably the practice by some progressive farmers to spray dilute solution of H2O2 (1000-2000 ppm)  on their plants is for making up the depletion this chemical in the rain water due to environmental pollution. It is suggested that even for house hold gardening, use of water containing H2O2 may be beneficial for better plant growth.

The fear of H2O2 is some what misplaced because it is a harmless chemical at levels less than 10% and pharma grade H2O2 is even used for infusion for treatment of some health conditions. Besides food industry also uses this chemical in the processing of cheese, egg and whey products. Aseptic packing technology depends heavily on use of 35% H2O2 in the process for cold sterilization of the carton material before filling with HTST treated products like milk, juice and other liquid products. H2O2 is globally available in different concentrations and qualities. While 3% solution of pharma grade is commonly available, others like 6% beautician's grade, 35% technical grade, 35% food grade and 90% rocket grade are offered for specialized users. 

H2O2 is a naturally occurring biological substance in human body, generated and decomposed through many biological reactions, all controlled by the body under different conditions. Primarily H2O2 is produced in places within the body, viz, Lungs, Gut and the Thyroid. Some of the enzymes involved in the body like D-amino acid oxidase and acyl-CoA-Oxidase produce this chemical through reaction with certain amino acids and fatty acids. Plasma amine oxidase and xanthine oxidase systems also generate H2O2. Since high production and accumulation can be dangerous to the tissues, H2O2 is contained in specialized cells in the organelles like peroxisomes which also contain H2O2 decomposing enzymes like Catalase in abundance. 
Human immune system is designed to be activated in response to infection by bacteria, virus and other transgressors when large amounts of H2O2 is produced by the white cells which, in turn kill the invading vectors, neutralizing their adverse consequences. If H2O2 concentration becomes too high it can cause grievous damage to the cell DNA and other critical proteins which many believe is responsible for serious diseases like cancer, diabetes etc.

Since extensive use of H2O2 for sterilizing water at home instead of chlorine has come to stay and as chlorine is not considered a safe chemical for domestic use, it is a question of time before this consumer friendly humble chemical becomes a universally accepted sterilizer for water, environment and food materials. A combination of H2O2, sugar and water is also reported to be an excellent pesticide spray that can destroy most of the field insects and pests at least cost with no residue left behind unlike the present day cocktail of poisonous chemical pesticides. Ease of using dilute solutions of H2O2 through conventional bottles with drop dispensing spouts make its use more convenient and as H2O2 solutions are stable for long at refrigerated temperatures or in domestic freezers a small stock of the product can always be kept for use after dilution through drop dispensers as when needed. 

Friday, September 13, 2013


One of the flagship programs of the the government of India viz Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which became the main plank for the UPA I to ride back to power was indeed revolutionary in concept. It is not a mean task to create employment opportunities for millions of people in the rural regions of the country who otherwise would have famished for want of sustainable income to survive. When people do not get work to earn a living in an environment of poverty, providing job at a decent pay for at least 100 days in an year is really God-sent. One of the criticisms against MNREGA is that the outgo of public money ostensibly for the pay out do not reach the intended beneficiaries to the extent expected. Also true is the view that the expenditure was not targeted to create permanent assets at the rural level.  

The government deserved full credits for lifting the wage rates across the country in a dramatic way with every sector of employment attaining the unbelievable growth rate of around 20%! To day the wages demanded by labor, even the most unskilled is in the range of Rs 200-300 per day while a little skill like masonry, carpentry, etc can earn as much as Rs 500-700! In contrast MNREGA was paying out a "measly" Rs 150 per day which has led to a situation where there are hardly any takers for such a low pay! The result is there to see in almost all states where funds under this scheme is grossly under utilized. As there is a minimum pay out guaranteed under MNREGA, labor started demanding higher wages from the private sector entrepreneurs including the land owners for doing jobs like tilling, planting, weeding, harvesting etc. 

In a place like Kodagu, the coffee growing heartland of Karnataka, plantation labor is such short supply that they have to be ferried from far away places for tending and harvesting the crops at costs considered exorbitant by any standards. Same is true with sugarcane cultivation in Mandya district of Karnataka where labor is treated with kid gloves, pampering to their every wish for getting them to the sugar cane fields! Free break fasts, tea and snacks and lunch are standard features in many of these places. Look at the construction industry which depends heavily on labor where an ordinary helper gets Rs 300 a day while a mason demands Rs 500 a day. In states like Kerala these daily wages can soar by almost 50%! Of course every one should be happy that more people are getting more money in their hands, provided it also contributes to increased productivity. Unfortunately this is not happening with absenteeism and boozing becoming more and more rampant!

One of the critical issues is whether such dramatic growth of wages is good for the country as a whole? The answer may not be easy to come but it definitely depresses agriculture to a very significant extent. While small farmers are finding it difficult to tend their land in an efficient way because of shortage of labor, big farmers are increasingly resorting to large scale use of mechanized machinery to do almost all operations connected with agriculture. Is it a desirable trend in the long run? Probably not because of its repercussions on food production. A dispassionate analysis of the present situation obtaining in the country will show that this country will have to suffer steep fall in food production in the coming years because of the consequences of large scale desertion of farmlands by small and marginal farmers as farm activity progressively becomes a losing proposition for these much neglected population eking out a miserable life with hardly any promise or hope for future. It is forgotten that almost 80% of food production comes from the small scale farming community and therefore destroying them will definitely tell on the food production in the country.  

In almost all states, the cost of farm labor is reported to have shot up making it beyond the absorption capacity of millions of small farmers. The cost of inputs like seeds, fertilizers and pesticides has been on an upward swing but not to the extent that can seriously hurt the farmers but it is the cost of labor that is pushing the total cost of cultivation dramatically. It is a common knowledge that the prices for agricultural produce have not kept pace with the escalating cost of cultivation. Recent surveys have revealed that farming is a labor intensive' activity,  with the cost of labor making up almost 50% of the total cost of cultivation of many crops. Is it not a paradox that net return on investment for many farmers is negative for most crops leading to a majority of farmers slowly being pushed 'below poverty line'? How can they survive and sustain themselves under such a hostile environment? Writing off loans and interest burden on these loans especially before the general election does not make any sense and at best it is a short term palliative to the problem. As a consequence of declining availability of cheap labor, acreage under many crops like Ragi, Bajra and Groundnut is progressively coming down. Where is this going to end up and what are its consequences? 

A reckless government announcing the implementation of the much touted Food Security Act, where are they going to find the required grains to be supplied to almost 850 million people, as guaranteed by this imposing Act? Importing is not an option as the required foreign exchange resources are not in the kitty and the measly reserve cannot be frittered away on such a scheme. How is the government going to arrest the fast migration of rural population, with no hope of farming sustaining them, into already bursting cities with very little infrastructure to let people lead a decent life? Future may not be bright as severe shortages are expected vis-a-vis cereals, pulses and oil seeds with the latter two on the import list perennially since a long time due to stagnant production during the last three decades. India happens to be largest importer of Palm oil in the world while for pulses there are only a few sources from where they can be imported. Even if the government is able to garner sufficient cereals to meet its obligations under the Food Security Act, nutritional insecurity is going to haunt the country for a long time to come. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Why do more and more people opt for organic foods though they cost hell of a lot as compared to products of the main stream food industry? The answer is very simple. Because they are apprehensive about the safety of food products manufactured by the food processing sector which uses hundreds of chemicals for making a product that will have the required eating characteristics to please the consumer and adequate shelf life to cover the minimum period required for selling them in the market. Front of the labeling regulations insist on printing the expiry date and therefore consumer cannot be expected to buy old products with no life left before they can be consumed. There is a belief that organic foods are produced with no chemicals at any stage and are free from dangerous pre-harvest and post-harvest protectants to save them from insects and pests. Also some believe that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally made foods.

Against such a background it is no wonder that the organic food sector grows almost at an annual rate of 15-20% touching a global sale of about 70 billion dollars in the current year. According to some experts if every human being switches over to organic foods, the family budget for food may inflate by 10% to 40%! Whether this due to opportunity cost or increased cost of production is again a matter of debate! Besides there is the issue of practicality regarding producing such huge quantities to meet the global demand. After all only 2% of the land under cultivation is dedicated to raising of organic foods and it is unlikely that it will grow sufficiently fast to produce significant quantities in the near future. Another disturbing development is the efforts in countries like the US to dilute the standards for organic foods to oblige the main stream food industry giants to get into this business through the back door. Otherwise how can any one justify the policy of the USDA which administers overseeing activities in organic foods area in introducing various "grades" like 100% organic, 95% organic, 70% organic and less than 70% organic? If this is not to fool the gullible consumers under government connivance, what else it is?    

The fight between organic food producers and main stream normal food industry throws out many interesting but contradictory claims and counter claims by the antagonists and the protagonists of either side. In a recent critique on organic foods, it was claimed that the increased price commanded by this category of products is not justified, looked from any angle. According to it there is hardly any difference between these two categories of foods in terms of "presence" of chemicals or pathogens or nutrient density. If this is so why the various national and international food safety organizations are perpetuating this fallacy and protecting the increased margins enjoyed by this sector? A million dollar question begging for a convincing answer! But it can be unequivocally stated that organic foods, even if they are absolutely not safe, comparatively they do less damage than their normal industry produced counterparts.

Here is a gist of the "opinion" on organic foods by an organization self styled to investigate truth and fallacies perpetuated by the food processing industry. 
   " * Pesticide residues are generally present on both organic and non-organic produce, and, on average, appear to be present in lower concentrations on organic products. However, while it seems obvious that food is healthier when not contaminated by pesticide residues, there is very limited/insufficient data available from reputable studies showing that legal pesticide residues pose any actual harm to humans when ingested at the levels permitted by law. Most of the studies tend to agree that any benefits gained from the reduction of exposure to pesticide residues achieved by consuming organic products are negligible. Know that this is a contentious area among scientists, with strong agendas in play.
    * Microbiological contaminants (e.g., bacteria such as E. coli) are generally present on both organic and non-organic products in varying degrees. Some research has found that organics have lower microbiological contamination, while other research has found the opposite. The presence of microbiological contaminants may not vary much (if at all) between the two product types; however, there is a lower incidence of antimicrobial-resistant strains on organic products.
    * Toxic metal contamination of organic produce has been found to be similar to that of non-organic produce, and most of the research has found the differences to be negligible.
    * Food additives are also limited in organic products and are therefore generally present in lower quantities than in non-organic products. However, most approved food additives don't appear to be toxic when used in conformance with established limits.
    * Other contaminants such as nitrates (found in synthetic fertilizers) appear to be lower, on average, in organic products, though they are still present. Some scientists have cited various instances in which organic foods have higher levels of secondary metabolites (e.g., polyphenolic compounds, antioxidants) as a positive feature. Others have indicated that this may pose a health risk due to the supposed increased presence of naturally occurring toxins (which some research has suggested are equally as potent as synthetic toxins), resulting from an increase in the plant's use of natural defense mechanisms".

Interestingly these critics also qualify their conclusions saying that at present many of the research conclusions with regard to organic vs. non-organic product safety are premature!. Most of the studies emphasize lack of data as a limiting factor in their conclusions. However they still aver that their conclusions are based on available data and applying simple logics! They have a point when it is claimed that there were more than 50 organic food recalls in the lat year in Canada and the US which cannot be easily ignored. Contaminants found in organic foods  include Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, cadmium and mycotoxins. It is admitted that even though a great deal of care is taken in growing and harvesting the food under rigorous conditions monitored by approved certifying agencies, contamination can still be introduced anywhere in the production process for any food and organic foods are not immune to this problem.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Garbage is a dirty word for most people who strive to keep their place clean and tidy but it cannot be avoided in the modern industrial society and day after day the volume of garbage grows astronomically with vast diversity of its nature and composition. While organic waste can be of use for generating bio gas through fermentation, there are wastes that can be recycled or burned under controlled conditions. With urbanization taking place at a fast pace in many developing countries, the burden of garbage collection and disposal is increasing on most urban townships, many of them having no clue as to how best the waste can be managed. Till about a decade ago wastes were dumped in landfills and with land availability becoming a critical factor, many towns and cities are imposing landfill tax on private waste generators making it imperative to look for viable alternatives.

A well organized waste collection system should have provision for segregating it into biodegradable, recyclable and others not amenable to the two processes. But such efforts are fraught with tremendous logistical difficulties and even if logistical factors are managed, the citizens should have high sensitivity and awareness regarding the responsibility to segregate the refuse regularly before handing over to the collection agency. In well developed countries like the US and in Europe both civic sense as well as waste collection system are well developed and high volumes of waste are collected sufficient to industrial scale processing and recycling. It was only recently that many reports highlighted the plight of cities which do not have adequate facilities to process trying to send them to places beyond their borders! By now the world recognizes the bitter truth that garbage deserves respect and must be handled with care for preventing spread of infection and environmental degradation.

Interestingly India presents a contrasting picture with organized waste handlers and the rag pickers engage in a bitter struggle to lay their hands on the urban garbage! This conflict is best manifested in Delhi where there are thousands of rag pickers who are earning a livelihood by collecting the garbage in different parts of the city and after sorting out sell the same to earn a few bucks that help them to keep hunger away. As the city is growing at a frenetic pace the civic administration wants to entrust to organized waste processing companies so that citizens are assured of a garbage free environment. How far such a move will impact the waste management programs in different cities and towns in the country is an issue that needs to be resolved without affecting the livelihood of the rag picking community. The unorganized rag pickers seem to be bracing up for the challenge from the Big Brothers by organizing themselves into a union under the banner of All India Kabadi Mazdoor Mahasangh or AIKMM, its acronym.

Why should there be a conflict between the organized and unorganized garbage handlers? Probably the reason is because garbage, for the illiterate, urban, unskilled slum-dweller, is the only stable means to earn a living. Not all garbage is sought-after. Generally about 20 per cent of Delhi's daily output of 12,000 tonnes comprises inert waste, such as sand and stones from construction sites. But much of the rest is picked clean by rag pickers, who make India one of the most efficient trash-harvesting countries in the world. Fifty per cent of the waste is 'wet' or organic and yields treasures like bones worth Rs 1,500 a kg and hair worth Rs 2,000 a kg. But the real bone of contention lies in the last 30 per cent of the waste heap which comprise plastics and other recyclable materials fetching valuable returns. The civic bodies by planning to get rid of the daily piling of garbage invariably turn to corporate industry for practical reasons which seems to hurt the humble rag pickers who were in business for umpteen number of years. According to some reports, on an average a rag picker earns about Rs 30 a kg for plastic found in bottles and about Rs 21 a kg for used paper. The total recyclable market in Delhi is estimated at Rs 560 crore a year and no doubt this is not a small turnover by any standards. Probably this is the real reason why "the rag battle" takes place in major cities like Delhi.

If one goes by the experience of a city like Oslo, Norway, garbage is a precious commodity that is one of the most sought after source of sustainable energy. If reports are to be believed approximately half the city's population get energy for heating their homes by controlled burning of house hold trash, industrial waste etc. Burning of garbage generates heat and electricity is generated for the grid to supply to the city. Unfortunately this country is facing a unique problem of garbage shortage to run its efficient incineration plants. This problem is faced by many cities across Northern Europe where the practice of burning garbage to generate heat and electricity has exploded in recent decades and demand for trash far outstrips supply. What is the reason?

The fastidious population of Northern Europe produces only about 150 million tons of waste a year which cannot meet even 25% of the demand from incinerating plants that can handle more than 700 million tons. Interestingly Sweden seems to be building more and more plants! Same is true with other countries like Austria, Germany etc. In Sweden itself there is keen competition in buying garbage from other cities ferrying the same to the processing plants by all available means including by road and ships. It appears Europe is emerging as the single geographical entity that considers garbage as a commodity, realizing its value in terms of energy.

See what is happening in Chennai vis-a-vis waste management. In a desperate move the civic body wanted to impose a tax on those generating garbage in large quantities which is being resisted by the citizens as well as institutions like hotels, industry and others. Is it not a paradox that in Europe there is a huge shortage of trash while in India almost every city is bursting with garbage mounds strewn all around? Why there are no innovative efforts to harness this unlimited energy source? It is true that compared to the disciplined garbage collection mechanism in place in the western world, Indians are insensitive to littering every where they go and therefore the quantity generated has to be huge. Why not set up a number of incineration plants around such cities like Chennai which will go a long way to solve the country's perennial power shortage? The human angle can be tackled by incorporating the unorganized rag pickers into the management system for collection, segregation and delivery at different points in a city. Only to watch out is the reaction from human rights activists deploring the use of humans for such a low level, insanitary and potentially dangerous avocation, comparing it eventually with the old night soil scavenging prevalent decades ago. 


Friday, August 30, 2013


Explosive growth of organic food industry owes largely to the rising concerns of consumers regarding the safety of products main stream food industry. In spite of the fact that organic foods cost 50-100% more than commercial alternatives, people seem to be willing to patronize them with the firm belief that their kith and kin are protected. Why should the consumers be worried so much about food products from the organized processing industry? The reasons are not far to seek. Most importantly the agriculture is dependent largely on heavy use of chemical crop protectants, most of them considered toxic to human beings even in small concentrations found as residues on the harvested crops. More recently another dimension has been added to the safety concerns of the people by the large scale production of genetically modified foods and their wide spread marketing without the consumer ever knowing about this transgression of their right to know what they are eating. Unfortunately in countries like the US more than 80% of the foods on the shelves of most markets contain GMO ingredients with no indication about their presence on the front of the pack label!

How serious is the issue of safety of GMO foods now omnipotent in the US market and in a few other countries? It will be an understatement of one says that GMO foods do pose serious problems of safety as adequate data are still not generated to conclusively prove that they are absolutely safe. If so why is that the safety authorities in countries like the US are not clamping down on the industry, giving them a free rein in the market? The guess is that they are in collusion with the GMO lobby for considerations other than the welfare of their citizens! Imagine the clout of this lobby which pumped so much money for defeating a ballot initiative in California that would have mandated compulsory labeling of foods containing GMO ingredients, that too after 80% of the population there wanted compulsory labeling! Note that people are not asking for banning the GMO foods but just make the industry to declare that they are present in the products offered!

Now that increasing evidence is accumulating regarding the uncertain safety credentials of GMO foods, more and more people are demanding from the industry to give them GMO free products. It is a sad situation in the US where the current President promised to make the industry declare on the label presence of GMO ingredients but promptly reneged on his solemn assurances after the election. If to day the anti GMO lobby has some clout it is due to the relentless campaign by a few voluntary organizations around the world. It is comical to see that the governments do not insist on declaration of GMO ingredients while not allowing those making products without GMO to declare the same on the labels of their products! The relentless pressure by people's organizations is making more and more people aware of the unnatural nature of genetically fiddled foods. 

It is shocking that about 90 percent or more of four major crops — corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets  in the US are grown from genetically engineered seeds. This poses another challenge to the user industry to source non-GMO counterparts to replace the GMO version in their product mix. Of course there is a limited production base for conventional varieties but a significant portion of the conventional varieties of those crops is exported while the organic food industry has cornered the rest. Besides, the livestock industry is reported to be increasing its demand for non-GMO crops to meet growing demand among consumers for eggs and meats sourced from animals that have never eaten genetically modified feeds. The magnitude of revulsion to GMO foods can be gauged by the recent massive protests in 436 cities in 52 countries rallying against the monopolist company that supplies GMO seeds all over the world! 

Another worrying factor is the impact of large scale shift of consumers from GMO foods to conventional ones on the price front. According to knowledgeable sources, the prices of non GMO version of Corn is commanding a premium price of almost 75-100% in the market and if the supply restraints become more acute the prices can further increase in the near future. Same applies to other crops also and the US is facing a massive dilemma in tackling this issue as it is difficult to grow conventional natural crops in fields which have been cultivating GMO crops. Recent finding of GMO wheat in a field in Midwest America was traced to a GMO wheat trial taken almost a decade ago by the GMO industry and is it not shocking that even after 10 years traces pf GMO crop remained raising enormous worries about the consequences of increased consumer resistance against GMO crops. Will the Americans be forced to eat GMO foods under such a situation even if labeling becomes mandatory as otherwise it will be starvation for them? 

Another dimension to this problem after the protests have gained a critical mass is who will vouchsafe the authenticity of non GMO crops. The policy makers and administrators do not seem to be capable of stemming this tide in favor of compulsory labeling. If so what logistical problem is going to arise once labeling is made mandatory? Most critical requirement will be to test foods for the presence of GMO ingredients and provide credible certification to those willing to avoid their use. Testing requires sophisticated facilities and experienced bio analysts both being in short supply. Probably the GMO lobby may be laughing all the way to their banks after putting the country in such a fix. It is time the US government addresses this concern and establish the much needed testing and certification facilities sooner than later.   

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


There are no two opinions that milk is a complete food containing practically every nutrient required for normal health. Its protein, Casein (3.5%) is one of the highest quality nutrients, next only to egg and meat while milk is one of the richest sources of Calcium, an essential building material for strong bones ( about 120 mg per 100 ml). Besides milk is also a good source of Vitamins like A, B6, B12, C,K,D,K, E, Thiamine, Niacin, Biotin, Riboflavin, Folates and Pantothenic acid. Ideally regular consumption of about 250 ml equivalent of milk a day can be expected to boost the nutritive value of the daily diet very significantly. Looking from the milk production landscape and availability for consumption, average Indian is supposed to be consuming 276 ml of milk per day which is more than what is recommended. If this is so Indians can be considered healthy. But what is the ground reality?

It is true India is the top milk producing country in the world to day with the production estimated around 130 million tons which is anticipated to go up to 170 million tons by the year 2020. The per capita availability figure hides more than what it reveals because in a state like Punjab with affluent population almost gulping a liter of milk per person a day, the same falls precipitously in few other states dropping to almost to 100 ml per day per capita. Even here well to do population with high income consume much higher quantity while poor and low income people cannot afford to buy the recommended minimum quantity due to economic compulsions. This is a classical case of low consumption among plenty! 

The operation flood program and the white revolution ushered in by late Dr V.Kurien provided the foundation for producing more than that required through technological, social and management wonders but unless the purchasing power of people is increased the milk cannot reach those who really deserve, suffering from utter malnutrition and morbidity. With the processing capacity of the cooperative dairies all over the country reaching all time high, each state milk federation is flush with milk, not knowing what to do with the surplus. To some extent fluid milk is converted into skimmed milk powder (SMP) with long life and limited market off take has created a situation where these federations are holding large stocks of SMP not knowing what to do with it. A state like Karnataka which gives Rs 4 per liter to the producer as monetary incentive for increased production has found a new way to "dispose off" the surplus milk by being "magnanimous" in buying the same for supply to school kids in government and aided schools studying from class I to X and also to Anganwadi centers to feed children between the ages 3 and 6 years. A win-win situation indeed!

According to the reports appearing in the media government has launched its ambitious Ksheera Bhagya scheme on 1 August this year under which each school attending kid is given in the morning before the start of the school 150 ml of milk procured from the nearest cooperative dairy or 20 gm of SMP for reconstitution with hot water (with no sugar) for drinking. Besides Anganwadis are supposed to be provided with adequate quantity of SMP at the rate of 15 gm per child for admixing with hot water before feeding them. According to some sources in the government total requirement of milk would be around 7-8 lakh liters per day out of which 50% could be in fluid form, rest being SMP. Measured by any yardstick this is a mammoth welfare scheme that will benefit 65 lakh school going children and 35 lakh beneficiaries in Anganwadi Centers. State administration has even thought of children below 3 years to whom milk is planned to be delivered to their homes! 

Financial out go on the above account for the government is estimated to be of the order of about Rs 1500 crore annually. For a government that wants to uplift the nutritional status of the children of the state the above amount may not be very high but what bothers many observers is the logistics involved in delivering the promised food in safe condition to the beneficiaries in time and potential for hijacking the much valued milk and milk powder for the purpose other than that is intended. Also questionable is the extent of impact such a project can create on the health of the children. According to the nutritional guidelines of ICMR, an average consumer is supposed to be taking about 250 gm of milk products every day as fluid milk and curd which is equivalent to about 30 gm of powder. Growing children will need more considering their active growth phase and it may be too much to expect any thing positive coming out of this experiment. Supplying milk three times a week is also not a good idea as this will provide a disincentive for school kids to absent themselves on days when milk is not provided. However one should not prejudge this scheme and critics must wait for at least an year before drawing their daggers against this populist scheme.

A serious worrying factor is whether safe potable water will be available in all the schools for reconstitution purpose. If not, this scheme could be an invitation for disaster as it happened in Bihar where 23 innocent kids had to loose their lives because of poison contaminated midday meals served to them. Similarly SMP does not have indefinite shelf life and if they are not stored properly they can be affected by infestation with insects compromising its safety. One of the posers to the government of Karnataka was whether all children will drink plain milk without sugar as making kids drink milk is a problem in almost all households world over. With exposure to products like Horlicks, Boost, Bournvita etc will the kids agree to drink just plain milk? It is indeed a million dollar uncertainty that has to be expected. 

Another poser is whether all the kids are to be covered as many of them must be coming from reasonably well to do families having the wherewithal to access milk daily. An alternative could be to segregate children based on their weight-height parameters and health status and offering a higher quantity every day to only those really deserving. This can stretch the resources a little more with possibility of higher impact within a short span of time. An uncertainty that may face the scheme is whether this is going to be a permanent feature of the state policy or just a short term program to tide over the immediate milk glut being experienced in the state. With general election not very far away there is a possibility that the Ksheera Bhagya scheme may face the axe once the elections are over!    

Sunday, August 18, 2013


In a country where every food material sold in the market has suspect safety credentials, the citizens are left wondering where to go or what to do to ensure that they get the right quality of food with assured safety to their health. With a government proving to be a helpless spectator in this sordid drama, private traders are having a swell time amassing fortunes at the expense of the health of citizens. FSSAI, the much touted safety agency in the country comfortably ensconced in Delhi and a highly dysfunctional implementation system at the state level throwing up its hands due to inadequate infrastructure, personnel and wide spread corruption make sure that traders and the manufacturing industry get away with murder. Added to this, the judicial system, working at a snail's pace, help the retailers and food handlers buy time in terms of decades even if they are indicted eventually. 

It is against this background one has to view the recent proclamation from Delhi by a group of entrepreneurs that they would set up a dedicated "Milk City" that could ensure equity to the producer as well as the consumer. Though this is difficult to believe considering the enormous odds they face, concept wise it can be a win-win situation. One may recall the vision with which the late Dr Verghese Kurien led the White Revolution which catapulted India into international light and made this country the top milk producing player in the world. While the NDDB efforts deserve full praise for its farmer friendly policies, there is a feeling that consumer is left behind in this high stake marketing game. To day there is practically no difference between the prices of milk products sold by the private industry and that charged by the milk cooperatives. There is no dispute that farmers who form the backbone of country's food security must be rewarded amply but creating a niche farmer group with extraordinarily high income at the expense of the consumer is a questionable strategy. This is what is happening in the country with milk prices soaring each year and surplus production is claimed, probably because high prices invariably restrict milk consumption while excluding many from buying this precious healthy food.

On one hand most cooperative milk federations in the states are reporting collection of milk beyond their capacity to process and sell while on the other hand hungry children in low income families are denied this protective food in many parts of the country. Recent news report that the state milk federation in Andhra Pradesh is holding huge stocks of milk powder without being able to sell them is disturbing indeed. Adding to this unfortunate situation is the inability of the Federation to strike a deal with the applied nutrition program authorities in the state in supplying the powder to the vulnerable segment of the population on account of the price at which its stock has to be disposed off. Probably every one seems to be forgetting the reality that food has a limited life, with each passing day causing irreversible quality damage. One wonders whether these powerful federations will end up like the FCI which finds itself in a precarious position to protect the food grains it procures leaving significant quantities to rot in the open!    

If the media reports are to be believed a group of private milk dealers from the National Capital Region (NCR) around Delhi are planning to take up a project for setting up a dedicated milk producing cum processing facility in the region to be called a "Milk City" (outside the city precincts) that is capable of handling about 1000 to 250000 liters of milk per day to consumers in the Delhi Metropolitan area in direct competition with the Mother Diary and private milk suppliers. Their USP is supposed to be lower prices charged for their fluid milk compared to that charged by others. It is true that there is widely perceived feeling that cooperatives and corporations are currently fleecing both the farmers and consumers, by purchasing milk at low prices from farmers and then selling it at high rates to consumers. The high profit margins gained by these current players due to helplessness of the consumer sought to be neutralized by the new venture. How this can be achieved remains to be seen as no one can expect any industry to work like a charitable organization and profits are the drive engine that ensures growth for the industry. Still if these idealistic entrepreneurs are able to bring in such a revolution, that too in Delhi, it may have ripple effect heralding another white revolution in the country in a different way, viz an equitable way.

According to the blueprint unveiled by the Milk City promoters, the brand new facility would come up on 300 acres of land in Gurgaon, and the development model will be similar to that of NDDB, the major difference being that it will be an integrated facility encompassing both production and processing. In contrast NDDB model is based on widely dispersed production centers in villages from where milk is ferried to the centralized facility for processing. It is mind boggling to imagine about 100,000 cattle being housed in one place with about 8,600 milkmen from areas adjoining Delhi like the districts of Jhunjhunu and Alwar (Rajasthan) and Mewat (Haryana), having registered with the milk city. It is some what far fetched to believe that a cattle population of 1 lakh heads can deliver only 10-25000 liters a day and the concept needs more clarification on this issue. Rearing so many cattle in one place presents many logistical problems which one hopes the organizers have taken into consideration. Also not clear is what spin off projects are planned that can run concurrently with milk production program. Probably one lakh cattle can generate sufficient methane gas to meet the power needs of a small city! The view of the Government on this project is not yet clear as it involves migration of thousands rural families to Delhi region presenting some socio-cultural problems.

There is also confusion regarding delivery of milk to the consumers and it may not be practical to imagine that residents' associations will come forward to the milk city for taking up the distribution responsibility. Ultimately there is the possibility that the new venture may also become identical to the current players with almost the same distribution infrastructure as these players have! Whether the promised cheap milk will remain a mirage remains to be seen However if this concept really works as being propounded by the Delhi 'Milk City' dreamers, other major cities also should think of such mega projects near by for meeting the milk needs of their population at affordable prices..


Wednesday, August 14, 2013


One of the unanswered questions that still haunts humanity is whether high consumption of sugar can contribute to diabetic condition or intolerance of sugar is an aftermath of diabetes! It is well known that diabetes disease presents one with a condition where adequate insulin secretion becomes a casualty due to some  changes in the working of pancreatic gland or the cells develop insulin insensitivity (resistance) because of over weight and other afflictions. Many people develop diabetes after the age of 45 years manly because of unhealthy food eating habits and as age progresses the severity of the  disease increases. India is considered the diabetic capital of the world with highest recorded cases of diabetics living in the country. Out of 280 million diabetics living in different countries, more than 40 million are in India. By 2030 it is predicted that one in every five diabetic persons in the world would be an Indian! A dubious distinction indeed!

The most dreaded two words that can spell potential threat to life are "Metabolic Syndrome" that develops slowly without the victims not even being aware of it. Many diabetics are not diagnosed properly and with treatment being delayed the condition becomes worse with passage of time. It is universally acknowledged that a glucose level of 126 mg per deciliter in the blood after a twelve hour fasting period or 200 mg per deciliter in two hours after ingestion of 75 gm of glucose or a value of 6.5 or more for the glycated hemoglobin (HbA1C) can confirm diabetes in a person. Metabolic syndrome is manifested by a cluster of factors involving abnormal fats (Dyslipidemia), high blood pressure, obesity and abnormal glucose levels in the blood, The symptoms include polyuria (frequent urination), polydipsia (increased thirstiness) and polyphagia (increased hunger). With so much information in the public domain, why so many people fail to check their health regularly for diabetes cannot be easily understood. Either people do not visit their family doctors regularly or doctors' advice is ignored without realizing the grave consequences of serious diabetic condition that can eventually end up by those affected becoming blind or their legs amputated due to gangrene.  

Of all the reasons cited as critical for developing diabetes, the most logical one is lack of exercise which can make pancreas somewhat dysfunctional and consequently cause adverse impact on insulin production. Modern society seems to be ignoring this golden truth and continue to lead sedentary type of lives exacerbating the situation and invite diabetes to take hold of their life. A pertinent question which is often posed relates to the relatively diabetes free society during olden days of our ancestors though they consumed enormous amounts of sugar daily. Look at the range of sweetmeats made and consumed in India and practically every product has sugar beyond 40%! Probably the secret lies in the rigorous working style of people hundred years ago when comfort and leisure were practically unknown and more the physical work out less is the chance for diseases like diabetics to develop. To day with WiFi, broadband, laptops, PCs, Notebooks, iPads and a variety of Gizmos taking hold of the lives of people, there is very little time available for real physical exertion regularly. Naturally the society cannot afford to complain but to suffer the consequences.

What about the role of food technology in this sordid transformation of a vibrant society of yesteryear into a zombie like population, controlled more by electronic, electrical and mechanical gadgets rather than the will power and muscle power of man? Discovery of many technologies like husking, debranning, degerming, polishing, fine grinding, juice extraction and declouding, precooking and packing, extrusion cooking, bread making with refined flours etc seem to have made the human digestion system almost redundant with the result that the pace and efficiency with which sugar is absorbed by the blood increase very significantly resulting in rapid blood sugar build up, not considered healthy. These innovations by food technologists deplete almost every desirable nutrient present in natural food, most critical being the dietary fiber. For example the Indian traditional bread made from whole grains like wheat, jowar and other grains is far superior to the refined flour based western bread loaves from nutritional angle. There are hundreds of such examples where man's superior intelligence has destroyed good foods and created a whole panorama of junk foods with empty calories! 

It is true that there are many modern day medicines to deal with diabetes and diabetics live long if the disease is managed with right medicine, exercise and diet control. Insulin injection has been simplified and delivery mechanism improved beyond recognition. There are many foods supposed to have hypoglycemic effect including bitter gourd, fenugreek and a host of others but how far these can be harnessed into a diet regime and whether Allopathic medicines can altogether be avoided is a question begging for an answer. Similarly alternate medicinal systems like Ayurveda, Unani, Homeopathy and others also have their own treatment regimes claimed to be effective but very few people rely on these alternatives falling back on Allopathic medicines which brings quick results.   

Against such a background comes the news that a radically new delivery system for insulin has been developed that could be very promising and easy to manage. Scientists claim to be pursuing a new line of research to tap the potential of nano technology to deliver insulin into the body for release only when the blood glucose crosses a certain threshold. This enables the body to maintain normal blood sugar levels for more than a week, at least in animal-based laboratory tests. This so called 'Smart" system is designed to do away with the current cumbersome procedure involving monitoring of the blood sugar level several times a day to decide on the number of units of insulin to be injected. According to these scientists, after testing this technology in mice it was confirmed that just one injection was able to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days.  The injectable nano-network is composed of a mixture containing nano particles with a solid core of insulin, modified dextran and glucose oxidase enzymes.  When the enzymes are exposed to high glucose levels they effectively convert glucose into gluconic acid, which breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin. The insulin then brings the glucose levels under control. The gluconic acid and dextran are fully biocompatible and dissolve in the body.  Each of these nanoparticle cores is given either a positively charged or negatively charged biocompatible coating.  The positively charged coatings are made of chitosan extracted from shrimp shells, while the negatively charged coatings are made of alginate derived from seaweed. 

If these claims are true, is the day far off when man can indulge in eating all types of foods to his heart's content and still avoid the harsh repercussions that follow binge eating under normal conditions? What should be kept in mind is that such over eating may not exacerbate the diabetes but it can definitely lead to over weight and obesity and the consequences there of. Recent revelations by scientists at Leeds University that hyperglycemia can, in the long term, adversely affect the cognitive behavior in humans is indeed alarming. Ideally moderate eating, reasonable exercise and cutting down on sugar, fat and salt may the best way to lead a healthy life and man is better of avoiding regular intake of medicines, if possible, for dealing with some of the life style disorders that commonly afflict him to day.


Saturday, August 3, 2013


Searching for ways and means to stay disease free and live long, man spares no efforts and such motivation brings in innovations which can help in alleviating many human miseries. But in such an hectic pursuit, can those, who are fortunate enough to have whatever they want, ignore other less fortunate co-inhabitants in this planet who strive hard to have access to minimum food that can keep their body and soul together? Or is it too much to expect such humane feelings from them, hardened as they are, because they are used to such an inequitable environment with hardly any emotion or thoughts for their unlucky brethren? Rich countries like America, Canada, the EU and a few others do donate food as well as cash to starving people in many poor countries but such efforts do not achieve much though it does bring temporary solace and succor to millions of people. 

How many people can recall the sudden emergence of Oats a couple of decades ago as a super health grain with unlimited virtues and to day it provides billions of dollars of business to a few multinational food companies capitalizing on the supposed benefits from consuming this grain. Interestingly oats when harvested and grains separated from the chaff is a tough grain and it takes hours of cooking to make it edible. The raw oats indeed has a low Glycemic Index (GI) which makes it ideal for those having diabetes or over weight problem. See what has happened to this commodity over a period of time with half a dozen processed products launched by the industry with characteristics like quick cooking, artificial flavors, vegetable and fruit fortified etc. Presence of fruit and vegetables is indeed welcome but what quantities are added is more important. According to available data they do not even constitute 5% of the final product raising the inconvenient question whether they are really relevant at all! It is another matter that in the name of value addition the prices charged for these products became almost scandalous! Oats which horses used to consume has become a rare component of horse feed these days with Soy and Corn replacing it every where. 

It was not long ago that Quinoa, labeled a wonder grain with 3000 year of history behind it, came on the scene and the whole health "lobby" started singing on the remarkable nutritive qualities of this grain. There is no dispute on this count because Quinoa is a grain par excellence in terms of nutrition and human health. This grain became a darling of the health faddists because of its good quality protein, high dietary fiber, high potassium and magnesium besides being reasonably low in glycemic index value. But the limited global production estimated at about 80000 tons per year, coming mainly from Peru and Bolivia made it highly expensive, almost $ 3-8 per kg, unaffordable to many. Still Quinoa is still preferred by many health conscious consumers because of its better nutritional value compared to many other grains. A special quality of Quinoa is that it sprouts rapidly in 2-4 hours compared to minimum 12 hours taken by other grains and can be conveniently used in cold salads. On the flip side Quinoa has a bitter saponin coating which needs to be removed through processing.

Latest to emerge in the healthscape is the so called super grain "Chea", an ancient crop with roots in South American countries of Mexico and Guatemala because of its high Omega- 3 fatty acids, even comparable to fish. The small seeds contain about 25-30% extractable oil, out of which 55% is alpha linolenic acid, a nutritionally important Omega-3 acid which gets converted to the long chain Omega-3 acid Eicosopentaenoic acid (EPA). EPA is health wise important as it has proven to have cardioprotective properties in humans preventing heart attacks.  From its earlier incarnation a few years ago as can ornamental plant Chia has become one of the most sought after health grains globally. Its production is very limited confined to countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Australia and Guatemala. A one ounce serving of Chia provides 9 gm of fat, 11 gm of Dietary Fiber, 4 gm of protein, low Sodium of 5 mg and 1 gm minerals.   

According to some reports whole and ground Chia seeds are being added to fruit drinks, snack foods and cereals, besides being offered as an ingredient for incorporation in baked goods like cookies and for sprinkling on yogurt preparations. It also has high levels of oxy radical bursting antioxidants. Many major food industry giants have started marketing Chia containing food products which adore the shelves of many major super markets. Probably more than 100 Chia based products are currently being offered in the US markets. Its competitor Flax seed which had a dream run earlier because of its high unsaturated fatty acid content including Omega-3 acids seems to be getting sidelined with Chia being preferred by the consumers because of its stability and bland taste suitable for incorporation in most foods without affecting their original flavor. 

Many experts believe that gram for gram, Chia seed is a powerful source of Omega-3s, beating such traditional sources like salmon, contains more calcium than milk, more fiber than all-bran cereal and more antioxidants than blueberries. Because of its high soluble fiber content, Chia seed forms a gel that slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, binds it to toxins in the digestive system and helps eliminate waste. Chia contains one of the highest mixed levels of the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids known in nature with a total of 33 wt/wt % oil content in the seed at a very favorable and heart healthy 33:1 ratio of ALA to LA, the perfect counterbalance to the high omega-6 content in Western diet while sporting only 3% saturated and 7% monounsaturated fats. Confirmation of the efficient metabolic conversion of ALA to heart healthy EPA and brain healthy DHA in short studies in man and, even more impressively, in longer term studies, has recently emerged. Studies unequivocally show both ALA's and its metabolic cascade product, EPA's, positive effects on heart health in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease events in people.

Among all these uphoria Sociologists warn that the high demand pull for grains like Quinoa and Chia is causing a sea change in the diets of local populations in South America causing misery and health disorders among them. Because of the high price it fetches most of the grains grown in these poor countries are exported to the US for consumption by wealthy families there with very little available for local consumption. Consequently their diets are increasingly being based on Maze which is not considered a very nutritious cereal by health experts. Unfortunately very little research inputs are directed towards improving the technology of Chia production and unless this happens healthy grains like Quinoa and Chia are likely to be in short supply with more and more people chasing the limited quantity that is available.