Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Hamburger is a convenient product consumed all over the world and many fast food restaurants offer this popular preparation as a standard item in their menu. The product is so simple that it can be made in a few minutes for serving fresh to the consumer. Hamburger, supposed to have originated in Hamburg in Germany around 1890, became famous being accepted universally all over the world by 1940. Patties from ground meat sandwiched between two rolls of bread is the basic product which can also be prepared using supplementary ingredients like onion, lettuce, tomato etc. World over it is estimated that more than 100 billion Hamburger sandwiches are sold and according to one estimate, if they are arranged in a line side by side, it can cover the earth's circumference 32 times! Americans alone consume about 25 billion burgers annually. Design and fabrication of a mechanized automated burger making machine with a capacity to churn out 400 pieces an hour, announced recently, is going to be a boon to many restaurants when it is available commercially. A classical example of a market driven development heading for unqualified success. The Tortilla plant developed in Brazil is another similar example of market driven endeavor. 

One is reminded of attempts in India to mechanize preparation of many ethnic foods without much success. The Tirupati Temple( TTD) laddus which were being made earlier completely by hand received attention of CFTRI as early as 1980s but even to day design of a continuous machine similar to the hamburger machine reported has not yet emerged. Imagine the usefulness of such an automated plant for making laddus which are in great demand, the temple management not being able to increase production through manual practice. Still credit goes to TTD for introducing several mechanized gadgets for syrup making, mixing and some other operations which made it possible to make products which are much safer with minimum human intervention. Another case is that of Sabarimala Neyyappam which even to day is made manually though the current production is not able to meet even a small part of the demand from pilgrims visiting this shrine. 

The point is not that nothing is being done by food technologists and engineers in the country for mechanization of preparation processes of many popular foods of Indian origin. CFTRI has done yeoman service in designing a few such machines for the food service industry though only a limited number of plants are in working mode. The machines that make Roti, Idli, Dosa etc are technically sound but the transformation of these designs into viable and rugged production models did not materialize in most cases for which both the user industry and CFTRI must be equally blamed. The dedicated Food Engineering Center at Mysore, floated by the Ministry of Food Processing Industry (MFPI) of Government of India during mid 1990s never took off due to many reasons least of which was the leadership turmoil that affected the functioning of the institution, suffering direction and long term vision. 

Probably a time has come now for taking a deeper look at the engineering needs of India's small and micro scale enterprises who are engaged in making about 5000 and odd different types of ethnic products made and consumed in various parts of the country. The MFPI which a few of its own food technology centers, CSIR with many multi disciplinary technological and engineering institutions  under its aegis and Universities having food technology programs must join hands in taking up a time bound development program in traditional food manufacturing area on a mission mode to transform the primitive industry into a high tech one. The time frame must be not more than 5-6 years with close monthly monitoring and mid course adjustment to accomplish the objective. The country must keep in mind that it is only the small scale sector of Indian food industry which is starved of technology and engineering back up while all the big fish that control the market have access to global technologies and local resources to develop what they want in double quick time.   

Mechanization is an integral part of food industry in many developed countries where manual labor is becoming increasingly in short supply and preparation of Hamburgers involve workers with different handling functions to turn out large numbers in short time. Besides intervention by humans invariably poses risk of contamination including infection with pathogenic microbes. But Indian situation is different as food industry is being looked upon as an extension of the agricultural sector with large expectation for generating value addition and contribute better to the economy of the country. Therefore success or failure of the processing sector will have an adverse impact on the millions of farmers in the country. Failure is not an option for the present day India and efforts are to be redoubled to make the small scale and micro enterprises sector a dynamic and vibrant one. 

Full automation is not what is being sought for but a hybrid versions of plants with most of the unit operations mechanized.  Employment generation is still a national objective and therefore full automation may reduce the employment content significantly which is not desirable at least for the present. Indian scientists, technologists, engineers with expertise in food processing are second to none in terms of their ingenuity, creativity and innovation potential. All that is needed is to repose confidence in them, fire their imagination, provide motivating type of leaders with good track records and policy and financial support to bring the best out of them. There is till some hope that India can yet become the food basket to the entire world!


Wednesday, March 6, 2013


World over a significant segment of food industry indulge in unethical practices including mislabeling and misleading advertisements making tall claims about the virtue of their products with no supporting evidence. A vigilant overseeing mechanism can haul up the delinquents for their wrong practices. But it is the advertisements, especially in the electronic media, that become dangerous to vulnerable consumers who believe in them. There is no official technical vetting of the contents of TV commercials before telecasting and this "free for all" arrangement is a win-win situation for both the product promoters and the telecasting companies. Such promoters are so unscrupulous that they indulge in saturation advertisements targeting children and unassuming house wives and unfortunately there are no guidelines for the telecasters in accepting sponsored ads with misleading contents. The Chairman of the Press Council is more interested in politicking than disciplining the reckless media! The latest initiative by FSSAI in clamping down on such culprits is indeed laudatory and must be appreciated.

Why should there be any restriction on such advertisements when most of these are based on some information gleaned out from the literature? Answer is very simple. The claims are often exaggerated and some times misinterpreted and the way the commercial ads are designed, it carries some conviction with the viewers, most of them being children and house wives. Many parents tend to be swayed by  ceaseless ads which are cleverly juxtaposed with popular serials and other programs creating a lasting image of the products promoted. Such impressions, carried as a baggage when going for shopping, translate into buying some of them involuntarily! Imagine who will not be swayed by claims that promise to make their children taller and healthier or make children more intelligent and brainy! 

It is right on the part of FSSAI to find these ads "misleading and deceptive". Take for instance the claims of a brand of Multi-grain Noodles', which unabashedly proclaim day in and day out that the product has nutritional benefits s or for that matter , a brand of cooking oil which promises "healthy heart"!  In still another case FSSAI filed against the advertisements of two brands of beverages for claiming that they provide three times more stamina than an ordinary chocolate drink though the manufacturers concerned do not have any scientific evidence to support such a claim! Citizens in this country must have been fed up by advertisements by a multi national company that its product, containing more than three dozen nutrients, is a "complete food" though there is no such thing in the world as a complete food. Health pundits all over the world want consumers to adopt a diverse diet containing whole grains, fruits and vegetables and unsaturated oil containing foods. If a product containing no grains, no dietary fiber, is claimed as a complete good, it is both unethical and borders on criminal misrepresentation. 

One of the most difficult tasks of a consumer when going for shopping, is to decipher what is presented on the label. Assuming that the consumer has the necessary time and patience to read the label completely the message coming from such labels is often confusing. Many times the information is printed in very small prints which are next to impossible to read, let alone understand. There is no uniformity with regard to the declaration of MRP, pack weight, ingredients, nutritional data, manufacturing date and "best before" date. This is where iconic representation of the quality of a product can be of great help to millions of consumers, especially those who does not understand English or other languages. 

It is one thing to issue notice and another thing to follow it up through deterrent action and whether FSSAI has the necessary determination to punish these culprits remains to be seen. The list of brands against whom notices have been issued includes some of the giants in food product manufacturing and their political clout cannot be under estimated. With most of the legal luminaries, commanding astronomical fees, rushing to take up cases of all hues and colors, no matter how morally or ethically they are not factual, FSSAI can be expected to have a full fight on their hand if these cases are really pursued to their logical end. Here are best wishes for this "Authority" to succeed.


Tuesday, March 5, 2013


With sugar driven human disorders on the rise all over the world, search has been on for decades to bring out zero calorie sweeteners with unquestionable safety for long term use and having no after taste. One of the essential features of such sweeteners must be that they are as concentrated in sweetness as possible so that very small quantities can simulate sweetness of natural sugar with user friendly features. Till about a decade ago synthetic non-nutritive sweeteners were dominating the market and the safety of most of them is still under a cloud with no unanimity among safety experts. It is only recently that Stevia glycosides, extracted from the Stevia plant became an almost universally accepted natural zero calorie "sweetener" and started its commercial debut. Pushing behind all the synthetic sweeteners Stevia is at the center stage at present, with practically the entire food processing industry accepting it as an ingredient compatible with most products designed for low calories. 

In spite of vast strides made in farming the plant and expanding the source of Stevia leaves from which the sweet glycosides are extracted, purified and crystallized, there still remains some problems when Stevia glycosides are used in formulating low calorie foods, most serious being the mild after taste and non-uniform taste perception in the oral cavity. While the first bite or dose consumed gives intense sweetness, subsequent ingestion gives less and less sweetness. Thus the intensity of sweetness goes down as the consumption progresses. Of course most consider this as a minor inconvenience because this is the only commercially successful non-nutritive sweetener which has established its credentials. Progress of Stevia sugar industry has been phenomenal during the last 5 years with many major producers emerging on the scene including food industry giants like Coke and Pepsi. 

Practically boasting same credentials, a few next generation sweeteners are now being positioned to challenge the dominance of Stevia. Most prominent among them to hit the market is a product derived from a fruit of the herbaceous perennial vine Siraitia grosvenorii, native to southern China and northern Thailand, used traditionally by local people for imparting sweetness to their preparations. Commonly known as Monk fruit ot Buddha fruit, it is more popularly known as luo han guo in the local area. It is claimed to be a part of the traditional Chinese medicinal system with its unique property of imparting a cooling effect when consumed and was very commonly used to treat obesity and diabetes among the population there. Though the fruit juice is most commonly used as a cooling drink, its value as a source of zero calorie sweetener is attributed to a group of organic chemicals collectively called Migrosides. The juice contains fructose and glucose, both calorie yielding sugars and hence to get a product with no calorie, adequate processing is required to isolate the migrosides in pure forms.

If the reports appearing about monk fruit sweeteners are true, almost 90 percent of the sources of monk fruit is monopolized by a New Zealand-based company on whom the processors have to depend on supply of dry fruits for isolating the migrosides. Unlike Stevia glycosides, monk fruit is amenable to water extraction and it is the juice which has to be further processed to remove glucose, fructose and other calorie yielding substances to get concentrated products containing 90% plus pure migrosides. There appears to be five forms of migrosides in the fruit, distinguished by affixing numbers I to V, the sweetest being the type V, 300 times sweeter than natural sugar. In 2010 monk fruit derived sweeteners were declared as generally safe for use in foods.

One of the issues regarding the use of the word natural is whether it can be used if the raw material undergoes severe processing steps like Stevia which needs the solvent extraction process to obtain a crystalline substance with high purity. Monk fruit based sweeter preparations are made from water extracts and limited quantities available so far come from vertically integrated production system where the monopoly manufacturer supplies quality seedlings to its Chinese contract farmers who are legally bound to supply the company the entire fruit yield. it is claimed that the seedlings are the optimized result of natural plant breeding by the company through traditional practices, not resorting to genetic modification. 

While most of the current interest in monk fruit is due to its sweetening ability, there are several other bio-active compounds in the fruit that could become valuable and marketed ingredients down the road. Of course there needs to be a pro-active marketing effort to make these new sweetener source acceptable to the processor and the consumer. Already there are branded products based on Monk fruit marketed by reputed companies which include 'Purefruit', 'BlueSweet', 'Fruit20', 'Fruit50', 'Nectresse' etc. Though these products are claimed to be superior to Stevia, how far the industry will agree to this claim remains to be seen. What is clear with this new avatar of sweetener is that it is going to take time, even if accepted, to fine tune its use in new food products which can be quite time consuming but probably Monk fruit will emerge as a major competitor to Stevia in the coming years.