Thursday, May 30, 2013


Populist schemes like distributing food grains for a rupee per kg are considered the benchmark for the credentials of governments at the Center as well in the states for their "love" and "commitment" to the common man who is synonymous with poverty and destitution in this "Maha" country! Look at the tearing hurry with which the present government in Delhi (GoI) is trying to push through a half baked, ill conceives and an unworkable food security bill in the Parliament solely for garnering votes from the people who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of this monstrous scheme without proper discussion among the law makers regarding the logistics, infrastructure and financial resources needed! This is all the more reprehensible considering that the existing dilapidated and leaky Public Distribution System (PDS), despite its existence for more than 5 decades  has not made any dent on the poverty level among the vulnerable segments of the population.

It is a tragedy of Himalayan proportion that the "rulers" in this country always look for scapegoats for all their failures and the story of PDS is also the same. While the Center blames the states for the ills of the program, States in turn point an accusing finger to Center for lack of support from it fr their endeavor. Caught in between are the targeted beneficiaries who are deprived of their legitimate share of food grains shown in the "account" books. According to independent observers the pilferage of grains from the government granaries is as high as 65% in some states and surprisingly the planning commission does not seem to be too much worried about this aspect. Now comes the Rs1-2 per kg food grain distribution program with the planners having hazy idea regarding the implementation of this massive dole out program. This only highlights the fact that all government schemes look good on paper but suffer from bad implementation because of the lax attitude of the bureaucracy that runs these programs. Imagine how hurting it would be for the economy of this country when almost Rs 1.26 lakh crore is spent on this grandiose scheme which is unlikely to succeed in its objectives and instead end up as a "rewarding" scheme for thousands of politicians, bureaucrats and criminals!

The recent launching of another populist scheme in Tamil Nadu at Chennai that is supposed to help low income group of people get cheap food preparations in low cost vending kiosks is indeed timely. In theory it is a good scheme because the run away prices of restaurant foods are excluding a substantial segment of the population in the city from the "eating out" pleasure and the most vulnerable people like workers, students and many service providers are hard hit by the hyper inflation of hotel food prices. While government does not want or is not able to rein in the high profit hotel industry, the new scheme seems to be a soft option. While concept wise it may be a good attempt how far logistically it is practical remains to be seen.

According to the media reports Chennai Civic Corporation is setting up a series of low cost canteens across this City to be christened Amma Canteens and residents of all the wards will have access to these low cost eateries offering some of the popular dishes at prices which are ridiculously low making one wonder who is subsidizing these foods. These eateries are expected to sell idlis ar Re 1 per piece while other preparations like sambar rice, curd rice etc priced at Rs-3-5 per serving. It appears the Corporation has completed the process of identifying 127 buildings in various wards, where these canteens will be located to supplement 73 such eateries already commissioned earlier. Eventually there would be 200 such Amma Canteens, one for each ward. The Corporation's ambitious project is claimed to be targeted at providing healthy food at reasonable prices to residents living in slums, daily laborers, drivers, load-men and migrant workers which is indeed laudable.

If the project officials are to be believed about 2,400 women belonging to self-help groups (SHG) in the city would take up the responsibility of cooking, serving and managing the canteens and these women are being trained for this task. The Corporation claims that since its beginning in February this year the Amma Canteens already operating in various wards have served more than 20 lakh idlis, 5 lakh sambar rice dishes and more than 3 lakh curd rice dishes.Though no evaluation of the relevance, need and response of the customers has yet been done, from the volume of business achieved it appears to be popular. Quality and safety are the main criteria that will decide whether this venture can thrive and serve the purpose for which it is set up.

Some of the critical issue that will confront the organizers include the sustainability of the scheme, its continued funding, availability of right personnel for management, maintaining quality and ensuring safety of the preparations served in these places. Since it has Corporation blessings, there would be nagging suspicion that food safety standards may not be strictly enforced and such a situation can be dangerous for the customers in the long run.Government must ensure that safety of food served is not compromised under any circumstances. Another issue which will crop up is whether one canteen per ward would be adequate to meet the need of the residents there and if the food quality is on par with that sold in private restaurants these canteens may become over crowded inviting severe management problem. Restricting the access to customers other than low income group may not be practical and the state government may be left with no option but expand this operation manifold and spread the scheme in other major towns in the state.

A similar venture in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala being managed by the Prison authorities is reported to be doing extremely well though its modus operadi is slightly different. Another difference is that the Kerala venture does not sell the products made by prison inmates at such low prices and it is self supporting project. Besides the range of foods sold by them is much more diverse compared to Chennai project and their sale model is based on mobile vans which distribute the fresh preparation in different parts of that city. But the fact still remains that such type of projects are indeed welcome to give relief to the much harassed public who are continuously being milked by the organized hotel industry remorselessly!  


Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Ever since the discovery of Diabetes as a disease connected with sugar, mankind has been continuously in quest of effective substitutes for natural sugar for patients who cannot utilize glucose efficiently. But at the same time most people did not want to sacrifice the pleasure of consuming sweet products that stimulates the palate! The relationship between glucose uptake and insulin has been well established and insulin therapy became a standard treatment regime for Type I diabetes. On the other hand Type II diabetes is increasingly being managed through dietary restriction on consumption of high glycemic index foods and various drugs that facilitate better uptake of glucose by the cells from the blood. The dynamics of diabetic management have changed so dramatically that the old concept of avoiding sugar and carbohydrate foods has given way to new concept of regulated intake of such foods over a longer duration which prevents glucose build up in the blood. 

Discovery of Saccharine in 19th century was a boon to diabetic patients and its universal adoption as a safe non-nutritive sweetener created a euphoria among diabetics. It is only later safety questions were raised and Saccharine lost its preeminent position as the most preferred synthetic sweetener. Though its harmful effects have not yet been conclusively proved at the level used in humans, consumers started observing some of its culinary defects demanding better non-calories sweeteners. During the last 50 years a number of sugar substitutes arrived on the scene, the most popular being Aspartame which is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. After enjoying near monopoly of the market, new findings raised some significant doubts regarding its safety for long term consumption. Even to day aspartame is not an unconditionally acceptable sweetener and some studies are still going on to find out if there are any significant health risks in consuming it regularly over a long period. 

It was only during the last one decade that Steviol glycosides, a natural plant derived sweetener with zero calorie yield and the man-made Sucralose started receiving attention for their excellent quality as sweeteners. Stevia glycosides have a long consumption history in South America where the plant leaves were being consumed for centuries with no reported ill effects and processing these leaves into pure crystalline chemicals responsible for the sweetening properties became a reality. To day Stevia leaves processing industry is one of the fastest growing segments of industry with an annual growth of almost 20%. Commercial cultivation of Stevia plant is being taken up in many parts of the world and it may be a question of time before it establishes its position as numero uno among the sugar substitutes. Its uneven taste imparting profile can be its only draw back while no one seriously questions its safety credentials. Even in this area efforts have been reported to improve its taste profile through blending of different fractions of the glycosides present in the leaves.

In came Sucralose to challenge other sugar major substitutes and became an instant hit with the consumers. Discovered accidentally towards the end of the last millennium, it was promoted as a high intensity sweetener, being 600 times sweeter than cane sugar. Whatever safety data have been generated seem to have been accepted in many countries and Sucralose seems to be pushing out Aspartame from its pedestal as most acceptable and cheapest in the market. Recently several inconvenient questions are being raised about the safety and efficacy credentials of this chlorinated sucrose chemical which do not seem to be getting any clear answer. Any non-nutritive sweetener must satisfy four important criteria. These include whether it contributes directly or indirectly to blood glucose elevation, whether it is reasonably safe, whether it is efficient in terms of imparting sweetness at the lowest concentration and whether it has any after taste. Sucralose, for a while enjoyed high acceptance on all the above criteria and it is only recently grave doubts are being expressed on some of them.     

While its efficiency regarding sweetening power and cost is universally accepted  it is the safety credential and the efficiency in controlling blood sugar level that are being questioned. According to some critics Sucralose is an organo chlorine compound, three of its hydroxyl group being replaced with chlorine through covalent bonds. Generally organochlorine compounds are highly toxic and most pesticides which are effective toxins for a variety of lower organisms belong to this class of compounds. How far Sucralose is comparable to these organochlorine pesticides in terms of toxicity is some thing not known to many consumers. One can only assume that the safety authorities in those countries which gave clearance to Sucralose must have adequate data on its safety for long term use. Consumers have a nagging doubt that adequate clinical studies using humans have not been carried out raising anxiety regarding its safety. 

Recent research findings in Washington University School of Medicine which have found that sucralose is not metabolically inert as was believed, raises enough concern and added to this it was found that instead, it actually raises blood sugar!. How this happens is some what a mystery though it is being hypothesized that Sucralose does so possibly by acting on receptors in intestines that mediate uptake of glucose into blood. In such an eventuality glucose absorption becomes more efficient raising the blood sugar level rapidly compared to normal conditions. Of course the industry which has latched on to Sucralose as an omnipotent zero calories ingredient in thousands of products could be hard hit financially if this finding is confirmed by further studies. Also millions of diabetic patients are going to be in for a shock if this is proven beyond doubt.  

Another disturbing report implicates Sucralose in destruction gut bacteria to the extent of 50% and if this is true Sucralose may find it hard to continue to enjoy the acceptability level it has now. It is now well recognized that health of gut bacterial population is directly linked to the health of a person and if this is disturbed by intense antibiotic therapy, the consequences are well established by many clinical trials. Similarly if Sucralose is confirmed to have an adverse effect on gut bacteria, as is being implied in some credible studies, it may be curtains down for this rising sugar substitute sooner or later. Already there are some reports which show that obese people have a drastically different gut bacterial profile and if these people start consuming Sucralose regularly as a part of their controlled diet regime, imagine the consequences! They will be gaining weight further in stead of shedding the same!  

What are the implications of this small study using a few obese individuals on the present status of diabetic patients and weight watchers? The effect this chemical entity has on glucose absorption might expose body to toxic levels of blood sugar that will lead to harm in the long term. Similarly those who shun natural sugar to cut down on calories may experience the opposite effect and end up gaining weight! Sooner this controversy is resolved better it will be for these anxious segments of the society. The developers of Sucralose have lot to answer to the public while the safety regulators will have eggs on their face if the above findings are substantiated through more organized and scientifically unimpeachable studies. Is Sucralose going to be the next "tobacco" that will shake the industry through class action by millions of consumers who believed them and their data? Did the original developers conceal the real data showing that this chemical really raises blood sugar level at concentrations recommended? If so they must be hauled up for possible criminal fraud against humanity! 

Thursday, May 23, 2013


India is considered the biggest market for Scotch Whiskey, in spite of the fact it is one of the poorest countries among the comity of nations. Paradoxically almost 25% of its population are considered impoverished with high level of malnutrition and under nutrition. Still Scotch Whiskey rules the country with every well to do person aspiring to have it as frequently as possible. There was a time not in the distant past when almost all Indian visitors returning from a sojourn abroad carrying a jumbo pack of internationally reputed cigarettes and a carton of Scotch Whiskey both allowed into the country without any import duty. Some of the popular brands include Chivas Regal, Johnniewalker, Buchanans, Ballentines, Glenlivet, Famous Grouse, Highland Park etc. These brands costing astronomically have gained global acceptance though one really does not know whether they have any USP compared to other brands marketed by many companies in different parts of the world! 

According globally accepted agreement one can call a spirit Scotch whiskey  only if it is made in the country Scotland which has the Geographical Indication (GI) protection, similar to patenting. It is considered a national brand which many consider as the right medium for toasting and celebrations. Though many manufacturers make Scotch Whiskey, one cannot call the same type of product in any other country by that name unless manufacturing takes place within the boundaries of Scotland. The process involves brewing the grains, distilling and maturing for different periods varying from 12 to 25 years! Is it not amazing that this unique product is sold in more than 200 countries across the globe and its patrons have no color, cast or economic discrimination while drinking the much coveted spirit. 

Scotch, to begin with was a cottage industry during early years of nineteenth century with widely scattered production base, involving many players, mostly families engage in making the spirit in small scale. Though the Scotch Whiskey industry was down in the dumps by the middle of 20th century, its fortunes were revived by multinational brewers like Diageo which controls to day 40% of Scotch market globally.  It is not disputed that Scotch is a global phenomenon now and Scotland gains much because of the employment generated by this industry and the taxation on the product. In fact it is a paradox that Scotch Whiskey is made by genuine Scotland incorporated breweries only to the extent of 20% while remaining comes from giant multinationals  headquartered else where. 

The remarkable turn around of the Scotch whiskey occurred when it was positioned by the organized liquor industry as an aspirational product among the middle class in emerging markets such as Asia, South America and Africa. According to the industry spokesman Scotch's success can be attributed to its appeal to the affluent as well as the middle class people. The unique status enjoyed by Scotch consumers has become symbolic of their importance in the society. No business deal is struck unless it accompanies a Scotch Whiskey session! The nearest competitor for Scotch is Champagne which gives a different feeling of elation when it is uncorked but Scotch is often considered as an excellent anti-depressant to drown one's sorrow.   

According to the industry Scotch Whiskey is consumed world wide with the top consuming countries including the US, France, South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea and Venezuela. Global trade is estimated at about $ 6 billion and the Scotland economy derives 4% of its GDP from exports of Scotch, with 25% of its total exports basket coming from Scotch. Imagine each second 40 bottles of Scotch is exported overseas from Scotland. In spite of all these positive trends, Scotch Whiskey is still struggling to produce enough to meet the insatiable quest for its product from all quarters of the world. This is due to the fact that the product has to be stored in special wooden caskets for duration beyond 12 years before it can be marketed.

India has a unique culture of consuming spirit beverages with Indian made foreign liquor, popularly known as IMFL dominating the landscape. IMFL is made by alcoholic fermentation of molasses, a by product of sugar industry abundantly available in the country. Also popular is Arrack a locally distilled spirit beverage using fermented Toddy tapped from coconut trees. Kerala is the top alcohol consuming state in India and one has the unique distinction here of State undertakings marketing alcoholic beverages in every nook and corner of the state. Rum another product derived from molasses is popular with Defense Force personnel whose consumption of liquor is very high. As a part of national policy to discourage alcohol consumption Governments use the taxation route to make these products costlier and unaffordable to many. However such economic restraints do not seem to be working as reflected by the soaring sales of liquor in the state every year!  

If Kerala, a tiny state in the country has a per capita annual liquor consumption of 9 liters, country wise it is negligible, about 550 ml! Is it not shocking that despite preaching alcohol abstinence by the nation every state is capitalizing on the gullibility of people to alcoholic beverages and this is reflected by the revenue earned by Kerala government in 2012 through excise duty to the tune of Rs 6000 crore out of sales estimated at Rs 7000 crore! Probably this attitude and action are giving hope to the global liquor industry to set up shop in the country in droves to tap the exploding market.  

In India the Scotch is imported in significant quantities but a hefty import duty of 150% is inhibiting the growth. There is considerable pressure on the Indian government to reduce the duty component to reasonable levels and as a member of WTO it is bound to bring down the duty to lower levels sooner or later. Established manufacturers are investing heavily in creating additional capacity for Scotch whiskey production hoping to exploit the Indian market in the years to come. It is to be realized that if the spirit is made to day it will take 12 years for maturation and sending to the market and hence this increased tempo in investing on this product. Knowing the appetite of Indians for Scotch, if the country ever opens up the market for import of Scotch under a low import duty regime, it is likely to become the top Scotch consuming in the world within a matter of few years!


Monday, May 20, 2013


Do bacteria play a role in controlling body weight in humans? On the face of it this theory may be far fetched but tentative studies indirectly do indicate that these tiny creatures living in different parts of human body help to maintain good health and disturbing their equilibrium can possibly lead to  undesirable consequences such as lower immunity and bloated bodies.  Over weight and obesity can be quite debilitating, as such morbid conditions invariably contribute many diseases like CVD, Hypertension, Kidney disorders etc and there is a global concern that if not given adequate attention to this potentially dangerous situation, this world will be full of morbid people making every body's life miserable.

There are many dietary regimes proposed for weight control and different diets help different people to varying extent. Who does not know about Atkins Diet or South Beach Diet which were once a craze with weight watchers but all of them eventually faded from the scene because of the uncertainties associated with such restrictive diets. If BMI is used as a criterion, those having values beyond 30 need to watch out for complications arising out of overweight and beyond a BMI value of 35 it can be obese becoming morbid obesity if it still goes higher. Those who are desperate do go on strict diet control for a stipulated time, do lose significant weight but promptly regains the weight once diet restriction is removed. In the case of diabetics, efficient blood glucose control can make a difference between normal life and dangerous flirting with even death. The HbA1C values recorded quarterly beyond 7 is considered unhealthy. As restrictions on sugar become more and more acute, the cravings for sweet foods also become more and more irresistible!

Surgical intervention like Bariatric surgery, intestinal stapling etc become imperative under extreme conditions of obesity to prevent development of morbidity but these are all considered unnatural becoming an option only under extreme conditions.  There is even a stomach pump available that can evacuate the stomach contents within 20-30 minutes of consuming the food!  What kind of life these unfortunate victims will have after such surgical interventions? Out of millions of people, hardly a couple hundred thousands opt for surgery to get relief from the sufferings associated with overweight and obesity. Thus there is a genuine need to evolve a much more simpler technique which can bring relief to these people vulnerable to putting on weight or resistance to shedding weight through natural process of dietary control. Of course the theory that overweight is net game between calorie intake and calorie expenditure through physical activity still holds good but most consumers find it extremely difficult to "manage" their daily calorie intake by controlling the food intake and an active exercise regimen.

Here comes the role of microorganisms which have become omnipotent in every walk of life to day. The importance of prebiotic and probiotic foods in maintaining good gut health is already well known in qualitative terms but knowledge about which microorganisms do what is still somewhat hazy. Thousands of processed foods containing such microbes in active form are offered by the industry and an active cell count of 4 billion live cells is considered desirable for getting the benefits of these health foods. Here again opinion varies regarding what species are more effective and what is the most desirable proportion some of these microbes must be present in the food. It is also not clear whether the type of diet consumed has any bearing on the efficacy of function of these microbes and what should be desirable consumption levels in daily diets. Thus the picture that is presented to the consumer lacks clarity and raise many unanswered questions.

It is a fact that in human beings microbial cells outnumber human ones, and many new studies have brought out the crucial role played by trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in their own ecosystem in the gut. Recent discovery that Clostridium difficile bacteria can infect people through exposure to hospitals, nursing homes and such community centers and most antibiotics known to man are ineffective in controlling the infection, was quite baffling for some time. Antibiotics, which are used nowadays routinely to treat even a mild cold,  were found to wipe out many natural microorganisms present in the guts which would have normally kept C. difficile in check. It is scary to imagine that severe cases of  such infection can be life-threatening and after running out of all options the medical profession is gradually coming to accept the somewhat startling idea that the best therapy that works involves a fecal transplant from a healthy person to the one who is sick. This is to rehabilitate the population of beneficial microorganisms that were present in the guts before administration of antibiotics.

The focus has now turned on a new thinking which correlates the efficiency of  gastric bypass surgery to changes in  microbiological profile brought about by the surgery. Some studies had shown that the microbial profile of the intestine in an obese person changed significantly after the surgery, becoming more like that of someone who was thin. But was the change due to surgery itself, or from the weight loss that followed the operation? And did the microbial change have any effects of its own? True such studies would be difficult and time-consuming in humans and researcher had to use laboratory mice, which were fattened up with a rich diet. One group had gastric bypass operations, and two other groups had "sham" operations in which the animals' intestines were severed and sewn back together. The point was to find out whether just being cut open, without having the bypass, would have an effect on weight or gut bacteria. One sham group was kept on the rich food, while the other was put on a weight-loss diet. In the bypass mice, the microbial populations quickly changed, and the mice lost weight.  How the altered intestinal bacteria might cause weight loss is not clearly understood though it appeared that the microbes have caused increased metabolic rate burning more energy.

According to some most recent studies a particular species of bacteria Akkermansia mucilophilia which inhabits human gut and constitutes about 3-5% of the microbial mass in normal humans helps reduce body weight by slowing down of absorption of calorie rich foods across the intestinal membrane. Quantitatively the levels of this bacteria in obese people are much below the normal levels encountered in healthy persons and probably this finding confirms the earlier guess attributing a weight reduction role to intestinal bacteria.A.mucilophilia appears to be able to modify the mucal surface of the intestine so that transport of calorie rich food components is regulated efficiently. There is also a nagging suspicion that even though they are residing in the intestine, they might be playing more critical role in regulating body metabolism in some way which needs to be elucidated. Though the findings were based on laboratory studies using mice, there is a strong likelihood that such a relation exists in humans also. Surprisingly this bacteria also reduced insulin resistance giving hope that one day, not too distant a future, a more affordable and easy to manage bacterial therapy may emerge to attack obesity and diabetes without the trauma associated with highly restrictive diet regime and surgical intervention.

Now that the role of bacteria in body weight control has been technically demonstrated there is need to expand the scope of studies to bring to surface whether there are others also involved in weight reduction and if so their precise role. Establishing the ability of bacteria to control calorie intake by the body may be just one part of the eventual treatment regime that may become a reality soon but any therapy can be good only if there is discipline while eating. A combination of mild diet control and bacterial therapy can be a win-win situation as and when more information emerges on these friendly bugs, aptly called the "gut soldiers".

(After composing the above article some time in April by this author, New York Times published an extremely informative and incisive article on May 15, 2013 regarding the overwhelming influence of microorganisms on human life written by the internationally acknowledges Guru of food technology Prof Michael Pollan. This Blogger recommends this article for reading by every one on this planet to appreciate the role of these tiny creatures which are sought to be destroyed indiscriminately by the modern man in the name hygiene and sanitation using many bactericides including broad spectrum antibiotics! Access the article through the following


Monday, May 13, 2013


No wonder that the world recognizes the unmatched advantages associated with breast feeding and the benefits the new borne baby derives by feeding on its mother's milk. It is known for some time that human body is colonized by trillions of microorganisms, most of which are beneficial and protect them from a number of diseases and health ailments. In the latest revelation about human milk, scientists have brought out the fact that it contains hundreds of species of microbes, hitherto not identified, with different characteristics. Before these findings, doctors always recommended breast feeding and the scientific basis was that one of the bacteria called Bifidus has the ability to protect the tender digestive tract from many types of infection, some of them with fatality potential if not properly treated. 

Colostrum which is the first flush of milk produced by the mother immediately after giving birth to the baby is found to be a veritable source of bacteria, more than 700 in number, some of them very unique and the role of which is still not well understood. A highly digestible fluid, Colostrum contains all the nutrients required for the development of the baby before regular milk is produced. Analysis of colostrum samples revealed that the most common types of bacteria present in it were Streptococcus, Lactococcus, Leuconostoc, Weissella and Staphylococcus. Samples of breast milk produced between the first and sixth month of pregnancy were also analyzed and the most common bacteria identified include Prevotella, Leptotrichia and Veillonella. It is not clear as to the source from where these bugs get into the baby's digestive system and this is a subject that calls for further studies.

One of the theories suggests that the above diverse type of bacteria colonize the mouth of the baby and later enter the breast milk bringing about changes in its composition. Interestingly the breast milk from mothers who were either overweight or obese was found to have less bacteria than breast milk from mothers who had a healthy body weight. A logical question that arises in this context is whether there is any difference in the microbial genome of milk coming from mothers who had C-section from those delivering normally through the vaginal route. According to the latest studies there were significant differences with normally delivered babies getting milk significantly richer and diverse in its microbial content qualitatively and quantitatively. Though there is no ready explanation for this vital difference, one of the possible reasons could be the influence of hormones produced during birth. It is surmised that lack of signals of physiological stress, as well as hormonal signals specific to labor, might be responsible for the difference in the microbial composition and diversity of breast milk characteristics from these two types of mothers. 

Ingestion of breast milk probably is the first time a baby comes in contact with microorganisms which will eventually end up in it's digestive system. There are interesting questions thrown up by these new studies on an area uncharted so far which include whether some of the bacteria identified newly play any crucial role in the development of immunity to the baby and strengthen the same for making it a stronger and healthier kid during its early life. Also begging for an answer is whether different allergies which are common to day including asthma can be preempted with the help of these friendly bacteria during the adulthood. To get an answer to the nagging uncertainty regarding the precise role of microbes present at different stages in mother's milk a global effort is necessary and then only one can conclude whether they are involved more in immunity development or it is confined to some metabolic functions. 

Millions of tons of man created baby foods based on processing of animal milk are promoted by large industry conglomerates as effective substitute for breast milk without realizing the critical role played by microbes which are present only in the latter. Of course the statutory "advice" declaring "breast milk is the best milk" is routinely printed on the baby food packs while aggressive promotional strategy still attracts millions of unwary mothers to industrial baby food products flooding the market. If the world cannot stop manufacture and marketing of commercially made baby food products for feeding normal babies, at least the industry should be made to incorporate some of the most beneficial bacteria which are present in colostrum. Freeze dried bacteria can be blended with the main product before packing and such products will be much more healthy than just the milk powder fortified with some micro nutrients considered necessary for babies currently available to day.


Sunday, May 5, 2013


Food is a zero sum game involving the producer, processor, consumer, environmentalist and the government and naturally as in any human endeavor unanimity on any issue is elusive. There are many areas where clarity and transparency are not adequate enough to separate the grains from the chaff. Though science and scientific research are supposed to pursue to seek truth, in this particular area of food science clarity, transparency and unbiased information are more conspicuous by their absence. Practically on all issues scientists engaged in research on food and allied areas seem to be vertically divided putting every body concerned in a quandary regarding the significance of their findings. Here are a few areas where such a deep divide is distinctly visible.

Top on the list is genetically modified (GM) foods about which millions of words have been spoken and written. Yet no reasonable degree of agreement is in sight whether they are good, bad or indifferent, putting the consumer and the government in great disarray, making it difficult to make a value judgement. While GM food crops are banned or controlled in many countries, the US is the only nation in this planet which has taken the stand that they are safe and there is a serious allegation that FDA is influenced more by the economic clout of the GM food industry than the well beings of the citizens. It may be recalled that greatest achievement of Biotechnology is the spawning genetic engineering technique to play around with the native genes of natural food crops by introducing external genes with best traits. To day more than 80% of the food products in the American market contain GM food ingredients without the consumer fully aware of this truth. It is a intrigue as to why rest of the world avoids GM foods while the US accepts them unreservedly! Probably the major reason is that GM crops are much more input intensive and therefore costlier to cultivate. Safety questions are still to be answered unequivocally through clinical trials and till this is settled, it is unlikely that the entire world will embrace GM technology for food crops. Added to the concerns of safety scientists are the vociferous protests from environmentalists crying hoarse about the destruction of gene diversity through cross contamination of traditional crops.

Another controversial subject is the nature of diet ideal for good health. World's population can be broadly divided into herbivores and omnivores based on the dietary practices followed by them. While herbivores depend heavily on plant foods omnivores are invariably lovers of animal foods. Many herbivores do consume milk which is an animal derived food while vegans are strict vegetarians not able to tolerate any foods linked to animals. From time immemorial, the debate regarding the necessity of animal based foods for maintaining good health never resolved the issue and even to day there are fierce proponents of animal foods without which they feel they cannot survive. But such an argument cannot stand scientific scrutiny because there are millions of people, especially in Asia who can boast of excellent health without consuming any non-plant foods during their life time. It is claimed that many nutrients present in meat, fish and egg are absent in plant foods and hence vegetarians are always disadvantaged nutritionally. If the vast vegetarian population in countries like India has survived for centuries without any major ailments, how can one justify killing of animals for human food? If it is a question of taste preferences that determine the dietary practices, eating meat foods probably can be justified but not based on health and nutrition. 

One day salt is blamed for all the illnesses faced by humanity. But there are many skeptics who are equally vehement in saying that the on-going campaign to drastically cut down on salt consumption is just an over reaction of a world that does not know how to tackle the explosive growth in number of human beings facing threat of annihilation from diseases like CVD, cancer, blood pressure, kidney ailments, diabetes, Alzheimers etc. It is true that salt has a critical role in human metabolism and there has to be a minimum that is essential to maintain normal health. With adequate body mechanism to excrete excess sodium through perspiration and urination already in place, is it not common sense that salt can  be dangerous only if taken in huge quantities? Well, common sense can be wrong some time and scientists have a point when they say that salt taken through processed foods can cause excess intake if not properly moderated. Before the advent of modern food industry people have been consuming salt cured vegetables, fish and meat and pickle has been one of the most consumed side accompaniment in all meals in India. If salt is truly that dangerous, the population in India should have a high incidence of blood pressure and kidney diseases! 

Same applies to sugar also. High incidence of diabetes has invariably been argued to be the reason for diabetes though over weight and obesity are equally responsible for the so called insulin insensitivity. Again one has to remember how much sugar sweetened preparations were consumed during olden days when incidence of diabetes was far and few. The fruit preserves, flavored syrupy drinks, Indian sweet meats and hundreds of similar preparations were part and parcel of diets of people of yesteryear but people dying from diabetes was rarely heard! Added to this came the controversy that high fructose syrup, a cheap sugar substitute from Corn is more obesogenic than cane sugar though the evidence available so far is not so convincing. It is not realized that sugar plays a role only after the onset of diabetes and not before and any restriction on sugar consumption is because of the onslaught of the disease. Probably diabetes has more to do with over consumption of calorie rich foods rather than consumption of sugar alone. After all body has to convert excess calories into fat if adequate expenditure of the same is not ensured through proper physical exercise. 

The story of fat is at best a crazy one with each interpreting the scientific evidence in a different way and putting scare into people. For any given time one fat or the other is taken to the altar as healthy ones and others implied in one disease or the other. Coconut oil is an example and till early nineteen nineties it was branded as a bad oil for the heart because it solidifies at 23C and hence could cause atherosclerosis! It is later realized that short chain fatty acids like Lauric acid present in Coconut oil and Palm kernel oil can be really beneficial to human beings. Even to day many consumers refuse to believe that it is a healthy oil due to decades of stigma attached to its use. While liquid oils were hailed as the ultimate in fat consumption vis-a-vis health, the consumers were further confused by the so called ratio of Omega-3 to Omega -6 acids and it was on this score that many liquid oils became suspects for health pundits.

What about eating fish? Tons of reports exhort people to consume fish regularly in the diet as they are supposed to contain omega-3 fats so beneficial for low blood cholesterol and healthy heart. However if recent studies are any indication consumers will have to be doubly careful in eating too much fish because of increasing levels of mercury found in commercial fish which has the potential to damage brain function in human beings!   Imagine the state of mind of a family which faithfully include fish in their main diet if such reports raise doubts about the safety of fish in general! Recent studies tend to suggest that even traces of mercury can be harmful, especially to children and this throws further scare into the minds of families intending to add fish to their diets. While countries like the US may have adequate testing infrastructure to monitor and certify safety of fish products what about the fate of developing countries where food safety is more a myth than reality? 

Antioxidants and foods rich in these phytochemicals form the foundation of a thriving health food industry offering a plethora of well being products at astronomical cost mining billions of dollars from the purses of health faddist consumers. Antioxidants are important metabolic chemicals so necessary to neutralize oxy radicals generated in human body which in excess can cause carcinogenic reactions with terrible consequences. But what is not revealed by these peddlers of health foods is that most such complex antioxidant preparations have doubtful value because when they are taken through the oral route very little portion is absorbed by the blood and there fore the quantity ingested may not be adequate to push in the optimum levels of metabolizable antioxidant molecules for utilization by the body. Adding to this confusion is another study which says antioxidants tend to prevent inflammation which in turn is supposed to be not good while for healing wounds in tissues some minimum inflammation is necessary. How can a common man decide how much and what type of antioxidants can be taken without compromising on his body's ability to heal tissue damages? 

Caffeine, that rich stimulant so conspicuously present in natural plantation products like Coffee, Tea and Cocoa, is at the center of a fierce controversy regarding the levels at which it is not dangerous to human health. Unfortunately there is no upper statutory limit agreed upon by the scientists, safety agencies and the industry and the merry go around goes on and on with commercial products flooding the market containing Caffeine at levels much beyond what is present in natural beverage preparations. Why consumers are patronizing such products containing abnormally high levels of Caffeine is a big mystery, hard to understand! There are reports of death among some consumers, purportedly taking synthetic beverages containing high levels Caffeine and still safety authorities seem to be undecided about banning such products from the market!   

Who ever has not read the "Guarantee" offered by the Chairman of a food company ( an MNC) to achieve cholesterol reduction if its branded oatmeal preparation is consumed continuously for 30 days! It is a travesty of truth as even those consuming oats for years are not able to reduce cholesterol unless drastic restriction in intake of saturated fat is resorted to in daily diet! If this is true, can any one justify investing on buying oats which costs at least 3-4 times the cost of whole wheat, hoping to bring down the cholesterol in quick time? Oats, no doubt is a good source of soluble fiber which contributes to good gut health but so too is Barley, a grain at least 70% cheaper than oats which contains higher levels of soluble fiber. The so called new "emerging" grains ( they are really old !) like Quinoa, Chea etc which of course are more nutritious and healthy cost almost 5-6 times higher than wheat and it is beyond one's comprehension as to why any one has to replace wheat or other grains like unpolished rice or the so called coarse grains which if consumed without refining can be as healthy as these "miracle" grains!

Under these circumstances can any consumer be in a position to decide what should be eaten or not eaten to preserve his health? Ultimately the right formula of keeping oneself healthy is to consume a diverse diet based on locally available food materials, processed to the minimum extent and containing all representative components like cereals, pulses, spices, fruits, vegetables and nuts with occasional non-plant foods in moderate quantities. Forgetting to do daily physical activities can still negate any discipline one may practice in eating.           


Thursday, May 2, 2013


It is true that there are hundreds of products in the market with doubtful safety and quality credentials because of lack of oversight by the government agencies vested with the responsibility of safeguarding consumer health. Food industry is a cocktail of manufacturers ranging from home scale processors with limited capabilities to mega companies having deep pockets and to fit a common law for all of them may be difficult. But still a rudimentary protocol is necessary to control the industry for preventing marketing of food products which do not conform to safety standards of the land. This is where product identities are drawn for many items which are consumed regularly by the citizens. But logistically it many not be feasible to identify all the products for laying such standards. What about new products which are developed by entrepreneurs which do not fit into any of the existing standards? In India there was a system where new products appropriately called proprietary products needed to be registered with the authorities providing all the details about them and if there is no adverse response from the concerned authorities they can be marketed. But with the setting up of FSSAI (an Authority with very little credibility) the rules of the game have been changed and new products approval will not be automatic any more.   

According to industry observers such a step can really sound death knell for innovations knowing the leaden footed nature of the FSSAI. Any action requiring approval from government agencies in India is a time consuming effort and no wonder there are hundreds of projects in India worth about 7 lack crore investment during the last 44 years which have been delayed for a few years to a few decades. Such a sorry situation may not be fatal to the government though it is the citizen who suffers! The story is different when it comes to private investors who spend their own resources to develop new products but wait for long time to get clearance for selling them in the market! Besides the widespread prevalence of corruption can favor some players while honest entrepreneurs are stuck in the approval "logjam". If there were time bound decision making regime, such a situation would not arise and this can be expected to provide a level playing field to every one, small as well as big.

The standards and safety bench marks now prevalent in the country do not cover even 50% of the products consumed by Indian consumers and if the new rule is implemented industry will have to discontinue manufacture of thousands of products currently marketed by it. For example most products of ethnic nature do not have quality standards embedded in the statute books and how can the traditional food sector market these products without getting approval from the Authority? Sadly the FSSAI has neither the technical competence nor the administrative muscle to carry out these activities and there exists the possibility of serious disruption to the food manufacturing activities in the country if the new proposal is implemented strictly. With coordination between the state food standards departments which are supposed to implement central policies, and the FSSAI at Delhi practically non-existent it is going to be the industry and the consumer who will be bearing the consequences of such adventure on the part of FSSAI.

Interestingly the writ if FSSAI runs only with organized industry which markets prepackaged foods while those selling food without a label or address are at liberty to peddle any thing whether unsafe or sub standard! Just because the organized food industry declares every thing on the label including their address, they are easy targets for punitive action while faceless peddlers of food get way with murder! Even to day there are thousands of retail traders who sell food products loose to the consumers with no burden of proof regarding the safety of the wares they sell. What protection the consumer is provided by FSSAI? Nothing! If India is competing with China for the "honor" (or dishonor?) of being the capital of food fraudsters and adulterators it is because of the operation of these traders with no real fear of the authorities. Of course those consumers who build long association with their retailers near their sojourn are not usually cheated because of the loyalty factor but casual buyers can be a convenient target for food fraud activities. Advent of multinational retailers and big Indian retail players may alleviate the situation to some extent as most of them sell only packed products. What is disturbing however is a new trend where even these large players are offering many foods in "loose" condition under the guise of reduced prices! 

Recent policy promulgation by FSSAI to compel all food manufacturers to register with the agency and get a license for dealing with food may be intended to trace the origin of food frauds. It is doubtful if this will really work because many microenterprises do not operate from the same address and have the ability to change their address frequently unlike larger players. There appears to be a misconception that licensing will take care of all the ills of the country whether in food sector or other areas of commercial activities. Before enacting any new regulations, government must justify the same and in the case of licensing itself there exists a system of local licensing of all manufacturers and dealers of food  with local authorities which is adequate enough to exercise vigilance if it is made to work efficiently. if these local bodies can transfer their data to FSSAI that can create a national data base for monitoring the activity of food industry as well as traders. Where is the need for a centralized licensing system?   

Looking from another angle the FSSAI evolved standards do not permit creation and marketing of healthy products as these are based on old concepts and understandings of nutrition science. During the last few years the yardstick for good health has changed dramatically with sugar, fat and salt becoming pariahs as far as health pundits are concerned, obviously because of their proven role in fostering many health disorders like Diabetes, CVD, Blood Pressure, Kidney ailments etc. Obviously it is unfair on the part of authorities to insist on minimum amounts of these ingredients in any food product. Take a product like ice cream which is mandated to contain a minimum amount of fat and sugar and industry developing healthier products containing less fat or sugar is bound o be penalized for violating the existing standards! There are many such products which have no business to be there in the market if nutrition becomes the corner stone of any standards frame work. One has to appreciate the dilemma of the food standards and safety agencies in balancing the needs of the nutrition science and that of the food technology before evolving safety related policies and standards.   

Why not think differently and simplify the food safety regime dramatically without compromising on essential things? Why not evolve a guideline that will draw two set of lists, one negative and the other positive, for the industry to follow while manufacturing food products in the country. Negative list must contain all those additives, processes, practices and conditions industry must avoid while the positive list includes desirable additives, safety aspects, nutritive ingredients addition, etc for bettering the quality of the products in general. There can be a general standard which defines any food and what they should not contain or if present the maximum limits. The onus of quality must be left to the industry and each product must confirm to the data presented in the labels. If FSSAI is truly a functional organization they must centralize the data on labels of all manufactured products with the address of the manufacturers for correcting misdeeds if any, on a continuous basis. This has to be a 24x7 activity for which adequate infrastructure must be created. Such commitment only can earn the confidence of the consumer in the long run.