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.           


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