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.  


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