Wednesday, February 27, 2013


It is not necessary for any one to possess extra ordinary intelligence to discern the fact that animal derived foods, being rich in many nutrients are much more vulnerable than plant based foods to serious contamination with pathogens. Naturally the extent of vigilance needed to safeguard the safety of these foods is much more compared to that required in case of plant foods. It is very true that between 2008 and 2011 vegetables like leafy greens, tomato, melon, sprouts, spices, herbs were responsible for many food poisoning outbreaks though the sources from where they got contaminated were never properly identified. If so is it judicious for a responsible body like European Food Safety Council (EFSA) to blame these foods of plant origin as solely responsible for the outbreaks and resultant consequences?

According to the above high profile body that is supposed to oversee the food safety related tasks for the entire EU has just brought out a statistical treatise which says that "germs from non animal food origin (FoNAO) were responsible for almost half the number of deaths caused by food transmitted pathogens"! Of course these claims were made based on the "scientific opinion'" of its panel on biological hazards obviously consisting of knowledgeable experts! It further goes on to say that from 2008 to 2011 number of  outbreaks, cases, hospitalization and deaths from contaminated foods belonging to the category FoNAO showed significant increase as compared to that from foods of animal origin (FoAO). Biggest risks were from Salmonella infected leafy greens, bulbs and stem vegetables followed by Salmonella infected tomatoes and melons. E.coli was responsible for tainting fresh pods, legumes and grains while Norovirus. Shigella and Salmonella caused food poisoning in leafy greens, fresh pods. legumes and grains spices, dry powder and herbs and sprouts.

Statistically FoNAO were implicated  in 10% of all outbreaks, 26% of cases reported, 35% of hospitalization and 46% of deaths. But can these figures be considered realistic and true? A careful analysis of the available statistics does not substantiate these claims and the attempt to gloss over the fact that meat industry still has the most wretched record as far as food safety is concerned and if there is any industry which stands indicted for sheer callousness and deficient practices compromising the health of the consumer it is this particular industry encompassing meat and poultry processing. Whether rearing the animals and birds or slaughtering them or processing animal product industry has one of the worst safety records and shifting the blame to plant foods for majority of safety related episodes is not fair.

If the stand taken by EFSA is true, the populations in many developing countries, where plant foods are consumed extensively due to culture, religion and economic compulsions, should have disappeared long ago due to food poisoning! In stead of looking inward to find out the reasons for plant foods raised in those countries in Europe posing safety problems and take adequate remedial measures to improve the situation, condemning an entire class of foods is not justifiable. When the whole world is trying to reduce meat consumption due to its association with many life style disorders and shift to more fruit and vegetable in their daily diet, reports like the above can cause a set back to these healthy efforts.

Though fresh produce like leafy greens, tomatoes, melons were implicated in some of the recent episodes, these are all cases of cross contamination in the farms using contaminated water or handling facilities where meat is also processed or common distribution and storage facilities. Probably this is where organic farming is scoring over the commercial farming sector and it is rarely that organic produce is implicated in any major food poisoning episode so far.    


Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Cocoa, along with Coffee and Tea forms the troika of stimulant beverages and Caffeine is the common component that provides the typical stimulant properties attributed to these beverage crops. Interestingly each one of these has different usage form evolved over centuries with innovative variations from time to time. While coffee and tea are predominantly used for making drinks with or without milk, cocoa is mostly processed into chocolate products which enjoy a very high acceptability among children and adults alike. There are a few products incorporating cocoa solids made by the industry such as chocolate confectionery, ice cream, chocolate milk, baked goods and many others which are liked by the consumers willing to pay premium prices. By far the most accepted product from cocoa is a variety of chocolates catering to different category of consumers,

Cocoa pods produced by the plant contain a cluster of beans embedded in a slimy matrix and the processing of the ripe pods involves breaking of the pods and exposing the beans to fermentation to get the clean seed. While the matrix breaks down and runs off, the beans are mostly sun dried to a low moisture content for long term storage, lest they are spoiled by fungal growth at higher moisture contents. The typical flavor associated with cocoa is developed during the fermentation stage due to action of break down products like acetic acid, ethanol and other organic substances on the bean besides making it mellower. The conventional  chocolate making process involves roasting of the dry beans under optimum conditions and shelling them to obtain nibs which are in grit form for further processing. Grinding the nibs, conching and tempering are the core operations that distinguish good chocolate from low quality ones. With modern developments, chocolate making has become a machine intensive process leaving very little role to any skilled artisans who were ruling the roost once.

Pure chocolate is 100% cocoa solids without addition of any ingredients and there are many derived products from this base  material such as sweetened chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. The chocolate liquor obtained after conching is a semi liquid product at temperatures beyond 37C and sets into a hard mass as the temperature is lowered. Refined cocoa mass as it is called comes in brittle blocks that can be stored for use in various value added consumer products. Sweetened chocolate and milk chocolate are made from the cocoa mass by adding ingredients like sugar, milk powder etc. White chocolate is a misnomer for a product which does not contain any cocoa solids but based on cocoa butter only. Generally chocolates are processed to give the final product a melting characteristics that will ensure that it melts at body temperature when eaten viz 37C. One of the biggest problems associated with general types of chocolates is that the product becomes soft and messy during handling in tropical countries where the day time temperatures can be as high as 45C during summer season. Is it not possible that this drawback can be overcome through technological innovations? 

If recent reports emanating from the UK are to be believed such a feat has been accomplished by one of the major chocolate brands and products made are stable, firm and can be handled without softening and slushy at temperatures up to 42C. According to the claim made by the company its product called "melt-resistant" or "temperature-tolerant"remains solid even after exposure to temperature as high as 40C for as long as three hours unlike its conventional counterpart vulnerable to melting at 33C. Many tropical countries in Asia, Africa and South America can be expected to welcome such a development as the median day time temperatures during most part of the year is in the range of 33-45C. Food scientists know that use of high melting fat (hydrogenated or fractionated liquid oils) in chocolate making in place of cocoa butter can achieve hardness but such products cannot be legally called chocolates under international food laws and regulations.

The new technology now being touted appears to have manipulated the tempering conditions of conched cocoa mass to obtain higher content of type V cocoa butter crystals to modify the melting characteristics appropriately. Traditionally the cocoa mass is heated to 45C to melt all the five crystal forms of the polymorphous cocoa butter, following by controlled cooling to 27C to recover the type 1V and type V crystals which have higher melting temperature properties. Agitation and seeding with small sized crystals further enrich the mass with the smallest sized crystals. What ever details are available on the new technology now being cited for making melt resistant chocolates indicate that .the core of the process is reducing the size of sugar as well as cocoa butter crystals and minimize the extent of fat that coats the sugar particles. How this happens is not very clear though the key to increased melting temperature lies in reducing the size of the cocoa butter crystals to get highest levels of type V crystals.    

High melting chocolate products can become a hit every where in the world but it should not compromise with the crisp and snappy texture of typical chocolate bars. Innovation is a never ending endeavor and efforts must continue to achieve chocolate products which are not affected by wide variations in temperatures encountered in market places. While looking out for melt resistant products, care has to be taken that these products do not become like rocks at lower temperatures and freezing weathers encountered during winter in many countries. There is nothing like a chocolate product which does not need refrigeration or air conditioning for distribution and storage and that should be the ultimate goal of chocolate technologists.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Is there a relationship between between the brain power and attainment of excellence in life? Common senses does indicate that man endowed with superior intelligence has conquered the world and to day homo sapiens rule supreme, at least in planet called Mother Earth. To establish any such relationship one has to define what is excellence and how it can be quantified. Once human beings are recognized as supremely intelligent creatures there must be degree of excellence by which there can be differentiation among them. Can winning a Nobel prize be considered the ultimate in one's life achievement? Nobel prize is given in practically every branch of human endeavor and there fore can be a comparative scale for determining excellence.

Some time back there was a claim that Nobel prize winners invariably come from countries where chocolate consumption is high! Statistically analyzed the study referred above does reflect this fact. Looked from the perspectives of a food scientist or a nutritionist, probably this phenomenon can be explained by the fact that chocolate is one of the richest sources of Flavonoids which are endowed with high levels of antioxidant activity. Heath of human beings in general is directly related to the extent of inflammation at cellular level and resultant generation of oxyradicals adversely affecting the DNA metabolism. Flavonoids and similar antioxidants are supposed to neutralize these highly destructive oxyradicals as and when they are generated. Probably this may be a far-fetched theory but still plausible.

Following the chocolate report in comes another claim that Milk consumption has some thing to do with the ability of human beings to reach pinnacle of their career! Here again the science of statistics has contributed to this "discovery". According to the authors of above "study" Sweden has the highest number of Nobel laureates, about 33 per 10 million since its inception and their per capita milk consumption is estimated to be about 330 kg per year! This country is closely followed by Switzerland, that tiny country with 32 Nobel prizes per 10 million population with milk products consumption to the extent of 300 kg per person per year. A major deviation is Finland with the highest milk consumption, 350 kg per capita,  which has insignificant number of Nobel laureates!. Probably 300 kg per capita annual consumption may be the cut off point beyond which the "Milk effect" does not work! China, the second most powerful economic power in the world is not an admirer of milk with hardly 25 kg per year per person and it has only an insignificant number of winners of Nobel prize, about 9 in number for a population of 1.3 billion plus!. Same is true with India also, with hardly 8 Nobel prizes for its population of 1.2 billion.  

What could be the connection, if at all there is any, between milk and excellence of achievement? Viewed from a nutrition angle, it is very difficult to justify such a correlation though milk is often considered as a complete food containing almost all critical nutrients required for development of body as well as the brain. The theory that it is rich in vitamin D that aids brain development cannot be taken at its face value because people in many tropical countries make abundant Vitamin D through their exposure to sun. Could the affordability play a part in enabling the people from rich countries consuming high quantum of milk and milk products and if so Nobel laureates can come only from such countries.

Are the people from poor countries destined to be inferior human beings perpetually? Their could be another angle which could explain the milk effect and that is not related to milk but to the education standards and infrastructure available in these rich countries. Naturally a good education can definitely enrich the mind and the brain leading to achievement of excellence in whatever field one chooses. There are many bright and intelligent youngsters in countries like India with the right caliber to become Nobel laureates but the poor infrastructure for education and unimaginative policies that prevail here, there is very little scope for expressing their innate talents. Why is that except for a Sir C V Raman or a Tagore who won the Nobel prize working in India, all other winners were people of Indian origin achieving the excellence working in other countries?  

While per capita milk consumption is used for comparison in the above study, the major flaw is that there can be enormous variation among the population with some consuming high amounts of milk while poorer segment must be taking abysmally low quantities. Take the example of India, the top producer of milk in the world where average milk consumption is just about 100 kg per person per year but in the state Punjab it is almost 360 kg per year per person! Does it mean that future Nobel laureates are going to emerge from this state while others have no chance? Statistical correlations have a meaning up to a point but it need not be the absolute truth! Ultimately for excellence in achievement, it 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration! While in science and other finite subjects infrastructure for research has to be of very high order, in social sciences creativity, imagination, deep thinking, philosophy and a fertile brain may play a crucial role.


Saturday, February 9, 2013


All citizens living in a civilized world have a fundamental right to get safe food and whether the governing system is democratic, autocratic, despotic, communists or any other hue and color, the government is duty bound to protect its population from unsafe foods marketed within is boundary. Modern food service system in most countries rests on processed foods industry, catering sector and dedicated institutions taking care of their inmates. In India there are two other places where food safety needs to be focused and they include the schools and socially oriented feeding centers and temples where pilgrims converge in large numbers. The food safety enforcement agencies should have adequate outreach to cover all these cases equipped with decent infrastructure and resources to carry out its functions efficiently and honestly.

There is stark contrast between the safety management systems in wealthy nations and that which operate in developing countries with limited resources. Whether it is the Food and Drug Administration in the US or the Food Safety Agency in the UK or the European Food Safety Council, their infrastructure facilities for monitoring the quality of foods in the market are considered excellent though they are all squeezed for funds when it comes to upgrading their set ups from time to time and infuse more personnel. Besides undue influence by the industry lobby often comes in the way of doing what is best for the citizens! In India there is supposed to be a powerful "Authority" which cannot do even 1% of the safety vigilance task required to be done. In China where authoritarian dictates were expected to act as deterrent against food fraudsters and others indulging in malpractices, the country was shaken by many food scandals involving the lives of many of its people. Though a 100% compliance in the market is not achievable in practice because of unintended episodes beyond the control of the industry, if a reliable system with focus on consumer safety is put in place, many precious lives can be saved.

This Blog will touch upon the travails of a small state in India, Kerala where there was an uproar regarding the supply of fungus infected prasadam by a popular Temple, as being claimed by the devotees and the response of the authorities concerned. The Temple in question is Sabarimala shrine located deep inside a forest, not easily accessible. The Temple provides two main prasadams, Neyyappam and Aravana payasam to millions of pilgrims coming from different parts of Kerala and other southern states who want to take back home these offerings from the shrine for sharing with their kith and kin. While the Travancore Devaswam Board denied that their Neyyappam was tainted with fungus, many people who had personal experience of buying these product from the official counters are vehement in their assertion that the product was really fungus infected. Interestingly a local Laboratory having accreditation from National Accreditation Board for Laboratories (NABL) confirmed the presence of fungus in some amples randomly collected by them! Who is the ultimate arbitrator in this case? Obviously none and the charade goes on!

According to those observers familiar with Kerala situation, the state government is not taking adequate interest on this vexed problem and most of the analytic laboratories under its aegis do not have approval from NABL. It is lack of support and initiative from the government that has developed such a logjam in safety management of foods produced and marketed and served in the state. Almost all public health laboratories are languishing with dilapidated and antiquated facilities and require massive infusion of funds besides long time to modernize their infrastructure. Why these laboratories cannot be strengthened and certified by NABL is an incomprehensible mystery! It is criminal for any government, claiming to be a democratic one, to ignore this problem any more, putting the health of the population in peril.

It is common sense that results generated in a NABL accredited laboratory will only be accepted by many courts and under the conditions prevailing now the culprits get benefit of doubt invariably. It is time people subjected to such chaotic food safety regime seek judicial intervention for directing the government to initiate a time bound program to upgrade the safety management system on a time bound manner. Each district should have a NABL accredited laboratory where suspected samples can be referred for technical opinion and based on their considered view actions initiated to take to task the violators of food laws.    

Friday, February 8, 2013


In search of good health, modern society is falling back on history trying to take a leaf out of population in old civilizations. One such health source is Quinoa which was consumed as a staple by people in Peru and Bolivia. No doubt Quinoa is highly nutritious grain with the highest protein content and fiber level unequaled by any other cereal known to day. It is called a miracle grain because of its health promoting qualities and promoted. especially in markets where there is a large unsatiated demand for cures and remedies for over weight, obesity and disorders associated with consumption of unhealthy foods rich in calories, fat and salt. Quinoa surfaced at the right time when meat and poultry products are on the dock for causing severe damage to human health in wealthy countries. Consumers seem to have embraced this wonder grain whole heartedly for coming out of this Catch 22 situation! To top it United Nations Organization has declared the year 2013 as the Year of Quinoa!

Quinoa was an obscure grain till a few years ago native to Peru and Bolivia where it was and still a staple food to poor population there. Until recently this grain was available only in few outlets catering specialty foods with very few takers who were convinced about its intrinsic value. It was a dietetician's delight with hundreds of recipes generated to marry this grain to the western palate. It was a story that resembled that of Oats which was pioneered by Quaker company achieving tremendous success due to incessant and extensive promotional campaign claiming instant cholesterol reduction and protection from heart disease. To a large extent Oats and Quinoa succeeded in the West because of the over obsession with low fat foods and promotion of policies by the government to promote healthy eating practices by avoiding refined starch based foods. Further the importance of dietary fiber for good health added to the importance of grains like Oats and Quinoa.

It is not clear as to how Western palate was able to adjust to the some what slightly bitter taste of Quinoa though health fads generally do not bother about such minor disadvantages. It is understood that appropriate milling of the grain removes saponins considered responsible for the bitterness. Quinoa has some good culinary appeal because of the white curls that forms around the grains when cooked. Vegetarians embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all the essential amino acids in right balance for good health. Besides it has about 7% dietary fiber besides good levels of Phosphorus and Iron. Arrival of Quinoa gave this segment of population an opportunity to give up purchase of costly food supplements to augment their "poor" vegetarian diet. Between 2006 and 2012 price of Quinoa in the US is reported to have trebled, an unparalleled inflation for any food in recent history. The present price of $ 3200 or INR 17000 per ton is indeed a princely one beyond the reach of many middle class population. Increased demand naturally led to creating of premium brands of Quinoa such as black, red and other types offered at still higher prices and the wealthy consumers do not seem to have no complaints!

One of the after-effects of Quinoa success in the Western market was causing of great distress to the lives of millions of people in Peru and Bolivia who were sustaining on a diet based on Quinoa grown locally and available to them at affordable prices. History has shown that any country which can expect high returns on export of any commodity would naturally encourage such trade regardless of its impact on local situation. Same did happen in Peru also where the limited production of Quinoa was diverted more and more to exports, starving the local population of this nutritious food. In stead imported, nutritiously deficient corn, obtained from the US, costing a fraction of the export price of Quinoa, became predominant food in these countries. Imagine the impact of such a change on the over all health of the population there! Corn is not considered a complete food and can never be a substitute to nutrient laden Quinoa. If reports are to be believed a chicken is much cheaper in Peru than a kilogram of Quinoa!

Another fall out of the new surge in export of Quinoa is that Peruvian farmers are increasingly resorting to mono culture cultivation by taking up quinoa production to maximize returns from their land. How can any one blame them for this tendency though in the long term this would impinge on the soil health as well as their own health. What would happen to the soil health there with mono culture becoming more and more prevalent in a country which had a portfolio of diverse crops till recently. Can the world ignore this undesirable development any more? While promoting health through better farm products is a desirable goal for the international community, it ought to be done equitably with least damage to any segment of population. Here is a case where the health of people in rich countries is sought to be boosted by driving those in poor nations into more and more poverty. This is a serious matter deserving the attention and consideration of the world community and ensure equitable development that does not favor rich people alone!

If Quinoa trade is a fine example of economic distortion that is causing world-wide miseries, Asparagus presents a slightly different picture. This exotic vegetable, considered to be a privileged food of wealthy people, is another agricultural commodity causing intense environmental damage to Peru. Being a water intensive crop, Peruvian farmers are growing this vegetable in Ica region of the country causing rapid depletion of water resources which may eventually make it an arid area in the years to come. To boot it those toiling hard under sub-human conditions to grow this crop does not get much returns as most of the profits are creamed off, by the middle men and super markets in the West. According to some reports the living conditions of the families involved in Asparagus cultivation are pathetic at best which raises the inevitable question whether exports can be the "be all and the end all" for many of the developing countries just to earn a few dollars at the expense of the well being of their own population.

While economic factors will justify such transformation of traditional agriculture into export intensive crops, environmental issues associated with growing and transporting these crops are assuming more serious dimensions lately. Is not the world concerned about the large carbon foot prints caused by these activities? The very basis of local food movement is to discourage such long distance haulage burning exhaustible fossil fuels and spewing out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is considered responsible to a great extent for the global warming phenomenon now being blamed for floods, droughts and desertification of fertile lands. Deforestation is another dimension to the problem of such rapidly expanding agricultural activities whether it is for sugarcane, palm oil or soybean and one can imagine the the magnitude of disaster waiting to visit humanity if large scale clearance of rain forests takes place in the name of increased food production!