Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Food, nutrition and health are not separable as good food, nutritious and balanced food only can be the foundation for good health. Unfortunately emergence of commercialism and economic considerations have led to a situation where the processing and preservation, in the hands of organized corporate industry, seem to have neglected the nutrition and health aspects, appealing to the palates of the consumers for reaping higher and higher profits. Food technologists world over dedicate themselves to creating newer products but here again nutrition is rarely in focus. If to day's world is facing a human crisis in the form of uncontrolled obesity and many life style diseases, both industry and scientists are to be blamed to varying extent.

Malnutrition and under- nutrition are very fashionable subjects, discussed, debated and diagnosed umpteen number of times by many knowledgeable experts and administrators world over with the noble intention of solving the scourge that is malnutrition. Sad it may sound, very little can be shown at the ground level as solid achievement in tackling this problem with any positive impact and the proportion of population who are hungry and malnourished continues to increase in spite of billions of dollars of investment by individual countries as well as international aid givers. A major part of this unfortunate victims of malnutrition reside in least developed countries and nations on the threshold of significant economic development and the paradox is that these countries have scarce resources to address this scourge.

Adding to the confusion are the ever shifting goal posts vis-a-vis good nutrition and normal health making it difficult to evolve consensus on what is balanced and optimum for children, adults, pregnant and lactating women and geriatric population. Protein malnutrition was talked about during nineteen sixties and then it became protein-calorie malnutrition later. Anemia is another adverse health manifestation due to iron deficiency while deficiencies of Vitamins A and D, Calcium, Iodine etc are still being talked about in one or the other part of the world. Agriculture plays a vital role in the dietary habits of each country and traditional foods have played an important role in keeping the local population healthy and disease free. Modern food industry has changed the dietary habits of many people with younger generation going in for more and more junk foods offered by the processing as well as the catering industries. Thus the malnutrition syndrome is prevalent both among poor as well as not so poor population.   

World agencies like FAO, UNICEF and many NGOs continuously try to assist the malnourished population through economic assistance as well as scientific inputs in establishing norms for feeding the vulnerable people in various affected countries. Most recent development in this area is the touting of a new paradigm called RUTF, acronym for "ready to eat therapeutic foods" aimed at improving the health status of those who are severely malnourished such as those in schools, institutions and other organizations whose condition cannot be improved unless foods with special characteristics are administered. Ready to eat foods are preferred because preparing such foods containing loaded nutrients locally can pose logistical, safety and practical problems. Many organizations are pitching in for evolving such foods in a stabilized format with good shelf life. Though recipes can be easily developed, it is a technological challenge to stabilize the food and pack them in a deliverable form. 

One of the earliest attempts was made by CFTRI, Mysore which developed the Energy Food containing 16% proteins and 360 kC of energy per 100 gm. This product, a combination of pulses, cereals and oil seed cakes was manufactured and supplied to millions of children and other beneficiaries for almost 2 decades during seventies. eighties and nineties of last millennium. There were many copy cats with variations in recipe and delivery format that were developed though there is still no standard product in the Indian scene that can be considered universally acceptable.

A recent claim by a scientific team from IIT-Kharagpur that it has designed five products with high nutrient density for feeding such children afflicted by severe malnutrition may be a welcome development. According to them these products are in paste format made from potato, groundnut and Bengalgram, precooked, stabilized and packed with good shelf life. This pasty product has to be consumed directly by the beneficiaries and since the "innovators" declare that the technology is "secret" nothing much can be made about the characteristics of the product, their taste and quality and acceptability to the targeted consumers. Suffice to say that if the past experience is to go by, such claims emanating from teaching institutions in India have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The value and relevance of such products will have to be proved beyond a shade of doubt by extensive field trials for which the universities in this country are ill-equipped. 

An ethical question that is disturbing involves the attitude of these innovators, who carried out their research work with Government of India funding, when they say their work is "secret". Many activists who commented on this development felt that such innovations should not be kept secret through patenting or restricted technology transfer as the beneficiaries are poor children who are fighting for their lives. History has proved that no processed food can be a satisfactory substitute to freshly cooked ones because of many factors indigenous to the country. While dispensing milk or fruits in nutrition oriented programs is least controversial, when it comes to making a product with monotonous taste and flavor characteristics, it can falter easily when taken up for large scale production and supply in public feeding programs.

Past memories seem to be short lived and how many people can remember to day about the news splash some time back regarding a compressed tablet like product with high nutrition claims developed by a renowned food technology institution in the country, supposed to be made for use in applied nutrition program across the country. This project was also funded liberally by the Government of India but the product has not been heard since, the report written by the scientists collecting dust in some offices in Delhi! In all these developmental work scientific community tends to work in isolation without taking into confidence the user community and with no thoughts given to economic constraints. Working out a formula for a good product is not a big task but making it suitable for the low cost feeding programs is a tough job. In these days of inflation, not even God can create a ready to eat, packed and stabilized food product that can fit into the economic criteria of the on-going feeding programs in the country with limited per capita beneficiary inputs ear marked. 

Another serious point to be considered is whether Government of India can squander public money on scientists and institutions not qualified and equipped to develop nutritious products which after all require multi-disciplinary inputs and facilities. Asking an institution like CFTRI Mysore to develop a fighter jet is both ludicrous and incredible, to say the least. Similarly tasking an engineering institution like IIT to develop nutritive foods for mass feeding is a bad decision by the Government agency which funded the above project. The citizens in this country have inalienable right to take to task the government for squandering public money in such futile projects. If there is a genuine need to evolve a new product for use in RUTF, the same should be assigned to an inter disciplinary task force on a mission mode with a time frame, involving institutions like National Institute of Nutrition, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Defense Food Research Laboratory and a few food technology groups in reputed universities   


No comments: