Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reinventing the wheel-Food technology research in India reaches its"Nadir"?

India is known to be a laggard when it comes to spending on scientific and technological research that can contribute to over all development of the country. While a country like USA annually spends over $ 400 billion (bn) on research activities Indian spend is hardly $ 24 bn. Even our neighbor China spends about $ 200 bn annually on scientific research which is linked closely to its rapid economic growth. According to Indian government documents, the country wants to spend Rs 90, 000 crore during the 12th Plan period (2014-19) on scientific research in different sectors or 18, 000 crore per year. This is a lot of money and if spent appropriately can show very tangible results. Unfortunately except for Space Department and  Atomic Energy Sector nothing much can be show cased as the achievements of the various scientific research organizations in the country. Crying for more funds does not make any sense when even the existing allocations are not effectively used for innovations and developments that benefit the nation as a whole.

Talking specifically the food research, there are no reliable data pertaining to research in food processing sector. If agriculture is taken to mean food also, it is reported that the country spends about 0.4% of the value of agricultural inputs on research activities and this works out roughly to about Rs 15000 crore. Of this direct spend on production and productivity research could be as high as 90% leaving behind about Rs 1500 crore on food research. R & D agencies that vie for a pie in this spend include CFTRI, DFRL, NIFTEM, and institutions supported by Food processing ministry, Dept of Science, Dept of Biotechnology, Atomic Energy Commission, Universities and others. Probably no one gets the minimum critical inputs necessary to make any break through innovations of high value.

Having seen this scenario is it not incumbent upon those organizations from which lot is expected to optimize their research activities to create maximum impact in stead of squandering them over flimsy projects, many of them with no relevance to the needs of the country and often on "personalized" whims and fancies. Indian food industry which meets the domestic processed food needs of population with an estimated value of over Rs 1,50, 000 crore is claimed to employs about 48 million people. There are about 36000 registered units as reported by one of the government agencies, though one  in not sure about the accuracy of such statistics routinely doled out from government sources. Another dimension to this is that only 25% of industrial out put is attributed to the organized industry, mostly branded products, while the unorganized and small scale players contribute 42% and 33% respectively. Naturally it is the small players and unorganized sector units which require technical support for strengthening their production base and for starting new ventures while the organized sector has the wherewithal to acquire technological assistance from foreign sources. Have the domestic R & D agencies walloping huge resources from the public treasury fulfilled their duty to the Indian food industry during their existence over the last 7 decades?  Well, this does not seem to be happening with food technology research in India at present.

A typical case is a recent claim by one of the premier food research organizations in the country regarding development of an "improved"  process for turmeric at the farm level which is nothing but a rehash of same work carried out almost 5 decades ago and widely practiced by many farmers in the country. The same organization is talking about use of cow dung, lead vessels, use of chromates for color enhancement during traditional processing of this rhizome, etc which were all issues dealt with earlier in the same set up by scientists who have retired long ago. During the last 3 decades same thing has been happening with recycled research thrown at the public as new development which appears to be the strong point of this R& D organization. It is a tragedy that this organization must have spent by a conservative estimate more than Rs 1000 crore during this period! No wonder neither the farmer nor the food industry is too much bothered to even recognize its existence let alone seeking its help in solving their problems. 

Government is repeating the same mistake by setting more such public funded R & D organizations without insisting on their effective linkage with user industries and seeking accountability for the money spent by them. It is not realized by those in power that no big industry will be interested in free wheeling research in isolation within the four walls of a research organization as most of these private players have well funded captive research set up to further their commercial interests. It is the small scale and unorganized manufacturing entities and new enterprising entrepreneurs who really need feasible and reliable manufacturing technologies which should be either free or charged lightly at affordable prices. To day's ground reality is that these small players find it difficult even get entry to these highly "secured"citadels of research. (as if they are guarding a gold treasury) let alone make use of the technologies which are listed for sale in their brochures and news clips from time to time. Another bane is the pronounced tendency in public funded research organizations to go more and more for "research" in areas of academic interest which give them a number of "publications" and "Ph.Ds" from Universities. 

It is a sad story how domestic food research activities invariably focus too much on "modern" nutritionally suspect food products rather than taking up studies on thousands of traditional foods which are crying for attention in terms of product quality standardization and process modernization including mechanization as far as possible. Unfortunately traditional foods are made and sold mostly in the unorganized sector which does not have adequate clout to influence and attract attention of food scientists and technologists while government is a mute spectator to this situation. Government must set up a blue ribbon commission to look into research efforts that operate to day and recast the organizations, squandering precious public funds unconscionably, into a responsive and vibrant system that will serve the citizen as well as the domestic food industry in standing up to the challenges posed by multinationals and monopolistic domestic giants in vying for a more legitimate share of the market.  


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Pulses production in India-Will it ever meet the domestic demand?

Pulses or legumes constitute a major component in the diet of Indian population which is predominantly vegetarian in their eating habits both by tradition as well as due to economic compulsions. Though most can eat animal based foods like meat, fish and egg, due to limited income per family they cannot buy these expensive food items at the prevailing market prices. Milk is another protein source which is produced in India adequately but here also the average price of Rs 30 per liter makes its proteins much more costlier than that in pulses. Most pulses have protein contents of 23-25% on dry weight basis while in fluid milk it is only about 5% on fresh weight basis. In the case of meat it works out to a protein content of about 21-25%. Cost wise the costs per kg of protein from these three sources are Rs 300 from pulses, Rs 600 from milk and Rs 1000 from meat. No wonder people will less per capita income are compelled to to opt for plant proteins to meet their health need of 50 gm of proteins per person every day. 

Some pundits feel that plant proteins are not of high quality when measured on scales of Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER) or Biological Value (BV), they being deficient in one or more of essential amino acids that human body cannot make in vivo. Probably this may be true but what one can do if he cannot afford high quality protein containing foods like meat? This is where food and nutrition science come to their help. Nature has a diversified source of plants containing proteins of different amino acid profile and therefore by judicial blending of different pulses and cereals one can get all the needed amino acids readily from such mixed diets. If Net Protein Utilization (NPU) another yardstick to measure protein quality is taken into consideration, egg ranks high with 90% plus mark followed by milk (80% plus), meat (65% plus), legumes (50-60%) and whole grains (50-60%). Two of the three limiting amino acids that humans cannot make in vivo viz Methionine is low in pulses and Lysine is low in grains. Considering that in a composite diet consumed by a vegetarian both legumes and grains are present and therefore the over all protein quality does not suffer from a nutritional perspective.

India being the largest producer and consumer of pulses has always been short of this vital commodity, forcing it to resort to large scale imports, some times almost 25% of its need being met by imports from countries like Canada, Myanmar, Australia, Russia and USA. According to government sources the country was supposed to have produced during 2013-2014 about 19 million tons (mt) with import of about 1.4 mt supplementing the availability to meet the demand of 21 mt within the country. What is disappointing is that the production of pulses has been stagnating during the last 5 years hovering between 18 and 19 mt annually. Why the country has not been able to raise production is a complex question and the international prices of these pulses fluctuate widely depending on Indian imports. In 2009-10 and 2012-13 the average imports were around 3.5 mt per year. Only in 2013-14 the imports saw a dramatic dip with only 1.4 mt being sourced from outside. Interestingly government offers decent minimum support prices (MSP)  to pulses ranging from Rs 2950 to Rs 4500 per quintal depending on which pulse one is talking about.

In the domestic demand situation Bengal gram or Chick Pea is at the top consumption being 9.7 mt followed by Tur at 3.3 mt, Moong and Urad at 3 mt each. Others account for another 3 mt. Interestingly Dry Peas account for the highest import being about 1.33 mt followed by Masur at 0.71 mt, Pigeon Pea at 0.47 mt and Chick Pea at 0.28 mt. Though in the strict sense Dry Pea is not a legume as is being understood by many, it is used in fresh or frozen form as a vegetable; nonetheless it does belong to leguminous family. Considering that India is the largest importer of edible oils, almost 3 times the quantity of legumes imported, government is justified in persisting with out sourcing pulses because of the health implications of pulses in Indian diet. However not taking enough efforts in achieving self sufficiency in pulses production cannot be condoned. Besides, neglecting the role of pulses in the food security scheme of the country can be disastrous in the long run for the health of Indian population, especially that segment having low per capita income.  

Talking about prices of various pulses within the country there does not appear to be any valid basis for some of the popular pulses being priced exorbitantly high making it beyond the reach of common man who either has to reduce pulse consumption suiting his purse or avoid buying them altogether. Same goes for edible oils also which are very highly priced, some of them costing as high as Rs 200 per liter to the consumer at the retail level. One of the demands made by pulse growers' community is that pulses like Tur and Chick pea must be included in the PDS food basket, priced reasonably, for the low income groups to get access to them. Manipulation of prices of edible oils and pulses is rampant with hording becoming a standard practice in the face of a soft governance system in the country. Will the government at least wake up now and "catch the bull by its horn" to give succor and relief to the much harried citizen?

The overwhelming obsession with cereals and sugarcane by the government is not understandable considering the astronomical import costs incurred while outsourcing pulses and edible oils draining billions of dollars of foreign exchange year after year causing hemorrhage to the public exchequer. As a part of National Food and Agricultural Policy of the country, oil seeds and pulses deserve priority considerations and all other crops, except cereals must play a sub-ordinate role. What ever be the cost there is an urgent need to prioritize allocation of resources from the government to raise all the food needs of the population qualitatively and quantitatively in the coming years. Government must be ruthless in restricting cultivation of non-essential crops so that adequate fertile land and inputs are diverted to the three crops viz, cereals, pulses and oil seeds. 


Friday, November 28, 2014

Consumer protection through insurance cover-Does it make any sense in India?

Consumer is the King, so proclaims almost all the industry players to convey the impression that they care for their clients more than any thing else!. But does the ground reality obtaining in India justify such a tall claim? Whether it is your street corner petty shop or the super duper glittering mall that is sprawling all over the country, one thing is common, that is, if you pay for buying a product, it is yours and yours only, no returns please! That is the fate of "King Consumer" at least in our country. Of course there are exceptions like the traditional family shops where there is "bonding" of friendship between you and the shop owner built over a long period of association and here returns are accepted, though some what reluctantly, if they are faulty or below expected standard. 

Have we ever heard of a product recall incidence in India during the last 71 years of our independence? Such a thing is unheard of in our country because this is like an orphaned nation with no one ready to take the responsibility of protecting the citizen from the marauding food fraudsters lurking all over the market place. On paper there are many rules and regulations put out by the Ministry of Health which the manufacturers and retailers of foods are "supposed" to be following but in practice, except for spooky offices in most town municipalities with grossly understaffed and under prepared  health departments having no clue regarding the law of the land vis-a--vis food safety. In a country of 125 crore, annual conviction rate of food fraudsters is hardly about 1000! There are thousands of cases pending before the courts for years to gether while the criminals roam freely around.

The brand new (2006 vintage!) FSSAI is roaring from Delhi that it would take stringent action on food adulterators and fraudsters with no mercy. Very good intention indeed! But ground reality is some thing different. It was only recently reported that in a prime urban conglomerate like Hyderabad there is no laboratory which can analyze samples supposed to be unsafe or below quality as, when or if picked up by the food inspectors, most of whom are conspicuous by their absence! The mantra of granting crores and crores of rupees to upgrade the infrastructure food inspection and safety enforcement is repeated ad nauseum with no visible evidence of implementing or improving the required facilities. 

In a country like the US there are well laid protocols accepted by the industry to remove from the market food products suspected to be unsafe and the industry covers itself with appropriate insurance protection against public litigation or prosecution by the consumer or the implementing agency. Besides most manufacturers work closely with the retailers to satisfy the customer regarding the quality of food sold and a dissatisfied consumer can always return the product for replacement or refund. Is this possible in India? Never, because the retailer can always deny that he has told it. There are dealers who sell blatantly date expired food products which may injure the consumer who will never be able to conclusively prove that the injury is caused by the food purchased from him.

A most interesting instance of commitment to safety by a country again comes from the US where there are farmers markets spread across the country offering to the consumers farm-fresh food conforming to standards laid down in the statute books. Since these farmers do not possess facilities to test their products in modern facilities, it is their experience that ensures their food is safe. In case there is any incidence of food poisoning or food related adverse episode, happening inadvertently, the farmer has adequate public liability insurance to cover damages caused by such cases. Look at India where there are thousands of mandis or shanties taking place with millions of consumers flocking there to buy their needs at prices much less than that prevailing in organized market places. Unlike American farmers market, where strict laws are there for only genuine farmers to partake in such markets, in Indian shandies there are more middlemen operating than farmers. Middle man is a curse in India who exploits both the farmer and the consumer by manipulating buying and selling prices!

As the conditions that exist in India to day, no citizen can claim protection from unscrupulous trading practices and are at the mercy of these elements day in and day out. Whether it is "mom and pop" or organized retailers or rural mandis, citizen is on his own to ward off such organized cheating and under such a condition how can development pundits expect the food industry to grow fast? Unless product return regime and product liability regulations take root in the country, most consumers will restrict their purchase to the absolute minimum and opt to cook at home rather than buying unreliable  processed products.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dietary Supplements-The Damocles Sword hanging over users!

Man's eternal search for "pink health" can take him to any where at any risks but this is precisely the prime motivating factor for many unscrupulous industry players to market a variety of products with tall but unsubstantiated health claims on bringing about dramatic improvements, general or specific, in the health of the unsuspecting buyers. The government has the onerous responsibility to check this menace through regulatory controls which need to be science based. In many countries these peddlers of so called "well being" products have a free run because either there is no law to regulate them or the existing laws are ambivalent giving sufficient leeway to the lawyer community to argue their cases out in the court if at all they are caught! Why should any normal person take any supplements at all? What do the citizens understand when products with tall health claims are dangled before them? 

According to classical definition "dietary supplements are intended to provide nutrients that may other wise not be consumed". It is very clear that these supplements are not for those whose diet is balanced in terms of all nutrients required by human body and there fore they need to be taken only after consulting a physician regarding any deficiency symptoms detected by him. Unfortunately physicians are never brought into focus when consumers unilaterally decide to take them because of high pressure promotions and tall claims made by the industry. Look at  some of the most patronized supplements in the market to realize the dimension of the problem. Supplements are offered in the form of pills, capsules, powders, drinks, energy bars, food adjuncts etc containing a variety of health "supporting" materials like vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, essential amino acids, herbals and botanicals, enzymes, antioxidants, fish oils, probiotics etc. The multibillion dollar industry spanning the entire world market a staggering 55,000 and odd products under the supplement category and in a country like the US more than half the population consume one or more supplements almost every day! 

A million dollar question is what the hell the governments in many countries are doing except closing their eyes to the existence of this roaring industry making money left, right and the center with practically no conscience for selling products, most people do not need at all!.  According some respectable experts 90% of the health claims made by peddlers of such products are incorrect and unsubstantiated and to add insult to injury more than 30% of such products do contain unlisted steroids. USA is an astonishing country where people have unlimited liberty to do any thing with least control over them under the pretext that it is one of the oldest democracies in the world. In this "great" country any one can sell a supplement without permission from the safety enforcement authorities who will have to look at these products only when some injury is caused and reported! In contrast in Europe food supplements must be demonstrated to be safe in dosage and purity as being suggested by the manufacturer before marketing them. 

It is mind boggling that the Americans spend an estimated $32 billion on dietary supplements every year, attracted by unproven claims that various pills and powders will help them lose weight, build muscle and fight off everything from colds to chronic illnesses. Alarm bells are now being sounded about the magnitude of liver damage cases being reported across that country which are linked to supplements though many believe that a majority of supplements are generally safe. In recent years, critics of the industry have called for measures that would force companies to prove that their products are safe, genuine and made in accordance with strict manufacturing standards before they reach the market. An antiquated federal law enacted in 1994, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, "prevents" the Food and Drug Administration from approving or evaluating most supplements before they are sold. Usually the agency must wait until consumers are harmed before officials can remove products from stores. Because the supplement industry operates on the honor system, studies show, the market has been flooded with products that are adulterated, mislabeled or packaged in dosages that have not been studied for safety.

One encouraging feature of the supplement landscape in the US is that most of the products implicated in liver injuries were bodybuilding supplements spiked with unlisted steroids, and herbal pills and powders promising to increase energy and help consumers lose weight. Probably those peddling them are criminals who see a business opportunity to spike some products and sell them as dietary supplements. Probably it may be the fringe of the industry deflecting any wholesale blame of the entire industry. Many of the popular supplements like vitamins, minerals, probiotics and fish oil had not been linked to any definite patterns of adverse effects and there fore they have a case for continuing their business with out any restriction by government. the flip side of this enigma is that the FDA is alarmed by the fact that 70 percent of dietary supplement companies are not following basic quality control standards that would help prevent adulteration of their products and the likely consequences there of. Of the 55,000 supplements that are sold in the United States, only 170 or about 0.3 percent, have been studied closely enough to determine their common side effects. 

Common sense says that only when a product is  regulated by a government agency with appropriate technical competence, its benefits and side effects can be fully known based on which an informed decision can be taken by the consumer whether to take it or not. After all every day life is a balance of "risks and benefits" and it is the duty of any responsible government to make available such information to the citizen in a transparent manner. It is some thing like the "injurious" warning mandated to be printed on cigarette packs to warn the consumer about the dangers of smoking. Similarly once consumers of dietary supplements know about the consequences of consuming it, probably that may serve as a deterrent against buying the same which after all does not restrict his freedom of buying such products, if he still wants to go ahead.  

In India the situation is more complicated because the safety monitoring as being claimed by the entrusted agency is all but a sham with the food products themselves not being assessed for their safety let alone the dietary supplements! There are innumerable instances of many food products, some of them made by multinational companies claiming that they boost intelligence, make the children tall and strong, restores energy in few seconds after consuming, etc. Complicating the issue further there are an array of products being offered by the organized industry based on traditional Ayurveda system which can be considered as supplements and there are no regulations which control these products. It is time that the government of India wakes up to streamline the food products and food supplements industry through effective standardization and safety parameters that can prevent food related damage to the health of the citizens. .


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Blah, Blah, Blah and more Blah! "Platitudes" and "Exhortations" on food industry do not achieve any thing, concrete action does!

If there is any proof needed that nothing changes in the country who ever is the ruling elite, what one has to do is to follow the "talking circuit", a sort of circus organized frequently by organizations supposedly to highlight the problems faced by the industry. On a conservative estimate there must have been at least 1000 seminars, conferences, workshops, meetings, get-togethers and lectures conducted on food industry development in India during the last 50 years. If a balance sheet is to be prepared regarding the input-output from these worthless exercises probably nothing much can be shown on the out put side. Food industry, as we see to day has grown to the present level not because of these talking extravaganza by academic pundits, often supported by industry but in spite of them! That government ignores them is a bitter truth every body knows. The plea pending for almost 5 decades for abolishing or reducing incidence of taxes on food has never reached the rulers and even if it has reached it is not given any serious consideration. It is not surprising therefore to hear this plea repeated by the industry in a recent "seminar", graced by that "innocent" minister in charge of the food industry portfolio in Delhi, to reduce taxes under the new proposed GST regime to 4% from the present 20%!

 If any statement a minister makes that must receive a "nobel prize" is the recent exhortation by the minister in the agricultural ministry who pompously declared that private sector must make food affordable to masses as if government has been doing this all along! Listen to what he said: "The government is pushing for greater participation from the private sector to make food affordable to masses. Mohanbhai Kalyanji bhai Kundariya, Minister of State (Agriculture) addressing the 4th CII National Conference on AgriBiotechnology on Tuesday said that the role of private players is extremely important in bringing quality and affordable food to our growing population and that the government would work to provide better crop prices to farmers, remove trade barriers and support technologies that are environment friendly.  He said, "Our Government under the leadership of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi is committed to working with industry leaders to bring about a revolution in the agricultural sector in India. We will discuss the various issues and challenges around agriculture, agri-biotechnology and other related areas raised during today's conference and come up with measures to provide an impetus to the sector." Stressing on the importance of producing more from the available land and water, Mr. Kundariya said, "Technology, like agri-biotechnology, if used intelligently will play an important role in improving our agricultural output especially in the light of our limited land and water resources which are reducing day by day. " Really?

To add insult to injury the organizers of the conference says that  "Kundariya absorbed the key challenges and issues in the agri-biotech sector raised by the various presenters, a CII release said. According to CII, the Conference started with highlighting the emerging context and major issues such as Sustainability, Innovation & Technology, limitations — both economical and ecological — of the tools used currently in agriculture along with climate change and food inflation and food quality and others. The first day of the conference witnessed eminent personalities from government, industry, institutions and associations who deliberated key issues. An interesting mix of topics including sustainable resource use — challenges and answers, lab to field — successfully reaping benefits and resolving farmer & consumers challenges — role of biotechnology were discussed at length during the first day of the conference. the release said. The opening session of the conference was presided by Ashwin Shroff, Co-Chairman, CII National Conference on Biotechnology & Chairman and MD, Excel Industries Ltd." What next?

What is all the more galling is the audacity of the minister to make such an exhortation in the presence of many industry captains who swallowed it silently, true to the typical sycophancy culture in this country. One wonders when did the industry become a charitable group selling their products without any profit in mind for them to practice what the minister said, probably without realizing the implications of his words! As a photo-op event such programs make sense with the high profile electronic media grabbing such news for serving their innocent listeners. The above seminar talked about innovation and technology and it is difficult to understand what they really want. This very same food industry has made almost all R & D institutions in foods in the country irrelevant by looking outwards for acquisition of foreign technologies while their own R & D facilities are neither existing nor have the necessary critical mass. What is not understood or appreciated is that more than two thirds of the food market is controlled by the so called unorganized industrial units about which no body seems to care and who may be receptive to adoption of locally developed technologies but they are denied access to the few technology institutions in the country funded by the government putting severe restrictions on their access to such places and charging exorbitant charges to buy technologies from there. 

It is rather pathetic that no single stake holder in the development of food industry really understands what is really needed to take the industry on a high projectile growth path and the sacrifice necessary to achieve this. With a fragmented agricultural sector predominated by small land holders the processing industry can never hope to achieve any dramatic growth rate in the foreseeable future and no seminar or conference can achieve this! Unless land consolidation takes place on a priority consideration organized industry will find it difficult to grow fast and play its rightful role in economic upliftment of the nation. The much hated APMC Act has not yet been repealed which gives agents and touts predominance in the produce selling market yards across the country denying genuine processors access to their feedstocks. Utter neglect of infrastructure and communication facilities so vital for food processing sector by successive governments can never be pardoned by future generation sitting over judgement over our actions and inactions. The sorry spectacle of the ministry of food processing industry in blaring about its food park program, none of which has emerged as a game changer so far, during the last 15 years, can only dim the hope of the citizen about our future. Another bureaucratic set up under the government aegis entrusted with the task of "over seeing" the country's sputtering food safety regime is busy running around the country breathing down the neck of one and all who make food to kneel before them and take their "license" for operation in the country!

If one takes a close look at the products now in Indian market, most of them from multinational firms and large manufacturers, cater to the well to do consumers and these include breakfast products, soft drinks, aseptic packed milk packets, high cost chocolate items, costly dairy products, etc all of them costing beyond Rs 150 per kg. Where does the common man fit into this scenario? Even if those members of CII reduce the prices of their products will it become a "food for masses"? The newly elected government which is firmly in the saddle must make a clean break from the past and overhaul the entire system from farm to the fork with necessary reforms that can signal a revival of the food processing industry in the country.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The mysterious Bilophila wadsworthia -A gut bug with monstrous potential to damage health of excessive meat eaters!

Many of us associate bacteria with negative things as most pathogens causing a host of diseases belong to this group of microorganisms. But it is not a correct perception because there are many species friendly to man doing many things to support our health. Human microbiome which involves bacteria that thrive in and on human beings have received focused attention only recently and whatever has been unfolded is both exciting and scary. Exciting because it opens up avenues for maneuvering them for greater benefits and disease amelioration in humans. Scary because inappropriate food consumption habits and reckless diet can ruin them inviting disaster in the long run. The early recognition about the importance of dietary fiber was due to the role these fibers play inside the gut in providing a great service in avoiding many diseases including CVD, diabetes and obesity. 

Dietary fiber which is considered a "glamorous" ingredient in human diet is undigested by the metabolic system in human intestine and therefore not considered a nutrient in the true sense. But their role in promoting the growth of microbiota in intestine is universally recognized because many bacteria residing in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are beneficial for improved health in many ways. Imagine how crowded is our intestine when it is found that more than 500 species of bacteria have settled down there with a 100 trillion cell count, almost 10 times more than human cells! As it is a question of co-existence between man and his intestinal crowd, latter must also receive appropriate foods in sufficient quantities to nourish and prosper. Since all food ingredients except fiber is digested by the powerful digesting enzymes in the GI tract, gut microbes depend largely on fiber, semi digested and undigested food that slip into the large intestine. Hence the importance of dietary fiber in human system.  

According to one of the recent studies changes in the diet can change the gut profile of bacteria within a matter of 2-3 days causing some damage to the well being of a person while in the long term such changes can be significantly injurious to the health. The major difference in the diets of carnivores, omnivores and herbivores can be attributed to the fiber content in the food they eat. While carnivores depend mostly on animal foods containing practically no fiber, omnivores take a mixed diet containing animal and plant foods. It is the herbivores who consume mostly plant based foods and materials like whole food grains and fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, both soluble as well as insoluble types which are now being eulogized for their health supporting role in human lives. Microbiota works on these fiber components when they reach the large intestine and act on them to generate a host of metabolites including acetates, propionates and butyrates, short chain fatty acids which are implicated in many beneficiary action supporting good health.  

We are presently on the threshold of a major discovery about the importance the foods we eat and how such decisions can bring about dramatic changes in the microbiota in the GI. It is becoming increasingly clear that these tiny creatures have lot to do in influencing our body weight, immunity and behavior. Interest on studying the links between diet and the human microbiome appears to be growing. In a more recent study scientists tested the effect of two extreme diets, one overwhelmingly based on meat and cheese while the other one based on plant based food and it became apparent that the bacteria in the gut showed contrasting changes within 2-3 days. Microbes that belonging to the Bilophila species started to dominate the guts of the carnivores and this species can influence the inflammation level dramatically in the intestine. Earlier another study last year had confirmed that blooms of Bilophila in the gut can cause cause inflammation and colitis in experiments with animals. However no data is available regarding the levels of inflammation caused in the above study. 

Bilophila wadsworthia, the most conspicuous from this species is an anaerobic, gram negative, rod shaped bacteria which is present to the extent of 0.01% in the gut microbiota of a normal person. This appears to have the ability to ferment under appropriate conditions substrates like bile, mostly from the meat and similar animal derived foods and produce hydrogen sulphide prolifically. They are slow to grow unless very favorable conditions are obtained and adhere to human cells waiting for an opportune time to bloom. Increased numbers of this microbe have been found in clinical samples of persons affected by diseases like sepsis, liver abscesses, cholecystitis, empyema, osteomyelitis, etc. Gut disorders like Intestinal Bowl Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn's disease are also suspected to be associated with this microorganism. With such abundance of insight into this unique bacteria further studies are bound to be undertaken for expanding our present knowledge about the role played by gut bacteria in human health.

This Blog does not wish to deprecate those consuming meat but only wants to caution them regarding excessive eating and probably suggesting that they need to balance their diet by including more and more and more fiber rich foods like whole food grains, fruits, and vegetables. Same applies to vegetarian consumers with tendency to gorge on cheese and paneer who have to exercise some moderation on these tasty foods. As further studies are bound to follow a clear picture will emerge only when there is a unanimity on the findings and conclusions presented in this Blog piece. 


Monday, November 24, 2014

"FOODPOLIS" in South Korea-India is still at the "Food Park stage!

India is considered a super power when it comes to production of agricultural, horticultural, plantation crops, sugarcane, milk and livestock during the last one decade. But when it comes to processing of most of these materials originating from its backyard, the country does not acquit itself creditably well, with most of the raw materials undergoing only primary processing with very little value addition. While most developed nations process their raw materials to the extent of 60-80%, India does not even process 20% of its field crops into high value products. Probably conservative dietary habits, predominance of poverty and low purchasing power may be inhibiting the development of food processing sector to the desired extent. Added to this a disorganized farm front, poor infrastructure, shortage of power and water, scarcity of farm labor and semi literate farmers worsen the problem further.

Food industry in India always claim that it cannot realize its full potential in contributing much more to the economy because of difficulties in accessing good quality raw materials near their processing facilities. This is a fairly argued stand and the major reason is the tendency of the industry to concentrate in and around urban areas in stead of setting up their shop near the growing area. Besides a typical farmer holds only about 2 acres of land and this size may not be an economically viable one making the farmer surviving with hand to mouth existence. There is no place for quality parameters for the produce they grow and most of these crops raised are intended for table consumption. The existing land acquisition regulations do not permit the purchase of agricultural land by any one but another agriculturist with annual income less than Rs 2 lakh! What an anachronism in a country which aspires to become a global economic power challenging others like USA, China etc! With the new government in office during the last 6 months, nothing seems to have changed much from what has been in vogue as far as land acquisition is concerned. Unless big players with processing experience and deep purse are allowed to set up large mechanized farms or organize large agricultural cooperatives, nothing much can be expected in boosting food industry development in the country.

Major processors, most of them foreign players, have realized the need for backward integration with the farms and have made their own arrangements for ensuring adequate supply of raw materials of right quality through prior arrangements with farmers near their facilities. It is not that Indian policy makers are not aware of this reality but some how they never bothered so far to set right the situation when it comes to linking producer with the processor. One has to look at the thriving sugar industry in the country which is fortunate in getting enacted appropriate laws to compel growers of sugar cane to surrender their crops at a predetermined government decided price, euphorically called Minimum Support Price (MSP), supposed to be for protecting the interest of the growers. The result is there for all to see and to day India is the top producer of raw sugar in the world. This has happened in spite of bad facilities for transporting the sugar cane to the crushing plants, often involving long distances of transportation! 

Assuming that Governments at the center as well as at the state levels do nothing to improve the situation there are still millions of entrepreneurs who are willing to get into the food industry taking their own risk and it is already happening at the ground level. It appears more than 75% of the food market is controlled by players in the so called unorganized sector though every Tom, Dick and Harry who is some body in the international food manufacturing scenario has operations in India also, not able to obliterate these small scale players! The so called free economy favoring a capitalistic society ushered into the country during early nineteen nineties did reduce the predominance of agriculture over other sectors but it did not douse the entrepreneurial spirits among domestic population with the industry registering impressive growth rates during the last two decades. It is true that Government of India (GoI) wanted to encourage growth of food industry and even set up a dedicated ministry to "oversee" its development as best as it could see. Unfortunately its vision was not far sighted and probably it thought creating a "ministry" would automatically facilitate the development without any cohesive and realistic thinking and inputs. One such "brainer" was the "Food Parks" concept lifted from the examples in the UK, China and other countries which is being tom tommed as its star program for the last 15 years..

In stead of a holistic approach, GoI thought disbursing funds as subsidies through the "ministry"would help industry to prosper! Alas, see what has happened, or rather what has not happened. After earmarking huge funds to set up such "parks", only 2 out of the 40 and odd "parks" sanctioned since 2000 are able to show some thing as a positive outcome so far. In stead of providing facilities like water supply, uninterrupted power, world class roads, reliable communication net work, helpful policy support GoI thrust the responsibility on private players many of whom were interested only in the land which was becoming "hot cakes" as an investment attraction in the country. In contrast the whole world is looking with envy the initiative in a country like Korea which is setting up world's largest food cluster in Iksan on its south west coast with easy access to China and Japan. The incentives being doled out are mind boggling while making their offer of providing sites within this cluster, aptly called "Foodpolis" because of its mega size. 

Foodpolis will possess a number of clear advantages to investors, It appears some 60 cities with a population of 1 million or more are located within a two-hour flight from the site of this project. The complex itself is very close to Korea's major airports and seaports, and the country's highways and high-speed KTX trains capable of high speed mobility. Tariff rates have been lowered significantly following Korea's implementation of free trade agreements with 47 different countries, including two major accords with the European Union and the United States. Foodpolis is also being established with a comprehensive support network that will include three state-funded research centers, including the Food Functionality Evaluation Center, Food Quality and Safety Center and Food Packaging Center. R&D will also be closely aligned with food institutes nationwide. In addition, firms locating in the cluster are eligible to receive a variety of incentives and benefits, including lowered tax rates and property rental fees, cheap utility charges and even state subsidies. The government plans exemptions on corporate income tax for the first three years, and a 50 percent reduction in the following two. Companies can also avoid property taxes for 15 years and, in some cases, receive rent exemptions from 50 to 100 percent for 50 years, with the potential to extend for an additional 50 years.

When construction is complete in 2015, Foodpolis probably may be one of the best places in the world for food processing and packaging companies to set up their base with hopes of finding markets anywhere in the Asia Pacific region. The basic concept of this cluster is to create an optimum business and research environment for global food companies. It's a mini city tailored for the food industry and will be a combination of information technology, culture and food science. The entire system is expected to be friendly to all investors regardless of their nationalities. According to those promoting Foodpolis great care has been taken, while designing the complex, to foster the food industry into the next growth engine for not only South Korea, but also the entire Asian continent. The cluster is expected to create thousands of jobs and a huge amount of added value for the regional economy. a conservative estimate puts the probable number of participants at about 166 including 70 global players and 20 research centers, resulting an estimated out put valued at $ 60 billion. 

It is time GoI considers emulating Korea in its vision and promote at least 5 such "Foodpolis" in the eastern  (Kolkatta and Vizhag linked), southern (Chennai and Kochi linked)  and western (Mangalore, Goa and Mumbai linked) regions with appropriate road infrastructure linking the agricultural, horticultural, plantation products and livestock generating areas for fast transportation for raw materials as well as for export through the port facilities on the coast. If necessary the country must take Korea's expertise and experience into reckoning, for joint development within the next 5 years. Will this happen? Let us hope for the best for the sake of this country!  


Sunday, November 23, 2014

BIiopolymers-India's emerging role in global landscape

Plastics, ever since their emergence in early 1900s have literally taken over the day to day lives of human beings as they have become omnipotent in every house hold. Till the end of 18th century man was depending on natural plastic materials like Rubber and a host of other materials available in nature. One of the earliest fully synthetic plastic material viz Bakelite emerged in Belgium finding extensive applications in many spheres of human activity. Partially synthetic plastics based cellulose were made by treating cellulose with nitric acid, followed by dissolving the resulting product in alcohol that yielded a hardened version of plastic. Between 1920 and 1954 emerged a series synthetic plastics based on petroleum sources that include Polystyrene, Polyvinyl chloride, Polyethylene, Polypropylene, Polyethylene terephthalate followed by a number of modifications of these basic materials into speciality products for varied applications.

Interestingly the global production of synthetic plastics has been steadily growing in spite of the scare created by the oil crunch in 1960s and there does not appear to be any pause vis-a-vis the growth of this industry. Environmentalists and social activists are in the forefront to day to curtail the use of plastics and if possible to ban them altogether in the interest of the future of mankind. The "exhaustible" nature of fossil fuels and indestructibility of most plastics which are not biodegradable when disposed off have added new urgency in reducing manufacture and usage of synthetic plastics drastically in coming years. If a recent report regarding the pollution potential of plastics is to be believed, there are more than a billion tons of waste plastics dumped indiscriminately every where across the world, the biggest dumping ground being the water bodies including oceans.  Most plastics take more than 800 years to get degraded left to the elements in nature. 

Of the total production of synthetic plastics in the world, around 15 million tons per year, almost one third is used by the food industry for packing products that require better shelf life. From predominant use of glass bottles and metal cans till about 30 years ago, to day plastics have displaced both these materials almost totally. There are a plethora of reasons for every one to opt for plastics. They are versatile, have wide range of choice for every application, are malleable with high molecular weight, made from cheap petrochemicals, are impervious to water, Besides the food industry, a significant portion of plastics manufactured to day go for making pipes and by the building industry while those manufacturing furniture, automobiles and toys prefer plastics for many reasons. In India almost half the production is used for packaging purpose. One of the biggest constraints of using plastics by the food industry is the indiscriminate use of additives like plasticizers and fillers to make plastics superior in function and attractive to users. Of course there are strict regulations governing use of plastics for food contact applications including migration limitations which give reasonable protection to the consumer from hazards when they are used by the food processors. 

Bioplastics emerged as an alternative to synthetic plastics which may eventually be the answer to the problems posed by the latter. Bioplastics are derived from renewable biomass materials like vegetable fats and oils, starches and microbes. Their USP includes lesser emission of green house gases during production, are biodegradable either aerobically or anaerobically, leachables are not health hazards and they are recyclable. More than 50% of bioplastics produced to day are thermoplastics based on starches while cellulose plastics and poly lactic acid based plastics also are in the market. Poly-3-hydroxy butyrate (PHB), Polyhydroxy alkanoates (PHA), Poly amides (PA) are other bioploymers from which plastic materials of desired properties can be made. Of the 15 million tons (mt) of plastics produced globally, hardly 2.3 mt is accounted for by bioploymers.during 2013 while it is anticipated to increase to 3,5 mt by 2020.  

Polyamides, popularly called  Nylons are the rising star in the plastic horizon and they are widely used for engineering and high performance plastics.  They find extensive applications in various industries such as automotive, consumer goods, electrical & electronics, engineering parts, housings, building & construction, packaging, sporting goods, etc. Probably one of the biggest reasons for its phenomenal rise may be on account of Increased environmental awareness and its credentials as a material that can be made using renewable feed stocks. Its importance also is due to the structural advantage it offers for better performance than the conventionally made engineering thermoplastics. Most of them are bio-based made from Sebacic acid which is derived from Castor oil. Polyamides made from Castor oil such as those branded products like PA 11, PA 12, PA 410, PA 1010, PA 610, EcoPaxx, were launched in 2009 to meet increasing market demand for high performance durable bio-based engineering plastics. To day there are at least half a dozen manufacturers offering a wide range of castor oil based biopolymers with different functional properties. Some of them boast of high performance including high melting point of around 250C, low moisture absorption and excellent resistance to chemical substances. 

Where does India fit into this emerging scenario? India almost monopolizes production of castor oil accounting for more than 65% of global Castor output of 12.5 lakh tons per year. India also supplies 70% of world's requirement of Castor oil though there are 30 countries cultivating this hardy crop. It is rather a paradox that nothing much is done in the country to encourage cultivation of Castor and there is practically no new agronomic development that can raise productivity and quality considerably. If Castor oil fetches prices which are more than double that of other plant oils, government must encourage diverting land from some of the crops like sugarcane to Castor to increase the farmer income considerably.   


Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Whole Foods Vs Walmart Foods-Slugging it out for more consumer market share

Two most discussed food chains in the US are Walmarts and Whole Foods, giants measured by any yardstick. The similarity ends there. While the first one is an out and out main stream food retailer, the latter has cultivated an image over the years about their emphasis on "healthy" foods. Of course there can be differences in defining what is a healthy food in the context of differing perceptions among health experts though organic foods are often considered as healthy because of their relatively cleaner quality, devoid of synthetic and other chemicals of doubtful safety. Both these retail chains have high visibility but Whole Foods chain is growing at a much faster pace compared to its more famous counterpart, the most important reason being the changing profiles of American consumers during the last two decades. Food being manufactured and retailed to day has to pass two tests viz, healthiness and safety as well as environment friendliness and Whole Foods and similar chains are fast galloping in the race for consumer attention because of their conscious efforts to offer products with much higher standards mandated by the food authorities. Here is an interesting study about the divergent routes the two well established food retailers are traveling vying for the "purse" of the consumer!.

" Ben Blatt of Slate magazine conducted an interesting and in-depth study recently to determine how many of the grocery products on a Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  )  shelf are outright banned from the more upscale retailer Whole Foods Market  (NASDAQ: WFM  ) . The results might surprise you. According to Blatt's research, Whole Foods bans roughly 54% of Wal-Mart's fare due to the presence, in its words, of "unacceptable ingredients for foods." These 78 banned ingredients include everything from recognizable sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup to the tongue-tying dimethylpolysiloxane. In the process, Blatt left some cartons unturned, since Wal-Mart's website only discloses ingredients for approximately 50% of its grocery inventory. As a result, his survey is not scientific or comprehensive. Nevertheless, the findings are revealing for customers and investors alike.
For example, it's no surprise that shoppers would be hard-pressed to find a liter of Coke or bag of Doritos at Whole Foods, but Blatt discovers that even household brands ranging from Minute Maid lemonade to Cracker Barrel cheese are deemed unworthy for Whole Foods' choosy clientele. Whole Foods claims these foods fall short of "safety, necessity, manufacturing methods and compatibility with our overall core values."
While the art of stocking retail shelves might seem quite mundane, the contrast presents two starkly different approaches to running a grocery store. Consider the following statistics:
    * 97% of the soft drinks sold at Wal-Mart contain ingredients that Whole Foods considers "unacceptable." If you ever wondered why a Whole Foods drink aisle makes you feel like you're in a foreign country, well, there's your explanation.
    * Wal-Mart's "Great Value 100% Whole Wheat Bread" contains seven ingredients that Whole Foods scoffs at, including everything from high-fructose corn syrup to calcium propionate. Not one or two "unacceptable" items, but seven. All in a staple product that you have to imagine just flies off the shelves. We're not talking about an obscure frozen dinner here; we're talking about sandwich bread.
    * More than 80% of the candy sold at Wal-Mart would never be found at Whole Foods due to artificial flavors, while 31% of the bacon and sausage products have been blacklisted due to monosodium glutamate, or MSG.
The list goes on and on. Beyond the statistics, however, Blatt attempts to answer the intriguing question for customers and investors alike: Why does Whole Foods limit consumer choice? As he points out, the Food and Drug Administration has deemed every food product sold in a Wal-Mart store safe for consumption. Whole Foods, however, holds itself to a higher standard. Is Whole Foods, then, playing the role of Big Brother for health-conscious customers or simply catering to the finicky demands of foodies? Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, was interviewed for Slate's article. She points the finger at health-conscious customers: "Whole Foods is giving their demographic what their demographic wants." The "top comment" in Blatt's piece -- which has so far collected more than 580 comments in total -- claims Nestle's conclusion is "the only relevant statement in the whole article." But is it really that cut-and-dry? Not according to Whole Foods founder John Mackey. When he first started selling natural and organic foods at a small co-op in Austin, Texas, die-hard foodies were a blip on the radar in a massive national grocery industry. Now, the organic food industry, for example, is a $28 billion market that's more than doubled in size since 2004. This health-conscious trend didn't just spring out of thin air. For several decades, grocers like Whole Foods, recognized as America's first Certified Organic store, have ushered in a new wave of health-focused customers.
In the book he co-authored with Raj Sisodia, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, Mackey claims that Whole Foods plays an important role in leading the consumer toward better choices. Instead of catering to the wants of consumers, Whole Foods educates -- without lecturing -- their clientele: "If the business is able to see unarticulated or latent needs that customers don't yet recognize, it has a responsibility to educate them about the potential value they are not yet seeing. ... We have to satisfy those customers in terms of what they want in the moment, while steering them toward better choices over time." For Whole Foods, it's as much of a push from the grocer as it is a pull from the consumer to accommodate healthier food options. Mackey believes this makes sense because his grocers study everything from food to organisms to the environment and therefore have a deep understanding that customers might lack. At the end of the day, it's always a dialogue between the two, but Mackey says a relationship built on trust has led customers to "increasingly look to Whole Foods Market to be their 'editors,' as we carefully examine and evaluate the products we sell." Or, to use another analogy, Whole Foods aims to maximize healthy outcomes for customers like a good mechanic would optimize the performance of an automobile. As Whole Foods nudges the consumer to make better eating choices, it's in turn expanding that demographic. Their motto might as well be "Educate and they will come." But Wal-Mart's heading down a divergent path. From Blatt's point of view, the Bentonville retail giant offers a "laissez-faire" approach to curating the products it sells. Instead of banning ingredients, Wal-Mart's adopted a model for purchasing that provides lower prices and greater choice. On the surface, this formula looks like a win-win for the consumer, but it comes with a small caveat: Shoppers are increasingly concerned about the ingredients and origins of food and are looking for guidance from a source they can trust. While no one wants their parent -- or grocer, for that matter -- telling them to eat their vegetables, many customers want to know that their grocer supports transparent and sustainable food practices. After all, their health and well-being depends, to a large extent, on the quality of foods in their diet. Consequently, grocers who carefully monitor everything from ingredients to sourcing are riding on a wave of growth while others are lagging behind. The organic market, for example, makes up only 3.5% of total food sales, but it grew at double the annual growth rate of all food sales in 2012. Grocers like Whole Foods and its natural-foods competitor Sprouts Farmers Market see increasing opportunity: Both stores recently upped their potential nationwide store count to 1,200 locations, which would triple Whole Foods' size and increase Sprouts' footprint by 7.5 times. While Wal-Mart towers above them with an estimated 3,000 grocery locations, its momentum is slowing. The world's largest retailer struggled to achieve 1.5% year-over-year global-revenue growth in the most recent quarter. To reach its full potential, Whole Foods will likely continue to educate customers and may even ban a few ingredients along the way. For its part, that seems to be a time-tested recipe for success, translating to a seven-bagger stock over the last five years. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, has to hope a cornucopia of products offers more for consumers than a carefully curated experience. From my perspective, focusing on rock-bottom prices looks less and less like a viable long-term strategy for the retail juggernaut. Dividend stocks can make you rich. It's as simple as that. While they don't garner the notoriety of high-flying growth stocks, they're also less likely to crash and burn. And over the long term, the compounding effect of the quarterly payouts, as well as their growth, adds up faster than most investors imagine. With this in mind, our analysts sat down to identify the absolute best of the best when it comes to rock-solid dividend stocks, drawing up a list in this free report of nine that fit the bill. To discover the identities of these companies before the rest of the market catches on, you can download this valuable free report by simply clicking here now. John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Isaac Pino, CPA, owns shares of Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors". 

Future seems to be belonging to those industry and retail players who are sensitive to the changing demands of consumers and convince their credentials regarding their capability to keep consumer concerns upper most in their mind. Walmart no doubt serves a wide segment of the American consumer community by offering low cost foods though they cannot be considered high quality. Organic food movement which started in a small way years ago has assumed a much larger role to day due to the reckless over drive of the main stream industry to cater to the palates of the consumer rather than addressing their health concerns. Probably likes of Walmart will see the writing on the wall and change their strategies to be more sensitive to the well being of the consumer in stead of over focusing on the price front.


Gene based dieting-Does it really work for body weight reduction?

Losing weight is a big business with many "experts" recommending special diets for achieving the objective of shedding body weight and bringing down body mass index (BMI) within the limits considered to be ideal. Millions of dollars are riding on this industry and in spite of all the efforts by scientists and the well being industry there is no guaranteed result oriented "treatment" or regime which can be considered successful to all the people. Who has not heard of Atkins Diet or Ornish Diet or South Beach Diet which had their golden run for a few years but eventually faded from the center scene. There are many health managing semi-medical type of centers, especially in India where special diets are administered to in-house patients for periods of one or two weeks. Though they are successful in rejuvenating the patients for some time, once they come out of the facilities and start on a regular diet the lost weight comes back with a vengeance. Is there no solution for this unenviable situation where man has found himself sucked into the obesity trap due to many reasons, most important being unbalanced dietary intake?

Food we eat to survive and lead a healthy disease free lifestyle has metamorphosed into a pleasure giving experience to day having lost the aura of health associated with it. Who is responsible for this distortion? Some say it is the industry which is "corrupting" the public with its reckless range of food products with progressively diluted nutritive value and full of food additives with doubtful safety credentials. Many sociologists feel that the food marketing strategy of the industry is to be faulted as large pack sizes and jumbo serving portions encourage consumers to eat or drink more than what they really need. Easy access to markets nearby and the personalized transport system invariably act as incentives for more eating. It is the stand of the nutritionists that most foods are designed improperly with sensory perception getting priority over nutrient content. Whatever it may be, fact still remains that over weight and obesity are here to stay with no sign of abatement in spite of many efforts at different levels. 

One of the most effective tools in the hands of the government is punitive taxation on fat-rich and sugar-rich products making these products more and more costlier. Such a policy is bound to show results in a short time but could be temporary as price sensitivity among people is relatively short lived. Tobacco industry still survives though smoking is becoming exorbitantly costly, especially for middle class population due to incidence of high taxes on them. Ultimately the responsibility for eating rightly and in a balanced way rest on the individual and unless there is a realization within that high fat and high sugar in foods can be "toxic" to their lives, very little can be achieved by the State. The argument that those who are obese need medical attention is another view increasingly being accepted but that cannot be a solution to a problem which is refusing to fade way easily. Assuming that the present obese population can be treated through drastic medical interventions, what about future? How are we going to arrest the growing trend of obesity and increasing number of people crossing the Rubicon

For quiet some time there has been a class of scientists attributing the tendency to put on body weight to genetic factors though no conclusive proof was forthcoming. The unsolved riddle of same diet causing one to put on weight while another one not showing this tendency could be the reason for the scientists to look at the genetic angle a little more carefully. The "brown fat vs white fat" issue brought out recently may be another angle to unravel the mystery associated with obesity. But it only helps to treat a patient by implanting stem cells that can differentiate into fat cells capable of making brown fats which are easily burned by the body. There is still another view which highlights the role of the human microbiome in deciding about the proclivity of any individual to accumulate body weight. The claim that some microorganisms can even be inherited from parents may be some what far fetched indicating that child of a fat mother must also be fat! 

It was in 2010 another twist was given to the genetic angle to obesity when a private company in the US and the reputed Stanford University collaborated and brought out a starling fact that disposition to put on weight is encoded in the genes of individuals. They were able to decode the variations in some genes that make a person vulnerable to illogical weight again. The science of Nutrigenomics is a relatively new discipline and linking of diet to genes is opening up new avenues to treat obesity. Certain genes like ABP2, ADRB2, PPAR-gamma are shown to have variations in their single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) which can predict whether a particular diet can cause overweight. The FTO gene which contributes to Fat mass and obesity related protein is reported to have high impact on body weight. According to this theory variations in FTO gene can cause an increase in the levels of the hunger hormone Ghrelin which makes dieting extremely difficult for such an individual. Those with FTO gene variations may have an irresistible craving for foods with high fat and high sugar.

How can all the above "revelations" help in tackling obesity? If some of the well being industry players are to be believed all it needs is to take a swab from the cheek of a person to finger print the DNA make up and based on this, right type of diet can be prescribed for him. Thus people with the DNA type that can favor low carbohydrate diet must go for the same without bothering too much about the fat content. to get the best result. For others low fat diet may be more achieve the goal. In India one of the fitness specialized companies is offering the so called  "DNA FIT" program claimed to be "a custom-fit solution" that can "answer for all those who have been seeking a scientific, individualized weight loss program that offers speedy, yet sustainable results". It also claims to be Asia's first DNA based weight loss program. How far these claims are realistic cannot be verified in the absence independent opinion from experts, though it offers some hope for those desperate to slim down after failing all other routes to achieve positive results.

A million dollar question that still remains unanswered is how come there is such a large gene variation happening just in the last 10-15 years when obesity rate started climbing steeply and showing no signs of abatement. Is this due to the environment which is precipitating this epidemic to cause such widespread changes in the DNA make up of people? Or could it be due to increased consumption of processed foods containing many additives having this effect on the DNA? What ever it is, how can the world manage to reverse this trend with almost 16% of the population vulnerable to obesity and 70% of the population with 50% chances to become obese based on their gene make up, unless they change their eating habits according to their DNA type? It is paradoxical that ultimately the focus comes back to individuals who have to take action as per the above findings and DNA picture provides only a suggested solution for adoption.