Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Tolerance, thy name is India-Scary tolerance for unsafe and sub-quality foods by the population

"Intolerance" is the new slogan one hears in India frequently during the last few months. Why not? After all we are all familiar with sugar intolerance, lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, intolerance for many other foods and India is to day the world capital of sugar intolerant people. However no one seems to be concerned with some of these life threatening intolerance and this issue is rarely focused in any media discussions or social sector plans. In stead the theme of to days raging discussion is about intolerance at the political level. During the last few months if one watches the television channels, especially those airing "news" for 24 hours and presenting "panel" discussions, an impression is gained that India is the capital of social intolerance and consequent violence through out the country! If  one believes them, minority community people are not safe in this country any more because of increasing intolerance by the majority community.. Some "intellectuals" who felt neglected by the media, suddenly got the opportunity to come to lime light by grandiosely declaring that they "would" return the awards they "earned" through their achievements in their respective fields as a mark of protest and troubling of their "conscience" which were never evident before even at worst of the times in the history of this country.. 

Whether one likes it or not India is an over democratized country with each and every citizen aware of his rights without bothering to think about his responsibility to the society. Freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution. Probably this is giving them the right to say any thing and every thing, logical or illogical, rational as well as irrational, use of hurtful or abusive language in the public and above all the right to violate any law without fear of retribution from the authorities. What is galling in this great charade is the "death of truth"! According to statistics during the year 2015 incidences of intolerant actions and dangerous communal clashes has come down by almost 50% compared to the past 5 years and one fails to understand how any one, honest and decent, in this country, can say intolerance has increased! One can understand the relevance of such a discussion if one talks about intolerance among politicians because every political party is intolerant of others in their greed for power which also entitles them the right to loot the treasury! Definitely this intolerance has greatly increased during the last couple of years because of the political upheaval caused by the dethroning of the dynastic political family during the election in 2014. After all most political parties that work in India are like the "crabs in the bucket" where no crab is allowed to escape by laggards pulling its lags!  

This great country has a glorious past, a great culture, world envying heritage, several virtues and achievements about which every Indian can be proud of. It is true that India is also one of the top 10 countries with high corruption and consequent debilitation of the average citizen. Major financial scams that took place during the last few years  are unbearable to most citizens who are honest and it is a pity that the omnipotent corruption is eating into the vitals of the country. Are not the citizens showing utmost tolerance to these negative perception about the ruling class, be politicians, bureaucrats, some industry captains or the lowly paid babus in government agencies with whom he has to deal with every day? Have we come across any violence against these vultures of the society in any part of the country? Is this a sign of "intolerance"?. Sociologists may conveniently push this trait under the carpet saying it is the helplessness of the common man that has made him docile and submissive!  

Look at the way the people in this country are being systematically trampled upon by insensitive rulers at all levels, be it federal government, state ruling machinery, civic administrations in towns and cities, zilla parishats, village panchayats or others and how amazing that despite such assault on the rights of human beings day in and day out people are rarely provoked! Whether the roads are full of pot holes or the traffic is non-disciplined water supply is irregular or non-existent and dangerous to health, or hospitals are any thing but hospitable or foods and drugs are fake and spurious or prevalence of looting by the thieves, gangsters and dacoits or uncontrolled pollution of the air or irregular supply of quality power or imposition of taxes irrationally, average Indian citizen bears them with a grin! If this is not tolerance  reminding us of ancient sages with unlimited patience, what else it is? 

Take the case of foods which are available in the country. One of the fundamental rights of any citizen in a civilized country is access to safe and quality food in the market. Governments at the Center as well as States have employed thousands of personnel, supposed to be vested with the onus to ensure only safe foods are offered in the market place. Unfortunately the ground reality is totally different bordering on disgust! In a shocking report it was brought out that in a big state like Bihar, the third most populous state in the country with a population exceeding 10 crore, there are hardly a dozen vigilant officers to monitor the quality of food offered by thousands of traders, retailers, hotels and restaurants and road side eateries! Practically every food there is adulterated, some benign and others dangerous but still there is not a murmur of protest from there and to top it the people have selected the very same people, responsible for this pitiable situation, for ruling them in the recent election there! If this is not tolerance what else it is? This food landscape is true in every state in the country and one never hears about riots or violence on this score. 

Indian citizen whether rich or poor, always had a raw deal as far as food prices are concerned. When onion prices shot up last year to unbearable levels, did any one hear about riots any where though onion is an important component of the diet to most Indians. Common man also knows why this happened, most probably because of the classical politician-hoarder nexus that created an artifical scarcity for onion in the market. Same situation keep repeating with many vegetables and fruits the price escalation varying from 50-200 % . The abnormal price increase of dals and pulses is another case. Imagine the distress of a population most of them vegetarians by choice when their major protein source became dearer because of 100% escalation of price! Such things keep on happening in a big country like India and the patient people in this country had taken such periodic hiccups in their stride.

Talking about food, are the people so innocent not to understand the implications of such gross negligence and shirking responsibility by rulers they themselves elected? Probably there is a dormant awareness that foods which are not branded backed by reputed manufacturers can be of indifferent quality but many do not sense the long term dangers inherent in buying unsafe foods, often at cheaper prices. Some say Indians are fatalistic in nature leaving their fate in the hands of God and if this logic is applied to food there is unlimited scope for food fraudsters in the country. Look at the Maggi noodles case where the whole Government machinery came down very heavily on the manufacturer, banned the product saying it is unsafe and initiated legal action  for reparation, accusing that the noodle is unsafe! But the very same Maggie reintroduced this month after judicial intervention, disappeared from the market shelves like hot potatoes in no time! Why this has happened? Because people seem to trust the industry more than the government. 

Some of the products most frequently and successfully adulterated in the country include edible oils with dangerous inedible oils and mineral oil, spices like Turmeric with Metanil yellow dye, vegetables like peas, green chilies with malachite green, black pepper with papaya seeds, mustard seeds with Argemone seeds, coffee with tamarind seed powder, tea with tea waste, saffron with other flower stigmas, milk, khoa and condensed milk with starch, milk with water, detergents, soaps, cheap oils, tea with spent tea, etc. According to admissions by FSSAI, more than 60% of milk in the country is adulterated! Still millions of consumers in India chase the fresh milk vendors for "fresh milk" hoping for a natural product. The list goes on and on but Indian consumer is ever patient with them with not much of a grouse. Tolerance is the reason for such an attitude which is sustaining such a situation.  How any one in his right sense call this an intolerant country! It is a bitter truth that this tolerance is increasing day by day which is scary and not good for the country! If this intolerance debate is channeled to the food landscape in the country, people must be advised to be more intolerant towards harmful and fraudulent foods and pressurize the rulers to be more aggressive in bringing to books the food criminals who are holding the country to ransom!     

Monday, November 23, 2015

The humble potato-Do we know all that we ought to know ?

No doubt Potato is an important food crop grown and consumed all over the world.Though it had originated from Chile almost 7000-10000 years ago, Interestingly Asia predominates in production to day. Paradoxically Potato consumption is high in European countries, America and Canada while China and India, with small consumption base, contributes almost 35% of the annual global production, estimated at 380 million tons. The mode of consumption of potato varies from country to country with developing countries consuming it in house hold cooking while in developed contries bulk of the production is consumed by the processing industry. Why is that potato cultivation is preferred by many over others like cereals and similar staple foods? There could be several reasons including the farm income that can be earned with least cost and minimum efforts.

In terms of economics, the potato yield from a given area of land can be as high as 60-88 tons per hectare as reported from New Zealand though globally the average figure stands at around 18 tons per hectare. In a major potato consuming country like the United States, farmers have been able to harvest about 45 tons per hectare. With the flourishing of industries making several potato based consumer products like potato chips or French Fries there is never a dearth in demand for potatoes and grower-processor linkage is very strong in that country for mutual benefits. Such close linkages enable the processing industry to motivate the growers to adopt better processing varieties and incorporate best cultivation practices. It is interesting that of all the crops, potato has the unique position of yielding the highest calories estimated at 9.2 million kC per acre while corn (7.5 milliuon kC/acre) or rice (7.4 million kC/acre) or wheat (3 million kC /acre or soybean (2.8 million kC per acre) are no where nearby. 

Nutritionally potato cannot boast of any important credentials that can be cited in its favor but its content of resistant starch, 7-13% is rather unique because of its fiber like properties. It is well recognized that the resistant starch as it denotes, resists the action of digestive enzymes in the body passing into the large intestine some what unchanged providing a "fodder" for the intestinal microorganisms for conversion into a variety of beneficial biologically beneficial artifacts.Regular potato consumption is supposed to provide protection against colon cancer, contribute to improved glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lowering the plasma cholesterol and triglycerides levels, increasing the satiety and hence the urge to eat unnecessarily and reducing the tendency to store fats. How far these attributes have been confirmed through human nutrition studies is not very clear. Interestingly cooked potato if consumed while hot contains lesser resistant starch while cooked and cooled potato preparations have highest resistant starch concentrations. Is it not a puzzle that potato chips can have a lower glycemic index of about 51 compared to its cooked counterparts with GI values varying from 77 to 85!  Potato is a rich source of Potassium, about 600 mg per 100 gm besides Vitamin C content is 20 mg per 100 gm. 

Does it occur to a layman that potato can be toxic if not properly handled and stored? It is true that the potato family of plants have the deadly toxic substances going by the name glycoalkaloids which the plant produces to protect itself from predators and self survival in nature. Fortunately the domesticated varieties of potatoes unlike their wild growing counterparts have much lesser levels of gycoalkaloids which can be controlled through variety improvements and controlled storage. Of the glycoalkaloids, Solanine and Chaconine, the first one is predominant and they are present in the crop at relatively small levels about 200 ppm which can go up to 1000 ppm, especially if exposed to light accompanied by the greening process. When potato develops green spots the solanine content can reach up to 1500 ppm locally around these green spots. Scrapping, trimming and dressing can save the potato from wasting. In spite of such alarming findings, potato poisoning cases are rarely reported. High concentrations can cause headaches, diarrhea, cramps, coma and even death. On an average a prolific potato consumer in a western country where the consumption is about 60-70 kg per year, daily intake of solanine is estimated at just about 12-13 mg per capita, an insignificant level not of so much concern.   

Agricultural technology during the last 100 years has been focusing on achieving increased yield through well proven cross breeding between high yielding strains and commonly used ones besides deploying efficient fertilizers and effective pesticides. With yields from land plateauing off for most commodities the interest shifted to changing the quality characteristics of the crop to get favorable traits like disease resistance, better nutrition and biochemical make up through intervention at the genetic level using biotechnological tools. Getting desirable features like virus resistance, solanine reduction, reduced vulnerability to enzymatic browning etc is a dream of the growing as well as the processing industries. However the deep suspicion about genetically modified or genetically engineered crops among the consumers has not allowed the biotech industry to fully tap the potentials for improvement. Though the food safety authorities in the US hold the view that genetically modified food, in no way alters the basic nature of the food, implying that the products is as natural as the original one, majority of consumers still do not seem to be agreeing to this view, 

Recent alarms raised about the formation of the toxic artifact viz Acrylamide during frying or baking of potato have focused the attention of health experts internationally and the precise dangers posed by this chemical is still debated. While it has been clearly brought out that Acrylamide is a carcinogen by animal studies, its effect on humans as a carcinogen is still to be unraveled. But Acrylamide definitely is implicated in many human disorders and therefore its intake needs to be controlled.  As the proteins in potato contain Asparagine amino acid and in presence of glucose present in potato,  Acrylamide a reaction product between the two is formed usually facilitated by high temperature conditions like frying and baking. This had necessitated renewed efforts to develop varieties of potatoes low in glucose for processing under high temperature conditions. Generally if the potato storage conditions are not optimal, there is an increased formation of glucose which contributes high acrylamide content in the fried or baked products. Storage at 7-10 C is considered suitable for short term storage while for storage up to an year a temperature of 4 C is recommended. Ironically lowering the temperature of storage below 4 C can increase glucose generation which is not desirable. Cold stored potatoes when exposed to ambient conditions tend to lose glucose and therefore it is always preferable to "cure" the cold stored potato for some time at ambient conditions before processing at high temperatures.

Another issue of concern to potato users is the color loss experienced during processing which happens because of enzymatic oxidation of polyphenols present with oxygen in the atmospheric air. Potato contains natural phenols like chlorogenic acid and as long as this is not exposed to the enzyme poly phenol oxidase (PPO), the bright color is maintained . But when potato is sliced or diced or mashed the enzyme PPO, polyphenols and atmospheric oxygen have a chance to react resulting in red colored products which further interact to give dark brown compounds. Though these brownish tinge so conspicuous in the fried products are not considered dangerous, the product loses its aesthetic appeal adversely affecting consumer acceptance. While in house hold kitchens the potato slices can be immersed in water to cut the access to air, commercially either heat preheat treatment to deactivate the enzyme PPO or other pre-processing steps will have to adopted to reduce the browning phenomenon. It is here genetic intervention has been able to evolve potatoes with low levels of PPO and the reduced susceptibility to generate Acrylamide during frying and baking. 

The so called GE potato developed by a US company has recently been approved as safe though the technique deployed does intervene at the gene level. According to the claims made by the developers, GE potato is a result of using a technology called RNA interference unlike the addition of genes from other species.. It is only silencing a DNA which is responsible for the production of PPO or transferring DNA for another variety of potato. There is no formation of any new protein during the process making it absolutely safe. This development has been welcomed by the processing industry and the consuming public which feels confidant about the safety of the potato both because of a better quality products and absolute safety guaranteed because of the uniqueness of the gene level intervention deployed in developing this variety. What is indisputable is that gene silencing or transfer of genes from the same species is more acceptable because such genetic changes are part of a natural process taking place for hundreds of years at a slow pace and therefore expediting the same by biotechnological techniques should be considered natural. Ultimately the consumer will decide whether such potatoes are acceptable or not. This is an uncertainty the new GE crop must face considering the fate of the famous FlavrSavr Tomato developed in 1992 and marketed between 1994 and 1997 after duly approved by the safety agencies but conked off in the market for many reasons.       


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Nutraceuticals-Are they foods or medicines or con products?

There's no evidence that the father of modern medicine Hippocrates ever said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Some debate whether he would have even agreed with the sentiment. Nonetheless this popular quote has become the motto for the creation of a new industry going by the name "nutraceuticals". or so called "functional foods". Consumers have been made to be  aware of many developments in this area through mass scale promotion of these products. Many consumers are aware that stanols and sterols derived from natural sources can control cholesterol build up and this has been used by the industry to create products like margarines and yoghurts fortified with these phytochemicals. Who ever does not know about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and the recommendations of health experts to consume fish which is a rich source of this essential fatty acid. Since fish is a taboo for some population attempts have been made to produce Omega-3 acids from bugs through controlled fermentation processes.  Nutraceutical industry to day seems to think that it can do everything that can con the consumer into thinking that its products can do wonders like making  him more intelligent, smarter, cleverer and boosting his immune system.  Though nutraceutical industry is on an explosive growth path, probably due to the benign attitude of policy makers in many countries, it goes to the credit of the European countries that the regulatory regimes there are becoming more and more strict in clearing such products without sufficient and credible scientific data. Do any of these so-called miracle foods, then, actually work? The science behind most nutraceutical products is at best hazy and cannot be taken as the holy grail.

In spite of the weak scientific foundation for justifying the existence of the nutraceutical industry, it is terrifying to see that in the US market alone there are more than 29000 products with thousand products being launched every year to tap the potential of these foods. A market voluume of more than $ 250 billion cannot be ignored so easily whatever may be justification. But tightening the regulatory regime is urgently called for with the food authorities laying down strict guidelines for approval like the EU countries where product claims need to be substantiated through impeccable scientific data. Using references of academic studies in Universities to support the claims cannot be an acceptable way for clearing products making health claims.  

If one traces the history of adding external substances to the food eaten commonly, it all started with enrichment and fortification which were considered necessary at one time. Food industry is to some extent responsible in spawning an entirely new manufacturing sector engaged in making nutrients like vitamins, minerals, etc which are used to "augment" the overall nutritive value of a processed food. Such additions became a necessity when during processing significant portions of nutrients are removed reducing the wholesomeness of the natural food. Take the case of rice milled from Paddy. It is true that the inedible shell enclosing the grain has to be removed to make it edible but the processor went further to get a grain with high degree of whiteness by polishing thereby removing vital nutrients like vitamins, minerals, many beneficial phytochemicals and the fiber contained in the bran. Similarly the white flour extracted from wheat grain has practically no nutrient left and it is but a product containing only starch and gluten. Is it not a tragedy that the nutritionally valuable constituents like bran and germ finally end up in animal feeds! This had necessitated "enrichment" of this flour with vitamins and other nutrients. Like these there are hundreds of instances where natural nutrients are removed as a prerequisite to obtain a nice looking end product!

Naturally the increased awareness of the consumer about the close relationship between health and food played its part in motivating the industry to come up with healthier products. However there are severe limitations for the processors in restoring the health value of a natural material after processing to its original glory, no matter what technology they deploy. More than 90% of processed foods in the US are "fortified" or "enriched" to convey the impression that the end products coming out of the production line are as good as the raw material used in terms of nutrition. But health pundits are never convinced about this because of the fact that the nutrients present in any food cannot be considered efficient once its integrity is destroyed by the severity of processing. Thus adding bran back to the wheat flour or fortification with vitamins serves a limited purpose because of the questionable bioefficacy of these factory made products in terms of biological utilization by the body. If this is true it is very difficult to concede the point that "assembled" dietary supplements can deliver what is being promised by the manufacturers..

The term "nutraceutical" is coined to convey to the consumer that the products offered have both food value as well as medicinal connotation. Unfortunately there is no consensus that these products really serve any purpose. If one believes in the old saying that "some thing is better than nothing" probably one can accept them with "hope" that those who consume will get at least some benefit though not to the extent claims made by the manufacturer. Most products which are in the market to day world over come under this category.with the claims made not being fully supported by credible and verifiable scientific evidence. What is important is that the added nutrients when ingested can never act the same way as claimed by the manufacturers. The gastrointestinal system in man can vary in its functions and any thing ingested has to go through the elaborate digestive enzymes and secretions which are involved in converting complex food matrix into easily assimilable simple biochemicals capable of being metabolized by the cellular system after being absorbed. A nutraceutical product designed to be beneficial will have to go through the digestive system and what is its fate can never be predicted with any degree of precision. This is where the need for user trial is critical for every product with claims of different benefits made by the manufacturers. 

One has to just recall what happened to the fate of probiotics which were promoted massively attributing to them a multitude of benefits including boosting immunity and aiding digestion. A reputed company which made lot of money selling probiotics claiming the above benefits had to retract their claims in the year 2010 in the face of critical assessment by the scientists of European authorities. It is another matter that in a country like Japan nutraceuticals are being given a free run because of less rigorous rules. Other wise it is very difficult to understand how a beer product fortified with collagen is permitted in that country!. Another undesirable tendency noticed is to use substances with some health attributes for glamorizing patently unhealthy products like fizz drinks.Ultimately the larger question is whether these nutraceutical products really serve any purpose except improving the bottom line of the industry.

It is realized by the consumers that there is no short cut to good health which can come only when balanced and diverse diets are consumed with regular physical activity to burn the calories and boost metabolic activities. The recommendations by many health agencies including the FAO that diets should be predominantly made of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and unrefined products make eminent sense. In a world dominated by junk foods and their peddlers such sane advice may fall on deaf ears in the face of massive lobbying power of the modern food industry and their high decibel sound bites in the form of saturation advertisements.              ."


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Can some foods cause cancer? Depends on severity of heat exposure

Contrary to the saying that food is medicine and medicine is food attributed to Socrates, foods can also be the poison if not properly cared for during preparation if some scientists are to be believed. All natural foods found edible are considered safe when consumed in moderate quantities that can meet body's neeeds of calories, proteins, fat and other essential nutrients but improper storage and handling can cause deterioration in quality and some time even adverse consequences. It is true that the wonders brought about by food scientists in the form of preservation technologies which laid the foundation of modern food industry have enabled mankind to avoid food poisoning and other undesirable consequences of spoiled foods to a great extent. Stray cases of food poisoning that occur from time to time are due to negligence and improper processing and packing. Also responsible is the recklessness on the part of processing industry in introducing chemical substances which turn out to be dangerous in the long run. Artificial colors, synthetic sweeteners, many food preservatives and appearance enhancers, artifacts generated during processing, leached substances from packaging materials etc are examples of unsafe process aids causing health damages to varying extent. These examples may be far and few but it is a reality that such dangers do exist about which consumers must be aware.

It was only recently that some researchers highlighted the dangers of vegetable oils when used for frying and recommended not using some vegetable oils for high temperature applications. The generation of toxic aldehydes in frying oils poses a real danger and the preliminary findings of the above group is being taken seriously by the safety authorities world over to generate adequate data on this issue to lay down guidelines for frying processes. The irony is that there is an inverse relationship between taste and flavor and extent of heating. Higher the temperature tastier are the products. Imagine the chaotic situation that exists to day with all types of oils being used for frying at temperatures varying from 160 to 210 C and duration of heating varying from a few minutes to hours together. Is it humanly possible to have any control on frying operations in millions of households and small industries? Therefore it makes eminent sense to declare on the packs of those oils that they are not suitable for frying for long duration and temperatures beyond 160 C.

A similar situation is emerging with regard to toasting and roasting processes vis a vis some materials like potato and bread. Here the contentious issue is formation of a toxic substance called Acrylamide, a reaction products between proteins and carbohydrates. This chemical was detected in 2002 by Swedish workers in two of the most popular products viz French Fries and Potato Chips and raised alarms regarding its wide occurrence in a variety of products heated to temperatures beyond 120 C Though till to date Acrylamide has not been implicated in cancer in humans, the possibility does exist because of conclusive data obtained in animal studies implicating this chemical as a carcinogen. What is known is that Acrylamide has toxic effects on reproductive system and nervous system in humans at levels of 500 micro gram per kg body weight..World wide policy makers are uncertain about the safe limit of Acrylamide that can be permitted in human foods. However there is a standard for potable water which should not contain more than 0.1 micro gram per liter. Naturally logic says that food consumed also should not have levels beyond that but still such limits have not yet been prescribed in any country or by the WHO of the United Nations.

Recent recommendation by the British food authorities that foods like bread and potato should be subjected to less severe heating to prevent formation of Acrylamide has pushed the problem in the public realm and cannot be ignored easily. After all Acrylamide formation is possible only if the food contains both Aspargine containing proteins and sugars such as Glucose and Fructose. However it is not clear whether consumers will listen to this advisory seriously because of the traditional practices of making tasty potato crisps and toasts from bread with dark hues. According to common sense, human beings have been consuming potato crisps and bread toasts for hundreds of years, apparently with no harm! But a raw material like potato to day is vastly different from what was consumed by our predecessors as most potatoes are cold stored and the concentration of glucose in them reach alarming levels which can increase the levels of Acrylamide during frying. According to most recent studies, Acrylamide formation can be as high as 3000 ug per kg of potato chips, an alarming level considered from any angle. 

Whether there is any universal agreement on the Acrylamide content of different commercial foods marketed to day, it is a fact that exposure to this toxin is significantly higher to day than it was 50 years ago. Some of the commercial products like potato chips, cookies and crackers, coffee, bread, breakfast cereal, and French Fries contribute significant amounts of Acrylamide in the diets of populations in the Western countries. For example more than 25% of Acrylamide exposure in US comes from French Fries while another 25% is ingested through Bread. Other foods like baked goods, potato chips etc contribute the rest. It is difficult to believe that a popular brand of Potato chips available in many countries is reported to have Acrylamide levels between 250 ug and 470 ug per kg. There is a brand of sweet Potato chips under the name Route 11 which contains a whopping 2760 ug of Acrylamide per kg! Even dark roast coffee and Cocoa can contain Acrylamide as high as 100 ug per kg. While Coffee may not pose much of a hazard since only insignificant levels are leached into brewed coffee, cocoa based beverages can have high levels of the toxin. 

Now that safety experts are seized of this challenging safety issue, what needs to be done is bothering the authorities to no end. While commercial processors can be restrained from making products with Acrylamide beyond a certain level, how is it possible to discourage house hold consumers from making over heated products causing generation of Acrylamide in their kitchens? Advisories like using fresh potatoes only for making crisps, chips and fries or eating lightly toasted bread or low temperatures for preparing foods containing proteins and sugars may serve the purpose to a very limited extent as consumers tend to forget then in their desire to prepare tasty foods. Acrylamide busting additives though are being developed, how far it is practical to use them in the kitchens of restaurants and house holds is a million dollar question. 

There is some apprehension among some people that Acrylamide alarm might have been overstated and these chemicals might not be as harmful as it is made out to be. The reason for this is that Acrylamide formed while preparing a particular food, considered to be a complex cocktail of organic chemicals, may not be in a position to be absorbed by the body during its travel through the GI tract and therefore it could get excreted without much harm. This may be a wild conjecture and needs further studies before coming to any concrete conclusion. Until such time it is wise to be cautious while preparing foods, especially at home, not to go for high temperatures and long cooking time           . 


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Will tomato become the super source of natural food color, over shadowing its food value?

Fertilizers provide the backbone to modern agriculture and if world is still able to provide food to every denizen on this planet, thanks must go to the modern technology of food production. Yield of crops keeps growing without the need to expand cultivated areas. The success of the green revolution in India that enabled the country to become food self sufficient, was also possible by massive use of chemical fertilizers, that too at heavily subsidized price to the farmers by the government. After plateauing of the yield through chemical fertilizers, scientists zeroed on biotechnology processes like tissue culture and genetic engineering to further boost production though it is questionable whether these new techniques could really increase land productivity. Horticulture also followed the same route of chemical fertilizers and achieved high productivity over the years with many fruits and vegetables. After achieving increased productivity, most research developments concentrated on product quality suitable for the processors to provide better shelf life, reduction of handling wastage and adapting them to highly automated machines with huge through put capacity. Tomato is one fruit or call it a vegetable which has seen many developments in the hands of scientists since it is liked and used universally world over. Whether it is the intensity of color, firmness of the fruit or extended shelf life, tomato stands out as an unparalleled success to the scientists. 

Globally tomato production is estimated at about 165 million tons (mt) major producing countries being China (50 mt) and India (18 mt). Of course it is produced in every nook and corner of the world as it is a simple crop  that can be raised easily. There are about 7500 varieties of tomato with varying features and characteristics requiring different agroclimatic conditions though primarily it is a crop doing well in warmer climates. Surprisingly Netherlands and Iceland stand out among tomato producers boasting of yield as high as 476 t/ha and 429 t/ha while the global average yield is reported to be just 33.6 t/ha. This fruit is consumed in a variety of ways directly as well as in commercial products, most important ones being sauces, ketchup and paste. Use in different dishes and as a salad component also is substantial. The multitude of varieties evolved were based on conventional hybridization technology. Application of genetic engineering technology was attempted during the last three decades but without much success. The most "notorious" attempt, if one can call it, was to create a variety of tomato that can last long and can be handled with least damage through GMO technology. This effort ending up in the commercial development of the Flavr Savr brand in early nineties which conked out in the market.

Horticulturists must be given credit for developing new varieties through traditional breeding techniques with high color intensity as the lycopene content became a crucial issue in valuing the crop. Lycopene is important for both the consumer as well as the industry from health and value addition angles respectively. There was a time when synthetic colors predominated the market for supply to the food industry to manufacture a variety of food products with different bright and attractive colors with high consumer appeal. Then started the decline of synthetic colors with practically every one of them implicated in adverse health conditions for human beings through sustained use. Though the safety authorities tried to handle this emotional issue by progressively lowering the limit of use for these chemicals, eventually many of them exited from the safe color list during the last 3 decades. To day color additives are mostly derived from natural plant materials like safflower, blue grape, turmeric, hibiscus, tomato, carrots etc. Thus tomato color intensity is an important criterion for use in the edible natural color extraction.

It is against this background one has to view the recent attempt by a group of scientists in the US to develop newer techniques at the production level in the fields to enhance color of tomato. The new technique  involves the use of nano technology for delivering the most important mineral nutrient Zinc in a far superior way and increase the light capturing ability of green plants to boost the metabolic machine in the plant. Zinc is known to be an important micro nutrient for plants as it is involved in functioning of several critical enzyme systems related to growth but the efficiency of absorption through the root system from fertilizers applied to the land is considered very inefficient due to which plant metabolism is not fully functional to realize the potentials of growth it is capable of. Similarly the process of photosynthesis is one of the most inefficient one with the plants chlorophyll barely able to capture a fraction of the energy from the sun. The scientists discovered that infusing platinum into the plant can boost photosynthesis very significantly leading to spurt in growth. Based on these findings these scientists devised nano particle preparations which were found to deliver both zinc as well as platinum to the plant through foliar spray. 

When a plant needs nutrients it signals the soil about its needs and unfortunately the soil cannot deliver these nutrients in a way plant can assimilate. Here is where the ingenuity of the plant comes into play. It secretes its weapon in the form of enzymes to convert the fertilizer into actively usable nutrients in cooperation with a multitude of soil bacteria. But a typical plant can only absorb about 20 percent of the nutrients applied through soil through its root net work with the remainder either forming tough stable complexes with soil constituents or being washed away with water through runoffs Thus the nutrients are available to plants to a limited extent. If the new claims are proved true, the plants treated with the aerosol nanoparticles produce almost 82 percent more fruit by weight than untreated plants while these tomatoes had an increase lycopene content between 80 and 113 percent. It may be recalled that lycopene is a proven antioxidant that gives tomatoes and many red fruits and vegetables their red color with numerous studies linking it to reduced risk of cancer, though such claims are still to approved by the health authorities both in the US and the EU.

Though nano technology is a relatively new technology with great potential in almost all fields of human activity, there is some reservation in unleashing this technology in food and pharmaceutical fields. The obvious reason is the uncertainties surrounding its adverse impact on human health as nano sized particles are capable of by passing the human metabolic system and get into the body through physical absorption and circulation. So far no country has cleared use of nano technology in these areas for this reason. In the above studies also there is no clarity whether some of the nano particles sprayed on the plant leaves will end up in the fruits and there could be especially concern regarding the fate of platinum which is a heavy metal. Also the study has only indicated the yield increase in terms of percentage without revealing the figures of yield in the control plants. Whether the new technique can match the yields reported by giants like Netherlands and Iceland is some what doubtful. But even if it can raise the global average of just 33.6 t/ha significantly tomato industry can be expected to get a substantial lift in the coming years.


Monday, November 9, 2015

Vegetable oils toxic? Some new findings are spawning a debate

Frying, using edible oils, is one of the most practiced food preparation methods as it gives characteristic aroma, texture and taste that is unmatched compared to other processes. Baking, also requiring specialty fats, is another process that can give hundreds of products, universally liked, though it needs high temperature heating equipment and industrially, bakery industry many be one of the biggest in food processing sector creating a variety of products like bread, biscuits, pastries etc. While baking is based more or less on wheat and its unique protein Gluten, frying has the advantage of using any raw material including cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and their combinations. Frying needs an oil which requires to be heated to temperatures varying from 160 C to 200 C for a few minutes to attain the desirable color and texture depending on the input material. Organoleptically fried food can be quite appealing and often addictive and health and nutrition experts always caution against its regular consumption that too in larger quantities because of its contribution to the obesity epidemic that is becoming a scourge in most countries causing diseases like diabetes, cardiac malfunctioning, hypertension and a host of others. Experts agree that calories derived from fat, both direct and indirect, should not exceed 30% of the total calories consumed in a typically normal diet working out to about an upper limit of 50 gm daily per capita.

While in the organized fried food manufacturing sector big capacity continuous fryers are used containing high volume of the frying oil, small and unorganized players use batch fryers with or without any temperature control. But invariably the oil is subjected to continuous heating for getting large quantities of products for supplying to the market. In house holds however the fryers, mostly shallow stainless steel pans, are used once or twice a week though the oil is repeatedly reused after each frying operation with occasional topping up. Usually frying oils are rarely thrown away unless it becomes too dark or sticky. There is no unanimity among scientists whether continuous heating does more damage than intermittent heating but all tend to agree that there will be heat damage to the oil to varying extent, depending on the chemical nature of the one used. More the degree of unsaturation in the fatty acid molecules higher will be the extent of damage. Higher temperatures and longer duration of frying can cause extensive damage, decomposition and interaction among the artifacts generated.

What will be the implications of damage to the oil, besides developing flavor problems to the products fried repeatedly in such oils? A matter of much concern is the effects of such oil damage to the human health. Till recently, frying industry was more concerned about oil damage because of loss of quality in the product besides economic losses incurred due to discarding of precious oil once it fails to meet the mandatory standards after repeated and long duration heating. As edible oils are made of organic chemical substances, mainly fatty triglycerides, they have their typical smoke point and flash point in terms of characteristic temperatures beyond which they decompose rapidly into hundreds of artifacts some of which are considered injurious to health. Among them aldehydic lipid oxidation products are considered highly hazardous to humans whether they are inhaled or consumed orally through foods. If so, those using oils vulnerable to generate toxic aldehydes during frying can be dangerous to both consumers as well as to the workers involved in the factories as the latter is exposed to volatile aldehydes continuously during the manufacturing operations.  .          

Toxic aldehydes like 4-hydroxy-(E)2 nonenal, 4-oxo-(E)-2 decenal and 4-oxo-(E)-undecenal, derived from alpha, beta unsaturated fats have been linked to many types of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson;s. These aldehydes, being highly reactive can combines with tissue proteins, enzymes and hormones affecting the functioning of many organs in the human body. It is because of this reason that fried foods made from oils with high amounts of alpha, beta poly unsaturated fatty acids are fraught with high risks for human consumption. According to available data which are rather limited in this area of concern, some of the frying oils found to be relatively safe are coconut oil, virgin olive oil, butter, lard and palm oil all of which contain predominantly saturated fatty acid triglycerides. It is interesting that oil derived from sunflower seeds happened to the worst performer, mostly attributed to the presence of more than 82% of unsaturated fatty acid triglycerides yielding toxic aldehydes at levels much higher than that recommended by the WHO to be safe.   

According to some findings by scientists, a typical meal of fish and chips fried in vegetable oils contained 100 to 200 times more toxic aldehydes than the safe limit set by the WHO and the consumption such products regularly can lead to serious consequences to the brain functions in the long term. Some even compare such disastrous changes in human brains to the adverse climate changes the world is facing to day. How far such comparisons are realistic is a matter of debate though it definitely raises alarm among health experts who feel that more intense studies are required to be undertaken to unravel the mysteries of toxic aldehydes. One is troubled by the report that Sunflower oil is the oil targeted in these studies and the rationale is that it contains high levels of unsaturated fatty acids (UFAs), to the extent of 91%. If so what about oils like olive oil which is found to be a safe cooking oil though it contains 84% unsaturated fatty acids. How about other oils like mustardc oil (81% UFA), or peanut oil (82% UFA) ? Here again does the nature of UFA make any difference in generating toxic aldehydes during heating? No one knows for sure whether extent of MUFA or PUFA  or their ratio in these oils determine the dynamics of toxic aldehyde formation. Also not clear is whether unprocessed vegetable oils containing many natural antioxidants and bioactive phytochemicals can generate toxic substances on being used as frying oils. A note worthy fact in the Olive oil experiment is that the scientists used virgin olive oil which is valued very much for its unique flavor profile to say it is a good frying oil which again raises the question regarding the role of natural antioxidants present in virgin oil compared to its processed counterpart.

While earlier studies used simulating experiments and model systems to find out the formation of toxic chemicals in frying oil at high temperatures for duration as long as 20-40 hours, some recent studies confirmed that even a few minutes exposure to frying temperatures would be sufficient to create sufficient levels of toxic chemicals when oils like Sunflower oil is used. A logical question that arises out of these studies is the influence of antioxidants and other oil protectants like scavengers of polar compounds added to frying oils by the processing industry on generation of toxic substances. Unfortunately no data seem to be existing to verify this crucial issue. On the face of it the recommendation that coconut oil is the best frying oil may be note worthy, especially when frying is done in households or restaurants using non stabilized frying oils. Also to be borne in mind is that unless more emphatic studies by divergent group of lipid scientists confirm these stray findings, all vegetable oils should not be condemned as unsafe for frying.