Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Best before date" to be replaced by "Expiry date" on packed food labels? Imponderable factors

World over the consumer right to know what is offered as food by its makers is recognized and it is for this reason that the food manufacturers are forced to declare unambiguously the ingredients used and the nutrition it offers for which mandatory label provisions have been evolved. Each country has opted for a standard format of its own to be followed by the makers of foods in the county. Though there may be variations in the details of the declaration, basically these labels are insisted upon so that an average consumer knows about the quantity, price, ingredients, allergic and health affecting constituents, manufacturing date and batch number, best before date etc.Because of the realization that consumer may be more discerning in his choice of food, most important items to be included on the label vis-s-vis health are calories, fat, sugar, proteins and some micronutrients. While in India food processing industry has to abide by the law regarding labeling, what is galling is that such demands are not made on the public eateries which offer freshly cooked foods either served in regular brick and mortar restaurants or the informal unorganized street vending outlets though their products have neither any standards of identity in the statute books nor the liability for any food poisoning episodes. When packaged food food business is comparatively small considering that millions of people eat outside their home in such eateries, why these players are not asked to tell their patrons the basic composition of the foods they offer?                                                 

During the last few years eating out scenario has dramatically changed with more and more people being pulled by fast food restaurants, food trucks and street vendors which naturally would have affected the growth of the so called "brick and mortar" eateries.The eternal debate regarding the quality and safety of products offered by casual eateries will go on and on, with no clear answer emerging soon. Whether one likes it or not the current trend of faster growth of the informal sector of catering will continue and the catering sector as a whole has to take this in its stride. Why do more and more people like street foods in preference to going to a "standard" restaurant which at least ensures some accountability that can be enforced? Is it the price factor? Or is it the convenience factor that decides? Very difficult to get any definite answer though both must have some thing to do with such shifting of consumer loyalty. If we go by western standards the fast food industry registered phenomenal growth riding on the consumer desire to save time on eating and later it emerged that these new formats of eateries could also offer good "tasting" foods at comparatively lower prices. Lately the fast food food sector is however being hit badly by the new consumer awareness about health and the relentless onslaught of obesity caused by their low nutrient density food preparations though some of the major ones are in the process of overhauling their menu to make their products more healthy.

In India street food vendors are omnipotent across the urban and semi urban areas working unobtrusively occupying some of the important arterial and busy streets where crowds do collect in the evenings. Though from time to time concerns have been raised regarding the adverse impact of these street foods on the health of the citizens, civic administrations find it difficult to do any thing to discourage the working of these vendors due to humanitarian and political reasons. Neither is there any organized attempt either at the national or state level to improve the system with active policy intervention. Major issues that bother the health experts are the sanitary and safety problems inherent in such a situation where quality of inputs like water, raw materials and cooking environment cannot be considered satisfactory with most vendors. Besides disposal wastes and total lack of toilet facilities nearby make consuming these foods relatively a risk taking venture! Still it has to be conceded that there are thousands and thousands of street hawkers eking out a living through street vending giving it a socio-economic flavor. 

It is against such a background one has to listen to the discourse from the Consumer Affairs Minister at Delhi that Indians are confused by the labels on packaged foods, especially when it comes to the "best before" date and declared that it would be replaced with "expiry date" so that consumer can decide not to buy date expired products. The assumption is that date expired foods can be dangerous while many foods even after the best before date are still edible and safe to consume. May be there is a point in what the Minister has said because even the United Nations agencies have declared that enormous waste of food all over the world, especially in affluent countries is unconscionable. But what is the technical feasibility of arriving at at an expiry date for any food? After all food is a complex cocktail of organic molecules and any prediction regarding interactions among them may be somewhat difficult. Drawing any parallel between food industry and its counterpart in the pharmaceutical sector is not sustainable as most drug preparations have one or two active ingredients and what happens to them over a period of time can be easily assessed through model studies. 

While government is becoming more and more demanding when it comes to organized industry, the unorganized sector like street vending goes without much of an oversight by the safety agencies. Whether declaration of ingredients or expiry date such rules are enforced only when the players are registered with government regulatory authorities. It is still fresh in our memory as to how the safety regulator in this country systematically hounded the manufacturer of a particular brand of instant noodles slapping on them the unsustainable charge of their products being unsafe due to excessive levels of lead or mono sodium glutamate though there are many others producing the same not subjected to any scrutiny. It is misfortune of the citizens of this country that we are saddled with a food safety "management" agency which believes more in applying the law in letter rather than the spirit behind them. The instant noodle episode is a standing testimony to the character and culture of this agency. The appalling and archaic food safety vigilance and enforcement infrastructure controlled by state level departments cannot instill much confidence among the consumers that things will improve one day! 

The Consumer Affairs Minister was forthcoming regarding his ideas to stream line the street vendors by establishing specialized food vendors' zones to shift the existing vendors so that the quality of foods served would be much better though it is not clear as to how the central government can orchestrate the policy in an area considered coming under the state's power. Also he should have suggested that all food vendors, in the organized as well as in the informal sectors, must follow a declaration format containing some basic information regarding the two most important components, total calories and total fat to begin with. Why he was not considering this as important may be due organized objections the restaurant sector would raise citing technical difficulties in providing such information to their customers. Though this may be a valid argument it is not insurmountable.because such information can be generated with enormous technical resources available in government funded food laboratories in the country. A still better approach could be to generate data on the Indian culinary preparations and lay down guidelines for some of them for the catering industry to follow. 


Monday, December 21, 2015

Development of boutique chocolates-Will emergence of such premium products sustain the industry?

Why do people like chocolate products? For their flavor, texture or taste? Probably this is a complicated question and answering it may be as complex as the products themselves! While most kids eat chocolates because of the sweetness and the overall texture and mouth feel, there may be many adults who can be connoisseurs of chocolates looking for some perceived traits which are not easy to be contoured or defined. Think about other beverage crops like coffee, tea or spirits and the consumer expectations can be as varied as the chemical complexity of the products themselves! Coffee tasters, tea tasters and wine tasters are a class by them selves and even to day, despite the tremendous advances made by analytical chemistry, no instrument has been universally accepted as a true tool to take a decision regarding the beverage quality. Probably the reason is that most flavors are made up of hundreds of chemicals with complex molecular structure and even to day 100% identification has not been achieved. Also making the issue more complicated is the relative effect of each component whether minor or major on the flavor bouquet characteristic of each product. This is true with cocoa flavor also. Manufacture of chocolate products has been standardized long ago and there is very little variation in its technology because the technology is highly machine oriented with very little leeway to manipulate. However this seems to be changing with some incisive research being carried out by a few major players in this sector and the result is emergence of specialty premium chocolates with varied bouquet value. Here is a take on this important breakthrough that can boost the bottom line of chocolate industry through marketing value added chocolates with significant flavor differentiation.

If one looks back at the history of beverage industry coffee and tea were the dominating ones with world's consumers vertically divided between the two. According to available data, world produces about 9 million tons (mt) of coffee and 5 mt of tea and this gives one an impression that latter is a poor cousin of the former!  But a relook at this issue will reveal that such a conclusion is too simplistic to accept because the quantity required to make a cup of coffee is three times that of tea and there fore in terms of volume of the beverage consumed tea beats coffee globally. Is it not interesting that per capita annual consumption of coffee is highest in Americas and Europe while Asia and the former Soviet Union countries are predominantly tea drinkers. Where does cocoa fit into this picture? it is well known that coco beans production largely goes for making chocolate products like cocoa mass, compounded sweetened chocolates, chocolate liquor and cocoa powder. It is the cocoa powder which finds its way to beverages like hot chocolates, drinking chocolates and as a flavoring material for candies, confectioneries biscuits , cookies and pastries. Therefore cocoa is never a competitor as a beverage material for coffee and tea. 

Chocolate industry is supposed to have manufactured and marketed about 7.5 mt last year using cocoa beans grown in countries like Ivory Coast, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria and a few other countries. The chocolate quality is mostly determined by the variety of beans from which it is made and major chocolate players use the much preferred Forastero variety which predominates the production though Criollo is considered a much superior variety being used exclusively for making premium chocolate products. The third variety Trinitario accounts for a fraction of the cocoa trade. The quality differentiation of chocolate products is mostly based on the variety used, fair trade practice adopted by growers including child labor, environment degradation, safety credentials,eating characteristics and handling modes. The health attributes attached to cocoa flavonoids raised the standing of this crop overnight into a frenetic consumer obsession which was tapped by the industry to churn out the so called bitter chocolates with lesser and lesser sugar and more cocoa solids. However bitter chocolates are appreciated only by a few health conscious consumers and therefore manufacturers have been looking for other USPs for increasing demand for chocolate products. The new line of research is leading the industry to design more niche products with higher price tag. Success seems to have come their way recently when researchers started studying the strains of yeast which are responsible to ferment the pulp in cocoa pods during post harvest processing operations, producing many flavoring materials that impart characteristic flavors to chocolate products.      .    

Thanks to the innovative efforts of Belgian researchers working in close collaboration with the chocolate industry, robust yeast strains have been isolated from the fermenting pulp and using these pure cultures different types of bouquet have been created giving individual personality to them. In the traditional fermentation process mostly carried out near the growing areas, the broken cocoa pods are allowed to get fermented by natural microbes, mostly wild yeasts, to depectinize and generate many artifacts that later impart a complex web of flavors to the final product. By isolating a number of strains and studying their metabolic history the scientists were able to create a pool of strains of yeast which can produce a range of flavors singly or in combination.. This makes it possible to create a new range of boutique chocolates that can match particular flavors in the same way that craft beer, coffee, tea, and wine can. What the team first hoped to do was to find robust strains of yeast that would quickly dominate the others and shorten the fermentation time, allowing cocoa producers better control over the chocolate's taste. It turned out that the different robust strains produced markedly different flavors and aromas. This was despite the fact that the recipe and fermentation process for each one was identical. The team then began to breed the yeast strains and created new hybrids that formed strong flavors that were retained in the final product, instead of getting lost due to their volatility, being trapped in the fat. This means that for the first time, chocolate makers have a broad portfolio of different yeast strains that are all producing different flavors. 

Whoever is not familiar with the range of lactic fermented products from milk? Yoghurt is one of the most accepted milk products consumed widely across the world. Look at the efforts of the dairy industry in converting a simple traditional yoghurt into a multibillion dollar roaring industry through differentiation of the fermentation process using combination of lactic acid bacteria like Lactobacillus delbrueckii, Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidus, Casei etc which can make yoghurts with different features. Same way chocolates also will now be available with varying flavor profiles using different strains of yeast for the primary fermentation process followed by standard processing. Whether  many consumers will be able to appreciate these value added products and willing to pay premium prices for them, however,remains to be seen.  


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Can processed food be "nemesis" for many people? The unknown dangers of hidden allergens.

A whopping 600 million people on this planet are supposed to be vulnerable to that ubiquitous disorder called allergy caused by the environment, plants, medicines, industrial chemicals and every day foods to which they are exposed. Ominously the population affected by allergic reactions is steadily increasing every year and according to some estimates during a span of 15 years between 1997 and 2011 there was an increase of 50% in the population suffering from one or the other form of allergic disorder. This is attributed largely to the increasing awareness about hygiene and sanitation and the consequent desire of people to keep themselves "clean", "presentable and tolerable" and  "keep away infections". Probably increasing use of hundreds of chemicals, especially man made with very little safety data regarding their allergic potential touching all activities of day to day living, must be responsible for the increasing cases of allergy though there are no reliable data to support such an inference conclusively. Another uncertainty is the real impact of wide scale consumption of genetically modified foods (GMO) consumed in many countries though no concrete evidence has yet been unearthed regarding their relationship. In a country like USA 80% of the diet of an average citizen is made up of GMO foods and the incidence of food allergy is highest in that country. Imagine almost 10% of the population in USA are affected by food allergy! According to some estimates the world is bearing a financial burden of more than $ 30 billion a year due to this disorder. 

Why are people so scared of allergens which can be found every where and when exposure to them is continuous? A major reason is the potential for some of the allergens to cause even death as the ultimate outcome of a chain of events initiated by them in human beings affected by exposure to them though very few deaths have been reported because of allergens. What is alarming about the allergic reactions is that it can manifest suddenly with no warning and medical response time available may be too short with disastrous consequences. The non-uniform symptoms, besides being too varied, are difficult to be deciphered unless they are very severe. The situation gets more complicated when some of such symptoms occur due to non-allergic reactions or food intolerance or food poisoning and toxins. Symptoms of allergic reactions normally include red eyes, itchy rash, runny nose, shortness of breath, swelling and anaphylaxis  where as food intolerance, mostly confined to the GI tract can manifest itself as migraine head ache, outbreak of acne, stomach ache or bloating of the body. Even indigestion can be termed as food intolerance. Major focus so far has been on food allergy caused by some foods and universally eight foods have been designated as allergic foods which are compulsorily to be declared on the label for the consumers to know about it and those allergic can avoid buying them. These foods are cow's milk, egg, wheat, soy,  peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. More than 90% of allergic episodes are caused by these eight allergic foods.  

Food allergies are reported more from industrially advanced countries though no one knows for sure why this is so. One factor could be the over dependence of the population on processed foods and industrially made food preparations to the extent of 80% of their daily intake. Here again it is difficult to find any correlation between processed foods and food allergy. Reduced consumption of natural foods which are not refined might be a reason as the characteristic features of GI tract can get altered due to lesser roughage and ease of digestion of processed foods. Scientific evidence shows that infants are more vulnerable to allergic foods as they do not have a strong GI tract with necessary checks and filters to prevent absorption of allergens into the blood stream causing undesirable immunological reactions. Thus children and youngsters below the age of 18 years are more vulnerable to allergic foods probably due to inadequately developed defence system in their guts. With age many of them are likely to come out of this syndrome due to full development of the gut system. Still change of food habits over 3 generations as has happened in many industrialized nations cannot be ruled out as the root cause of allergic population showing alarming increase these days.

What is disturbing in to day's world is indiscriminate use of chemicals by the processed food industry and though many of them have been approved by competent authorities these clearances are not based on substantial safety studies using critical mass of human subjects. While most people can tolerate them at least in the short term, their long term safety consequences are not very clear. In some people some of these chemicals can produce allergic symptoms which need to be watched by every consumer. Added to this are a flood of ingredients coming under the natural colors and flavors category which are allowed to be used without much restriction though they are to be included in front of the pack label declaration. What is perplexing is that no one is sure what is natural with the result most manufacturers use the word "natural" as long as they do not add any man made chemicals during processing. However these natural ingredients may be harmless in their original condition but many of them undergo transformational changes due to processing using technologies like extraction, fractionation, separation, distillation, hydrolysis , heating , roasting etc raising questions regarding generation of artifacts which may or may not be allergic. Many of the food additives listed under the ubiquitous category of additives to foods commonly referred to as -"Generally Recognized As Safe" or GRAS are potential allergens of future and probably more focus is needed to preempt development of such a dangerous situation in the coming years.   

As food allergy is a major danger these days, it is prudent for every one to be aware of the symptoms and signals that can alert them regarding any episode involving them. By now it is well established that two types allergic manifestations can take place in human beings when the allergen gets into the blood stream. They can fasten on to the IgE antibodies when the reaction can be immediate or react with the immune cells or T-Cells when allergic response may become apparent in 4 to 24 hours. In contrast non-allergic or non-immune adverse reaction such as that happens due to food intolerance is mostly physiological reaction on account of some chemicals present in them. Such chemicals commonly used in processed foods include sulfites, bisulfites, sulphur dioxide, monosodium glutamate, etc or some present naturally like theobromine in cocoa products or caffeine in coffee brew or tyrosine in old cured cheese. There is also another problem with some foods which include toxins and poisons generated or contaminating them. Aflatoxin in pea nuts or poisonous mushrooms or lathyrus factor in kesari dal are classical examples. However the toxic food materials produce symptoms only after certain minimum quantities of such foods are ingested. In other words, they are dose dependent. 

Consumption of foods which are allergic produce excessive amounts of food specific IgE antibodies  and the allergens after entering the blood stream react with these antibodies, producing  many chemicals including histamines, which affect the gut, skin, nose, lungs, heart and the circulatory system. Anaphylaxis is the extreme manifestation of allergy and the symptoms it produces include itchy rashes on the skin, throat irritation, swelling and low blood pressure.  As most allergic reactions cause intense discomfort and some time panic, the most commonly practiced treatment is to immediately administer antihistamine drugs like epinephrine or adrenaline to those developing the symptoms. These days epinephrine auto injector pens are in the market which can deliver measured amounts of antidote with no time lost after symptoms develop.      

For those with severe allergies, eating of processed foods can turn into a life-threatening activity. There is need for vigilance in checking for ingredients before buying a product,and one must be aware that "natural flavors," contained in some of them cannot be taken to be absolutely safe. Probably it is wise to follow the suggestions made by experienced allergy experts to  avoid any food allergy reactions. these include:( a).if one experiences an allergic reaction and does not know the cause, "natural flavors" if present in in the food as declared on the label, must be included  to the list of suspects. (b). If one had eaten a product before with no adverse effects, then the allergen to which one is sensitive must probably not in the product. However stress can exacerbate allergic reactions and even if product has only small amount of allergen it might show when under stressed condition. (c). further enquiry must be done with the manufacturer regarding the presence of the allergen of concern their "natural flavor." (c). It is alaways advisable to go for whole foods devoid of any additives. (d) The surest alternative is  to prepare one's own foods from scratch which are safer than naturally flavored prepared foods.(e) one must also be aware that any foods served in a restaurant may also contain "natural flavors," which will not be disclosed on the menu and invariably allergen of concern may not be in the product description though it may still be in the ingredients used. The "natural flavor" loophole in ingredient labeling means that any food which lists "natural flavors" as an ingredient is potentially hazardous to sensitive people and there fore should be approached with caution.

Why is that food allergy is not taken aas a serious disorder in India? Possibly lack of authentic documentation by hospitals and practicing physicians could be one of the reasons. Some scattered reports however do indicate that food allergy does exist in the country to some extent and in most cases is confined to foods like Black gram, Pigeon pea (Tur or Arhar), French beans, Horse gram, Lentil, Mustard, Radish, some fruits and milk. No serious cases have been recorded and reported by the Health Ministry of the country warranting any action as of now. But there is no guarantee that the country is immune to this phenomenon in future. With the expansion of food processing sector consequent to economic liberalization and influx of foreign investments and technologies, there is likelihood of significant increase in incidence of food allergy in the coming years.   


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Honey bees facing a crisis due to "Colony Collapse Disorder" caused by use of neonicotinoid insecticides-The implications on global agriculture

Honey is a much valued food as well as a well recognized alternate medicine for many simple ailments. While consuming Honey how many people think about the Bees that collect it meticulously, drop by drop from millions of flowers? In these days of man made imitation products that are flooding the market place why should the world be concerned about extinction of bees? After all honey is made of fructose and glucose in 38:31 ratio being the main ingredients though there are other substances like sucrose, maltose and higher sugars and making such a concoction looking and tasting like honey is not a big challenge. Of course natural honey has properties much beyond a man made sugar syrup as vouchsafed by millions who religiously consume it for its variety of real as well as imaginary qualities. Imagine how the tiny bees produce over 1.7 million tons of honey every year through the combined efforts of queen bees, thousands of drone bees and female worker bees painstakingly drop by drop through sucking out nectars from flowers and their transformation through a process of regurgitation. While honey production is a part of nature's way of providing food for the bees, these tiny creatures play a much larger role in the production of foods and other agriculture crops through cross pollination. This is where the mankind is going to be hurt if any thing adverse happens to the bees due to man's folly of doing some thing that can cause affect their population.    

Recent news that Bees are facing extinction because of the reckless pollution of environment causing them to perish in droves through many fatal afflictions does raise concerns that cannot be ignored. It was in 2006 that the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a serious issue noted with alarm by many countries affecting honey production world wide. Between 2007 and 2013 more than 10 million bee colonies collapsed where most of the "worker" bees were killed leaving only the queen and some drones in their hives which cannot ensure growth of the beehive resulting in collapse of the entire colony. The importance of bees in pollination and crop fertilization is so critical that these simple insects are responsible for the production of agricultural crops worth $ 200 billion annually. Why this has happened is a million dollar question that does not have an absolute answer though factors like use of indiscriminate use of pesticides, global warming and others are being blamed. But to day there appears to be some unanimity regarding the adverse effect of a group of insecticides extensively used coming under the family of neonicotinoids or commonly called neonics which include acetamiprid, nitenpyram, nithiazine, thiacloprid, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid, the last mentioned being used widely to the extent of almost 80% in many countries. Present agricultural practice involves treating the seeds with neonics before sowing which gives protection to the plant from many insects with destructive ability and it is theorized that neonics after getting into the plant through the root system get distributed to every part of the plant including the flowers acting as a deadly poison to bees that come looking for nectar for making honey.  

It was in 1985 that neonicotinoids became a commercial success because of their lesser toxicity to birds and mammals compared to organophosphates and carbamates. Agriculturists also welcomed their arrival because of lower concentrations required to destroy the insects affecting the plants. To day virtually all commercially valued crops like corn, soybean, canola, cotton, sugar beets, apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, tomatoes, potato etc are dependent on neonics for achieving high production due to their ability to stave off insect attacks in the fields. The popularity of neonics is such that it is approved in more than 120 countries across the world for a multitude of agricultural and horticultural crops. After the colony collapse disorder became a major crisis for the honey industry, world started paying more attention to the toxicity of these insecticides, especially to honey bees.Earlier premise that neonics are not toxic to bees had to be reconsidered and reinvestigated in the light of emergence of CCD to evolve a better strategy to save the bees from total extinction.

Why should the bees be vulnerable to an insecticide like neonics which enjoyed great popularity since 1985? It was found that neonics when ingested by bees had a devastating effect causing eventual death of  majority of them in a beehive. Most tragically this neurotoxic chemical impact bees' ability to forage, learn and remember their navigation route to and from food sources and naturally if these disoriented bees do not reach back home the consequences can be imagined. What choice world has under such extenuating circumstances in saving the bees from total extinction and avoid collapse of the honey industry? Logically the insecticide industry which produces neonics worth $ 2.5 billion annually will have hesitation in accepting the reality that neonics are responsible for CCD and can be expected to fiercely fight any proposal to ban them from use in agriculture. Similarly farming community which uses neonics in preference to others also may not be totally convinced about the dangers posed by them. After all neonics account for almost 25% of the insecticide market globally, reflecting its universal popularity. Though the dilemma inherent in taking a decision vis--vis neonics and their ban, Europe took the lead to ban them last year. After recent banning of neonics in Canada probably other countries in the American continent may also follow similar suit though the lobbying power of insecticide industry in a country like USA cannot be underestimated to sabotage such people friendly policies in pursuit of fiscal agenda. .           

While neonics are villains in this mass collapse of beehives, there are other mitigating factors which also must be taken into consideration. It is important to emphasize that other factors like climate change, habitat loss and disease also adversely affect pollinator health. However these factors are not entirely independent and are interrelated. It is to be conceded that chronic exposure to neonics may increase vulnerability of bees to disease. When the health of bees is to be assessed critically there is a need to draw up a comprehensive pollinator health action plan which must address all these factors and obviously scaling back the use of neonics can be a good beginning. Apart from the immediate and lethal effects on bees, neonics represent a more subtle threat to a wide range of species. The 2014 Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impacts of Systemic Pesticides, the most comprehensive review of the scientific literature on neonics, pointed to effects on smell and memory, reproduction, feeding behaviour, flight and ability to fight disease.. The obvious conclusion is that the world is witnessing a threat to the productivity of the natural and farming environment reminding one of the dangers posed by organophosphates or DDT in the yesteryear. In stead of protecting food production the use of neonics is "threatening the very infrastructure which enables it, imperilling the pollinators, habitat engineers and natural pest controllers at the heart of a functioning ecosystem". It is better to act now rather than regret later!.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Wrapping food in used news paper-A practice with questionable safety issues

It may appear ridiculous for a westerner to see foods being wrapped in old news paper materials in many countries in Asia such as India, Pakistan, Malaysia etc which is the most practiced way of serving foods by most street vendors. This is due to the thriving market that exists for used news papers in these countries, as millions of copies of publications in English as well as in many local languages are printed and distributed to meet the demands of the reading public. It is amazing that in spite of the high growth of electronic communication system news papers are vividly read by most people to satisfy their hunger for news and information. By the latest count there are over two hundred and fifty major news paper publications alone in India though over 85000 publications are registered in total. In Hindi language itself there are over 156 million copies circulated daily while English papers print another 56 million copies every day. On an average each news paper copy costs about Rs 5 and monthly budget for a reader estimated at Rs 150 for one publication. Most households sell off their old news papers to "raddiwallas" who buy these papers through house to house soliciting. In general a month's paper can fetch about Rs 20 on an investment of Rs 150. Where do these papers end up?

The curiosity about this subject was aroused by a recent report from Kangar, Malaysia about a ban enforced by the local government on use of old news papers for wrapping food materials due to apprehensions about the safety of the paper wraps for food contact application. Accordingly from January 2016 no food operator is going to be allowed to use printed papers, mostly old news papers for  packing of foods and violations can attract punitary fines as high as 10 000 Ringits ( about one and a half lakh rupees) and possible imprisonment of two years. The reason cited by the authorities for taking such a strong policy decision is based on the data generated on the toxicity of chemicals present in news papers that can get migrated easily into the food packed in it. Interestingly the punishment regime was proposed for January next year after giving about 6 months time for the food operators to understand and be well informed about the health implications inherent in use of printed papers. Probably this is a wise move by a government which has the health and well being of the citizens upper most in its mind.          

In India we consume about 2.5% million tons of news print annually out of which 60% is imported. May be this is not a huge quantity amounting to just 1.8 kg annual per capita compared to 3.5 kg in Asia as a whole and against the global average of 9 kg per capita. In a country like Canada 80% of used paper is recycled whereas in our country the corresponding figure is just 26%. Packing or wrapping in old news papers and other discarded papers is very common in India and those who buy them use the same in a variety of ways. Some make paper bags for packing dry materials while others resell them to retail traders for packing the wares sold by them It is rare that such paper wastes are burned or used in land fills. With the advent of plastics, especially polyethylene and polypropylene, use of paper is increasingly being phased out by the retailers. But use of plastics is also now being frowned upon because of the dangers involved in migration of chemicals, some of them toxic, from the plastic bags to the foods carried in them and use of plastic bags with less than 40 microns thickness is banned in many places in India. This naturally shifts the focus once again on paper though reusable cloth bags are being promoted extensively. With such a dicey situation is the paper usage going to see a spurt in future? May be but the dangers involved must be carefully monitored to prevent any future catastrophe at the national level.

A curious consumer may be pardoned if he is not convinced about the non-safety of used news papers and other printed paper materials for packing foods. but scientific evidence cannot be brushed away easily. According to toxicologists familiar with hazards of printing inks which are used across the world, there are thousands of chemicals required to be used to get attractive printed products and many of them are highly toxic to human beings. Especially news papers produced using the off set -web printing use very thick consistency inks and a particular type of drying where mineral oil, solvents like methanol, benzene and toluene are used. The heavy metal Cobalt is a part of most of the drying agents. Generally mineral based printed inks are known to contain Mineral Oil Saturated Hydrocarbon (MOSH) and Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbon (MOAH) which are sources of gases generated by evaporation which can penetrate into foods packed in such papers. The FAO-WHO Alimentarius Commission has set an upper limit of 0.6 mg/kg that can be considered safe intake through food. Besides countless colorants, pigments, binders, additives, photo-initiators etc are present in high quality printing inks, some of them being highly toxic. Some of the chemicals detected in printed papers include Aryl Amines, Benzidine, 2-Naphthylamine, 4-Aminobiphenol etc implicated in cancers affecting bladder and lungs. 

What type of foods are most vulnerable to dangers due to printed paper packing? Generally dry products with low water and fat are relatively safe to be wrapped for short time while high fat products like Pakoda, Vada, Dosa, Bajji, etc are unsuitable to be packed in these papers. Similarly wet foods are also not considered suitable for news paper packing though the low strength of paper will cause disintegration after a few minutes, thus being a self limiting factor.While focus above has been mostly on used news papers, there is another equally critical area requiring attention when the safety of food packing is considered.  According to some estimates Indian generates about 15 million tons of waste papers of all types that include note books, stationery products, envelops, notices, etc and since only quarter of this gets into the recycling stream bulk of it gets used for packing house hold goods including food. What are the safety implications here? They are equally risky when it comes to food wrapping or packing. Another dimension to their safety is the danger posed by pathogenic micro organisms which contaminate the papers when stored for some time under humid conditions in unhygienic places exposing them to open air and atmospheric dust besides vectors like cockroach, insects and house hold pests all of which make their own contribution to make the old news papers a veritable source of microbes with different pathogenicity.         


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Bottled water-A necessity, convenience or wasteful practice?

Water is essential for survival of life in this planet and human beings need about 1-2 liters of water every day for managing all the metabolic activities in the body and as a means of replenishment of lost water through all excretions. After all human body contains about 53% water, 25% fat and 21% bone and practically every metabolic reaction in the body is mediated in an aqueous medium. Dehydration beyond a limit can be fatal and therefore water intake regularly both direct as well as indirect is a must for survival. Americans have the 8x8 rule for water consumption which means one must drink 8 servings of 8 ounce water daily working out to approximately 1.8 liters. Interestingly the indirect water up take can be substantial as most fresh foods have water content varying from 60-90% and therefore serves the minimum need for water without much risks of dehydration. Water can also be toxic if taken in quantities higher than that which the body can cope up with, the most common consequence being draining of electrolytes through urine. Therefore there has to be a reasonable limit on water consumption while minimum quantity required by the body must be met with through direct consumption. 

Plain but safe water was consumed during earlier years and even to day in many American and European cities from piped water supply which was considered safe as a potable source of water. In fact they are so proud of their water supply systems, in a country like Italy attempts were made to brand the water supplied in some towns so that people could use it straight without looking for commercially bottled water! to quench their thirst. In sharp contrast in countries like India water supply systems are a sham and apology for what it should be! Practically no where in India one can drink from piped or the so called protected water supplies because they are neither treated properly nor sanitized fully with potential to spread water borne diseases like cholera, jaundice and dysentery. Funnily Government of India has launched its much touted Food Security Act to ensure that people get their daily calorie needs practically free through massive subsidies from the public exchequer. However it never occurred to this political rulers that water is equally crucial for ensuring healthy living style and the focus was never there on modernizing the water supply infrastructure in this country. Worst sufferers are rural people accounting for about 67% of the 1.3 billion population where even unsafe water is not available to manage their daily chores.

Bottled water industry globally is a major money spinner and in many societies holding a branded bottled water is a sign of modernity! The promotion of bottled water has been so intensive many kids in modern times are unaware as to the source from where water comes! It is like the dairy industry which offers pasteurized packed milk or UHT milk in laminated cartons and no wonder many kids are unaware about the existence of cows and buffalos which are the major sources of milk in the world. There was a time when mineral water was the rage because of the mistaken notion that these waters were coming from health spas and springs containing valuable and essential trace minerals required by the body. From such a situation where only a few major players were manufacturing bottled mineral water products, the scenario has metamorphosed to day when there are thousands of bottlers across the world packing just potable water conforming to well laid down standards with safety guaranteed. Probably to day's over dependence on bottled water by humanity can be attributed to the failure of governments to safeguard the urban water supply system year after year!
Look at a country like the United States of America where water intake by the citizens has been mostly through the sugar sweetened soft drinks route which also pumps in lot of sugar whether it is refined sugar or high fructose syrup. That is the beginning of the era of obesity in that country which is there for every one to see! Bloated and distorted bodies of people dot the landscape in the US with its own terrible consequences such as wide prevalence of diabetes, hyper tension, heart disease etc. Though from time to time demands were raised to tax these beverages heavily in order to reduce the consumption of soft drinks, nothing much was done at the government level through any orchestration of restrictive policies. The soft drink intake increased year after year and this "addiction" to these drinks was found to be very difficult to be curbed giving unlimited scope for the beverage industry to make a bonanza in terms of high volumes of sale and enormous profits. If there are a few giants in this area dominating the beverage landscape across the world, thanks are due to the benign attitude of the governments as well as increasing demands from the consumers, mostly youngsters who identified themselves as the "pop soda generation"! 

What is indeed alarming is that if the water market is restrained through restrictive policies, the consumption of sugary drinks is bound to increase as non availability of bottled water forces consumers to go for the unhealthy pop soda type of products. This has been borne out by the disappointing results of efforts made to ban bottled water in the school premises which ended with the disastrous consequence of a rise of 33% in the consumption of sugary drinks in the US. In 1998 Americans were drinking about 54 gallons (180 liters) of fizz beverages per capita on an average while this figure was just half in the year 1977. Shockingly the obesity among Americans doubled between 1077 and 1998 indirectly establishing a relationship between soft drink consumption and obesity. Increasing evidence about the bad consequences of sugar based drinks and heightened awareness about this among the consumers arrested the growth of soft drink industry in 1998 and then emerged a trend of declining intake of sugary drinks. Amazingly without the government there doing any thing significant to discourage consumption of soft drinks, the per capita consumption started going down and in a stunning reversal of the past trend, actual consumption fell down precipitously from 54 gallons to 44 gallons to day! 

Does it mean that overall water intake of the population has suffered any grievous blow with undesirable consequence? Not at all as the bottled water industry capitalized on the travails of the soft drink industry going for massive production increase since then. The loss of soft drink industry is proving to be a gain for the bottled water industry. From a meager consumption rate of less than ten gallons of bottled water per capita in 1998, it jumped to 21 gallons per capita in 2014. Taken together the decline of soft drink industry and the phenomenal growth of the bottled water sector it is expected that the latter will overtake the former within the next 10-12 years. Another intriguing factor is the renewed affinity of the consumers to piped water source and of the 58 gallons of water an average consumer drinking to day more than 60% comes from the public water supply taps. It will be very difficult to precisely predict how far people will switch their loyalty from the tap to the commercially bottled water. But the trend is that the bottled water industry is growing impressively in countries like the US and according to some estimates in the US alone the production is around 10 billion gallons per year to day.

There are two crucial issues that cannot be overlooked when we talk about bottled water industry. These are the wide scale use of PET bottles and dependence of many in this industry on public water supply. Use of PET bottles raises the inevitable question whether the safety of bottled water can be uniformly assured across all the countries because the difference in the quality of bottles can be significant and therefore the extent of leaching and safety credentials of the residues leached out can also be different. Already there are disturbing reports that liquid pharmaceutical products packed in PET bottles in India show abnormal levels of heavy metals like antimony, lead and chromium which were far beyond the safety limits prescribed by the WHO of the United Nations. Besides the contents packed in these bottles also showed high levels of the toxic chemical called diethyhexyl phthalate. This was brought out by tests at the reputed National Testing House in India, carried out as directed by the government. Though there are vehement protests and denials from the industry sectors including food, pharmaceutical and pet bottle manufacturers, this has become an issue that is not going to fade away soon.

The other issue is the indiscriminate exploitation of ground water by the water bottling industry causing water shortages in nearby communities. The bitter experience of a major bottling multinational company in Kerala a few years ago which resulted in shuttering its bottling unit in the face of fierce local agitation against over exploitation of the ground water cannot be forgotten easily. Such incidences of local opposition to setting up bottled water manufacturing units in many places in the country is likely to be a rule than an exception. Even sourcing the water from the public water supply system can distort the water availability in the urban areas. Of course it is a big dilemma for any government to ensure the industry has a sustainable source of water for their successful functioning. Desalination is thought to be the answer, at least in coastal area where sea water is available in abundance but there is reluctance to set up such plants by the industry because of cost considerations.

In India people seem to have resigned to a situation where water is going to be a scarce resource and even if available it is not safe to drink. This naturally has led people to go for domestic water purification gadgets based on technologies like reverse osmosis (RO), ultra filtration, resin treatment, UV disinfection, etc. Water treatment gadgets have become a foundation for establishing a roaring industry in India where there are many players catering to households with different income levels. Though RO based treatment is technologically sound, more that 65% of water intake is wasted to be flushed out and whether this is a sustainable approach is a matter of debate. From time to time simple gadgets not depending on power have been developed and one of the latest based on silver nano particle impregnated filters offers enormous potential for providing safe drinking water especially to rural areas.Though a liter of water in PET bottle costs about Rs 20, some feel that the organized industry's growth at 22% CAG cannot be easily wished away. Compared to the situation 15 years ago, on average the consumption of bottled water has increased from less than 5 liters per capita an year to more than 10 liters though this is much less than the global average of 25 liters. In spite of such impressive growth, the safety of bottled water, which is supposed to be assured through the safety certification and licensing by the BIS is under a cloud because of the mushrooming of hundreds of small plants coming up in smaller towns with neither a legal license nor any oversight by the concerned authorities. 

Ultimately a global debate may be needed to take a rational decision on whether bottled water supply or piped protected water supply  or purification of water at the house hold level is preferable in the long run. Some experts point out that the wide scale use of RO technology is not very efficient as more than two thirds of water received is wasted in the process. Others view is that the PET bottle based packed water also cannot be considered a solution due to some of the deficiencies highlighted above. Probably the most desirable option could be for a massive expansion of protected water supply system where ever it is feasible by investing in this sector as a top priority. Whether the governments in developing countries will adopt such a strategy remains to be seen!