Sunday, October 23, 2016

A new interpretation on GM foods-Will such window dressing impress the consumers?

The debate about the safety of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods never seems to end and in fact it is becoming more and more bitter and acrimonious day by day. The vacillating attitudes of government policy makers regarding making labeling mandatory for foods derived from raw materials raised by genetic modification are making the consumers more and more disturbing leading to world wide campaigns to ban such foods until their safety is established beyond a shadow of doubt. Massive consumer movements and multi pronged initiatives by consumer groups across the world demanding at least forcing the industry to declare on the label presence of GMO ingredients are gaining momentum and it is a question of time before the industry has to bow before such cascading consumer pressure. A simple question as to why the GMO industry is fighting tooth and nail to sabotage plans for making label declaration mandatory is- why are they doing it if GMO foods are absolutely safe? May be industry has a feeling that consumers will boycott such foods if they become aware of presence of GMO ingredients in such products. Added to this many products carrying declaration that they do not contain GMO ingredients provide a ready platform for consumers to go selectively for such "neat" foods as perceived by them, in preference to the GMO containing ones. Ultimately it boils down to the impact this will have on the bottom line of many GMO food peddlers! 

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of USA whose dictats are followed by many countries across the world has been very circumspect in its interpretation and policy orchestration vis-a-vis GMO foods. For ages FDA has been maintaining that GMO foods are "almost" like natural foods and are safe to consume by human beings. Probably such a policy support to the GMO industry has created a situation in that country where more than 80% of the processed food products made and marketed contain one or more GMO ingredients without the innocent consumer ever knowing about it! Does this not amount to deception by a government supposed to be the most democratic in the world? Is this ethical? Of course in an over democratized country like the US every individual has the right to do what he or she wants and true to this "ideal" the elected representatives also practice their fundamental right to say and do what they feel is right. It is another matter that a majority of these law makers are obliged to the GMO lobby because their elections have been bank rolled by them and they feel it is not correct to let their clients down by siding with the citizens though they forget that they owe their power to the very same electorate! 

Here is a contradiction which is very difficult to explain away. In some of the states the proposal to make declaration of GMO ingredients mandatory failed ballot initiatives giving an impression that people are not too concerned about this issue. On the other hand surveys after surveys have shown that more than 80% of the citizens want to make such labeling compulsory! This has been attributed to the massive propaganda unleashed by the GMO lobby to "brainwash" the consumers through half "truths" and "no truths" about the safety of GMO foods. To an ordinary citizen it does not make any sense to adopt GMO foods because nature provides foods which have been found safe over centuries and why there should be attempts to tinker with nature. Hybridization technology practiced since long takes time to give desired results but the resultant hybrids generated due to natural gene mutations are stable and safe, consumed since time immemorial. Also not easily understood by the common man is the advantage of GMO foods for them or for the humanity as the claims of increased yield through GMO technology has never been proven any where so far. Of course traits like pest resistance and others are incorporated through GMO technology but here again net advantage is not undisputed. 

Why is that the issue of GMO foods became a debating point again? Recent attempts by FDA to stop use of the phrase " does not contain GMO ingredients" by those not using them has created another unwarranted controversy and many feel that such an attempt is tantamount to punishing the citizen through denial of information about the nature of food being purchased by them. FDA feels that no one should use such declaration because many foods created through biotechnological process do not use genetically modified organisms all the times and most products are at best genetically "engineered" or "bioengineered"and therefore industry must shun using GMO word unnecessarily to avoid confusing the consumer. It is similar to saying that "no protein is present in an edible oil pack". May be there is a point and FDA may be right in issuing such an advisory which industry can adopt as long as no one uses the word GMO in any context. As far as consumer is concerned all he is interested is to know whether the food he is buying is made from natural ingredients with proven credentials. Whether the new FDA advisory is acceptable to the industry remains to be seen.

Many major food companies using genetic engineered food ingredients are happy that FDA has stuck to its position that it is not required for the processors to disclose presence of genetically engineered ingredients, sticking to its position that such products are not materially different from non-engineered versions. After all industry's efforts to resist mandatory labeling, fearing that customers will be scared off by foods known to contain genetically engineered ingredients seem to be succeeding. However the specious plea by them that mandatory labeling will drive the cost of the food cannot be accepted. It is a good sign that many major food companies have already moved to voluntarily label products that do not contain genetically engineered ingredients, either simply stating that on their packaging or using a small butterfly seal to show that the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit that provides certification for food producers, has certified the absence of genetic engineered substances. Interestingly there is a genuine attempt by many manufacturers in the US to source non-GMO. ingredients which is a good sign as far as consumers are concerned. According to a recent report there are more than 30000 products in the US market carrying the label that they are free from GMO food ingredients and probably this sector may be worth about $ 13.5 billion which may be a fraction of the total retailed foods estimated at $ 638 billion last year.

The desire of the citizens for accessing clean and safe foods is reflected by efforts in the US in different states to mandate labeling of foods that do contain genetically engineered ingredients but they have largely failed by narrow margins, after heavy lobbying and campaign spending by the food and biotech industries. it is in this context that the law makers at the federal level passed a bill that would require food companies to reveal presence of genetically engineered ingredient in food products via a QR code, a pixelated square that can be scanned with a smartphone, on packaging that will reduce the chorus for hard printing the same on every label. Though it may be acceptable to many people who have adequate computing literacy to read the code before making a buying decision, a vast majority might not be able to decode to understand the nature of the product. In such a situation FDA also wants to differentiate between genetically engineered and genetically modified to convey different things to the consumers. According to them genetically engineered product comes from the efforts of biotechnologists originating in a laboratory while genetic modification happens by natural process as in hybridization process. Thus we have three technical terms which include Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), Genetically Engineered (GE) and Genetically Modified (GM). Of the three GMO is the most dreaded because genes from another species find their way into a particular food, though in small quantities. This means GM foods are analogous to natural foods while GE foods are similar but created in the lab with some distinct advantages. 

Consumer is still left confused to make out what each of this term means if industry starts using all three terms for declaring their products are free from them. Probably more positive approach could be to make those using food ingredients created through GE or GMO technology to declare the same unequivocally as a part of the transparency protocol which consumers are bound to appreciate. Whether industry will agree for such a transparent practice is some what uncertain at this point of time because of monetary implications. Efforts of many manufacturers to source raw materials not tainted by GE or GMO will get rewarded only if declaration of presence or absence of lab created food ingredients on the label of each pack..


Saturday, October 22, 2016

"Stomaching" the food we eat-The imponderables!

We all know that food serves the twin purpose of satisfying our hunger and delivering the nutrients we need for growth and well being. Out of the three basic necessities of life, viz food, shelter and clothing the first one is most important as without food along with air and water no life can sustain in this planet. Most human beings take it for granted that when food is consumed the gastrointestinal ( GI )system automatically process these foods into usable nutrients required for the well being. But rarely any thought is given as to how complex is the GI system and what problems can arise if the normal process of digestion and absorption is hindered or adversely affected due to a host of reasons, many of them not still well known. Only people with disorders like allergies, intolerances, Crohn's disease, Celiac disease, Irritable bowel syndrome etc know what sufferings they have to endure as the present day treatment regimes are not considered absolutely satisfactory. Explosive growth of that industry sector manufacturing gluten free foods bears out the fact that all foods cannot agree with all the people. The so called well being food industry is rolling in money because the products being made by it commands a good following by those with one or the other real or imaginary problem with the foods they eat. Recent evolution of the concept of adverse effect of FODMAPS, a group of carbohydrates present in many foods, is further complicating the picture vis-a-vis tolerance of some of the foods by the GI system. Whether this is really a significant issue will emerge soon requiring attention at the hands of health pundits sooner or later. 

Take the case of Gluten-free foods which are made and marketed through out world mainly to cater to the needs of those consumers who experience disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Celiac disease. These foods are designed based on the presumption that gluten is primarily responsible for the discomfort experienced by the patients. However over the years many consumers who do not have this disorder, rightly or wrongly, seemed to have started a feeling that gluten is a villainous food component and avoiding the same can improve their quality of life.The result was the beginning of a booming industry that caught the fancy of the consumer creating a huge market. Whether it is ethical for this industry to make a fast buck exploiting the misconception that is gaining traction during the last one decade is a difficult issue to answer because the industry is after all giving to the consumer what he wants on a platter. What may not be justified is the massive marketing blitz singing the virtues of gluten free foods attracting more and more consumers of normal health into the fold of IBS patients. The global business for gluten free foods is reported to be worth $ 3 billion which is predicted to reach about $ 5 billion within 5 years. Interestingly Europe leads in marketing these foods, more than 50% of business generated in this region. But in terms of growth, USA is on a fast galloping growth phase out pacing Europe in the near future though no one knows what is contributing to this peculiar phenomenon.

Though no reliable statistics can be cited for the extent of people affected by intestinal disorders like IBS and Celiac disease, some estimates claim that 10-15% of global population is affected. But among those patronizing gluten free foods more than 70% are not suffering from this affliction. That means the size of the current market does not reflect the ground reality vis-a-vis gluten induced GI disorders. While gluten free food market is fast growing, there is another interesting development that gives further hope to the well being industry to expand the market several fold. Based on the findings in Australia that besides gluten, there is a range of food constituents present naturally in most foods which can also create GI related disorders. These are collectively called FODMAPS, the acronym for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di--Mono-saccharides and polyols and it has been scientifically shown that reducing the levels of FODMAPS containing foods in the diet dramatically provides relief to those suffering from such GI related disorders. What does this mean to the food industry? A sign that demand for specially designed food products containing no or low levels of FODMAPS is bound to grow dramatically in the coming years.

Though Gluten cornered all the attention over many years as a causative factor for GI disorders, there have been many observations in the past that consumption of some carbohydrates does not go well with many consumers and among them a few short-chain carbohydrates that include lactose, fructose and sorbitol, fructans and galacto oligosaccharides caused IBS-like symptoms. What was more significant was that such studies also showed dramatic improvements among the affected people when there was dietary restriction to exclude short-chain carbohydrates in the diet. These carbohydrates induced symptoms similar to that caused by Gluten in the small intestine. These short-chain carbohydrates, being small molecules are either poorly absorbed or not absorbed at all and are capable of dragging water into the intestine through osmosis Further  they are easily fermented by colonic bacteria that reside in the large intestine generating gases like hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane. Such a situation causes an expansion in volume of intestinal contents, which stretches the intestinal wall and stimulates nerves in the gut. that triggers the sensations of pain and discomfort, commonly experienced by those affected by IBS. The FODMAP concept maintains that a collective reduction in the dietary intake of all indigestible or slowly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates would minimise stretching of the intestinal wall which in turn may reduce stimulation of the gut's nervous system and provide the best chance of reducing symptom generation in people with IBS. Later the collective term FODMAPS was evolved for designating indigestible or slowly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates. 

Formulation of low FODMAP diet was originally developed by scientists in Australia and tested as to know whether low FODMAP diet really improved symptom control in patients with IBS. It is this pioneering work  which established the mechanism by which the diet exerted its effect. This led to efforts to evolve methodologies for measuring the FODMAPS content in foods and create a data base for foods that are consumed regularly. It is tribute to these scientists that a comprehensive and accurate database now exists describing the FODMAP content of a vast array of foods. There is now a better understanding about the mechanism by which the diet works and there is sound evidence indicating that a low FODMAP diet improves symptom control in approximately three out of every four people with IBS and other other Functional Gastric Intestinal Disorders (FGID). To day it is more or less agreed that the basis of many functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs) is distension of the intestinal lumen. Such luminal distension may induce pain, a sensation of bloating, abdominal distension and motility disorders. Therapeutic approaches seek to reduce factors that lead to distension, particularly of the distal small and proximal large intestine. Food substances that can induce distension are those that are poorly absorbed in the proximal small intestine, osmotically active, and fermented by intestinal bacteria with hydrogen. 

An important question that may trouble many consumers is whether poor absorption of most FODMAP carbohydrates present in many foods can affect every body including normal healthy persons. A pertinent question that can be explained away in an understandable language.  Any FODMAPs that are not absorbed in the small intestine pass into the large intestine, where bacteria ferment them. The resultant production of gas potentially results in bloating and flatulence. Fortunately most individuals do not suffer significant symptoms but some may suffer the symptoms of IBS depending on their constitution and other biological variations. Fructose
malabsorption and lactose intolerance may produce IBS symptoms through the same mechanism but, unlike with other FODMAPs, poor absorption is found only in a minority of people. Many who 
benefit from a low FODMAP diet need not restrict fructose or lactose. It is possible to distinguish these two conditions by breath testing for the presence of hydrogen hydrogen and methane breath which will help to build into the diet only reasonable restrictions. Some of the significant sources of FODMAPS include wheat, rye, barley, onion, garlic, jerusalem  & globe artichokes, asparagus, beetroot, chicory, dandelion leaves, leek, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, fennel etc. Pulses and beans are rich in galactans while some some fruits like apples, apricots, avocado, blackberries, cherries, lychees, nectarines peaches, pears, prunes, water melon have significant concentrations of polyols. Isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol gets into the food when they are used as functional processing adjuncts by the industry. If such a large portfolio of foods is out of bounds for some people vulnerable to GI system malfunctioning, it is difficult to imagine how their quality of life is affected. May be this is the price humans pay for the progress of civilization as we see to it day. Ultimately the one going to be benefited is the well being food industry and the pharma sector!