Saturday, October 3, 2015

New technique to de-glutanize wheat based products-How relevant it is ?

From time to time food fads emerge which is exploited by the processing industry. It was in 1974 when gluten free food concept emerged and such products were offered to those affected by the Celliac disease and by 1994 commercial products started finding a place in the regular markets. Beginning with a humble production during the previous millennium, the market reached an astonishing volume of production valued at $ 860 million in 2004 registering a compounded annual growth of 36%. To day global market is estimated at about $ 4 billion! What is intriguing is that such a production base can meet the needs of existing Celliac patients several times over, obviously highlighting the fad nature of the growing demand. Grains like wheat, Barley, Rye etc have significant amounts of the complex gluten protein which is an essential component for all bakery products including bread, biscuits, pasta, pastry products and many others. The demand for gluten free products has led to innovative efforts to develop technologies that can obviate the need for gluten. But making these flours gluten free is a laborious process involving aqueous process that separates the protein fraction leaving behind a practically gluten free flour. Recent claim by a company in the US that it has a magic mushroom variety which has a voracious appetite for gluten and this can be used to remove practically 100% of the gluten may help the growth of the industry further. Here is a take on this novel development which may have some relevance to the specialty industry that is raking in money through developing a number of gluten free products to the gullible public. 

"A US food technology company has developed a magic mushroom with a twist. Rather than causing hallucinations,these mushrooms remove gluten from wheat - a mind-bending concept in itself. the mushroom reportedly consume the gluten protein, with third-party testing showing that they removed 99.9998% of the total gluten content. The technology is claimed to work by "harnessing the purification properties of mushrooms, which are trained to consume the protein gluten". "The challenge in the growing gluten-free movement is formulating products that have similar flavour profiles and mouth feel to products that are wheat based," said Alan Hahn, CEO and Founder of MycoTechnology, the company that developed the mushroom technology. "Our technology allows consumers the ability to introduce wheat back into their diets with great-tasting products." Several large manufacturers have reportedly begun using the technology to formulate gluten-free products based on wheat."

With only bare details of the process revealed, it is difficult to assess its efficacy or utility under commercial conditions, though the report suggests that several large players are using the technology in their product formulations. Also not clear is the quality of the end products made using the mushroom intervention route as mushrooms do have specific flavor not liked universally. Nonetheless this opens up another avenue to expand production of gluten free flours from grains like wheat to meet increasing demand  by the industry for this critical raw material. An intake of less than 10 mg of gluten is normally allowed in products targeted at Celliac patients and the extraordinary efficiency of the magic mushroom in deglutenization of flours must be music to the ears of this specialty products industry. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The "Chicken is coming to roost" for FSSAI-Industry up in arms against this reckless "Authority" with no accountability

When Government of India conceded the demand from the food industry to consolidate the functions of different food regulatory agencies under its wings for reducing the red tapism and delays encountered by them hampering its growth, there was relief all around that better days were ahead for them. Alas, this hope has been totally belied if one goes by the actions and omissions of the new entity created in 2011 under the exalted name of Food Safety and standards Authority of India (FSSA) which is headed by bureaucrats right from the beginning leaving out technical experts who could have made a lot of difference in its functioning. This Blogger published almost half a dozen articles questioning the credentials of the new set up during the last 5 years and now comes the clinching support for his stand from the Supreme Court and the the industry captains as reported recently. Read further: 

"Angered by the autocratic functioning of Food Safety & Standards Authority of India which regulates food business in the Country, eleven leading national organisations related to food business under the banner of National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) have demanded a CBI inquiry in to the affairs and irregularities of the Authority. " The Authority with its self style functioning much beyond the rules & regulations has caused substantial damage to food industry in India​ in past few years​ and has acted like an activist rather than a regulator tasked with smooth working of the industry​ and facilitating services for its growth but it has utterly failed"-said NJAC at a Press Conference held at New Delhi, which will soon file a charge sheet against the Authority with Union Health Minister.  Supreme Court order of 19th August, 2015 which held issuance of advisory of Product approval as unlawful, is a depiction of autocratic working of FSSA​I.​ Repeated extensions since year 2011 ​for​ obtaining registration ​by​ Food Business Operator​s​ under FSSAI Act is yet another example of nepotism in FSSAI. Non-consultation with stakeholders and non-inclusion of actual representatives of trade & industry in Central Advisory Committee of FSSAI indicates undemocratic​ & non-transparent​ working of FSSAI. The high handed method of working and lack of transparency has led to the current situation which has led NJAC to take the task of impressing upon the Government to ​release it from the clutches of rampant corruption & individualism.​ It is deeply regretted that right from the announcement of product approval process in year 2013 till it was struck down by apex court, FSSAI had blocked any scientific process and approval was made on whims and wills of officials. As pr the advisory every FBO was suppose to obtain product approval from FSSAI after paying Rs.25,000-00 for approval of each product. NJAC believe that such amount is in the tune of Rs.80 crore. No account has been rendered as to how this money was received by FSSAI without any permission in the Act or rules. It is also learnt that Comptroller & Auditor General of India had denied permission to use this money as it is not through a sanctioned way of collection of money. It is further learnt that FSSAI has made fixed deposit of this money without any proper sanction. Is their any beneficiary for making this fixed deposit ? It is a disturbing fact that because of lethargic attitude and illegal product approval advisory the food industry suffered loss of hundreds of crores of rupees, production of large number of items were forced to be stopped, exports draw a big jolt and enormous loss of revenue occurred to Government. Should the liability of the officials will be fixed by the Government ? It is most surprising that FSSA​I​ spent Rs.11 crore for creating an online process and a bulk amount of this money was paid to National Institute of Smart Governance. Whether any sanction was obtained prior to paying this money and why no accounts were submitted in FSSA​I​ meetings for three years.Huge amount of money was spent on international travel for various officials without any panel recommendation. Under the circumstances, the NJAC has demanded a CBI inquiry into affairs of FSSA​I​. It has sought time with Union Health Minister J.P.Nadda and Health Secretary to apprise them with the factual position and demanding action against erring officials. It has also demanded refund of Rs.80 crore collected on account of product approval. The NJAC has also demanded the Health Minister to constitute a Special Task Force comprising ​of ​senior officials of Ministry and representatives of stakeholders to make an in-depth study of rules and regulations of FSSAI and to suggest amendments in a time bound period​ which has been pending since long resulting in sufferings of food business operators who are facing harassment and corruption at the hands of officials across the Country."

One of the foolish acts of FSSAI has been banning the marketing of a particular brand of noodles without any foresight regarding its consequences and it is history that it had eggs all over its face by the Supreme Court order. Here is a babu oriented organization in this country with absolutely no clue regarding the dynamics of food processing sector riding roughshod on the industry just because it is drunk with power. Is it not ridiculous that a paper tiger like FSSAI with no infrastructure of its own to carry out its functions except "ordering" and its plush air conditioned office complex in Delhi inhabited by babus with exalted opinion about them selves, trying to to be "vigilante" for the consumer who any how has no faith in it? Is it not unfortunate that the new government in Delhi is as unconcerned as the previous one about the well being of the citizen who is groaning because of sky rocketing prices of foods while safety and quality are suspect with most of them, giving a free run to adulterators and fraudsters? When is the country going to wake up from its deep slumber and force the government to take action to ensure the safety and health of future generation? We cannot leave every thing to God, as most of us with a fatalistic philosophy have the habit to do, to sort out our problems and it is time that concerted action is taken now to protect our future. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Here comes multi-deck floating farming-Will this concept become practical in the near future?

Uncontrolled population growth and dwindling food resources are subjects which are attracting world wide attention as many skeptics are forecasting a gloomy future for this planet. Interestingly there are two sides to this problem. A few optimists argue that technology will not leave us in the lurch and innovations and technological break through happening in different parts of the world will take care of increasing needs of foods to satisfy the growing population. However others feel that we are running out of options with mass starvation and increasing poverty staring at us in the decades to come since the fossil fuels are running out and land mass for agriculture is limited. From time to time we have seen how the energy crunch is being managed through green energy sources with sustainable credentials. Be it bio fuel, solar energy, wind energy, wave energy nuclear energy or geothermal energy, it is a question of time before we overcome the fossil fuel shock. Same is true with agriculture also. There are host of innovations like aqua culture, hydroponics, aqua ponics, genetic technology, vertical farming, green house farming etc which are beckoning us to be exploited for the betterment of the homo sapiens. Here is another conceptual technology which holds some promise for future, especially for those countries with vast coastal area and plenty of water bodies to be used for creating the so called multi-deck floating farms with vertical integration and self sustenance which provides interesting reading

"With the world's population expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050, coupled with the growing effects of climate change on our ability to grow crops, a company out of Barcelona has proposed a solution to feeding the future world. Forward Thinking Architecture's triple-decker Smart Floating Farms would feature 2.2 million square feet (2.04 sq km) of fish farm, hydroponic garden, and rooftop solar panels to power a floating barge, which could be anchored to the beds of oceans, lakes or rivers. The company estimates that each of its floating farms could produce about 8 tons (7.3 tonnes) of vegetables and 1.7 tons (1.5 tonnes) of fish per year. The floating farms are intended to provide a solution that can keep up with food production levels that will have to increase by 70 percent globally, and 100 percent in developing nations, to feed more than 9 billion mouths. With so many people, arable land would be stretched to its growing capacity (we're currently using 80 percent), while fresh water supplies would be severely stressed. Oceans are also being overfished at present. The company's idea to move farms onto the surface of water would address all those issues. Each level of the triple-decker farm would have its own function, and would operate as part of a sustainable loop that feeds into the other decks. Skylights and solar panels on the top deck would convert sunlight into energy to power the farm. The middle level would consist of tiers of hydroponic organic crops that would maximize the limited space on the barge. Waste water from the crops would filter down to the fish farm level at the bottom as a food source. Meanwhile, the nitrogen-rich fish poop would be recycled back to fertilize the crops. Unlike livestock animal manure, fish manure is a fast-acting fertilizer that doesn't take months to break down, and would provide the plants a quick nutrient boost, including the macronutrients phosphorous and potassium. Fish farming combined with hydroponics – a combo known as aquaponics – is a proven system that is growing in popularity, so this part of the concept is perfectly reasonable. Also added to the barge would be a possible desalination plant (if floating on sea water), a fish-processing house, and a packaging facility. Wind turbines and wave turbines could also be added, to provide extra energy. The entire barge would be protected from the seas and bad weather with inflatable wave protectors. Thus the farm would be self-sufficient and largely self-operating, requiring minimal labor. Javier Ponce, the CEO of Forward Thinking Architecture, envisions locating the floating farms, which would be scalable, near densely-populated cities which will see the greatest growth in the future. Of the 35 megacities with more than 10 million people, 25 are located near water, such as Shanghai, Jakarta, Lagos, Tokyo and New York. Ponce believes the floating farms could complement existing traditional agriculture systems, helping reduce food risks associated with climate change issues in especially vulnerable parts of the world."

With the engineering expertise we have, creating such gigantic floating farms is not beyond the realm of feasibility. It is tempting to accept the claims of the innovators that such farms can produce literally any food is adequate quantities with quality and safety much superior to their counterparts on the land. Imagine the zero pollution tag such farms are boasting off and what wonders it can do to conserve nature. The solar power pack ensures adequate energy supply for all the operations including desalination if they are located out in the seas and oceans. If the heads of governments take this as a challenge, there must be a consolidated effort to set up such farms on a gigantic scale on an international cooperative foundation. Will rich nations like the US, Russia, Germany etc will support and finance such ventures? They better do it for the sake of peace and tranquility in this planet.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eating vegetables-The wide gap between nutritional needs and actual availabilty

Fruits and vegetables form an important component of a healthy diet and their neglect in preference to other foods like meat and highly processed foods has led to a gigantic health crisis in many western countries. Blaming the food processing industry for marketing their so called unhealthy foods rich in sugar, salt and or fat is not fair because every consumer has a right to choose the food he or she wants with out any compulsion. If we concede this basic reality, why is the consumer invariably neglecting these protective foods and patronizing high calorie, high fat, high salt foods available in the market. There  may be many reasons such as easy availability of packed foods, their low cost, high convenience factor, shelf stability, high taste coefficient etc. But one of the critical factors which emerged recently in a country like the US is a shocking mismatch between production of fruits and vegetables and actual availability nation wide. This means even if the consumer makes a conscious move to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables in his diet,production and an imbalance in supplies force him to  continue the faulty consumption pattern predominated by processed foods.Here is a take on this shocking revelation as reported recently raising many eyebrow recently.

"If you  are looking for proof that Americans' vegetable habits lean towards french fries and ketchup, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has it: Nearly 50 percent of vegetables and legumes available in the U.S. in 2013 were either tomatoes or potatoes. Lettuce came in third as the most available vegetable, according to new data out this week. And while the USDA's own dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables a day, the agency's researchers foundthat only 1.7 cups per person are available. "The dietary guidelines promote variety," Jeanine Bentley, a social science analyst at the USDA's Economic Research Service, tells The Salt. "But when you look at it, there isn't much variety. Mostly people consume potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce." (The data technically tally domestic production and imports, then subtract exports, but researchers commonly use them as a proxy for consumption.) The federal dietary guidelines do not recommend relying primarily on potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce for most of our vegetable needs. They prescribe a varied mix that includes dark leafy greens, orange and yellow vegetables, and beans—along with those potatoes and tomatoes. And they want us to eat them because they help reduce the risk for heart disease, stroke and some cancers as well as help keep us at a healthy weight. So the vegetables that are available don't really match what we're supposed to be eating. What about what we are actually eating? Some 87 percent of adults failed to meet the vegetable intake recommendations during 2007-2010, according to recent survey datafrom the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The survey found a lot of variation state to state — with 5.5 percent of people in Mississippi getting enough vegetables to 13 percent in California meeting the recommendations.
Most people are likely to be eating tomatoes and potatoes, but as the USDA has noted, we often get them in the not-so-nutritious forms of french fries and pizza. About one-third of potatoes, and two-thirds of tomatoes, were bound for processing — think chips, sweetened pizza sauce and ketchup. All these numbers beg some questions: Do our lopsided habits mean that Americans are merely eating what's on offer, a kind of supply-side theory of diet? Or are all those potatoes and tomatoes crowding out spinach and Brussels sprouts because they're what consumers demand?
"We have a serious disconnect between agriculture and health policy in our country," said Marion Nestle, a leading nutrition researcher and author at New York University. "The USDA does not support 'specialty crops' [like vegetables] to any appreciable extent and the Department of Commerce' figures show that the relative price of fruits and vegetables has gone up much faster than that of fast food or sodas." So while Americans are told to eat fruits and vegetables for their health, the government has meanwhile mostly just subsidized other crops that end up in cheaper, less healthy processed food. "Price has a lot to do with this," she adds. Although this week's USDA report focuses on the limited variety of vegetables available to American shoppers, other agency data suggest that the country simply doesn't offer enough vegetables, period. A 2010study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that the U.S. vegetable supply would need to increase by 70 percent — almost entirely in dark leafy greens, orange vegetables and legumes — in order for Americans to meet recommended daily allowances at the time.
With a dietary landscape like that, it's entirely possible that Americans are choosing potatoes and tomatoes, at least for now, says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "What I see here with lots of potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce … [is] that people are used to these items, and habits are hard to break," says Maslow, adding that relying mostly on the potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce "doesn't cut it," nutrition-wise. Still, she says, "If more Americans got used to eating more fruits and vegetables they might be demanding more of it," she says. "But it's really hard to demand something you've not grown up with." That's why behavioral economists are so keen to figure out how to nudge kids to try and develop a taste for more vegetables — they're researching everything from financial incentives to arranging food differently on the lunch line. And there's some hopeful news in that department: The CDC recently reported that, since the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, there's been a big increase in the number of schools serving two or more vegetables and whole grain-rich foods every day.Most interesting of all, that food isn't just on kids plates: It's getting eaten, too. A Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity study of kids' lunch habits following the passage of the bill found that kids ate more fruit, threw away fewer vegetables and ate more of their now-healthier entrees, too."

To add further misery to the citizens in that country, even the available basket of fresh produce is heavily loaded in favor of potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce with greens and other healthy vegetables constituting hardly 10-20%! Over all the production base needs to be expanded by almost 70% if ideal situation is to be attained.Most painful data is that the prices of vegetables and fruits have been going up much faster that that of junk foods providing another justification for low income groups to ignore them for economic reasons. Obviously this is not an acceptable situation for any responsible nation professing to protect its citizens from diseases consequent to shortage of protective foods and their high cost. It is not that the US government is not doing any thing in this front but much more needs to be done to address this vital issue in the coming years.

Monday, September 7, 2015

How can consumers get justice for defective foods in the market? Why not create food Omdurman in each taluka?

Food authorities in India seem to have learned some what from the recent noodle fiasco reflected by their recent decision to involve a multiplicity of organizations, in carrying out support activities across the length and breadth of the country. On the face of it this looks to be sound in concept though at the ground level how it works out remains to be seen. Though one can criticize the safety agency under the Health Ministry for hundreds of reasons or alleged lapses, when it thinks about "out of the box" solutions, that deserves appreciation. The latest decision is such a case where the agency must be applauded. Of course translating the idea into a vibrant and workable system will require the agency to set aside its bureaucratic instincts and carry all the stake holders along with then, in executing a task, by no means, a simple one in a country like India with complex dimensions. Here is a take on this latest "thinking" as reported recently in the media.    

"In an attempt to have stricter vigilance over food products after incidents like Maggi noodles and other similar packaged products which were found hazardous to human health, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), which functions under Union Health Ministry, has decided to outsource surveys and food testing to various organisations related to food safety. Under a funding scheme,the FSSAI would associate with central and state government agencies, consumer organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other institutions, including government universities and colleges working in the area of food safety for undertaking surveys and food quality tests, etc under its Information, Education and Communication (IEC) activities."

If the logic of "out of the box thinking" can have potential to improve the system and ensure better confidence of the consumer on the effectiveness of the vigilance body, another possibility is to  create another mechanism to involve the consumer in tackling adulteration and other complaints pertaining to thousands of products in the market. Currently the citizen has no way to get redressal of his complaints because he has no where to go to narrate his problem. Why not create an Omdurman with some authority in each taluka in the country to receive such complaints, look at them to decide whether they are silly or unreasonable and after filtering them draw up a list of sales outlets who indulge in such practices for further action by the food authorities. It is possible that there could be many cases which may look silly but drawing up a list of retail outlets or food companies having such tendencies to cheat consumers will be a useful guide for further surveillance and action. A person with some background of food basics should qualify to be an Omdurman with some authority so that food inspectors will respect their reports for taking action. They can also be the eyes and rears of the fafety agency in the market place.  


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Transparency in food labeling-Industry vs consumers

Does "front of the packet" labeling regulations which are in vogue in most countries in the world, in one form or the other, serve any purpose at all? If one goes by the views of the manufacturing industry such restraints are unnecessary because it has the best of the intentions in protecting the well being of the consumers! Probably if one goes by such yardsticks, there is no necessity for any food safety or quality regulating laws, leaving the onus of ensuring these aspects to the "good intentions" of the industry! What a quixotic logic! Whether the industry likes it or not many consumers patronize packed foods because they believe that the regulatory system that keeps a vigil over the doings of the industry is doing a satisfactory job. Look at the recent "noodle mess" in a country like India where consumers putting faith in their regulatory regime, however idiotic it may be, are reducing buying of processed foods in a very significant way as being reported by market watchers due to belief that the product is "toxic" as being claimed by the regulator. If what is happening in a country like the US, considered food processing capital of the world, is any indication food industry seems to be bent on "cheating" the consumers of their right to know what they want to buy and eat through "money muscle" and political clout. It is a disturbing trend and consumers world over must resist such blatant attempts by the industry to manipulate food laws to make them more are opaque. Here is a take on this unfortunate events taking place in the US.  

"By all accounts, Americans want a more transparent food system. Recent polling suggests the majority of Americans favor labeling that tells them exactly how and where their food is produced. And yet, several bills are currently moving through Congress that could make it much harder to learn about the source of our food. These bills would prevent state and local governments from requiring labeling of GMOs; remove country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for most of the meat we buy; and make it harder to know where pesticides are used. The international trade agreements now being negotiated also include provisions that could make such information less available to consumers.  The food industry is spending an enormous amount of money to promote and lobby for this legislation. Food companies may have shelled out over $100 million* in the first six months of 2015 alone, according to federal lobbying disclosure reports. Businesses and trade groups promoting these policies say putting more information on food labels will send the wrong message about food safety, add costs, and pose barriers to trade. And in some cases, they worry it will open U.S. food producers and other companies to punitive import-export taxes. But good food advocates disagree. "This is basic transparency," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of the advocacy group Food & Water Watch. "We're not saying anything's unsafe," says Environmental Working Group(EWG) policy analyst Libby Foley. "We're saying it's about consumer choice." Here are the numbers the food industry doesn't want you to see: So far this year, food and beverage companies have spent $51.6 million on a series of lobbying including efforts efforts to defeat GMO labeling laws such as the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (H.R. 1599), which opponents have dubbed the "Deny Americans the Right to Know" or DARK Act. According to a recent analysis by EWG, nearly a quarter of this money—$12.6 million—comes from just six companies: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg's, Land O'Lakes, and PepsiCo. Other big spenders in these efforts include the Grocery Manufacturers Association ($5.1 million); American Farm Bureau (nearly $1 million); and the National Restaurant Association ($2 million). Many state farm bureaus have also chipped in—among them, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Oregon. Big name food producers, including Campbell Soup, Mars, Inc., Mondelez, NestlĂ©, OceanSpray, Safeway, and Unilever, are all spending significant amounts money on this issue as well."

Why is this happening in a country where literacy is almost 100%? May be it is precisely this reason that the industry is apprehensive of the consumers understanding the significance of what is presented on the label and shunning products which he considers not good, safe or environmentally unsatisfactory. An issue like declaring presence of GMO ingredients in a product has been blown out of proportion and American consumer is presently being denied this right because the regulatory authorities are overtly friendly with the powerful industry interests, ignoring the consumer feelings on this issue. Same is true with many safety related issues which invariably are loaded against the hapless consumer. In contrast in a country like India, the food safety agency is overtly antagonistic to the industry as proved by the recent unjustifiable ban on noodles with suspect testing results! What is required is a balance system that is equitable to the consumer as well as the manufacturer. May be it is an Utopian dream with least possibility of becoming a reality. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

"Green" plastics-Will Polylactic Acid emerge as a viable choice?

The dominance of synthetic plastics derived from fossil fuels in to day's world is scary as petroleum sources are not going to last for ever and the question as to what then is driving the scientific community feverishly to innovate and come up with viable alternatives based on renewable sources. While cellulose based plastics are manufactured and used for a variety of applications, their functional properties do not come any where near that of synthetic plastics. An yet another problem associated with petroleum based plastics is their near indestructibility and their biodegradability credentials. It takes almost 800 years for most plastics to degrade in nature and disposal in land fills posses enormous dangers to the safety of the environment including water resources. Emergence of poly lactic acid based plastics was thought to be an answer to this problem. Unfortunately these biodegradable plastics cost too high to be commercially viable. The major factor in this cost escalation is the manufacturing technology which appears to be too complex and expensive. Recently a group of scientists from Belgium have come up with a new approach for producing cheaper poly lactic acid base material which if true can be a ground breaking development Read further below.    

"The bioplastic PLA is derived from renewable resources, including the sugar in maize and sugarcane. Fermentation turns thesugar into lactic acid, which in turn is a building block for polylactic acid. PLA degrades after a number of years in certain environments. If it is collected and sorted correctly, it is both industrially compostable and recyclable. In addition, PLA is biocompatible and thus suitable for medical use, for instance in absorbable suture threads. PLA is also one of the few plastics that are suitable for 3D printing. However, polylactic acid is not yet a full alternative for petroleum-based plastics due to its cost. The production process for PLA is expensive because of the intermediary steps. "First, lactic acid is fed into a reactor and converted into a type of pre-plastic under high temperature and in a vacuum. This is an expensive process. The pre-plastic – a low-quality plastic – is then broken down into building blocks for polylactic acid. In other words, you are first producing an inferior plastic before you end up with a high-quality plastic. And even though PLA is considered a green plastic, the various intermediary steps in the production process still require metals and produce waste," said Prof Bert Sels from the Centre for Surface Chemistry and Catalysis. The KU Leuven researchers developed a new technique. Michiel Dusselier, a postdoctoral researcher, explained, "We have applied a petrochemical concept to biomass. We speed up and guide the chemical process in the reactor with a zeolite as a catalyst. Zeolites are porous minerals. By selecting a specific type on the basis of its pore shape, we were able to convert lactic acid directly into the building blocks for PLA without making the larger by-products that do not fit into the zeolite pores. Our new method has several advantages compared to the traditional technique: we produce more polylactic acid with less waste and without using metals. In addition, the production process is cheaper, because we can skip a step."

Whether this development can lead to large scale production of the new plastic materials remains to be seen. At least there is a hope that an alternative option is available on the table. Of course lactic acid production from biomass materials through intervention of microbes can still pose a logistical problem because of competition from fuel industry which also is working on fermentation route for making green fuel. Already there is some criticism regarding diversion of food materials like corn, plant oils and other organic carbon sources for production of alcohol and other fuels to replace fossil fuels. World has to take a holistic view of this critical area and only cooperative endeavors can succeed ultimately.