Monday, March 23, 2015

Healthy foods Vs unhealthy foods-A contrasting marketing landscape

Considering all the factors that have contributed to the progressive deterioration of health among people, the most important is the way food marketing environment is changing every where in the world. Food technology developments are boosting the capability of food processing industry to create foods tailor made to "trap" the consumers, with no concern about their well being. There is a qualitative transformation of the food "environment", that includes food retailing and eating places, where proportion of healthy foods to the total number of products offered to the consumers has been decreasing alarmingly resulting in more and more people sucked into the unhealthy food trap. Added to this the cost difference between healthy foods and junk foods is widening with the former some time costing more than double that of junk foods. Why is this happening? Does the market place play a part in this cost escalation vis-a-vis health foods? Or does the consumer attitude is responsible for this phenomenon? Probably this is a complex issue on which it may be difficult to arrive at a consensus. Here are some observations made by one of the study groups concerned about the deteriorating food environment that may drown this planet in agony and despair soon if some thing drastic is done to arrest the trend.

"Last December, researchers at Harvard published a paper scientifically examining a complaint common among conscientious eaters -- that healthy food is more expensive than junk. That paper, published in British Medical Journal, found that eating a healthy diet costs approximately $1.50 more per day. Today, researchers in the United Kingdom published a study in PLOS ONE that gives yet more insight into this topic: not only is healthy food more costly than unhealthy food but the price gap between them has grown significantly over a 10-year period. The researchers, led by Nicholas Jones from the University of Cambridge, used data from the UK Consumer Price Index to track the cost of 94 foods and beverages from 2002 to 2012. They also used  a technique called "nutrient profiling" to determine which foods might be considered healthy and unhealthy, based on information such as the amount of saturated fat and sugar per 100g. What they found: in 2012, 1000 kcal of "healthy" food cost approximately $12, while 1000 kcal of unhealthy food cost only $4. And while the mean price of all foods rose 35 percent over that 10-year period, the researchers found that "the price of more healthy foods was consistently greater than that of less healthy foods over the period 2002–2012, and that the absolute price gap between healthy and less healthy foods has grown over this period. "Food poverty and the rise of food banks have recently been an issue of public concern in the UK," Jones said in a statement about the research," but as well as making sure people don't go hungry it is vital that that a healthy diet is affordable."

One of the mysteries associated with the working logistics of modern food industry is how it is able to offer foods considered desirable, but not necessarily healthy, at such low prices and still make money? Mass production and bargaining muscle probably enable it to bring down production cost significantly. On the other hand insufficient demand for healthy foods make the manufacture some what less profitable making it a necessity to increase their price. Is it not paradoxical that when awareness about health and its relation to food is rising fast among people creating more and more demand for such foods in the market place, industry is unable to offer such products at prices comparable to that of junk foods? What justification industry can offer in making a whole wheat bread almost 50% costlier than white flour based bread? Technological limitation cannot be trotted out as an excuse because technology is relatively a minor component in the costing exercise. Considering these facts there is an urgent necessity for governments world over to bring in more regulations to compel the industry to manufacture more healthy foods and offer them on par with regular products now being churned out. The situation can become alarming if the present trend is allowed to continue with unhealthy foods overwhelming the portfolio of healthy foods, consumers can lay their hands on in the market place.    


Calorie counting in foods-Uncertainties regarding label declaration!

Why should the food industry print on the label the so called nutrition information? Those who came up with the idea of nutrition labeling were honest in their intention that such information would help the consumers to select the best foods from the market from the health point of view. But does it really happen the way it is intended to be?  Probably not! Why? The human biological system varies from person to person and the efficiency of utilizing the nutrients also will also vary. Therefore the figures printed on the food pack can at best indicate maximum efficiency without taking into consideration the individual variations or the extent of processing the food has undergone. Calorie values exemplify this paradox. The calorific value of food declared is based on the estimates arrived at through the Bomb calorie meter test where food is burned under controlled conditions to find out the calorific value. Unfortunately the human system cannot be expected to be as efficient as a bomb calorie meter with the digestion system depends on the compliment of enzymes and the microbiome that inhabit the GI tract. As a thumb rule more the food is processed or cooked more efficient is the digestion efficiency. Why this factor is important can be understood in the context of the critical role played by food calories in leading to over weight and obesity. Here is an interesting expose regarding the role of processing and cooking in calorie generation once the food is ingested and their fate within the system   . 

"Unfortunately, of course, in today's overfed and underexercised populations, nature's way is not the best way. If we want to lose weight we should challenge our instinctive desires. We should reject soft white bread in favor of rough whole wheat breads, processed cheese in favor of natural cheese, cooked vegetables in favor of raw vegetables. And to do so would be much easier if our food labels gave us some advice about how many calories we would save by eating less-processed food. So why are our nutritionist advisers mute on the topic? For decades there have been calls by distinguished committees and institutions to reform our calorie-counting system. But the calls for change have failed. The problem is a shortage of information. Researchers find it hard to predict precisely how many extra calories will be gained when our food is more highly processed. By contrast, they find it easy to show that if a food is digested completely, it will yield a specific number of calories. Our food labeling therefore faces a choice between two systems, neither of which is satisfactory. The first gives a precise number of calories but takes no account of the known effects of food processing, and therefore mismeasures what our bodies are actually harvesting from the food. The second would take account of food-processing, but without any precise numbers."

Ideally a healthy person must derive full benefit from the food he consumes and the nutrition guidelines do not make a differentiation between cooked foods and raw foods, the values of the latter being used universally in all guidelines across the world. If calorie needs are determined based on the theoretical calorie yield and if the calories contained in the diet are not absorbed, naturally the question arises whether man really needs so much calories as being recommended? Obviously consumers looking for 2000 kC from the food they consume will go by the theoretical values presented to them in the label. While a consumer eating minimally cooked or refined food will not derive the theoretical values because of the digestion inefficiency, those consuming highly processed foods will get almost 100% of the calories declared on the label. Another dimension to this paradox is that refined foods require less energy expenditure for the biological digestion system, eating minimally cooked foods calls for comparatively higher energy input by the body leaving very little for conversion to fat and consequently to weight gain. Sounds confusing? Well that is the reality and that is why health pundits universally condemn highly refined and over cooked foods because of their higher energy mobilization and fat deposition potential. No wonder consumers are realizing this "unpalatable" truth and shifting towards whole cereals and pulses and raw fruits and vegetables to avoid many life threatening health afflictions and improve the quality of life.  


Creation of new aluminum surface with bactericidal effect-A nano technology approach

Food contamination inadvertently or through negligence is one of the major challenges to the food industry as well as the safety authorities all over the world.Thousands of innocent consumers are maimed or killed by a dozen highly virulent bacteria and in spite of best of efforts food poisoning continues unabated. Bactericidal processes using heat, chemicals, high pressure, ultra filtration,osmotic pressure, salination, acifdification etc are routinely practiced by the processing industry reducing the episodes of food poisoning to the barest minimum.possible. Consumers still feel that the manufacturers must be more efficient in checkmating pathogens in the foods being offered to them. Scientific community is continuously engaged in a "war of wits" with their tiny adversary, the microbes, which show from time to time remarkable ability to outwit them through mutational changes. The amazing bio-film phenomenon unearthed some time back is a remarkable ploy by these bugs to stick together, attached to a solid surface capable of resisting most of the bactericidal methods to get rid of them. It is against this tendency of some pathogens to form bio-films and contaminate foods that a new strategy has been developed by which the metal contact surfaces are made hostile for the bugs to develop such films. Here is a take on this new exciting development.   

"The technology, developed collaboratively by researchers from Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, uses an electrochemical process called anodization to create nanoscale pores that change the electrical charge and surface energy of a metal surface, which in turn exerts a repulsive force on bacterial cells and prevents attachment and biofilm formation. These pores can be as small as 15 nanometers; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick. When the anodization process was applied to aluminum,it created a nanoporous surface called alumina, which proved effective in preventing surrogates of two well known pathogens, Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes, from attaching, according to a study recently published in the journal Biofouling. The study also investigates how the size of the nanopores changes the repulsive forces on bacteria."

Modern metallurgical developments have enabled the scientists to treat metal surfaces by an electrochemical process whereby bacteria find it difficult to adhere there resisting cleaning, washing or various sterilization processes. According to the innovators the nano porous surface created by the anodizing process has electrical charges that repel the microbes when bio-film formation process is attempted by them. Since the surface so created has extremely minute pores, less than 15 microns in size, no food particles can be expected to be trapped inside them to provide any scope for microbes to survive. Though these materials have been tested against only two virulent organisms, viz, E.coli O157 H7 and Listeria monocytogens, there is no reason why it should not be effective against others also. Probably the nanopore size may have to be altered suitably to deal with other pathogens like Salmonella, Shigella and others. Besides application in food industry the new "nanopore" technology may benefit other sectors like medicines, water treatment, shipping industry etc where bacteria poses a challenge.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Do we buy foods in the market because of their color? It appears so!

Quality of a food is manifested in many dimensions that include appearance, flavor and nutrition. It is said that consumers first "eat" a food through their eyes by perceiving what is attractive in appearance without realizing whether it is safe or healthy for him. The consequences are the deliberate or some time ignorant action by the processors in adding colors of various hues to the foods they make for attracting them or using inedible mineral oils to give them a gloss. Whether the fact that the colors added are permitted or banned probably never enters the mind of the consumer. Invariably unscrupulous food handlers, be it the processor or trader or the farmer, use these unnatural substances to camouflage low quality or blemishes or non-uniform color and fleece the customers by charging a premium. India has a dubious record of harboring such unscrupulous elements in great numbers with apparently no resistance or control at any point of the supply chain. Probably the tortoise like speed with which adultrators and fraudsters are hauled up and punished naturally encourage the fraud industry to indulge more and more into such heinous activities. Here is a report from a town in Tamilnadu which reveals how even every day foods like boondi, bhujia etc are colored bright by using bright colors which are not permitted by the law of the country.    

"The Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 clearly states that 'unsafe food' is an article in which there is 'presence of any colouring matter or preservatives other than that specified for its category' or if the 'article is being coloured to make it appear better than it really is'. "This point was included in the Act because long-term consumption of such artificial colours is harmful to health, because they often contain colours made of chemicals," said Kathiravan. While colour is permitted to be added to ice-creams, lolly pops, jelly crystal and North Indian sweets, it is banned in South Indian sweets and savouries. "However, in some cases, approved artificial colour is allowed," he clarified. Though food makers admit that colours do not play a part in the taste, they find it hard to change the public's mindset. "They are used to seeing specific foods in specific colours," said Vivekanand Natraj of Moti Mahal Delux. "So we have tried to work around this by using Kashmiri Chilli which gives the red colour but is not as spicy as our local chillies. We use beetroot to add colour to vinegar soaked onion, so the difference is just 10%," he said. "Even after all this we have irate customers upset over the colour of food served or purchased," said a staff member at Nellai Muthu Vilas Sweets."

World over artificial colors are being banned one by one after their safety credentials were doubted and food processing industry progressively switched over to natural colors where ever color addition is unavoidable for technical reasons. The classical case is that of tomato ketchup in India and stout resistance by the industry to the ban of artificial colors to this product was over ruled resulting in breeding new varieties with more intense red color. This goes to show that under compelling situations food scientists can come out with alternatives for most of the chemical additives used in foods for aesthetic appeal. There are thousands of sweet meat shops in the country using unnecessary bright colors so that when these products are displayed openly or in glass cases, they can attract customers to these outlets. While use of color is absolutely unnecessary in any of our foods, if for any reasons they are to be used natural substances must be considered. Chilli, beetroots, annatto, safflower, curcumin etc are some of the natural sources from which colors are to day extracted with no taste or odor. In stead of depending on the government to protect him, consumer must be proactive in shunning such foods as part of a movement to punish those still using them. Though we can blame the governments for shirking their responsibility, in to day's India such blame game will have no effect at all as safety enforcement is yet to get the attention it deserves. 


Saturday, March 21, 2015

How trustworthy are food scientists? A vexed question"

Who is a scientist? Simple answer is the one who practices science. But what does science mean to many people who have neither a science qualification nor any idea about it? Science is nothing but pursuing truth and scientists are therefore pursuers of truth in thoughts and deeds. Unfortunately what we see to day is a perversion of science taking place across the world with many scientists sacrificing truth at the altar of materialistic gains. Though it is admitted that between truth and a lie there is a grey area where there could be differences in interpretation of scientific results. In most application studies scientists use basic methodologies to generate a set of results and when these results are to be interpreted, one has to do it again based on scientific principles. There can be honest differences which need to be confined within the scientific community without using them for commercial gains. Can any one justify when a scientist comes on the Television screen on behalf of some business entities and say that fast foods offered by his "client" is really healthy and flaunts his scientific credentials to convince the poor consumer? This issue is becoming a talking point among scientists and experts most of whom can be considered as honest and ethical not prepared to sell themselves for a few bucks. Here is a take on this controversial issue . 

"Who wants kale chips and coconut water when you can down a mini Coke and a few Kraft singles? After all, they're all health foods, right? Some nutrition experts seem to think so. Last month, in honor of American Heart Month, several fitness and nutrition experts wrote posts, which appeared on major newspaper sites and nutritional blogs, recommending a mini-can of Coke or other small soda for a snack, The Associated Press reports. Coca-Cola is one of many big food companies that pay experts to mention or endorse their products in online posts or other media outlets. Coke spokesman Ben Sheidler told the AP it's a common food industry practice, though he declined to disclose how much his company pays "experts." "We have a network of dietitians we work with. Every big brand works with bloggers or has paid talent," he said. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which represents 75,000 registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals, recently gave Kraft Singles (the bright yellow processed cheese slices) a thumbs up to use its new "Kids Eat Right" nutrition label, The New York Times said. It's the first product to bear the seal, and the first time the academy has endorsed a product. Kraft Singles is an interesting choice, especially considering "Kraft is a frequent target of advocates for better children's nutrition, who contend that many of its products are overprocessed, with too much fat, sodium, sugar, artificial dyes and preservatives," the Times reports. The academy told the Times that the label is not an endorsement of the processed cheese product. Academy executive director Mary Beth Whalen said in an email statement: "The Kids Eat Right logo on Kraft Singles packaging identifies the brand as a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right. It also serves to drive broader visibility to, a trusted educational resource for consumers," she wrote. Nutrition experts recommending Coke as a healthy snack and endorsing Kraft Singles in an eating right campaign aimed at young people has left many people questioning whether health experts are selling out to the food industry. It's why the Dietitians for Professional Integrity was formed. The organization said it does "not support the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' current sponsorship model." "We believe these sponsorships pose a serious conflict of interest for a nutrition organization and harm dietetics professionals' credential and reputations," it went on to explain. Marion Nestle, Ph.d, M.P.H., a professor with the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU, recently expressed her dismay at Kraft earning the Kids Eat Right logoon her Food Politics blog: Kraft is well-known as a sponsor of [the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics]. Such seals are usually money-raising gimmicks. I'm wondering if "proud supporter of" means that Kraft pays AND for use of this seal. If so, I'd like to know what the seal costs. Clearly, some food companies are paying nutrition experts to endorse their products. It's smart marketing for them. I think the bigger issue is that the academy, a trusted organization of nutrition experts, is taking part, potentially misleading many consumers into thinking not-so-healthy food products are good for you"

There are many cases where benefit of doubt can be given regarding such instances though according to established jurisprudence they are guilty of misusing their scientific status to influence the minds of common consumers in making buying decisions which may turn out to be wrong. In India there are a number of instances of patently false claims being made on the electronic media by a few scientists with some academic credentials promoting products which are patently placebos with no health benefits! Products are routinely promoted using scientists to support ridiculous claims such as helping enlarge the brain, improving memory, making the kids tall, addressing special problems of women etc Unfortunately no one in the country seems to be too much bothered about such dishonest practices.


Anarchy, thy name is Indian towns and cities!

Most Indians never forgo an opportunity of proclaiming their rights but there are only a few who is wiling to concede citizens have also a duty to keep in mind their responsibility to the society and the nation at large. Our country is often branded as a "soft" state and harsh decisions are either postponed or never taken at all! One of the most visible symptoms of this syndrome is the ease with which all laws are broken with impunity because of the laxity of administration, be it the government agencies or the police personnel. Those who violate well laid down rules and regulations are sure in their mind that they get away with it either through some amnesty or by the limping judicial system which moves at an elephantine speed or by their influence on politicians and bureaucrats. Look at our own parliamentarians at Delhi and according to recent Lok Sabha secretariat report more than 300 MPs owe to the government millions of rupees for the power and water they had consumed without bothering to honor the repeated reminders from the authorities to pay up!. If the law makers can break the law they themselves make, how can one find fault with the ordinary citizen who also does the same with no respect for such laws? The provocation for such a drastic comment on our soft state syndrome is the strike by the business outlets in Kolkatta recently protesting against the rampant spread of street hawkers on the pavements of that city obstructing the pedestrians as well as blocking the road in many cases which is happening because of the political patronage received by them from the ruling party. Here is a take on this farce that is taking place in the name of "poor people" in almost all towns and cities in this country that will eventually convert them into a great open free for all bazaar places rather than helping to make them orderly and disciplined civic entities!    

"The legislation, now on the statue books, calls for states and urban local bodies to create town vending committees, with hawkers' representatives on them, which will register hawkers. Plus, and this is critical, there will be a street vending plan, to be revised every five years, which will demarcate public places into three categories: vending freely allowed, restricted and not allowed. Equally important, the law says vendors do not have permanent rights and can be relocated. At the heart of this urban chaos is the classical "soft state" which is the hallmark of underdeveloped societies ruled by either dictators or populist maverick politicians who neither know nor are willing to learn how to run a proper administration. Ms Banerjee left the imprint of her administrative abilities or the lack of them on the railways, which were set on the road to financial crisis every time she or her nominated partymen held the portfolio at the centre. For Kolkata's nearly 300,000 hawkers, their stalls are a way to keep destitution at bay for them and the 1.5 million people who are part of their families. But if there is no control on hawkers they will eventually clog not just pavements but roads too. Then nobody will be able to get to the hawkers by either public or private transport and the city will return to the pre-industrial age when people moved by only foot."

Same attitude also accounts for the mushrooming of hundreds of slums in big cities inhabited by migrants from rural areas and people who inhabit these slums no doubt lead a wretched life measured by any decent standards. The political class in this country is responsible for encouraging growth of big sized slums in cities like Mumbai and New Delhi because of the callousness and not foreseeing the problem faced by millions of honest citizens who pay all types of taxes levied by governments at the center, state and local levels aspiring for a decent quality life Can India take pride in the claim that world's biggest slum is in Mumbai going by the name "Dharavi" which is a cluttered township within the city with vast political and economic clout? Is this the democracy Indians have been aspiring for after independence? Vote bank politics, where politicians see each individual as a potential supporter to vote for him during election time, cannot be allowed to continue any more if we have to achieve economic power like China. If the ruling party in Kolkatta sees these street vendors as a sure vote bank and promise them protection, support and help, as being reported by the media, probably its calculation is that the 3 million families of these vendors would support them in the forthcoming elections with no qualms about the well being of and trauma caused to, honest citizens there by these law breaking group. One is tempted to pose a question whether this is what we have got after more than 7 decades of planning? Are we not staring at anarchy in the urban areas of the country with no law and order being maintained and ordinary citizens like children, women, senior people and other vulnerable groups forced to stay indoor for fear of violating their self respect and self esteem? Cries like these may be irrelevant in to day's India which is taken over by a section of the society with powerful connections, criminal tendencies, muscle power, scant regard for judiciary and no care for human values!  


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Apathy, thy name is FSSAI!-The Hyderabad "case"!

A recent report from Hyderabad regarding the food safety mess that is prevalent there makes a pathetic reading. A city where there are more than 20,000 eateries, monitoring of the quality of foods prepared and served there rarely occurs though the civic authorities are supposed to have qualified inspectors for inspecting the premises, sampling of the foods, testing them and ensuring consumer safety on a regular basis. Unfortunately the ground reality that is obtaining in this historical city is indeed shocking. Though the food safety act stipulates a certain number of inspectors and adequate testing facilities this city does not seem to be too much concerned about lack of them to meet the challenge.Passing on the buck seems to be the order of the day. While the civic authorities blame the state administration for neglecting their needs in providing necessary facilities and personnel, latter puts the ball in the court of the center for unclear laws and less than optimal resources allocated to the state. When a pompous Authority called FSSAI was foisted on the states, it was promised that center would provide all the assistance required to implement the new food laws. Unfortunately nothing seems to have changed after the formation of FSSAI which turned out to be a license giving authority, a call back of the old permit - license raj that existed before the economic liberalization started in early nineteen nineties! Here is a take on this sorrow state of affairs vis-vis food safety realities in Hyderabad, though same may apply to all places across the country.   .  

"According to the Food Safety and Standard Act, 2011, the civic body should have at least two inspectors for every circle (one in case of a small circle) to monitor the food quality in hotels and collect samples for examinations. Licences to caterers should only be given after a standard quality test is done, but this regulation is not followed. In 2010, only 45 cases were booked, 54 in 2011, 135 on 2012, 144 in 2013 and 256 in 2014. The number of eateries in the city is more than 20,000.  The civic body, incidentally, does not even have its own laboratory to carry out any of these tests. Instead, it depends on the Institute of Preventive Measures. The Act states the city administration should have adequate number of food safety officers to monitor all food establishments, draw samples for analysis and surveillance, act against unsafe food and ensure that food poisoning or similar problems do not occur. Owing to the staff crunch, the state's food testing laboratory at Nacharam tests just about 500-600 samples in a month collected from the entire state. Less than 200 are from Hyderabad, while the lab can test up to 2,000 to 2,500 samples per month. Officials rue that GHMC has no facilities to check food quality. Meanwhile, more than 3,000 cases related to food quality issues are pending in courts. Some of them have been running for the past 15 years. These cases ensure that the food inspectors are busy attending court proceedings instead of performing their actual duties. As per the rule, hotels violating norms are supposed to be fined and even closed down. There is a separate magistrate's court for these cases. Following the Food Safety Act, the corporation, during inspections, first checks the manner in which the food is cooked (taking samples of the materials used), then the way it is served and stored".

An interesting revelation that must shame all Indians is the long drawn legal cases, numbering about 3000, pending before the courts without any judgment and the time wasted by the food inspectors in dealing with these cases some of them pending for more than 20 years! It appears that there is a collusion between the lawyer community, accused parties and the food inspection personnel to prolong the cases so that indictment can be postponed almost indefinitely under such an arrangement! It is more than 4 years since the food safety act was implemented and if FSSAI could not put in place a satisfactory infrastructural facilities to implement the law, does it justify its existence at all? Are the citizens left to the mercy of petty traders, unorganized food makers and big players of the industry who break every conceivable rule with such impunity for ever with no hope of salvation? Probably the FSSAI as it operates to day needs drastic changes to make the entire system more reliable and accountable. Is the country with a political class with practically no vision about future ready for it? Doubtful! This "no win" situation is bound to continue leaving the consumers at the mercy of manufacturers, traders and hoteliers for a long time to come making citizens turn to God for protecting them and their families from food related dangers every day!