Monday, November 24, 2014

Fresh Fish and super markets-A big contradiction?

The word "fresh" is one of the most misused terminologies by the food industry as most consumers want to eat their food as fresh as possible. Unfortunately there is no unanimity regarding the exact meaning of the word "fresh", different stake holders meaning different things. Consumer expects that fresh fish should the one caught immediately prior to be sold to him while the sellers aim at selling them before deterioration starts setting in. The arbitrator viz the government wants to ensure it is not dangerous to the health of the consumer. The food scientists and quality experts consider any thing fresh if the eating quality is essentially same as that when the fish was caught. In a food like fish which deteriorates in quality pretty fast the seller cannot afford to delay the time lapse between catching and selling too much though to day's technology has the wherewithal to keep it fresh for a few hours after catching. The reported situation in some of the super markets in the UK indicates that fish branded as "fresh" were actually caught 15 days back and consumers are buying a product with practically 80-90% of its life gone! Here is the low down on this tricky issue. 

"Mr Chivers said: Supermarkets selling 'fresh' fish that's really 15 DAYS old  if not in the past few days. 'They think the fish is going to be fresh and tasty. But some of the samples we tested they are not going to enjoy at all.' He used the Torry scale – an industry standard system to measure freshness – in which experts rate the fish's physical characteristics to estimate how long ago it was caught.  Mr Chivers found some fish was in danger of going off quickly. 'These are not off, but give them a day in a domestic fridge and you would begin to taste an off odour,' he told the Sunday Mirror. Current guidelines say fish can be sold as fresh if it has been kept on ice since being caught. Morrisons' fisheries manager, Huw Thomas, said: 'Careful planning ensures that the time between the fish being caught and then sold on our counters is minimal . In our experience, the Torry scale is a reliable tool for judging quality, but not food safety or how long each fish has been out of the water.' A Tesco spokesman said: 'We ensure all our fish is of good quality.' Asda also defended the freshness of its products, saying: 'We are the only retailer to publish how and where we source our wild fish.'A Sainsbury's spokesman said all its fish would remain 'good quality for the duration of its shelf life'"

While consumer is the "King" as far the market is concerned, the manufacturers and marketeers do expect some consideration for their logistical difficulties in procuring and distribution of the product. Industry normally endeavors to minimize the lapse of time between procurement and delivery to the consumer. However consumer is willing to give reasonable time and he expects the industry to be truthful. Where is the necessity of declaring a 15 days old fish as fresh? As long as such declarations are not made consumer may be willing to patronize the brand as long as it tastes good to his palates. Those who sell stale fish cannot be expected to remain in the market for too long and the market will take care of those indulging in  such deceiving practices. Fluid milk vendors often use the words "Dairy Fresh", again to exploit the weakness of consumers to all such things which are fresh (except for liquor). Ultimately under a branded marketing regime, whether fresh or not the quality and safety of the product only can ensure survival of the brands. 


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Fried Foods scare-How justified are the present concerns?

Who does not love fried foods, whether young or old? But many health pundits advocate avoiding fried foods which according to them can spell danger. Though to some extent this is true, eliminating them altogether from the diet is not a choice at all. Such advocacy is not justifiable according to present scientific knowledge available to day. Acrylamide is a chemical artifact generated in foods when they are exposed to high temperature due to reaction between the naturally occurring amino acid Asparagine and reducing sugars like glucose and this has been found to be a health hazard with potential to cause cancer. If one really looks at the toxicity levels injurious to humans, most foods eaten moderately and not regularly cannot be a risk at all. Of course any food eaten without any control can be dangerous and fried foods are no exception to this well accepted rule. According to scientific data Acrylamide contents in some of the commonly eaten foods does not exceed the limit set by health experts and normal healthy consumer may not be at a risk by eating them at moderate levels. Here is a take on this issue which is being being highlighted by many journalists and scientists recently.  

"Yesterday, US Food Safety posted a blog about the How to Reduce Acrylamide in Certain Foods.Today took this one step further and posted an article about what foods to avoid. Cut out, or at least cut back on, fried foods. This is just a good idea, anyway, but it's an especially good idea if acrylamide makes you nervous. "If you want to make a big difference, have things that you boil or steam or eat raw," Fernstrom says.  Don't eat crispy or burnt french fries. The FDA says overcooked, crispy or burnt french fries are the ones most likely to have higher levels of acrylamide. Go for the golden yellow fries, and avoid the brown ones. Also, don't eat burnt toast. Same concept here: The dark brown or black areas on a piece of toast are more likely to contain acrylamide. Toast your bread to a light brown color instead. "The best rule of thumb is just don't cook things to death," Fernstrom says. Potatoes don't belong in the refrigerator. Keeping potatoes in the fridge can increase the amount of acrylamide produced during cooking, the FDA says. Instead, keep them stored in a dark, cool place, like a pantry." 

Foods containing Aspargine and sugars which undergo rigorous cooking can generate Acrylamide and that includes biscuits, bread, coffee, French fries, Potato crisps, home cooked potatoes etc. French fries are reported to contain about 40 ug (microgram) of Acrylamide per kg while potato crisps generate a whopping 65 ug per kg. In contrast home cooked potatoes have 32 ug, coffee 25 ug, biscuits 32 ug and bread 15 ug per kg. but from time to time high values exceeding 1000 ug per kg are also reported. Safety limit for Acrylamide is also a matter of debate though 500 ug per kg body weight is more or less accepted. If this is so why all these scare mongering about Acrylamide? Recent claim by a potato breeder about the development of a "gene silenced" version of potato which generates far less Acrylamide than the tradition varieties appears to be a direct outcome of the undue Acrylamide scare that can benefit only the organized potato using industry.


Diets that change gut bacteria- The implications.

Many of us associate bacteria with negative things as most pathogens causing a host of diseases belong to this group of microorganisms. But it is not a correct perception because there are many species friendly to man doing many things to support our health. Human microbiome which involves bacteria that thrive in and on human beings have received focused attention only recently and whatever has been unfolded is both exciting and scary. Exciting because it opens up avenues for maneuvering them for greater benefits and disease amelioration in humans. Scary because inappropriate food consumption habits and reckless diet can ruin them inviting disaster in the long run. The early recognition about the importance of dietary fiber was due to the role these fibers play inside the gut in providing a great service in avoiding many diseases including CVD, diabetes and obesity. According to one of the recent studies changes in the diet can change the gut profile of bacteria within a matter of 2-3 days causing some damage to the well being while in the long term such changes can be significantly injurious to the health. Here is a take on this important development.

"Scientists are just beginning to learn about how our decisions at the dinner table — or the drive-through — tweak our microbiome, that is, the communities of bacteria living in our bodies. But one thing is becoming clear: The critters hanging out in our intestine influence many aspects of our health, including weight, immunity and perhaps even behavior. And interest in studying the links between diet and the human microbiome is growing. Previous research in this field had turned up tantalizing evidence that eating fiber can alter the composition of gut bacteria. But these studies had looked at diets over long periods of times — months and even years. David and his colleagues wanted to know whether fiber — or lack of it — could alter gut bacteria more rapidly. To figure that out, the researchers got nine volunteers to go on two extreme diets for five days each. The first diet was all about meat and cheese. "Breakfast was eggs and bacon," David says. "Lunch was ribs and briskets, and then for dinner, it was salami and prosciutto with an assortment of cheeses. The volunteers had pork rinds for snacks." Then, after a break, the nine volunteers began a second, fiber-rich diet at the other end of the spectrum: It all came from plants. "Breakfast was granola cereal," David says. "For lunch, it was jasmine rice, cooked onions, tomatoes, squash, garlic, peas and lentils." Dinner looked similar, and the volunteers could snack on bananas and mangoes. "The animal-based diet is admittedly a little extreme," he says. "But the plant-based diet is one you might find in a developing country." David and the team analyzed the volunteers' microbiomes before, during and after each diet. And the effects of all that meat and cheese were immediately apparent. "The relative abundance of various bacteria species looked like it shifted within a day after the food hit the gut," David says. After the volunteers had spent about three days on each diet, the bacteria in the gut even started to change their behavior. "The kind of genes turned on in the microbes changed in both diets," he says. In particular, microbes that "love bile" — the Bilophila — started to dominate the volunteers' guts during the animal-based diet. Bile helps the stomach digest fats. So people make more bile when their diet is rich in meat and dairy fats. A study last year found that blooms of Bilophila cause inflammation and colitis in mice. "But we didn't measure levels of inflammation in our subjects," David says. "That's the next step."

Though the above study was carried out with a very small number of subjects, the significance of its findings cannot be belittled. It is a dire warning from these little creatures who live within us not to take them light and convey a message that co-existence means satisfying their needs also. If your gut microbiome profile is sound, your health also will be sound! Probably the carnivorous community may see red in this study as it frowns upon eating meat regularly but even the lacto vegetarians are forewarned that too much intake of dairy products at the expense of fiber rich plant foods can be disadvantageous. Only further studies by multiple agencies on the lines done under this limited trials can only dispel any lingering doubts about the help by our "friends" in our guts. 


Winter gardening-A new approach in Finland

Urban gardening has been and still a hot topic in many western countries where farmer population is showing a declining trend. Even in a country like China there are suburban gardens created on a cooperative principles where urbanites can invest on a small plot, few kilometers from the city and such cooperatives are offering its urban members an opportunity to visit during the week ends to do some gardening operations themselves to feel the thrill of being a "part time farmer"! Added to this the members have the luxury to have freshly harvested produce raised without using any chemicals. While such options can be understandable what will an urbanite in a country like Finland do when most of the time the weather is hostile being too cold to raise any crops. Here comes a new initiative from an entrepreneurial pioneer for growing a few crops with no soil needed at all. This is a welcome news worth pursuing for people in tropical countries who are novices in cold climate gardening. Here is a source from which further information can be gleaned. 

"Harsh, cold winters and scarce arable land make growing crops a challenge in Finland. A team of entrepreneurs hailing from the icy nordic nation believe this gives them a certain authority when it comes to growing crops indoors. Launched on Indiegogo yesterday, the team's Plantui Plantation hydroponic smart garden is aimed at giving urban green thumbs the capability to raise almost any kind of plant indoors, up two meters (6.6 ft) in height. Smart gardens and automated growing are not a new concept. Back in May we reviewed the Click and Grow Smart Herb Garden, while other efforts include the MEG Greenhouse and the Edyn monitoring system for the outdoors. Even Plantui itself is not new to the blossoming world of in-house agriculture, with its Smart Garden, the Plantation's predecessor, hitting the market in parts of Europe last year. The original Plantui Smart Gardens are soil-free capsules that use intelligent lighting and watering systems to raise plants through the germination, seedling and harvesting stages. Depending on the progress of the plant, 18 LED lights adjust in intensity and the irrigation feeds various amounts of water to the roots. The company says these methods replicate those used in professional Finnish greenhouses. The latest iteration, the Plantui Plantation, takes this concept and scales it up to accommodate a wider range of plants. The new version measures 45 cm (17.7 in) in diameter with an adjustable height of 28 to 200 cm (11 to 78 in), and can host crops including tomatoes, chillies, peppers and cucumbers. Also improved is the level of control over the maturation of the plants. While the device can automatically adjust water and light according to the plant's growth, it allows the user to manipulate these settings to shape the final product. The company points to the ability of different parts of the light spectrum to affect the taste and height of the harvested plants. Favoring a red spectrum over blue, for example, might induce mild, intense or peppery flavors, while red will give rise to taller plants. The Plantui Plantation is powered by a wall outlet and is said to use around 120 kWh of energy per year. Twelve plants can be grown in each of the capsules, with the estimated time to harvest ranging from 35 days for a crop of bok choy to 150 days for four chilli plants. Early pledges of US$250 will see a Plantui Plantation shipped your way in March 2015, along with 16 types of seedlings including pok choy, thai basil, coriander and tomato. For this to eventuate, the team will need to reach its somewhat lofty fundraising goal of $500,000 and have the rest of its campaign go as planned."

Though limited in its scale of operation the new technology requiring limited space is based on hydroponics and green house facilities with temperature and light control provisions to raise different crops. Its convenience and ease of operation can be gauged from the fact that ready capsules are available with designs suiting different crops. All one has to do is order for these capsules along with the seeds depending on what is to be grown. Low requirement of energy, hardly 120 units of electricity from a wall outlet for the entire year is indeed remarkable. Imagine one's ability to raise a bok choy crop in 35 days and the ease with which the crop can be harvested as when needed in the kitchen! Such novel ways of crop raising must be introduced in India also where temperature drop is phenomenal between November and February each year across most of northern India..    


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Government hospitals-Are poor patients destined to be "under nourished" in these medical centers?

During the last few years India has earned a reputation as a destination for medical tourism mainly because of two reasons. First the hospitalization costs are a fraction of what it costs in countries like the US or in Europe. Second the expertise and facilities are almost on par with internationally famous hospitals else where. Added to this a few hospitals in India are so comfortable to stay in with facilities that can be the envy of a 5-star hotel! The foods served also are of multi cuisine type serving to the taste of most foreign guests/patients. While this development is really hear warming for all proud Indians, there is a dark side to this story. A vast majority of Indian citizens cannot afford these high cost hospitals, depending heavily on government run public hospitals for curing their illness. Unfortunately given a choice most people will shy away from most of these hospitals because of congestion, over crowding, sub-par facilities, poor hygiene and sanitation, lax doctors with no dedication or commitment. Most importantly non-availability of food service facilities, make them do with foods brought from home or bought from eateries nearby which can be a veritable place spreading infection and other undesirable consequences of bad food. Tamilnadu seems to be tying to tackle this problem by setting up its famous Amma Canteens which have become a popular program of the present government. Here is a take on this development which can be a model for other states.   

"The recently-opened Amma Canteen at the Kilpauk Medical College Hospital came with the promise of quality food at affordable rate through the day for the in-patients and visitors to the hospital. The promise also included timely delivery of food. Started more than a month ago, the canteen is a hit with the visitors, patients and staff at the hospital the canteen is a hit with the visitors, patients and staff at the hospital, as the first half of the promise has been fulfilled. The second half however remains to be fulfilled, according to some of those availing the services. The food is not being delivered on time and the lack of adequate staff at the canteen is said to be the reason. Visitors to the hospital say their joy would be complete if this issue is resolved. Before this Amma Canteen was established, relatives of the patients either bought home-made food or went out to buy food from hotels, mostly from those located near Taylor's Road, which is around two kilometres from the hospital. As most of the patients are from economically weak backgrounds , they are reluctant to buy food regularly from hotels. Most of the in-patients wait for their relatives to bring food from home. Sometimes, they (visitors) come late with food resulting in delay in taking food and medicines. Having Amma Canteen at KMC is a boon. It's just that they want the service be timely. Most of the government hospitals do not have full-fledged canteens on their premises. A few have Aavin booths where hot milk and other beverages are sold. Amma Canteens serve a variety of food including lemon rice, curry leaf rice, chapathi and idli."

Treatment of a patient has to be holistic and good food is a prerequisite for better recovery for every patient. Imagine the condition when each patient is accompanied by at least two relatives and with no over night staying facilities and food service options, the hospitals naturally  get cluttered with food liters strewn all around further deteriorating the environment. The Tamilnadu initiative will definitely give succor to convalescing patients by serving low cost foods with satisfactory quality and safety.  Regarding complaints that Amma Canteens are not delivering food to the patients in time, sufficient time will have to be given to the management to organize the same as the novel experiment has just started. Paucity of workers can pose initial hiccups which the authorities concerned will overcome eventually. What ever be the political differences among politicians, the Amma Canteen program must receive an applause for its poor people oriented tilt.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

"Demise of Polystyrene- Exit of another plastic material

Any news that spell discouraging plastics is a welcome one and the pioneering efforts in some American communities to ban use of the ubiquitous polystyrene material deserve a big applause. More than consideration of safety when used for packing foods, it is environmental pollution potential of this plastic material that is pushing the "ban polystyrene" movements in some countries. Polystyrene, popularly known as Styrofoam, is an expended product with very low bulk density and therefore can pollute wide areas due to wind, especially if they are smaller in size. One of the most commonly used insulating materials to keep food warm for longer time, there is no cheap substitute to polystyrene and hence there is considerable resistance to proposals coming from time to time from consumer activists and health conscious communities. While as an insulating material polystyrene may not be a health hazard unless used in direct contact with hot foods like soups or beverages, it definitely is an environmental hazard due to littering and careless disposal. Here is a take on this important issue which is currently being debated.  

"Technically, Styrofoam is a trademarked polystyrene product of Dow Chemical used in such applications as building insulation and craft products, not in food containers. For foes of polystyrene foam food containers, its problems are numerous. "Polystyrene foam doesn't break down easily, and it's easily dispersed by the wind," creating a litter problem in streets and local waterways, said Garth Schultz, city operations and environmental services manager for El Cerrito, Calif., where a ban will go into effect Jan. 1. Aside from the litter problem, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy pointed to concerns about the health affects of the chemicals that make up extruded polystyrene foam in justifying the ban. "You get takeout, the steam melts that lid," he said. "It's going into your food. Eventually, you're going to get sick from it." Opponents of such bans, such as the American Chemistry Council, have been pushing for community-wide polystyrene recycling programs in places like New York City as an alternative to proposed bans there. Restaurants themselves are increasingly turning a cold shoulder to polystyrene foam food containers. Fast-food titan McDonald's Corp. announced in September it would phase out foam cups at its 14,000 U.S. restaurants in favor of paper cups in coming months. It quit using polystyrene clamshell containers for burgers in 1990. And Dunkin' Brands Group, the parent company of the Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robins chains, said in its most-recent corporate social responsibility report that it is rolling out an in-store foam cup recycling program at all its locations, but that it hopes to introduce an alternative cup within two to three years."

A redeeming feature of this problem is that some enlightened industry has already put in place a program to shun polystyrene for packing their products realizing the dangers inherent in a potential consumer backlash in future. While recycling may be an option to cut down on pollution by this plastic material, it may be impractical to organize collection on a large scale for centralized recycling operations. Some reports indicate that local communities and some restaurants are contemplating installing recycling projects locally to tackle the problem more effectively in stead of waiting for government action. A vexing question concerns the need of non-food industries for a packing material that can provide impact resistance of their products during handling and transportation and it may not be practical to ban polystyrene only in food industry while allowing it for others. But corrugated multi-ply paper boards are increasingly being used by industries substituting polystyrene while molded plastics and bubble formed plastics also can also are used in many cases. It is a question of time before the world is reconciled to a situation where plastics will not be around, especially non-biodegradable versions which dominate to day.    


Monday, November 17, 2014

Ornish diet-Last refuge for obese people?

Dieting is an accepted way of achieving reduction in body weight though even to day no one is sure which diet will work on different individuals. There are many dietary schemes available to day from commercial companies, none of them being absolutely fool proof to get desired results. Atkins diet took an early lead in cornering major business from the weight reduction enthusiasts while many others followed it subsequently. Basically the principle of weight reduction is restriction of intake of food, mainly calories coming from daily foods and one really does not need any expertise to adopt a life style with diets balanced in calories, protein and other nutrients. There are well accepted dietary recommendations globally established and all one has to do is follow them with strict eating discipline. Unfortunately too much food and too less of an exercise by many people lead them to a situation where the calories, especially the fat calories are not burned enough due to sedentary life style, causing fat deposits all over the body. Whether it is a low carbohydrate diet or a low fat diet, human body must receive enough nutrients like proteins and micronutrients for sound health. One of the popular diets which seems to be gaining acceptance among obese people is the Ornish diet based mostly on fruits and vegetables excluding fat and carbohydrate to a great extent. Here is a commentary on this seemingly different approach to weight reduction. 

"Dean Ornish, MD, president and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, Calif., was considered revolutionary in the early '90s when he suggested that a basically vegetarian diet can reverse symptoms of heart disease. Plus, Ornish and his research team argued, a vegetarian diet coupled with exercise can reduce stress and help people lose weight. Since that time, Ornish's diet has caught on, winning such high-profile fans as former President Bill Clinton. Far from being a diet fad, many doctors and nutritionists now recommend this popular diet to people who need to lose weight and who may have heart conditions. The diet's popularity partially stems from the fact it's evidence-based. One study showed that after five years, participants had lost an average of 24 pounds on the Ornish Diet, and most had managed to keep the weight off. "Few other major diet systems have managed to match this feat," says Susan Weiner, RD, MS, CDE, CDN, a nutritionist who practices in New York. However, the Ornish Diet has a major drawback: It may be difficult for some people to follow, especially over the long-term. The popular diet is essentially a vegan diet, Weiner says, and people may find it hard to avoid all meats, chicken, fish, and egg yolks. Also, she says, the diet is extremely low in fats of all types, and it's often fat that adds flavor to foods and makes people feel satiated."

Though Ornish diet has proved to be effective in losing weight very significantly and it is based on scientific principles, adhering to it may pose practical problems, especially in the long run. After all man does not live for the sake of living alone and there are many pleasures in life he does not want to miss. Eating good food in terms of taste, aroma, texture is an important aspect of good living and ruthless exclusion of fat from the daily diet as demanded by Ornish diet may be too much to be asked for. Use of fat is linked to flavor, taste and texture in the food and to day's food industry thrives because of the attraction of consumers to high fat food products. Shunning the same may be difficult for most people and therefore it is doubtful whether people will readily accept Ornish diet unless they are desperate, as in the case of high risk obese people. Many nutritionists advocate regular consumption of 'balanced" diet from early child hood which can ensure maintenance of normal body weight and BMI, avoiding dietary intervention at later stages of life for dealing with life style diseases that may emerge due to undisciplined eating and lack of exercise.