Monday, August 31, 2009


Oats, by virtue of the presence of the soluble fiber, beta glucan and low saturated fat has been cleared for making claims about its potential to reduce risk of heart diseases. Pepsico's Quaker Oats Company used to include on the label that it can give guarantee for reducing cholesterol if consumed at the level recommended by them within 30 days. But the manufacturer seems to have carried away by the response from the consumers and started making grossly exaggerated claims which have come to haunt the company

Taken to the courts for these unsubstantiated claims, it sought to settle the case by agreeing that "Quaker will no longer describe its oatmeal as a "unique" whole grain food that "actively finds" cholesterol and removes it from the body, and will no longer display a graph that greatly exaggerated the cholesterol-lowering potential of oatmeal. Under current FDA regulations, products low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in soluble fiber are able to claim that they reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The fiber contained in whole oat is called beta-glucan soluble fiber, and is found in oat bran, rolled oats and whole oat flour".

It is amazing how industry giants can influence the decisions by the regulatory bodies like FDA, as reflected by the clearance being given to oats with even higher fat content than hitherto permitted to make the same claim!. A look at the studies on cholesterol bashing power of oats, brings out the stark reality that most of the studies were of limited duration not exceeding 8 weeks, the decrease is not dramatic achieving about 3-5% reduction in total cholesterol, the daily consumption has to be above 60 gm and there is no proof it can go down further by prolonged consumption. Of course there is no denying the fact that regular consumption of oats may not do any harm.


Sunday, August 30, 2009


There was a time in the recent past when Algal sources were considered as high quality nutraceutical materials containing many miracle health boosting chemical molecules. Before that, single cell proteins (SCP) were promoted in a big way for overcoming protein deficiency amongst poor populations in the world. Though Spirulina is still a big business even now, the initial aura is giving away to more realism and the growth of the industry is not some thing to crow about. However algae as a source of biofuel is receiving increased attention from the existing fossil fuel dealers as well as government bodies for its high yield potential compared to other sources like corn, soy or palm oil.

The lure of high returns eventually and the global warming threat from fossil fuels are driving almost all major fuel companies to algae. "After years of quietly building steam, the algae industry has recently received major, attention-grabbing investments from Exxon Mobil Corp. and Dow Chemical Co. And the industry is starting to find support in Congress with proposals that would provide it tax credits and other incentives gaining bipartisan support". The new administration in the US has given highest priority to alternate energy programs with the avowed objective of reducing dependence on imported oils.

The supporters of algae as a cheap source of biofuel cites the yield potential of this organism, which is 20 to 200 times greater compared to fuels from plant sources and factoring the cost of growing and processing, it is expected that algal biofuel might cost about $30-80 a barrel and if a tax incentive regime is put in place, it may cost even less. According the present projections, a 25 acre plot of land can produce 100 million gallons of biofuel an year and if the present trend of phasing out plant based biofuels continues, algae may become the most accepted route for future renewable energy supplies.



The midday school program in India is one of the biggest social welfare projects in the world and reviews from time to time have brought out the stark reality about the unsatisfactory performance and less than optimum results achieved, in spite of massive public spending incurred by the country. In the US, the federal government spends about $ 2.68 (Rs 125) a day on each kid out of which the overhead expenses account for more than 65%! Compared to this, a 'princely' sum of Rs 2 per kid per day is spent in India and one can only guess what would be the 'managerial' cost in this budget which does not reach the beneficiary. The budget for 2009-10 provides Rs 8000 crore for covering 105 million children.

During the last few years many school districts in the US brought about policy changes to restrict availability of the so called junk foods in the school premises with some salutary effect."The U.S. government pays much of the bill for school food. Efforts to replace the processed and nutrition-poor foods still on many student lunch trays come with a higher price tag that many schools cannot afford. Businesses can help close the gap".

The $ 9 billion (Rs 45000 crore) outlay for school lunches in the US is not supposed to be adequate and private industry and foundations are pitching in with a view to make the lunch menu more nutritious, though such changes tend to raise the cost significantly. Many experts believe that by focusing on kids' meals by changing the nutritional quality, a country like the US can save significantly on the present annual outgo of $147 billion, being spent currently for treating obesity related illnesses in that country. Can it be true in India also? Though the gross Indian figures on expenditure are very impressive, the moot question is how many beneficiaries are really benefited by the program, with unreliable delivery system and corrupt managerial set up? A radical rethinking is called for, if 'deserving' beneficiaries are to get 'real' benefits out of the public funds funneled into this project.

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Saturday, August 29, 2009


The current drought like situation which is assuming alarming proportions because of failed or delayed monsoon rains in many regions of India is pregnant with alarming ramifications. In a country where more than two thirds of the population depend on agriculture for leading a decent life, skewed policies of the government are driving hundreds of farmers to suicide out of frustration and desperation. As a welfare state, India has worked out minimum support prices considered reasonable for a few crops and massive subsidies are in place for giving socour to the farming community. The major focus of successive governments being on welfare and family security, raising farm level productivity has not been given adequate attention as reflected by uneven production of many staples and chronic shortage of others. The much vaunted irrigation system is reported to be not able to deliver water even to the extent of 35% of its capacity.

Many experts feel that India can redeem itself by taking a leaf out of China in boosting agricultural production through opening the grain market to large organizations as is being done in some states in the country. "Nobody could accuse India of neglecting its farmers. The country lavishes huge subsidies on the sector, sets minimum prices to shield farmers from price fluctuations and offers free electricity and water. Yet the spending has contributed to the parlous state of Indian public finances while doing little to increase agricultural productivity and farm incomes. State intervention is a stifling embrace — focusing on welfare and security rather than on efforts to make the sector more dynamic".

The uncontrolled escalation of prices in commodities like rice, wheat, pulses, sugar and others is causing misery and depredation amongst low and middle income populations and large scale hoarding of foods by the traders, in spite of preventive measures by the government, is making the problem more acute. Distortion in the policy vis-à-vis crop mix that needs to e encouraged is further causing surpluses in some cases while aggravating shortages in many other cases. GOI, Planning Commission and the State Governments ought to be concerned about the dangers posed by food shortages and increasing farmer woes.


Relentless pursuit of money and ever expanding markets for food grains in a world with fast growing population, forests become the first casualty as more fertile lands are being sought to plant edible crops. During the past 11000 years since organized agriculture started in this planet, more than 50% of the area under the forests has been lost. Between 1990 and 2000 over 94 million hectares of forests disappeared due to human activity and many believe that in another 20 years 40% of the existing forests also will be lost unless pragmatic efforts are made to check this mindless juggernaut. Brazil, which has the enviable record of being the fastest destroyer of forests for taking up soy and corn cultivation, lost in the process about 13 million hectares of forest coverage last year.

Why this alarm about deforestation? "Deforestation, a critical contributor to climate change, effectively accounts for 20 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions and 70 percent of the emissions in Brazil. Halting new deforestation, experts say, is as powerful a way to combat warming as closing the world's coal plants.But until now, there has been no financial reward for keeping forest standing. Which is why a growing number of scientists, politicians and environmentalists argue that cash payments — like that offered to Mr. Marcolini — are the only way to end tropical forest destruction and provide a game-changing strategy in efforts to limit global warming". An NGO in Brazil is offering $12 per hectare of forests not destroyed to the farmers but the economic calculations do not seem to have convinced the farmers so far about desisting from deforestation.

Is there any lesson learned from the Brazilian experience? No matter what policy measures are taken to preempt deforestation through coercive action, only economic incentives can be effective in the long run. It is not for nothing that rich countries are thinking in terms of providing economic aid to poor countries of the world to desist from cutting down forests which are considered a global resource for controlling green house gases in the environment. It should be the aim of national governments to bring down the CO2 levels in their countries through such interventions for the sake of survival of this planet.



In spite of so much knowledge generated during the lat two decades about the inglorious role played by the 'three villains of peace'-sugar, salt and fat, in most of the life style diseases so rampant to day, no lesson seems to have been learnt if one goes by what food industry is doing to abet the situation. It is true that food industry has to meet the taste aspirations of the consumer, at least to stay in the competition but that cannot be at the cost of his health. Food is a weakness with many and massive promotion with a background message that eating 'good' food in not a crime through saturated advertisements, is bound to drive hordes of consumers to the super markets to 'enjoy' them for which they may regret later.

Through new avatars of products with fancy names like cookie pizza, master burger, famous bowl, cheeseburger fries, coffee with whipped cream, dough nut sundae, etc food industry is 'seducing' the consumer to go for such foods containing 550 to 1200 calories per serving. "Although the organic movement has certainly started to influence how Americans think about their food, it is still no match for the American fast food industry, which continuously finds creative new ways of piling sugar, salt and fat on a plate and charging customers $4.99 for the privilege of eating it".

It is time food industry world over is penalized for such brazen attempts if they violate the cardinal principle that industry is there not for profit alone but also for the welfare of the people they are supposed to serve. Fiscal measures like very high taxation for such of the products containing high levels of sugar, salt and calories or total ban on some of them considered harmful, may have to be considered if self-discipline is not exercised.

Friday, August 28, 2009


Increasing demand for food for meeting food needs of the ever expanding global population acts as a drive engine for innovations in production technology. Biotechnology has played an important role in bringing about Green Revolution in the past in Asia giving a quantum jump in food production that bought temporary relief for the food starved population in the continent. Genetically Modified crops for which technologies have been developed are still confined to hardly 2-3 crops and it is debatable whether this has achieved any break-through in terms of increased production while the input to yield ratio depends lot on massive use of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Hydroponic and aeroponic agriculture technologies which do not need soil have the advantage of controlled production and minimum waste generation lending themselves to adoption in urban areas already hard pressed for land.

Some visionary people feel that the present agricultural practices cannot be sustained for long and within the next 50 years agricultural productivity in conventional lands is bound to reduce drastically creating famine like situation all over the world. According to them massive urbanization will push the agriculture into urban areas amongst the city dwellers and "a vertical farm would behave like a functional ecosystem, in which waste was recycled and the water used in hydroponics and aeroponics was recaptured by dehumidification and used over and over again. The technologies needed to create a vertical farm are currently being used in controlled-environment agriculture facilities but have not been integrated into a seamless source of food production in urban high-rise buildings".

Probably there is some truth in these prophesies and the advantages of local production by the urbanites are too many to be ignored out of hand. Vertical farming is said to achieve in an acre what conventional agriculture can do in 10-20 acres with almost 90% less water and the large potential for such farms to clean up the highly polluted air in the cities by absorbing CO2 emitted, could be a bonus. What about the investment? Probably very high by to day's standards but may become viable in future.

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Traditionally women are supposed to be better equipped to transform raw food into delectable preparations, their own family members being their main consumers. Most famous example is the Lijjat papad manufacturer in the cooperative sector, owned by a group of enterprising women which is in the fore front in making a variety of good and safe quality papad products, popular all over world. Naturally any attempt to involve women in expanding the reach of the food processing industry is most welcome, if it can be achieved in an organized and sustained fashion. If the announcements and pronouncements of the concerned ministry in GOI are taken at their face value, the industry is bound to see better days ahead with assured growth and increased relevance in the life of the common man.

The '100 days' program of MFPI has many targets and one of them pertains to training of women entrepreneurs. According to this plan "it will provide food processing training to 500,000 women in collaboration with industrial training institutes (ITI) as part of its efforts to create 10 million jobs by 2015". How far this is practical given the constraints regarding availability of experienced trainers to guide these new entrepreneurs remains to be seen.

Probably GOI can think of linking this program with the massive feeding programs funded by it in various states and women can do a much better job in this area. Most of the anganwadis and other infrastructure currently deployed are managed by women and it is a question of integrating them into a national project that will look after the various nutrition oriented programs with necessary manufacturing base provided to them.



Relentless pursuit of profits through fair or unfair means seems to be the goal of some of the mighty industrial giants with least consideration for the safety and welfare of the consumer. In a democratic society freedom is the most cherished possession that cannot be compromised but it has to be a responsible freedom with compassionate considerations for fellow denizens. It is this freedom which is being curtailed through financial and political clout by some of the major players in the field who usurp monopoly in some areas, relentlessly influence the eating habits of consumers for their own corporate benefits, suppress the aspirations of the farmers through secretive technologies and fight the government against transparency in label declarations. .

"Individuals have a right to know what they are eating, but big players in the food industry are fighting this. Corn is in just about everything. High fructose corn syrup is fattening the children of the country. This epidemic will have far reaching consequences and nothing is being done to correct the it. Instead, measures are taken to avoid dealing with the problem. Instead of labeling the calories on fast food, the industry supports telling kids to get out and exercise. Of course exercise is good, but it is pointless if you are taking in so many calories that you can't possibly burn it off. This epidemic is going to cost us trillions of dollars in the long run. We have an obesity rate of 30%. Children are getting diabetes on a regular basis. And all that the government has done so far is to tell us to get out and ride our bikes"

If the controlling authorities vested with power to protect the consumer and NGOs active in food field, do not take adequate interest in monitoring the activities of these corporate entities, consumers and the farmers will have no future in this planet. Without getting into the controversy surrounding GM foods, it is the birth right of every individual to have access to safe foods without being herded into only those foods with doubtful credentials that are made by a few monopolists through what ever means. Food industry in general can claim to be responsive to consumer interest and probably, it cannot be faulted for the undesirable behavior of a few members of their clan.


Monday, August 24, 2009


The type of sweetener used in a food is becoming increasingly a matter of concern to many consumers because of conflicting reports regarding the bad effect of some of them on human health. White sugar or sucrose has already become a villain of demonic proportions and it is implicated in practically every disease man can think of! Added to this fructose sugar has been linked to obesity and liver disorders, though the conclusion is still tentative. Wide spread prevalence of Type 2 diabetes amongst the populations world over, calls for an entirely different kind of sweeteners that does not load on the pancreas. Weight watchers also look for zero calorie foods to reduce calorie intake as much as possible. In such an environment consumers are a worried lot regarding their ability to choose really sugar free products from the isles of the super markets.

Innovation in the form of a simple device containing appropriate sensors, to detect the type of sweetener used in foods being talked about, will be a boon to such sugar sensitive consumers. "Similar to middle-school litmus paper tests, the sensor uses color-coded dots to show what sweeteners are used in a product. Until now, a similar test took about 30 minutes, and now is accomplished in two minutes. The sensor is being presented as a quality-control device for manufacturers to tell how sweet a product is, but they also mention developing sensors for the other basic tastes, such as sour and bitterness".

If the small hand held device as being developed is found to be really reliable, one can hope for other such devices for taste notes like sourness, bitterness, saltiness etc. Food industry probably will have to be weary about this development as consumers are going to be much smarter than expected and more discerning in their selection. It may be good for the consumer as well as the industry in the long run!


In a free economy innovations are supposed to be generated in the private sector and under the WTO regime intellectual property protection protocols help the industry to invest on R & D to reap benefits later. But in a developing country the food processing sector is invariably weak with hardly any resources to invest in research. Look at India where more than 90% funding for research comes from the government presumably hoping that the benefits will flow to the user industry. Unfortunately results of such public investments are there to see with most research institutions becoming moribund and their very existence does not make any difference to the industry which is starved of the much needed technological inputs. In contrast many developed countries still pour money on R & D projects for the common benefit of the industry.

Australian government recently announced an investment of $ 6.4 million on a slew of technology improvement programs that could benefit the entire spectrum of food processing in that country. "The 15 businesses cover a range of food industries, including seafood, nuts, dairy, vegetables and meat, within a number of regional economies in Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, NSW, Queensland and Western Australia. Projects include installing laser-guided cutting 'robots' to maximize yield and efficiency in a slaughter room and adopting innovative chestnut-peeling equipment, to bring offshore processing back to Australia".

It is not that GOI does not 'spend' money but whether it serves the purpose for which grants are made is a million dollar question. Several years ago GOI made a grant of Rs 50 million for a Food Engineering Center at Mysore with the avowed purpose of upgrading the engineering infrastructure and strengthen the design capability in the country so as to stimulate development of newer and efficient equipment for the benefit of food industry. After more than a decade and a half there is no evidence that it did make any difference at all for the processing sector. All that remains to day is a museum containing some imported equipment while the industry is groping in the dark for want of indigenously designed machinery at affordable cost to process some of the traditional foods.


Sunday, August 23, 2009


Pesticides and the dangers posed by them in water and soft drinks were burning issues which were debated endlessly in the media for some time in the past and consumers were are still at a loss as to the implications of all the noise raised. One is not sure whether the situation is better to day than it was 5 years ago though GOI never ceases to proclaim that water and soft drinks are safe (probably as long as one does not consume!). Even to day water is no body's business and periodic scare reports are driving consumers to the manufacturers of bottled drinking water as their confidence on the ability of the government to safe guard their so called 'protected' water supplies and ensure avoiding a plethora of water borne diseases.

Atrazine is the latest 'star' hogging the lime light, especially in the US where this weedicide chemical is widely used to the extent of 30 million kg per year. Though the safety agency there does not see any danger, new studies are pointing to the contrary. "New research suggests that atrazine may be dangerous at lower concentrations than previously thought. Recent studies suggest that, even at concentrations meeting current federal standards, the chemical may be associated with birth defects, low birth weights and menstrual problems. Laboratory experiments suggest that when animals are exposed to brief doses of Atrazine before birth, they may become more vulnerable to cancer later".

While EU has banned its use, this weedicide is widely used in 80 countries of the world including India. The limit in water is 0.1 ppb in EU while the US permits up to 3 ppb. Though its half life is limited to 13-260 days, absence of a dependable, regular and systematic monitoring system lulls the authorities to think the situation is not alarming enough to warrant any review! While Atrazine affects adversely amphibian life through its endocrine disruption it is also being implicated in cancer and some epidemiological changes in humans. It is sad there is no reliable information on Atrazine residue in Indian waters though some stray reports indicate it is 1000 times higher than what is permissible. Some thing needs to be done to allay the genuine fears of the citizens regarding this weed killer.


Saturday, August 22, 2009


Increasing exposure of the consumers to information about health and nutrition is creating a situation where their cursory knowledge is being exploited by a section of the food processing industry. Imagine potato chips with more than 50% oil content being marketed as a health food by adding some nutrients like vitamins or a fizz drink with added Vitamin C being touted as immune building product! There are hundreds of examples of such deceitful practices adopted for expanding the reach of many products. It is unbelievable that the so called nutraceutical industry is able to attract droves of consumers to their products with doubtful health claims, usually propagated through visual media.

The US, which is a leader in junk food peddling has large number of such foods though they are supposed to have strict overseeing infrastructure in place to discourage such deceitful practices."From heart-friendly margarines to sugary cereals that strengthen bones, once-demonized foods are being spiked with nutrients to give them a healthier glow — and consumers are biting, even on some that are little more than dressed-up junk food".

In India also such trends are beginning in the food sector, especially through promotions in the media. While labeling guidelines are some what stringent, overseeing malpractices in advertisement is lax allowing many culprits to get away. High calorie density products rich in sugar or fats can never be healthy foods, no matter what nutrients are added to them during processing. If industry cannot discipline itself, it is time government steps in with punitive impositions to curb such undesirable practices.


That the food processing sector has very high potential for generating employment, is by now well recognized and the extent of job creation is linked to degree of value addition to the food raw materials produced. In India one can hear complaints all around about the inability of the country to increase value addition in spite of the large agricultural base which makes it one amongst the top 5 countries in the production of almost all foods. Universities and teaching shops produce diplomates, graduates, post graduates and doctorates for meeting the needs of the industry though there is practically no linkage with the processing sector to understand its exact needs. The net result is a jig saw puzzle where available personnel try to fit into many positions in the industry for which they invariably have neither the skill nor the aptitude, Innumerable pleas in the past for establishing credible alliance between the Universities and the industry have fallen on deaf ears.  

Look at the Irish situation. It may be a small country where agriculture and food sectors hardly contribute to less than 10% of the work force and food exports are not that significant. Still the government there encourages industry to upgrade the skill of their working personnel through attractive incentives, spending public funds. "In a bid to make Irish food more attractive to export markets, the Irish Food Board, Bord Bia, is working with the neighbouring Smurfit business school at University College Dublin to develop 25 young graduates to help in the cause. The scheme represents an investment of around $1m by Bord Bia"

In India also, there is an urgent need to create an organic linkage between the industry and the Universities on a much larger scale than what is happening at present. NIFTEM, the much touted food technology and management institute under 100% government control at Kundli, Haryana cannot the model as it is going to be neither effective nor viable as experiene would reveal in the course of time. It is imperative that the large technical base created in hundred and odd universities in the country is fully exploited by linking their academic and research activities to industry needs, in stead of allowing them to waste national resources by unfocused R & D on purely academic and irrelevant areas.


Friday, August 21, 2009


Geothermal energy is increasingly being considered as a viable alternate energy option to fossil fuels as the core of the earth has unlimited heat that is only to be tapped through appropriate technology. Though theoretically it sounds great, the logistical problem in reaching at such depths is a major practical constraint. Many believe that going to a depth of more than 3 km below earth's surface may trigger earth quakes causing unpredictable consequences, especially if the drilling is done in earth quake prone areas.

According to news reports"the Obama administration's first major test of geothermal energy as a significant alternative to fossil fuels has fallen seriously behind schedule, several federal scientists said this week, even as the project is under review because of the earthquakes it could generate in Northern California".

Since success in this area is crucial for the US to come out the vice-like grip the imported fossil fuels have on the country, one can naturally understand the anxiety about the slow pace of the geothermal energy project. There are grave apprehensions whether the current technology is capable enough to drill 12000 ft through the rock terrain to tap the energy associated with hot bed of rocks. World will be watching with interest the progress of this experiment success of which can change the face of human civilization for better.


CO2 is a much reviled gas because of its green house effect and consequent contribution to global warming or 'climate change' as some like to put it. However its effect on quality of crops is not so very well understood. During the beginning of this millennium some scientists did predict that rising levels of this gas in the atmosphere will reduce the nutritive value of staple crops like wheat significantly. More alarming is the finding that high levels of CO2 increases the cyanide content in the root crop cassava besides making plants like eucalyptus produce more terpenes in the atmosphere, considered undesirable. The new findings reported in Germany confirm how CO2 can reduce the nutritive value of wheat when grown in open fields in an environment containing CO2 at levels anticipated to be reached by the year 2050.

According to the group which organized the studies "the discovery that staple crops like wheat have less protein when grown in high concentrations of CO2 has already caused concern, but the bad news doesn't stop there. Ramping up CO2 also changes the balance of amino acids and several trace elements."

The 8% drop in protein may not be that alarming but reducing the concentration of essential amino acids can have significant adverse impact, especially for small children. Reduction of iron content is also some thing to be worried about considering the wide spread prevalence of anemia in many parts of the world. The14% reduction in Cadmium, one of the heavy metals, is a positive news and this area calls for more extensive multi country investigations by WHO to bring out other adverse consequences of rising CO2 levels caused by industrial activity and uncontrolled deforestation, on the food supply chain..


Water is a critical input for all industries including food processing and any economizing measure, if not properly thought of, can be disastrous. Generally there is a belief amongst food technologists and hygienists that more the water used better will be the efficiency of processing, especially in warding of microbial hazards. If water is available plenty the need for economizing on its use may not be of that urgency but increased energy cost and global water shortage mandate the processors to conserve water as much as possible. The development of the specially designed spray nozzle as reported below can be a boon to the industry.

"The Kwik Clean 3 is a high-pressure, high-efficiency, pre-rinse nozzle for use in the restaurant, hospital, university and water utility industries, as well as in mortuaries, pet stores, groceries and supermarkets. It minimizes water consumption and sewage charges, as well as the cost to heat water".

Reported development of a rinsing system for lye peeling operations in the use, is claimed to cut down water use by as much as 80% and such technologies hold promise for future. Continuous efforts in achieving water economy are unavoidable considering the diminishing water resources of usable quality in the world.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Wastage of food in advanced countries at the house hold as well as the market levels is known to be phenomenal. One estimate puts the waste equivalent to that which can feed the entire hungry people in this planet. How far these claims are true cannot be judged in absence of accurate data. The wastage in the house holds is a matter of serious concern because cutting down on such wastes is possible only on a voluntary basis. But enormous waste that takes place at the whole sale and retail levels can be saved if proper organizational infrastructure is established to collect, preserve and distribute to those who are hungry due to economic reasons. Food banks in some states of Australia are setting an example as to how wastes can be put to better use by collecting and distributing them to the poor people.

According to a recent report "Foodbank in Australia is a not-for-profit, non-denominational organization that seeks and distributes food and grocery industry donations to welfare agencies which feed the hungry"

Food bank concept originated in the US and the first one started in Phoenix, Arizona in 1967. America's Second Harvest, by far, is the most visible food bank net work with over 200 units across the country. Food banks also operate to a smaller extent in Canada and Europe. They are most effective during natural calamities and other situations where large number of people are to be fed with hot and nurturing foods. Considered as food pantries for people under welfare programs, food banks have set an admirable example of making waste and surplus foods reach those who need them.



Reams of papers have come out on the possibility of extending the life of human beings for a few more years than what is fated, though many believe that their life span is decided the day they were born. Even amongst the scientific community there is serious reservation on the feasibility of significantly increasing the life span, in spite of supportive evidence coming from studies with small experimental animals. As long as these findings are not confirmed through human studies, skeptics will always dominate the discussion on this subject. The fact that clinical studies are now going on to get an affirmative answer, gives hope for future generations. Look at the report below.

"People find it almost impossible to maintain such a diet, so this recipe for longevity remained a scientific curiosity for many decades. Then came the discovery of the single gene changes, many of which are involved in the body's regulation of growth, energy metabolism and reproduction. The single gene changes thus seem to be pointing to the same biochemical pathways through which caloric restriction extends life span".

Since the calorie restriction approach is unlikely to be accepted due to the practical difficulties, drug route may eventually succeed in man's quest for eternity. If successful, the faith of many scientists in the ability of human body to preserve itself through internal resources may be justified. However use of chemicals to prolong life may be beset with other consequences about which we have to be weary.



Genetically modified (GM) crops are being touted as the future hope for meeting the food needs of the ever expanding world population in the years to come. In spite of the massive adoption of GM crops in USA, there are grave reservations regarding the safety of these 'unnatural' crops as far as the common man is concerned. If there is a unanimity regarding the absolute safety of GM crops it would have become universally accepted by many countries without any reservation. The issue becomes muddier when it is pointed out that GM crops are input intensive and most of them do not give significantly increased levels of yield, the major emphasis being protection against infestation. The two major players who enjoy practically monopoly in seed business vis-à-vis GM crops are fighting fiercely to gain upper hand in this area.

According to media reports, "DuPont is accusing Monsanto of illegal anti-competitive practices, while Monsanto counters that DuPont is engaging in a covert smear campaign that borders on fraud".

It is confusing for an ordinary person regarding the issue on which these corporate giants are fighting except that it has some thing to do with exploiting the hunger pangs experienced by millions of poor people spread across the five continents for self aggrandizement. Is it not a tragedy that practically the entire research and development activities are confined to private players who any how cannot be expected to be existing for charity? Past mistakes in not investing public funds in R & D under public agencies on GM crops, with more emphasis on food crops and increased yields, are going to haunt the humanity for decades to come.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The economic down turn that began last year is making things happen that would not have been considered possible during normal times. There are millions of prisoners convicted for minor as well as major offenses spending a few months to many years in the jail in many countries across the world. In the US these people are being deployed for increasing the food availability for public food distribution programs. The Food Stamp program in that country has jumped to more than 35 million during the current year from 29 million in the last year. The attempt to gainfully utilize them for food program is worth watching and how the logistics will work out remains to be seen.

According to a recent news report "several states are sending inmates into already harvested fields to scavenge millions of pounds of leftover potatoes, berries and other crops that otherwise would go to waste. Others are using prisoners to plant and harvest vegetables".

The concept of prisons with no walls has been an attractive option as many human rights experts feel such restraints are demeaning as far as human beings are concerned but very few such prisons were found to be successful in the long run. It is not clear how far the economics of production can be viable since the cost of supervision and guarding against their escape can be substantial. Some experiments of this nature in the past have been disappointing and such projects are being wound up as impractical. China is known to be using its prisoners for many productive work and there has been muted criticism regarding its moral and ethical implications.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


World over consumption of medicines for controlling or managing blood sugar levels within the desirable limits is rampant though this practice was questioned by many experts who had doubts regarding the advisability of such an approach. Unnecessary consumption of medicines or any thing that is not natural can cause many problems including fatality. True, diabetes is a top but slow killer and adversely affects the quality of life if the sugar level in the blood is not kept under control. It is appalling to see a report emanating from the US where, due to an apparent nexus between the drug industry and some experts, in 2005, recommended aggressive control measures which could be achieved using approved hypoglycemic medicines. Fortunately, realizing the dangers inherent in such measures these recommendations have been rescinded. The quote below reflects the current situation:

"Last year, a national guideline-setting group abruptly withdrew a controversial diabetes standard it adopted in 2006 that called for aggressive control of blood sugar, or glucose. The change came after a large federal study indicated that lowering glucose too quickly or too much in some patients could harm or even kill them".

While "better late than never" can be a consolation, larger question that emerges from the above experience which caused many deaths during the last 3 years due to sudden drop in blood sugar, is the integrity of scientists and physicians in colluding with an industry to promote some products with questionable benefit. Blood sugar level can easily be controlled in normal and near normal persons with a little bit of resolve through diet management without needing any drug. One can only hope that the present paranoia with cholesterol which has spawned the multi billion dollar statin industry promoting aggressive control of cholesterol, will also come under the scanner.



The new Railway Minister in GOI seems to be bent on 'nationalizing' food service to the traveling public who has no choice but to use trains for mobility within the country. According to her quality of food served is low because private caterers are not caring enough for the passengers and she seems to have conviction that in-house catering could do a much better job. Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Development Corporation, under the Railway Board is already involved in catering while departmental catering is also provides same service in some trains. If one goes by the experience of the past, there is nothing to cheer about the prospects of better service through in-house catering. The latest decision by IR to give priority to food quality implies that quality was never considered important in the past! The report below can only mean that:

'In a bid to improve the quality of food served on trains, the Indian railways has decided to give priority to the food quality checking drive and as such the new additional responsibility was given to the chief commercial managers of various zones".

How outlandish the report is may be gauged from the assertion that no less than the Chief Commercial Manager of the concerned Railway Zone himself would attend to complaints from the passengers! To add insult to injury, only private caterers would come under surveillance and in-house catered foods can be of any quality with no one being held responsible! It is sad that we never learn from our past failures and short span of human memory allows leaders like the present minister to indulge in such impractical and impulsive decisions. The theory, as being propounded by IR that private caterers do not bother about quality and are obsessed with profits, is pregnant with lot of ramifications. Probably if one goes by such a philosophy, GOI will have to step into every venture in the country under the pretext of safeguarding the common man!


There are lot of misconceptions regarding the nutritional and health benefits one can derive by consuming different foods. Current practice of nutritional labeling does not indicate the quality of the nutrients present but declare quantitative figures for some nutrients/constituents like calories, protein, fat including trans fats and unsaturated fats, dietary fiber, carbohydrates including sugar, sodium etc. Consumer is at a loss regarding the significance of these figures and cannot correlate them to real health benefits or hazards. The new tool, Nutritional Rich Foods (NRF) Index, being proposed based on prevalent information on good eating will hopefully help the consumers to exercise their choice knowingly.

"Developed by two doctors, Drs. Adam Drewnowski and Victor Fulgoni, the Nutrient Rich Foods (NRF) Index is a validated, objective, and consumer-driven guide that ranks foods according to how nutrient-rich they are. Using the USDA Healthy Eating Index as a base, this new NRF Index takes into account all of the nutrients a given food contains, not just the ones to avoid or limit, like fat, sodium or sugar grams".

NRF takes into consideration the levels of some 'positive'' like proteins and factors presence of negative nutrient concentrations like that of sugar, fat etc to arrive at a number; higher the number better should be the foods. How far industry will accept such a nutritional profiling method for printing on the label or whether the Index can get necessary approval from the concerned authorities remains to be seen. Consumer will certainly welcome such a transparent window to look at the contents of a pack from nutritional angle.



It is well known that white sugar is one of the major culprits in causing many health disorders faced by mankind to day. Sugar is the chief ingredient in almost al sweet tasting processed foods and contributes bulk of the calories in the every day diet. There is a belief supported by innumerable studies that to day's health problems cannot be solved through any fancy health care system but are manageable by adopting sound eating practices and balanced diet. If any government is trying to discourage consumption of a product because of health reasons, through taxation policy, that deserves support. But look at the way the industry, supposed to be caring for the well being of the consumer, is reacting to the proposal from the US Government to make soda waters or fizz drinks costlier so that less is consumed.

"Industry groups are fighting a soft-drink tax proposal that is not part of any pending health care measure. Still, they're taking no chances. The American Beverage Association has begun a $2 million ad campaign to oppose a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, depicting it as a tax on simple pleasures."

If tobacco is taxed heavily because of its injurious effect, why not high sugar foods too? In fact even high fat products also must be included in this category of foods that can cause health problems. Industry, instead of campaigning against the proposal must self-discipline itself by modifying their products by using natural fruit juices in place of sugar to sweeten the fizz drinks.


Monday, August 17, 2009


Those with sugar compromised disorders like diabetes depend on sugar substitutes for sweetening their foods which include saccharine, aspartame, sucralose, stevia glycosides etc. The safety of these substitutes on a long term consumption basis has always been an issue on which there has never been any unity. Though their consumption has been approved in many countries with maximum permitted levels being fixed, consumers are never at ease because of frequent stray reports of scary nature. A recent report from Italy as quoted below, may help to some extent, to allay such fears.

"Regular intakes of artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame do not increase the risk of certain cancers, like stomach and pancreatic, suggests a new study from Italy".

Aspartame has established itself as the second most frequently used sweeteners after saccharine and is being challenged by other synthetic sweeteners being developed and promoted. Its alleged link to cancer by some reports does affect its acceptability to some extent. The study above probably will put to rest such doubts regarding its safety. In many processed foods Aspartame is the preferred choice because of its stability and sweetness intensity. Global market for this sweetener currently is estimated at $1.83 billion


Food materials being perishable with finite shelf life require intensive marketing efforts to dispose off them from the shelves in minimum time. Modern marketing strategy involves almost saturated advertisements through various means to reach the consumer highlighting the USP features including the price advantages. Selling schemes like BOGOF offer the consumer the choice of "buy one, get one free"(BOGOF) that effectively boils down to getting the product at half the labeled price. Realizing that people are buying more than what they can eat, the government in UK is advising the retailers to reduce their price by 50% to avoid unnecessary wastage of valuable foods as is being reported below:

"The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is asking supermarkets to offer half price deals on these products rather than BOGOFS, as part of tough targets on reducing food waste, reported Advertising Age".

According to the above report British consumers waste food, about 6.7 million tons (mt) annually, valued at 10 billion pound sterling out of which 4.1 mt could still be eaten. This amounts to a wastage rate of 420 pound sterling worth of food per house hold. Phenomenal wastage of foods in western countries is a well known phenomenon reflecting the wealth and affluence amongst their population and one report even claims that the food thrown away by them can feed all the hungry people on this planet.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


National governments world over have policies that aim at protecting the health of their populations through enrichment and/or fortification with nutrients which could be depleted during processing operations by the industry for delivering consumer friendly products. In some countries it is difficult for the industry to add back the nutrients lost during processing because of stringent regulations that bar such additions. Canadian government mandates the food industry there to enrich products like cereal flours and not doing it is punishable by law. The intention of the move is clear as can be seen by the report below:

"The federal government, concerned that Canadian consumers are increasingly buying products without sufficient nutrients, has issued a warning to the food industry that it must stop illegally selling imports made with unenriched flour".

Here is an example of a responsible government that is diligent in protecting the health of its citizens through policy intervention measures. Whether enrichment is desirable in all situations is another issue. In a country like India, since the food industry has not developed to replace natural foods in the diets of the population, enrichment is not considered necessary except in some cases like iodine in salt. In products like wheat flour most consumers prefer whole wheat flour where nutritional depletion is practically nil. Probably enrichment practices may take root once there is a more significant shift from natural foods to processed foods



In to day's world where more than one billion humans are affected by hunger and malnutrition, some dogs seem to be enjoying designer foods using premium food ingredients with assured nutrition and high health attributes. The claims by the manufacturer regarding the USP of the food offered can be mouth watering even to an ordinary consumer as can be seen below:

"Canine Caviar Dog Foods are nutritionally balanced, premium dog food designed to provide top-of-the-line foods for all breeds and needs of dogs. Canine Caviar is an industry-leader in allergen-free, naturally preserved dog foods, treats, and supplements. Canine Caviar's holistic formulas are designed to boost the dog's body's ability to protect and repair itself for the life of your pet. This premium line of dog food contains no corn, wheat, or soy and uses human-quality meats and grains to give your dog the best nutrition possible with no by-products, antibiotics, or hormones for full dog health, including energy and dental support".

The larger issue is whether meat foods, raised with high grain inputs, should be diverted to pet food industry when human beings are deprived of the same due to many reasons. The diversion of food to biofuels is already causing spurts in prices in many parts of the world making food beyond the reach of low income populations and if such trends are continued large scale starvation in many parts of the world can affect the lives of people even in well to do countries due to threat of turmoil and violence.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Radio Frequency Identification Tags (RFID) are increasingly being considered for many applications and may eventually replace the bar code system which is currently popular in retailing business. Generally RFID tags have two parts, an integrated circuit for storing and providing information and an antenna for receiving transmitted signals. There are active RFID tags, passive version and battery assisted passive system. It has been found to be greatly relevant in supply chain management and to improve inventory tracking program by business enterprises. Wide spread use is constrained by the cost of manufacturing these tags using the presently available technology.

New developments in USA are pointing to the possibility of RFID tags emerging as a low cost tool for packing large quantum of information and making them consumer friendly. Using silicon based inks RFID tags can be printed on many surfaces like food cans, textiles and a range of surfaces and such tags will have same sort of memory and logic capabilities that are in microchips etched into silicon the traditional way. Information about food products including the age, nutritional content, health attributes, presence of allergens and many information can be stored and cell phones programmed suitably can read such tags to access the information. The California based start-up venture Kovio which is about to launch the printed RFID tag products soon has following to say about their product.

It could open up a huge market for the "printed semiconductors," which would contain an enormous amount of data but would be cheap enough to slap on thousands of products. Imagine going to the grocery store and being able to find out what wine works best with your favorite chicken recipe.

One can only hope that the new development will translate into commercial production bringing down the cost significantly affordable to the food industry and eventually make the consumer wiser in selecting right products suiting his specific needs.


Food industry basically involves buying raw materials of required quality and value addition through processing for selling the product to the consumer. Honesty is the corner stone for both the buying and selling operations and confidence of the consumer can be retained only if the industry ensures their managers do not indulge in corrupt practices. Compromising on the quality of raw material purchased, for the sake of personal benefit of the purchase managers, can compromise the quality and safety of the consumer. Similarly selling malpractices at personnel level can cause significant financial damage to the company. It is rarely that corruption within the industry becomes a public issue. look at the following news report;

A federal judge handed down the first prison term Tuesday for one of several former food-industry insiders
who engaged in corruption in the U.S. processed tomato industry.

It is commendable that the US Food Industry sets such an example for others across the world instead of hushing it up as is the normal practice.

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Between 2006 and 2008, the prices of commodities like wheat and soybean trebled causing deep dents in the purchasing power of consumers who have been used to cheap foods manufactured by the food industry. The global recession has much to do with dramatic changes and it is unlikely that the prices will go down in future due to supply side constraints. Consumers looking for foods with reduced prices seem to be shifting their allegiance away from the branded products to generic foods offered by small processors because of cost considerations. According to industry sources, consumers are finding it difficult to kick the habits of purchasing low cost foods and organized food industry may have to strive hard to recapture these consumers and their perception is reflected in the following report:

"What consumers really want, though, is to pay less and, unfortunately, sustainability doesn't come cheap. Producing stuff badly is cheaper than producing it well," says Andrew Mitchell, chair of the Forest Footprint Disclosure Project, an initiative designed to force companies to recognise the true cost of agricultural production. "There is no doubt that we are getting food on the cheap," he said".

The tendency to blame countries like India, China and others for the price rise cannot be justified while ignoring the conspicuous consumption habits nurtured in developed countries over the years. Probably the amongst the industry captains in industrialized countries is reflected by their uncalled for comments that high protein diets being consumed by the population in some of the emerging countries is responsible for the steep price in food commodities in their countries which amounts to condemning these populations for their aspirations for a better quality and more safer foods. Probably what is needed is an introspection for taking corrective measures to set right many distortions in the economy of their own country.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009


For the last two decades vending of prepare4d foods on the foot paths of urban areas has been receiving attention from state, central and international agencies, probably on humanitarian considerations, in spite of the risks for spread of food borne diseases because of the unsatisfactory hygienic conditions prevailing in such joints. Recently no less a person than Mr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the country chose to express his views on the subject.

The prime minister urged the states to devise norms for "suitable spatial planning for reservation of space for street vendors in accordance with their current population and projected growth." Singh also said the states should ensure proper demarcation of "restriction-free vending zones, restricted vending zones, no-vending zones and mobile vending areas in every city and town, taking into account the natural propensity of street vendors to locate in certain places at certain times."

While humane considerations are noble and compassionate, a larger issue is whether country's infrastructure can be allowed to be defaced by regularizing such intrusions that affects the health and well being of the citizens? Government must plan for creating food vending complexes to rehabilitate such entrepreneurs with necessary paraphernalia for ensuring safety of the people who patronize these eateries.