Friday, December 31, 2010


Probably the whole world could be laughing at the Onion "circus" being orchestrated from New Delhi but the hapless Indian citizen can neither laugh nor cry experiencing the sky rocketing retail prices of the great vegetable onion during the month of December this year. Cannot laugh because the pain is too much for buying this daily need of this essential vegetable and cannot cry because there is no tear jerking onion that is purchasable with their income even to shed a couple of tears! Is it not a pity that the whole political class is carrying out a charade passing on the buck for causing this avoidable agony to the citizens. A callous food minister blamed the rains, another minister accused the traders for hoarding and the traders felt that farmers were responsible for the chaos. The symbolic gestures of banning exports for a few days, after ignoring the brewing troubles on the onion front and abolishing import levy of about 10%, were too little and too late. Probably if such a callous mismanagement happened in China, imagine what would have been the fate of those responsible for this suffering to the citizens!

"Onion prices in the country fell more than 30 per cent after the government banned exports to rein in the cost of the vegetable. Prices had more than doubled in the past week due to a shortage caused by unusually heavy rain in growing areas. Discontent about food price inflation is another headache for the UPA government struggling with a slew of corruption allegations and an emboldened opposition. The agriculture ministry on Monday banned exports until Jan 15, and will import onions from Pakistan, as retail prices jumped to 80 rupees ($1.77) per kg from 35 rupees per kg last week, media reported. "The situation will be normal in two to three weeks. Onion prices rose because of rains in Nasik and other onion growing areas," agriculture minister Sharad Pawar told reporters on Tuesday. "The ban on onion exports should help reduce the prices." Average onion prices at the country's largest wholesale onion trading hub in Lasalgaon, in western Maharashtra state, fell 34 per cent after the ban to 2,500 rupees per 100 kg. "Restrictions on exports today pulled down prices in the wholesale market. They will fall further in the next few days in the wholesale and retail markets," RP Gupta, director at the National Horticultural Research and Development Foundation (NHRDF), said".

Consumer must consider himself lucky that he is not being blamed for eating too much onion and spared the "disgusting" advice from the ruling elite to sacrifice by cutting down daily onion consumption drastically as a part of his patriotic duty! A Governor of a Southern State had the gumption to publicly exclaim as to why the consumers are so exercised about a few rupees increase in onion prices, conveniently ignoring the fact that the retail cost increased more than 300% in several areas in the country! The least one could expect from the "cool" Prime Minister of the country is to banish the minister in charge of food portfolio, who has been a spectacular failure, from any responsible position with influence on the daily lives of the citizens.


Thursday, December 30, 2010


A report some time back implicated uncontrolled pollution of Thames River in the UK with birth control pills, for the fish to change their sex with females predominating over males! It is known that estrogens present in water can be endocrine disruptors causing fertility problems and other adverse health effects. While well protected water supply systems are supposed to be free from such contaminants, most of the population exposed to untreated or semi-processed water are in danger of consuming significant levels of estrogens and other endocrine disruptor that can have undesirable health implications. Recent studies, though some what limited in its scope, have highlighted this problem more succinctly. It is scary to imagine that improper sewage treatment and stable nature of the estrogen contaminant can affect the fertility in human beings. This is especially true in many developing countries where open defecation is so common and natural streams and rivers are exposed to contamination from human waste. Unfortunately no worth while study has been carried out in this area so far in these countries.

"Amber Wise, Kacie O'Brien and Tracey Woodruff note ongoing concern about possible links between chronic exposure to estrogens in the water supply and fertility problems and other adverse human health effects. Almost 12 million women of reproductive age in the United States take the pill, and their urine contains the hormone. Hence, the belief that oral contraceptives are the major source of estrogen in lakes, rivers, and streams. Knowing that sewage treatment plants remove virtually all of the main estrogen -- 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2) -- in oral contraceptives, the scientists decided to pin down the main sources of estrogens in water supplies. Their analysis found that EE2 has a lower predicted concentration in U.S. drinking water than natural estrogens from soy and dairy products and animal waste used untreated as a farm fertilizer. And that all humans, (men, women and children, and especially pregnant women) excrete hormones in their urine, not just women taking the pill. Some research cited in the report suggests that animal manure accounts for 90 percent of estrogens in the environment. Other research estimates that if just 1 percent of the estrogens in livestock waste reached waterways, it would comprise 15 percent of the estrogens in the world's water supply".

it is time that a concerted effort is made to assess the situation vis-à-vis the extent of presence of estrogens in public water bodies in countries like India. Naturally one assumes that exposure to natural elements and action of soil organisms would have broken down these harmful substances before reaching the water bodies. In a lighter vein one may ask why the fertility rate is so high in most developing countries if the water consumed by the population has high levels of anti-fertility estrogens originating from human and animal wastes? Similary has any one estimated the presence of estrogen like substances in organically grown produce materials as natural fertilizers are used for raising the crops? Probably these issues need some clarification through further scientific efforts.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The poor High Fructose Corn Syrup! Commonly known as HFCS it is a hexose sugar just like glucose but it is perceived to be metabolized slower than the latter. It is also a normal metabolite in the body with all necessary enzymes present in humans to push it all the way to CO2 while generating energy. But there is a growing controversy regarding its alleged role in accumulating fat around the waist and many consumers seem to be convinced by this argument though not absolutely supported by much scientific evidence. That the processing industry has adopted it as the most economical sweetener in most of the packed food products has made the matter worse. Sustained campaigns by many activist organizations against use of HFCS seem to be affecting the business of the industry in a significant way and a trend is slowly emerging wherein many industrial players are either reducing its use already or contemplating doing so progressively to protect their business.

"First it was calories, then it was fat and sodium. Now, the latest health concern is high-fructose corn syrup. As the country deals with obesity issues, ingredients in food have come under increasing scrutiny, bringing some confusion to the marketplace but also opportunities for companies as they try to differentiate themselves in a competitive grocery store. Consumer concern has been getting a quick response from food companies, as many remove high-fructose corn syrup from well-known products, replacing it with cane or beet sugar. Sara Lee Corp. is the latest to jump on board, removing the sweetener from its two best-selling breads. Among the big-name products that already have undergone recipe overhauls are Hunt's ketchup, Gatorade, and everything in Starbucks' pastry case. High-fructose corn syrup, the widely used and historically inexpensive sweetener, has been getting a critical look from food scientists and many American families, due at least in part to books, movies, and studies looking at why Americans continue to gain weight. First lady Michelle Obama has said that she won't feed her daughters products containing the ingredient. Many medical and nutritional experts, as well as the Corn Refiners Association, say that all sweeteners are metabolized in the same way. A Princeton University study, on the other hand, has found that long-term consumption of high-fructose corn syrup does lead to abnormal increases in body fat, especially around the belly. Books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma have added to the debate, asserting that widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup is part of what's wrong with the American diet. And movies such as Food, Inc. have heightened many consumers' skepticism".

What is the truth? Logically HFCS has to get metabolized like glucose and a naturally occurring fructose containing product cannot have any undesirable effect on human body. How ever one of the critical questions raised in this controversy is whether HFCS can be considered as a normal fructose source as it is a product derived from corn by hydrolysis and isomerization reaction to increase the fructose content using industrial enzymes. In contrast sucrose contains glucose and fructose in equal concentration to which human body is accustomed. Whether high concentration of fructose impairs the normal carbohydrate metabolism in the body is not precisely known. The situation is similar to bis-phenol A (BPA) controversy now being faced by the packaging industry and may countries are rushing to ban this artifact chemical supposed to be leached into the food from the package causing some harm to the consumers. Though there is no conclusive proof that BPA really poses any hazard at levels it occurs in processed and packed foods, many industry players are voluntarily shunning the packaging materials with potential for contamination from this chemical. While as a general philosophy use of natural materials and consumption of natural foods are ideal, the modern society cannot live without processed foods and all such products are presumed to be put in the market after weighing the risk-benefit aspects while formulating.


Monday, December 27, 2010


Voluntary reduction of salt in processed foods by the industry without coercion by the government is a dream being pursued in many countries with practically no impact on the issue. That salt intake, if reduced significantly can help in cutting down of mortality due to health disorders like CVD and others is well known but the common citizens does not seem to have much control on the problem in countries where they depend more and more on processed foods. Industry is reluctant to cut the use of salt in many products because of serious apprehensions regarding the acceptability of these salt-reduced products in a fiercely competitive market. There are reports that in some countries voluntary efforts by the industry in reducing use of salt have yielded results, albeit at a slow pace but experts believe that only mandatory and restrictive policies can expedite the goal. Here is a typical case of the bead industry in Australia where voluntary salt reduction assurances were not effective.

"Although various targets had been outlined and it had been agreed by the industry by 2009, a recent research has shown that the level of salt in the nation's bread supply has not undergone any changes in the last four years. A study had been carried out by the Sydney-based George Institute for Global Health (GIGH) which showed that there had been some reduction in the salt levels of some of the bread makers while for some other products it had increased with the net effect of no change. "Less than half of the bread products on Australian supermarket shelves currently meet the sodium target (400mg/100g) established by the government's food and health dialogue", the reports said. Between the years 2007 and 2010, there has been no change in the average sodium levels in Australian bread products. This report also puts forth the names of the best and worst bakers on their effort to reduce salt".

It is not clear as to why bread industry is being accused of not reducing salt since a product like bread contains very little salt but more serious culprits are snacking and restaurant industries which are responsible for a large part of salt ingestion by the people. Also not clear is why the bread industry cannot reduce the salt levels because salt is not a significant ingredient that can influence the quality of the end product. While the bread industry can be forced to cut down drastically on the use of salt, what about the consumer who is likely to go for that ubiquitous "salt sprinkler" on the dining table to satisfy his taste buds? What can be done to persuade him not to consume too much salt in his every day cuisine? The only answer is "education" and unless a wider awareness about the dangers of too much salt in food is dinned into their ears, no worthwhile results can be expected in achieving universal goal of salt reduction.


Thursday, December 23, 2010


Research activities in the food area are invariably are confined to government funded institutions under the CSIR, DRDO and some universities. These institutions also undertake training programs for churning out technical personnel for the food industry. To add to the existing research infrastructure, GOI is reported to be building another food technology R & D and training institution, in spite of the proven inadequacy and irrelevance of the existing redundant set ups under its wings. How the Indian food industry is managing its technical and technological needs is another issue that is both intriguing and baffling. While most of the big players improvise their quality control facilities for developing new products, it is the small scale and micro enterprise sectors which are left with no choice but use their common sense in staying in business rather than depending on GOI research research outfits. Under such an environment it is some what a pleasant surprise to see the establishment of a high investment R & D center of international standards by one of the joint venture food companies in collaboration with the foreign partner. Though it is a captive set up, the opportunity provided for home grown food technologists for exposure to global quality research activities need to be acknowledged.

"FieldFresh Foods , joint venture of the Bharti Enterprises and Del Monte Pacific Ltd, on Tuesday inaugurated their Research & Development and manufacturing facility here at an investment of Rs 115 crore.
The facility is the first-of-its-kind in India with beverage and processed food production under the same roof with the band name Del Monte. "The inauguration of the new facility clearly heralds a new phase of development for brand Del Monte in the processed food and beverages category in India. This investment underlines FieldFresh Foods' commitment of delivering world class products of great quality and taste for the discerning Indian consumers and raising the standards of the industry", Bharti Enterprises Vice-Chairman and Managing Director Rakesh Bharti Mittal said in a statement here. "Going forward our vision is to make Del Monte as one of the top 10 brands in the processed food and beverage industry over the next few years," he added. The facility with an initial investment of Rs 115 crore is spread across 21.4 acres and would produce fruit drinks. Besides, the facility would also process fruit drinks at the rate of 300 cans and 200 'PET' bottles per minute and over four tonnes per hour of culinary products, it said".

It was some years ago that GOI offered tax incentives by way of weighted deductions for industries to set up in-house research facilities with the hope that it will strengthen the technical base of the processors and help to diversify the product portfolio for improving business. For unknown reasons this facility was discontinued and industry seems to be happy in importing technologies, often along with fully operational plants or employ foreign consultants to solve their technological problems. This is at best a short sighted policy and privatization of food research can have many advantages. Even the existing government R & D organizations can be considered for privatization with stakes being offered to the industry. There are many such models which are operating successfully in the EU and the the US which can be emulated in India too for the benefit of the low technology driven food industry in the country.


The Locavores movement which started in a small way in the US is becoming more and more popular day by day making the large retailers take note of its impact on their bottom line. This passion for fresh produce grown locally is based on the increasing awareness of consumers about the so called "harmful" effects of industrialized agriculture on their health. It is known that large scale production of foods in commercial farms involve use of fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs which could leave traces of chemicals on the produce with some possibility of harm to the health of the consumers in the long run. Besides the large carbon print left behind by the process of cooling, cold storage and low temperature transport and the chilled vending shelves in the super markets, seems to have persuaded the consumers to patronize locally grown produce offered through farmers' markets in their locality. Now that the local food lure has caught on in a big way, large retailers are jumping into the band wagon to corner a slice of the pie for their survival.

"The demand for fresh, local food is no myth. According to the most recent National Farmers Market Survey, released in 2005, farmers market sales topped $1 billion, and for more than 25 percent of vendors, all farm income came from farmers markets. The number of farmers markets across the U.S. has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2010, according to the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. Between 2009 and 2010 alone there was a 16 percent increase. Missouri is part of this trend with about 180 farmers markets around the state — up from 53 in 1997, according to records from the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Walmart's intention to double in-state food products in five years, announced in mid-October, shows the trend has not gone unnoticed . It's difficult to put a dollar amount on Walmart's plan; the company does not break out its produce sales. But the company's 2010 annual report said groceries accounted for 51 percent of total sales in the U.S. or $258 billion — about $20 billion more than Missouri's 2009 gross state product".

In India there is a "desi" version of farmers' market in many places popularly known as rural "shandies", assembled on some scheduled days in a week but these shandies serve mainly the rural folks living in a radius of 25-30 km. Besides fresh produce, they also sell other house hold goods at relatively low prices, having no over head costs. These markets are held in open dusty places with practically no facility for either the farmers or the buyers, being neglected for decades by the state governments. It is a pity that western countries are discovering the virtues of local farmers' markets now which were in existence, albeit in a crude form in India for decades. The difference is that Indians do it in the most disorderly way while American markets are well organized and managed. Farmers' markets also exist in many towns and cities across the country where local civic bodies provide selling facilities to the growers in centralized places and lately some of these markets have been upgraded with cold storage facilities for keeping the produce for a day or two at nominal costs. These city markets are fed by farmers from surrounding villages who do not have much of an insight into the correct way fresh produce has to be handled and invariably by the time they reach the market there is significant quality deterioration. Probably each state will have to focus on modernizing these markets as well as training the growers regarding scientific practices of handling the fresh produce to deliver them to the consumer in prime condition.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Food processing is ideally a balance between the need for preservation from spoilage and maintaining the sensory quality and nutrition of the food almost on par with their fresh counterparts. But in practice some compromise has to be struck wherein the eating quality may have to be compromised to some extent. Of the major process technologies, thermal processing using high temperature conditions is known to cause maximum damage to the end product, especially in terms of texture and some times flavor. Innovative developments in food technology are invariably targeted at evolving an ideal process that can accomplish preservation at ambient conditions and there are already a few such technologies like gamma radiation, use of chemical preservatives, etc which, of course have their own limitations when it comes to universal acceptance. It is in this context that the new innovation, recently reported involving use of non-thermal plasma for achieving food decontamination at low temperatures, has to be considered.

Gas plasma decontamination, produced by discharges at atmospheric pressure and low temperature, could make it a practical and inexpensive process for product preservation. Non-thermal plasmas can be generated by microwave, radio-frequency, pulsed and other power sources. Suitable systems that have been studied include the resistive barrier discharge (RBD), which can generate gas plasma at atmospheric conditions. Several mechanisms are thought to be responsible for microbial inactivation and depend on plasma characteristics and the type of microorganism. The electrical and chemical emissions of the plasma devices can be measured and used to calculate the electron number density of the plasma, while emission spectra can also be used to determine the rotational and vibrational temperatures of the plasma. Gas plasma could have potential for the decontamination of foods such as shell eggs that are difficult to sanitize by conventional methods, but further investigation is needed into the use of cold plasma in the food industry. A study by Ragni et al.1, describes the development and evaluation of a prototype RBD plasma device. The plasma glow was analysed by optical emission spectroscopy while the discharge was electrically characterized. The surface decontamination of shell eggs, experimentally inoculated with Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella typhimurium, was assessed over different decontamination times and gas conditions. The RBD device generated a low-temperature, after-glow gas mixture able to reduce the populations of both microorganisms on shell eggs. The plasma emission showed the presence of OH radicals, NO radicals and other reactive species involved in the microbial reduction. Treatment times of around 90 minutes were feasible for the poultry industry, with no significant negative effects on egg quality traits.

Though the development is in an early stage, the gas plasma technology for preservation may revolutionize the industrial processing of foods in the coming years, if it can be applied to many foods, especially those vulnerable to pathogenic infection. Limited studies on egg preservation offer some encouraging results and there is a long way to go before it becomes a reliable means of ensuring safety of perishable foods. One of the limitations could be the long exposure time required to achieve a satisfactory kill of pathogens which may make it difficult to make the process continuous. Also to be ensured is the safety of artifacts produced in the food, if any, during the process on human health.


Monday, December 20, 2010


Resorts are claimed to provide ideal environment to restore mental and physical health of people needing some relief from their stressed out life style. According to modern definition a resort is a center for "relaxation and recreation". Resorts attract visitors for holidays or on vacation and depending on the quality and range of services provided, it can offer facilities like food, drink, lodging, sports, entertainment and even shopping experience. With tourism becoming a big money spinner, there are well promoted resort towns and on-line promotion brings people from all over the world. A recent example of a successful brand creation of tourism comes from Kerala, which was able to create the iconic slogan " God's own Country", though it is ruled by atheists not believing in any God at all! Here is a small instance of an individual promoting a resort in Karnataka on a "healthy" food platform

"But Ambika also clarifies that by making the modifications, they are not depriving themselves or their bodies of anything. "We've not become social misfits… we're not militant about it." They do use ghee and butter, but not as a cooking medium. "And we use our own cow's milk to make sure it's stress and hormone-free milk." They use sesame seeds in salads so there's enough calcium, dates are used to provide iron content. Coconut milk is used instead of dairy milk where necessary. "We make butter out of almonds, cashew and peanut and consume them fresh." Their aim at the resort is to keep it all fresh and organic, "from the farm to the pot," says Ambika. And as wholesome as possible — they have said no to refined white sugar, white rice and maida. Whole grains, pulses, red rice, and jaggery rule; even the staff at the resort eats the same food served to guests. Koftas are steamed instead of fried. Samosas are baked and they bake their own multigrain bread. The kitchen runs on strict time schedule "so that everyone eats their meals on time; when you eat is also as important as what you eat," says Ambika. And that one ingredient that always sets food apart is the love we put into the cooking, insists Ambika. So she always has a chat with the boys who cook at the resort before entering the kitchen; she makes sure they're happy and singing while cooking".

How far this is an "inspired" promotion based on the real time experience of the journalist is a matter of conjecture. May be the set up is a genuine health food center but absence of any national standards to evaluate the credentials of such food oriented resorts make it difficult to believe what ever is dished out by journalists with little knowledge of food, nutrition, health and safety. It is fair to claim that it is using organic foods raised in its own farm but to talk about radical innovations and deviations from accepted scientific norms needs expert confirmation. Of course the traditional foods as encrypted in ancient Vedic literature are used extensively by many modern day health restoring centers though how far they conform to original system is not verifiable. There are hundreds of "weight shedding centers", spread all over the country but invariably within a short period of leaving these facilities, customers tend to regain the weight because of indisciplined eating. To claim that love is an important component of the food served in any commercial establishment, it requires extraordinary bend of mind to even think of it, let alone practice. If this logic is extended, home cooked foods, prepared lovingly by one's mother or wife must be the best and eating out practice should have disappeared long ago. Well meaning people may be trustworthy but whether their system is credible requires careful assessment.


For the last 5 decades systematic attempts were being made to target Palm oil and label it as unhealthy. Probably the fact that it is the most affordable edible oil in the world is working against this common man's oil and some of the Western countries with their large production base of Canola and Soybean Oil, have a vested interest in this diabolical plot as they find it difficult to face competition from oils coming from Asia like Palm oil and Coconut oil. Though both Palm oil and Coconut oil have been proved conclusively to be safe, the orchestrated charade against them continues unabated. It is unfortunate that a country like Australia with no stake in this controversy has got into the band wagon of Palm oil "haters".

"As per the prediction of a manager with one of the most popular food companies in Australia the food industry will gradually play a key role in phasing out palm oil just like the building industry phased out asbestos. Palm oil is frequently used in the production of snacks, frozen foods and bread spreads since it is a cheap alternative which is very high in saturated fat. It is also disguised as 'vegetable oil' by food companies on labels. Some prominent brands use this oil for their products like Nutella, Kraft peanut butter and chips by Smith's. This oil has recently become a controversial product which is being used in foods because of its high saturated fat content. The palm oil plantations also have several other harmful effects on the environment. The business manager of Dick Smith Foods, Paul Grundy said that his company is among those who have asked this ingredient to be removed from all the spreads after customers have expressed their concern about this ingredient. He said, "Asbestos was used in building materials 50 years ago and today it is not, because they [the manufacturers] recognized the hazards with it. The same happens in food products: ingredients change over time, based upon more a more enlightened view of the world."

It is the height of stupidity and sense of arrogance for a spokesperson of the Australian food industry to compare Palm oil with Asbestos which is banned because of its proven involvement in lung related ailments. What harm Palm oil has done to human beings for it to be compared with Asbestos? One has to only point out the enormous damage done by the Western originated "Hydrogenated Fats" which contained high levels Trans fats considered a major culprit in the rampaging incidences of heart disease being seen all over the world. What right do these antagonists of Palm oil have in condemning it with no scientific evidence? Another excuse to condemn Palm oil is that the producing countries in Asia are denuding the jungles for expanding its cultivation thus causing harm to the environment. Same applies to Brazil also which is cultivating sugar cane in thousands of acres of land after clearing Amazon forest and do the Western countries shun Sugar or Bio-ethanol exported by Brazil? Palm oil producers must counter such discriminatory practices by banning import of soy oil and Canola and products made there from originating in these countries as a "tit for tat" response to the irresponsible campaign against this "innocent" oil.


Friday, December 17, 2010


Information Technology has become so omnipotent that there is practically no field of human activity which is untouched by this powerful tool. In the food area use of electronics and advanced computing systems have made it easier to increase productivity, improve quality and safety of foods and improve management efficiency. The ultimate in electronics, the robots are likely to be normal fixtures in the production floor of many food processing companies in not too distant a future. Digital technology has enabled consumers to make informed choice of the foods they can buy and derive maximum benefits. Advances in mobile telephony are slated to empower the consumers to obtain important information about the products available on the super market shelves for comparison of various products and choose the best suiting to individual requirement vis-à-vis nutrition and health.

"The back story of a particular food item is valuable to consumers, too, for reasons such as managing health to being able to make moral or ethical judgments. As the Christian Science Monitor recently noted, "every gadget, piece of food, or article of clothing comes with a back story." There is already a growing movement to quantify data about the way we live - and eat. From web apps like Health Month (which enables you to set health goals and track them over a month, including dietary goals) to the self-explanatory TweetWhatYouEat. These apps will become much more sophisticated once food businesses give consumers data from the supply chain. The web site The Quantified Self, run by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, has more tips and tools for consumers who wish to track and manage the data about their lives. As a diabetic (type 1), I'm more careful than most people about what I eat. So I can't wait for the day when I'll be able to scan a food item with my smart phone and find out if it's a healthier option for me than a competing product. This is a huge opportunity for the food industry. Compete on the quality of the data you provide; and win. Let us know in the comments if you've spotted some early examples of food companies utilizing sensor or similar data".

Consumer of to day is much more worried about the safety of foods they buy and eat and digital technology is providing the required tools to monitor the history of supply chain of any product to get a feeling of confidence before buying them. It is a paradox that in spite of such powerful tools at the disposal of the industry and the consumer, there is a perceptible trend of the consumer shifting his loyalty to locally grown produce and locally made foods. While green house gas emission is certainly a factor, it may be more due to the inability of the organized commercial food producers to gain the confidence of the people because of the perception that industry does not care for consumer health, their focus being profitability "at any cost". Unless this issue is addressed no technology can come to the rescue of the industry.



Agriculture is receiving increased attention from climatologists because this sector has been found to be contributing substantially to green house gas emission which is responsible for significant warming up of the planet with its attendant adverse consequences to the world at large. Though every one agrees that there is an urgent need to cut down on emission, no unanimity seems to be emerging regarding the modus operandi to achieve the goal. While most of the developed nations do not want to sacrifice the comforts their citizens enjoy because of the liberal use of unsustainable fossil fuels, developing countries aspiring to catch up and achieve decent economic growth cannot be expected to commit to any drastic reduction in CO2 emission without condemning their people to a life of eternal misery. It is unlikely that there will be any agreement on this controversial but critical issue in the foreseeable future because of the wide divergence and perception amongst the countries as of now.

"An 80-nation conference on food security urged U.N. climate negotiators Friday to consider agriculture when drawing up strategies to fight climate change. The five-day meeting ended with a call to invest in new farming practices that will curb greenhouse gas emissions and will better use currently available land to feed a global population of 9 billion by 2050. About 30 percent of carbon emissions come from farming, livestock and forest destruction. Despite its huge share of global emissions, accounting for the use of land is one of the toughest issues under negotiation at U.N. climate talks, and the one which has made the least progress. The talks involve creating incentives for emission reductions by vast agricultural conglomerates and by farmers still using wooden plows on tiny plots. It also touches an industry that is heavily subsidized in many countries. Dutch Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker said funding for "climate smart" agriculture should be integrated into U.N.negotiations. Investment "in agricultural development has been declining in the last 10 years,"Bleker told reporters. "We want to change that." Negotiators reconvene in Cancun, Mexico, later this month, in the most important session since the summit last December in Copenhagen. That convention in Denmark fell short of any legally binding agreement to regulate the pollution blamed for global warming, concluding instead with a statement of principles. But the leaders in Copenhagen agreed to channel $10 billion a year to developing countries through 2012, and to raise $100 billion annually starting in 2020 to help poor countries curb their own emissions and to adapt to changing climate conditions. "Climate change negotiators are frequently not familiar with agriculture," said the World Bank's special envoy on climate change , Andrew Steer. "Nobody expects a global deal at Cancun, but there will surely be one before too long," and agriculture must be part of it, he told the conference earlier this week".

The recently concluded climate summit at Cancun, Mexico also ended up with lot of platitudes and sermons without any conclusions regarding who must do what! The commitment of $ 100 billion for helping the poor countries to achieve carbon reduction is at best a token though no one is clear as to the source of such a fund. It is amusing to hear that the wood fired hearth used by poor families in the third world are generating carbon particles which are responsible for destruction of ice cap and other climate changes! Next would probably the emaciated animals roaming around freely in countries like India generating Methane gas that is more potent than CO2 in global warming!. The moot question is whether the rich nations want the poor countries to remain poor till the end of the world? If so this planet will never be a peaceful place to live with a perpetual cycle of violence and unrest prevalent in many parts of the world..


Thursday, December 16, 2010


Though sugar is a much despised food and beverage ingredient being implicated in many health afflictions, there does not seem to be any let up in the demand for this commodity from users all over the world as reflected by the high prices prevailing in the global market. This is in spite of the fact that there has been a marked shift from white sugar to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in most of the processed foods in many developed countries because of price advantage. Probably demand pull is coming from the direct consumers such as families, candy makers, restaurant sector and others who do not accept HFCS as a sweetener. India is the major country that produces sugar from cane, its production being the largest in the world. But sugar "politics" can be intriguing as the stake holders like politicians, sugar cooperatives and large users can distort the picture with disastrous consequences. Though sugar is considered "unhealthy" GOI guarantees adequate supply to consumers through policy orchestrations that holds the industry on a tight leash. It was in 2009 GOI imposed ban on sugar export to prevent "unrest" amongst the people as there was considerable dip in the domestic production of sugar. Suddenly India finds itself saddled with surplus sugar this year and the export policy has been revisited with clearance for export of limited quantities on a "quota" basis. What impact it will have on global sugar prices remains to be seen.

"Sugar exports are set to begin next month with the government likely to expedite the processing of applications from sugar mills for release of about 5 lakh tonne of sugar for exports . It is likely that the release order for export of sugar under the open general license will be phased out over a period to ensure that substantial quantity of sugar does not get exported at one go. "We now expect to have enough leeway to accommodate all stakeholder obligations even as we allow industry to export to strengthen their finances," an official in the know said. Last week, food minister Sharad Pawar suddenly upped, for the first time, sugar estimates for this year by 1.5 million tonne to 25 million tonne, at par with industry estimates . Large exports from India could swiftly depress global sugar prices, frittering away the very advantage that the sugar mills and exporters from here hope to gain . This is the first time in nearly 15 years that the Indian sugar industry finds itself in a position of projected plenty even while the global market is experiencing supply tightness and firm prices. Raw sugar has risen to a 29-year high in New York on the apprehension that India may not allow too much exports. White, or refined, sugar for March delivery closed at $751.10 a tonne on NYSE Liffe in London by October end. The industry expects to produce nearly 25 million tonne of sugar this year and given the temptingly high prices outside, it is loathe to miss the chance to export and firm up its bottomline expeditiously".

Looking from another angle, India must feel happy that it can call shots in the world sugar market and as GOI wants to maximize the returns from exports, a "programmed" release of quota is being planned. There are already grumblings amongst sugar producers regarding the low quantum cleared for exports and it is unlikely that most of them will be benefited by this "liberalization" policy. The average price of sugar in the international
market is around Rs 32 per kg almost on par with the ruling domestic price. As such there may not be much benefit from exports though the country can earn some foreign exchange. The sugar policy of the GOI has never been based on realistic considerations and industry-friendly government invariably tries to maximize the returns to the sugar mills through control on its release into the market every month. It is a paradox that under the free market economy being promoted in the country, the sugar industry prefers a control regime to prevent any price crash that would benefit the consumers at large. There is an apprehension that sugar cane milling will become unprofitable if a free market is allowed to flourish because of depressed consumer prices.


It is the constant endeavor of food technologists to evolve processes that can be carried out at ambient conditions and the High Pressure Pasteurization technology now available to the industry for commercial level adoption offers such a clean process. Under high hydrostatic pressure contaminating microorganisms are susceptible to destruction while the quality of food remains unaltered. According to present information available, HPP process may revolutionize the food processing practices in the coming years though all foods cannot be subjected to this technology. One of the main advantages is that the products can be in-package sterilized, requiring no further exposure of the contents to the atmosphere that could cause re-contamination.

"High Pressure Pasteurization is an all-natural, environmentally friendly, cutting-edge technology that uses intense hydrostatic pressure to deactivate and destroy pathogenic bacteria and microbiological contaminant flora. An ideal solution for pre-packaged RTE products including meats, soups, wet salads, sauces, fruit smoothies, shellfish and seafood, Safe Pac's HPP process allows food manufacturers to offer safely packaged, minimally altered chemical-and-preservative-free goods to retailers, with minimal fear of recall due to bacterial contamination. According to Guy Giordano, President of Safe Pac Pasteurization, LLC, "By applying up to 87,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure per square inch to ready-to-eat food products in their final packaging, our HPP Process completely eradicates harmful bacteria, eliminating the need for chemicals and preservatives, without compromising the taste or texture of the treated products." Best with moist foods without internal air pockets, HPP places pre-packaged products in flexible containers (i.e. pouches, plastic bottles) into a high-pressure chamber, which is then flooded with cold water and pressurized for a short time period, usually 3-5 minutes. As pressure is applied uniformly around and throughout the product, reaching all parts of the product simultaneously, treated foods retain their original shape and texture. Unlike competitive heat-based processes, the quality of HPP processed foods is similar to fresh food products, because pressure has little to no effect on low molecular weight components such as color, flavor and vitamin content. Because it protects naturally, preserving foods with water pressure, HPP meets Organic standards, processing products without impacting their USDA Organic designation. "By denaturing the cells of food borne pathogens without using chemicals, we're setting a standard and sending a message," says Giordano. "At Safe Pac, we help customers reduce or eliminate preservatives, cut costs, and offer the all-natural and organic products today's consumers are looking for."

Though the processing cost is considered very low, the initial cost of investment on the equipment can be substantial. Besides only moist foods, not requiring the structural integrity to be maintained, are suitable candidates for this technology. Hydrostatic pressure to a limited extent is employed by the food industry for in-pack thermal sterilization using steam to attain sterilization temperatures in flexible pouches and there are hundreds of such products in the market readily accepted by the consumers. Most of the Indian culinary preparations are preserved for long-haul markets using the retort pouch technology. Probably these products may be suitable for processing using HPP technology.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Road side vending is often liked by many people because of the taste of foods served, their cost and open environment. But a major criticism against street foods or road side vending is the inadequate hygiene, unsatisfactory sanitary environment and indifferent quality and quantity of water available, making the foods some what unsafe on many occasions. Added to this, in countries like India where roads are never cleaned the polluted environment poses another threat to the health of the patrons who frequent such places. With basic facilities for hand washing, public toilets and other essential ingredients of an eatery absent, street foods can pose serious threat to the population in the long run. Many efforts in the past to institutionalize the street food vending system with a view to protect the livelihood of the entrepreneurs and modernize the food preparations and serving methods have not made any lasting impact on this micro enterprise sector in any meaningful way. Here is the story of such an effort in the city of Chandigarh which makes a sad reading!

"Launched with much fanfare by municipal corporation after taking inspiration from Lahore, the night-food street of Chandigarh has lost its sheen as majority of families prefer not to visit the place. Since most people going there have to wait for food, they prefer sitting inside their vehicles. They end up consuming liquor and smoking openly. Plenty of brawls and incidents of eve-teasing have also been reported from the area during night. All that has almost made the city lose. The taste for reasonably priced, hygienic food that the street was originally provided has also skyrocketed as compared to the beginning and even basic facilities are not available nearby".

Why not India learn a lesson from the Food Truck phenomenon in the US where there are thousands of mobile catering units, working successfully in different urban areas meeting the food needs of millions of people without any major complaints. Of course a truck can be expensive to procure but it has better mobility and more space for installing a functional kitchen with all mandatory requirements for a modern eatery. Some efforts in the past by well meaning people to put in efforts to modernize the push cart mode of food vending have not yielded the desired result. The food court model where vendors are provided with minimum facilities for cooking and serving are working satisfactorily in many Asian countries under the vigilance of local municipal health authorities but why the Chandigarh experiment is facing the problems as reported, must be critically examined. If the problems are successfully addressed, it can go a long way in benefiting the whole country through establishment of centralized food courts in hundreds of towns and cities where there are unorganized road side vendors doing brisk business under unsatisfactory conditions.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


The food industry in the US is gigantic measured by any yardstick and the safety of the products marketed by it is supposed to be overseen by the regulatory agency Food and Drug Administration.(FDA). Because of extraordinarily high consumer expectations about food safety and greater vulnerability of the American consumer to food contamination, even occasional and minor food related episodes create an impression that all is not well with the food industry there. On the contrary FDA has been doing its work reasonably well considering the relatively few incidences of food poisoning out of billions of dollars worth manufactured products in the food sector. The phenomenon of private party auditing resorted to by most manufacturers as a voluntary program for avoiding costly lapses in quality and safety, is deeply ingrained in the US system though there have been instances of abuse of confidence by some errant private auditors. Whether the recent criticism about the private audit system is serious cannot be confirmed unless supported by reliable statistics.

"Problems are rife within the quality control system of the U.S. food industry, which relies on private-sector auditors, industry experts say. Food retail executives and other experts say the voluntary system used by the country's $1 trillion food industry is plagued by conflicts of interest, inexperienced auditors and cursory inspections that produce inflated ratings, The Washington Post reported Friday. The use of private inspectors has increased as companies try to protect themselves from lawsuits and recalls that can damage their brand names. But the inspections don't necessarily mean safer products for consumers, experts say.

"It's a business strategy, not a public-health strategy," said David Acheson, former assistant commissioner for food protection at the Food and Drug Administration. Large chain stores and food producers, wanting assurances about the products they place on their shelves and the ingredients they use in making food, often require that their suppliers undergo regular inspections by independent auditors. This all takes place outside any government involvement. Industry experts say that while such inspections can be useful, a major problem is that auditors are typically paid by the companies they are inspecting, creating a conflict of interest for inspectors who might worry about losing business if they don't give high ratings".

The manpower cost in the US, being one of the highest in the world, employing full time technical personnel permanently in required number to monitor can be a costly proposition for the industry and hence dependence on private auditing system cannot avoided altogether. Besides, the private auditors with no Axe to grind can be expected to be more pragmatic and practical in assessing the processing environment and give a right perspective vis-à-vis safety related issues. If there were no private auditors, the task of FDA would have become unmanageable because of resource and personnel constraints. A few auditors becoming wayward cannot deflect the value of the entire system and more stringent performance standards may have to be evolved for their function.


Monday, December 13, 2010


With the white sugar becoming a villain in to day's health landscape, there is a constant endeavor to find alternate sweeteners that do not contribute to calories in formulated foods. Also there are millions of people suffering from diabetes and they are in need of a substitute to natural sugar that will not tax their insulin need. While there are many synthetic sugar substitutes like Saccharine, Aspartame, Acesulfamate, etc which are man-made, Stevia Glycosides isolated from the Stevia plant leaves stands out as a unique natural sweetener with zero food calories. Though the leaves of the plant were used for centuries in the South American continent, safety of the isolated and purified preparations has been an issue under consideration for quite some time in the past. Now that many countries and international agencies have found these products safe, there appears to be increasing interest from the food industry in using them in many preparations, especially the health foods. Probably sensing the huge business potential ahead, manufacturers are trying to bring some order into this unorganized industry through forming of associations with definite objectives.

Suppliers and stakeholders in the stevia industry are organising to maintain standards and pursue scientific enquiry into the use of stevia sweeteners. But two trade organisations have been announced this week, with very different membership criteria and ostensibly different aims.Stevia, a South American plant in the sunflower family, has atttracted massive interest in the last two years following FDA GRAS (generally recognised as safe) of high purity Reb A as a sweetener in the United States in late 2008. The European Food Safety Authority has published a positive safety opinion on extracts will a high purity of all steviol glycosides, and approval is expected from the European Commission in the first half of 2011. The formation of the International Stevia Council was announced yesterday, and is open to companies that process and/or manufacture and market stevia products in accordance with the JECFA purity specifications on steviol glycosides. Its main focus is on safety, quality and stakeholder understanding. Founding members are Cargill, Corn Products, GLG Life Tech, Granular, Morita Kagaku Kogyo, PureCircle, Sunwin, Sweet Green Fields, SweetLeaf Sweeteners, Verdure Sciences Europe and the Whole Earth Sweetener Company. It has its headquarters in Brussels and an office in Washington DC, USA. Meanwhile, the organising committee of Malta Strategic conferences has also announced the formation of a group to be called the World Stevia Organisation. Expected to be formally launched at the Stevia and Salt Reduction Conference in Malta at the end of this month, this organisation will be open to stakeholders throughout the entire supply chain, including agriculture, academia, manufacturing at all production stages, food and beverage companies, regulators, consumers, practitioners and media. The president and board will also be elected at the Malta conference.

Recent interest in China points to the possibility of using Stevia glycosides as a sugar extender where in natural sugar is blended with the Stevia sugar so that lesser sugar can provide the required sweetness. China produces one of the cheapest Stevia products, though its purity is not as high as that made elsewhere. Probably the International Stevia Council and World Stevia Organization will have to work on a common platform to evolve uniform standards and specifications and bring in Chinese producers also to prevent confusion regarding the quality of market products amongst the consumers.


Sunday, December 12, 2010


Healthy eating habits are inculcated at early stages of life before rigid attitudes develop amongst children towards various foods. Invariably the "toxic food environment" that confronts the children, especially the high pitch promotion of so called junk foods by the food industry containing too much of sugar, fat and salt, lures them with uncontrolled eating, eventually leading to obesity. True, the labeling information printed on each and every pack is supposed to guide the consumer regarding nutrition status of the contents on a per serving basis, but for majority of them it does not make much sense. Nutritionists and sociologists believe that if consumers are made to read the label more carefully and understand the significance of information contained therein, there is evidence to show that more healthy foods with high nutrient density are selected while shunning unbalanced and unhealthy ones. It is in this context that one has to appreciate the efforts of Canadian Government in allying with the food industry to enlighten the citizens there through a sustained campaign highlighting the significance of reading and understanding the food labels.

"By choosing food that is healthier for them, they'll be eating healthier, and of course if you're eating healthier, then of course you are going to have less problems with chronic disease down the line." The campaign is simple enough. It tells consumers to read the nutrition label and focus on foods with higher levels of nutrients they may want more of, such as fibre, calcium and vitamins A and C. It also warns consumers to avoid products that contain high levels of fat and sodium. "This initiative provides information to Canadians in a variety of ways to help them when choosing a food or deciding between products," said Nancy Croitoru, president of FCPC. "Using the per cent daily value is a quick way for consumers to know if a packaged food contains a little or a lot of a nutrient." The nutrition label campaign begins its rollout with messaging on consumer packaging, in magazines and online. Health Canada has set up a website to lead consumers through nutrition labels.In January, the campaign will move to television and social media".

Such campaigns are good in educating and persuading the consumers to go for foods containing high nutrients during their shopping trips but how far it will have a lasting impact is a matter of conjecture. A more appropriate course of action could be tackling this problem in the schools when the children are at impressionable age, capable of assimilation of the information more effectively that may lead to lasting habits. In a country like Canada where literacy is practically 100% it is easier to evolve school curriculum that will integrate learning about food and nutrition. In India most labels are printed in English while majority of the population cannot read or grasp the significance of label information. Probably GOI should consider pictorial presentation mode for targeting those who are English illiterates. Schools can also be a fertile ground for creating awareness about good foods and their nutritional superiority. .