Sunday, July 29, 2012


Modern day ocean waters have some strange company joining them uninvited and sure they do not make  the waters happier compared to what they were 100 years ago before the industrial revolution. to day's ocean waters have become so polluted that these natural water bodies are no more friendly to thousands of creatures which had made them their home for millions of years. The major culprit is a group of man made materials every body knows by that ubiquitous name Plastics. If environmentalist are to be believed millions of pieces of plastic materials in different sizes, colors and shapes find their way into the seas and oceans and there is very little that is being done to prevent this blatant destruction of natural environment and resources. Half way measures like banning plastics, a variety of recycling programs, development of sustainable plastics and financial and policy incentives are not touching even the fringe of the problem, let alone solving it. Isolated groups of people interested in doing some thing to stem this undesirable and dangerous trend have their own way to contribute to lessen the burden on the sea. Here is a critique on the tragedy of plastics.
"The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that over 46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile of ocean. Some researchers calculate that 4.7 million tons of plastic waste reaches the sea annually, swept from mundane terrestrial existence into swirling adventure via rivers and sewage drains, or dumped from ships.Toothbrushes, syringes, dentures, Lego blocks, lighters. These are just a few of the plastic players that frolic in the waves, catching a lift on oceanic currents to eventually find their way to the ever-growing plastic trash party known as theGreat Pacific Garbage Patch, the "plastic soup" of waste that now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States. But then there are the strays, the rebellious pens and bags and bottles that take a turn away from a future as marine detritus and instead find refuge on the sandy shore. Washed up like castaways, they bake in the sun and wait to return to the sea or some other unknown fate. Which is where Willis Elkins – artist, environmentalist, urban kayaker, documenter of debris, savior of trash – enters the picture. Like a Victorian collector of natural specimens, Elkins searches out and catalogues the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. His trash-scouting adventures and the fruits of his labor are chronicled at, where his logs and archaeological surveys of mostly ocean debris are kept – like the New York City Lighter Log, which follows 1900 disposable plastic cigarette lighters, collected, mapped, and photographed, from 47 different waterfront locations throughout the five boroughs of New York City."
Trash in any form is not a material that can be strewn around because of many predictable consequences arising out of possible decay and decomposition due to the action of sun, rain and wind. Plastics pose much more danger because they are practically indestructible for ages, average life being 800 years and the decomposition products of plastics are generally toxic to all living creatures on this planet. Most plastics leach out chemicals which often act as endocrine disruptors causing hormonal imbalances and consequent health impairment in many people. There are also reports that plastic pieces are increasingly being found inside the fish posing further dangers to humanity besides affecting the fish reproductive cycle. Unless the world wakes up to these dangers and takes serious steps to address this problem, the consequences of ignoring it may be too heavy for future generations.    


Whether it is really a scoop or was already known to many people, the so called expose by a whistle blower regarding some of the practices being indulged in by restaurants and fast food chains may yet persuade some consumers to cut down their frequency of eating out side. Recycling old foods is a practice followed by many restaurants due to economic considerations though there are countless others who are scrupulous in rejecting any old foods, not sold within a few hours after its preparation. Of course food spoilage might not be an issue in recycling prepared old foods but flavor and taste can be affected to some extent due to repeated exposure to heat during reformulating and preparing another product from the old one. The advanced refrigeration system and facilities available to day make it possible to keep foods for relatively longer periods without any major deterioration and there fore consumers should not have any worries about safety aspects. Nonetheless if restaurants claim that their preparations are made from fresh ingredients, they must avoid the temptation of recycling old foods which should be donated to the local Food Banks. After all to day's consumer attaches great value to freshness and the faith he reposes on the restaurant for transparency and fair play should not be violated  Here is a gist of the expose which made headline news recently.  

"While the way that Wendy's recycles overcooked hamburgers into the next day's vat of chili may be frugal, Cozmo23's description of it isn't exactly appetizing. (Though the rest of the thread, with riffs on British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's possible reaction? Awesome.)  It's not limited to Wendy's, either: Lethal_Lunacy77 reports that the Chick-Fil-A he worked at did something similar with their chicken salad, stripping old chicken patties of their breading before chopping them up and mixing in mayo. And fast-food places aren't the only ones that recycle, apparently. "Being a dishwasher in an Italian eatery, i am instructed to throw garlic bread that looks untouched after being put out on the customers table into a separate bin where they are taken from, then used in meatballs," writes Burkey217. "Years ago my older brother was a busboy at a local well-respected restaurant. He let me know that the uneaten dinner rolls that were brought to each table (in a basket w/ packages of butter) were saved and placed into new baskets to go out to guests later in the evening," Chef_Brokentoe adds". 

In India where there are millions of small restaurants, operating on a limited budget, recycling is a big temptation too good to be resisted. Since almost all foods are heated to high temperatures before consumption, here again danger from microbiological hazards, per se, is very remote. However there is one area of danger in foods offered in Indian restaurants which involves the quality of cooking oil used for preparing fried and roasted products. Deterioration of cooking oil when exposed to temperatures as high as 180-200C is an established fact and some of the artifacts generated during prolonged exposure to heat can pose health risks with serious short term and long term health consequences. Scientific advise that heated oil should not be reused is not taken seriously and no restaurant seems to be willing to discard the frying oil after a couple of use considering the high prevailing prices for edible oils in the market. Fortunately the predominant cooking medium happens to be Palm oil and Palmolein, both relatively stable fats compared to others. Why the recycling may not become a controversial issue is due to the market reality that restaurants indulging in such practices, offering foods with reduced quality due to recycling, will be in danger of being elbowed out of the market place over a period of time.


Saturday, July 28, 2012


Cholesterol is a dreaded word for many people because of its perceived association with atherosclerosis and heart attack.  Some people are aware of the differentiation between High Density Lipoproteins (HDL) and Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL). Lay man recognizes HDL as good cholesterol and LDL as its bad cousin, with the latter causing heart disease. Even many physicians advise their clients to work for increasing the HDL level as high as possible imagining that it can protect the heart. There are millions of dollars of investment riding on the above hypothesis to develop drugs that can boost HDL levels in the blood though no appreciable success has yet been achieved. Against such a background comes an earth shaking finding that a high HDL level need not be a guarantee against heart disease and those with high HDL inherited genetically cannot be considered as less prone to heart attack. Here is a take on this new revelation which seems to have turned the clock back regarding the current knowledge about the role of lipo proteins on human health.   

"Now, a new study that makes use of powerful databases of genetic information has found that raising HDL levels may not make any difference to heart disease risk. People who inherit genes that give them naturally higher HDL levels throughout life have no less heart disease than those who inherit genes that give them slightly lower levels. If HDL were protective, those with genes causing higher levels should have had less heart disease. Researchers not associated with the study, published online Wednesday in The Lancet, found the results compelling and disturbing. Companies are actively developing and testing drugs that raise HDL, although three recent studies of such treatments have failed. And patients with low HDL levels are often told to try to raise them by exercising or dieting or even by taking niacin, which raised HDL but failed to lower heart disease risk in a recent clinical trial. "I'd say the HDL hypothesis is on the ropes right now," said Dr. James A. de Lemos, a professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. Dr. Michael Lauer, director of the division of cardiovascular sciences at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, agreed. "The current study tells us that when it comes to HDL we should seriously consider going back to the drawing board, in this case meaning back to the laboratory," said Dr. Lauer, who also was not connected to the research. "We need to encourage basic laboratory scientists to figure out where HDL fits in the puzzle — just what exactly is it a marker for." But Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, who is helping conduct studies of HDL-raising drugs, said he remained hopeful. HDL is complex, he said, and it is possible that some types of HDL molecules might in fact protect against heart disease".

The million dollar question is whether high HDL level in blood is maintained due to good health or lower level of HDL heralds changes that lead to heart associated problems. It looks like HDL may not be a sure marker any more for insurance against heart disease while LDL certainly is a marker for bad health. Probably the present approach to cholesterol management will undergo dramatic changes if the above findings are confirmed by future studies. One question that naturally arises out of this development is whether the multi billion dollar Statin drug industry is going to be adversely affected. According to the authors of the above study, it is always healthy if LDL levels are controlled and those who cannot reduce the same will have to resort to drug intervention using Statins.


Friday, July 27, 2012


It looks so simple when experts say that a minimum physical exercise that does not take more than 2-3 hours a week can keep away most diseases those are causing rampage in the modern world but what is shocking is that there are almost 1.5 billion people on this great planet leading a sedentary life without taking an effort to do what is recommended. Why should it be a "trauma" for people to go for a brisk walk for half an hour every day or even running for a few minutes on alternate days? There is a school of thought which feels that people in many urban townships do involuntary exercise at least during the working days in a week through their daily routine to reach the work place or mothers who must be walking all the day between the kitchen and the dining room. But is it enough? Probably with personal transport a feature of modern industrialized society, where is the need to walk or run? Or with ready to eat foods flooding the market and family income soaring, why should to day's typical house wife run around the kitchen and the dining room? Probably the exercise regime is targeted more at those who do not have to raise a finger for getting every thing done with least physical discomfort. If one third of the world is being condemned as over weight or obese, what about the other two thirds who do not have this problem? Unfortunately out of this more than half do not have access to affordable and balanced food and therefore can never become obese! Those who are able to keep obesity at bay are the real stars of this planet! Here is a commentary on this issue which may be trivial at first sight but a serious problem facing humanity.  

"Are you an adult? Check. Are you from a wealthy country? Check. Are you from planet Earth? Check. Unfortunately, you're most likely to be one of the nearly 5 million people that die each year from physical inactivity, according to a new study published in the medical journal The Lancet and reported on Yahoo News. One third of the world's population doesn't get enough exercise and the problem is even worse in wealthier nations. We're not talking a marathon here either--researchers consider ample physical activity as 30 minutes of moderate activity five times per week or vigorous physical activity three times per week. This means walking for 30 minutes five times per week or running for 20 minutes three times per week. Couch Potato Lifestyle Spreads to Our Children. As we age we do less and less, so starting off inactive increases the problem. "Roughly three of every 10 individuals aged 15 years or older -- about 1.5 billion people -- do not reach present physical activity recommendations," the study said in a report that described the problem as a "pandemic." This results in deadly often preventable diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. Specifically, "[l]ack of exercise causes an estimated six percent of coronary heart disease cases, seven percent of type 2 diabetes (the most common form) and 10 percent of breast and colon cancers."

It is terrible to hear that millions of people are dying, not because of hunger but due to physical inactivity which after all can be easily addressed by all the countries through better education and environment. Is it not an irony that a country like the US with thousands of miles of well laid, citizen friendly side walks available for walking, not even a fraction of the population use these facilities regularly! Besides there are thousands of recreation parks in all states with facilities for playing different games and for children to indulge in variety of physical activities. All it requires is a renewed commitment on the part of the citizens to use them while controlling the diet which only can lessen the unbearable burden posed by wide spread obesity that is tending to become endemic if recent trends are any indication.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Modern society is much more sensitive to the sufferings of animals which are used for producing a number of foods for omnivores and carnivores whose population outnumber herbivores by almost 9 to 1. Whether it is breeding, raising, handling or butchering, well established universal guidelines are followed to be as humane as possible. It is another matter that many practitioners in the animal food production sector get away with frequent violations of these standards though humane society campaigning for a better deal to animals always keeps a watch over the industry. One is impressed by the sustained campaigns to change the highly congested cage system in the poultry industry to provide more space to the birds while free grazing cows are encouraged in the beef industry. A not commonly known food from Geese and Duck known as 'Foie Gras", most popular in France is made by fattening the liver of these birds, generally through force feeding  and is considered a delicacy by many food connoisseurs. There is a strong movement which opposes continued practice of this cruel practice by pleading for its ban globally. Many countries like Israel, Turkey and some in Europe have already banned its production and sale and the latest to join this group is the State of California in the US which has promulgated law for punishing those indulging in production or sale of Foie Gras beginning July 1 this year. Here is more on this development which has made news recently.       

"This is the last week for legal foie gras in California. A law to shut down the making, cooking and selling of super-fatty goose or duck liver takes effect July 1. Chow hounds from Chico to Chula Vista have been opening their wallets for restaurants' foie gras menus, gorging themselves like birds before the winter migration. The law's purpose is to end gavage, the ancient practice of forcing grain down the throat of a goose or duck until its liver is grossly enlarged. The law's critics say gavage is hardly more stress-inducing than the many other things humans do to the animals they eat. The corporate operations that grow and slaughter pigs, poultry and cattle represent animal cruelty on an immense scale, they say, about which the foie gras ban does nothing. But the law's supporters argue that even small steps toward humaneness are important, and point to several countries in Europe that have banned foie gras. It is not known how energetically the state will enforce the ban and if any restaurant chefs will be willing to risk a $1,000 fine. Chicago enacted a foie gras ban in 2006. It was widely mocked and flouted and, after a couple of years, repealed. Chefs in California are already pushing for a repeal bill. Meanwhile, "faux gras" recipes are proliferating on the Web. One chef suggests soaking chicken livers overnight in milk with garlic, thyme, salt and pepper, searing them briefly, then puréeing them in a food processor with half their weight in soft butter. It's your basic chicken-liver mousse, not foie gras but good. "You could mix almost anything with half its weight in butter and have a very nice spread," said Mark Bittman, one of The Times's experts on such things".

Out of about 25000 tons of Foie Gras produced annually more than 70% is in France whose population love to have this specialty product during Christmas season. It appears many reports regarding wide scale prevalence of forced feeding seem to be misleading because birds like Geese and Ducks have a tendency to feed more than what they really need and if suitably designed feed is provided ad libitum they will develop fatty liver in no time obviating the need for forced feeding. Some of the producers claim that they do not cause any discomfort to the bird and replaced the metal tubing for force feeding with softer ones. A relevant question is why the product itself is banned if there are alternative methods available to make it and why such ban is not confined to the production technique deployed. After all Foie Gras has a 2500 years of history behind it and it is closely linked to the French culture. As a measure to discourage meat consumption it may be a welcome move, as such bans remove one particular meat product from the dining tables of at least a few families.   


Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Wind mills are offering a feasible option in the search of sustainable energy sources and already a significant part of global energy produced comes from this sector. However high cost of investment, unbearable noise generation and bird-unfriendly features are still hampering its progress in spite of its pollution free clean credentials. With cheap wind mill systems coming from China considerable boost has been received recently with many countries going ahead in this area aiming to shift a significant part of their energy grid from fossil fuel generation to wind generated energy. It is universally agreed that wind energy can spare the planet pollution to the extent of 1500 tons of CO2, 6.5 tons of SO2, 3.2 tons of NO2 and 27 kg of Mercury spewed out into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are used to generate 1 MW energy. No wonder that more than 65 million MW of energy is produced using wind mills, of which almost 45% is accounted for by Europe though other countries are catching up fast. Though wind mills were known for almost 2000 years, significant development in designing better and more efficient wind power generating systems has taken place after 1970 due to the fossil fuel shock which saw the price of crude oil literally hitting the roof. Most of to day's wind mills are of horizontal axis type but there have been references to vertical axis type also which some how did not seem to have found favor with the energy industry. Now comes the news that commercial scale vertical axis machines are being offered with some superior features. Here is a peep into this new development. 

"Designing and building the new McCamley vertical axis wind turbine took decades, but it may have been well worth it, as the company believes their innovative design could revolutionize urban wind power. The McCamley MT01 Mk2 is designed to be easy to install, without any need for a tower, on urban rooftops, and is claimed to be able to operate with minimal noise and vibration and be able to self-start (no grid power input) at low wind speeds. The McCamley turbine was specifically designed to work in the variable and turbulent winds typically found in the city, and because it can continue to operate in extremely strong winds, may be able to harvest energy from a wider range of wind conditions than other designs.The lightweight turbine is mounted on multiple legs, cutting down on vibration and stress on the roof, and the rotor design is said to be "bird and bat friendly". The Mk2 self-starts in winds as low as 1.8 meters/second, and a self-regulating speed system allows the turbine to continue to operate efficiently in gusting and turbulent winds by keeping the rotor at a consistent speed. The turbine's direct-drive design also eliminates the need for a gear box, simplifying the maintenance or repair of the units". 

One of the good features of the above variant is that it is much less noise polluting and more easy to be installed and maintained. One of the inconveniences of the present generation windmills is the irritating noise generated by the rotating turbine blades which can be extremely annoying to residents nearby. According to the manufacturers of vertical mills the noise generation is not an issue at all with their system. Similarly wind mills are known killers of birds and according to statistics more than 20 to 30 thousand birds are killed every year due to their crossing the path of the turbine blade but vertical wind mills are not as lethal when it comes to bird fatality. If all these claims are true vertical axis wind mills may become very popular especially for small sized power generation with relatively low investment. Countries like India which has thousands of miles of coastal lines, vertical wind mills can make a big difference, especially during summer time when acute power cuts are common due to perennial shortage.  


Monday, July 23, 2012


Urban agriculture is a hot topic in some countries because of the supposed advantages for vegetables from such endeavors in the form of lesser carbon emission, freedom from pesticides, relatively lesser from pathogens. Though it started in a very small way twenty years ago, recent developments in this sector is raising the possibility that urban gardens may play a critical role in meeting the requirements of vegetables for a significant segment of the city population without depending on arrival from far away places or from other continents. There is even a more friendly version of urban gardening where fresh produce retail shops are installing such gardens in the same building for the customers to pluck their need directly from the plants. It is amazing that a city like New York with a mega population and sky rocketing real estate prices is leading in establishing urban gardens on roof tops which is considered a far sighted development initiative. Here is a report on this interesting phenomenon.

"Today, she could have had both. New York City (the stores!) is suddenly a farming kind of town (the chores!). Almost a decade after the last family farm within the city's boundaries closed, basil and bok choy are growing in Brooklyn, and tomatoes, leeks and cucumbers in Queens. Commercial agriculture is bound for the South Bronx, where the city recently solicited proposals for what would be the largest rooftop farm in the United States, and possibly the world. Fed by the interest in locally grown produce, the new farm operations in New York are selling greens and other vegetables by the boxful to organically inclined residents, and by the bushel to supermarket chains like Whole Foods. The main difference between this century and previous ones is location: whether soil-based or hydroponic, in which vegetables are grown in water rather than soil, the new farms are spreading on rooftops, perhaps the last slice of untapped real estate in the city. "In terms of rooftop commercial agriculture, New York is definitely a leader at this moment," said Joe Nasr, co-author of "Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture" and a researcher at the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University in Toronto. "I expect it will continue to expand, and much more rapidly, in the near future." For city officials, the rise of commercial agriculture has ancillary benefits, as well. Rooftop farms have the potential to capture millions of gallons of storm water and divert it from the sewer system, which can overflow when it rains. And harvesting produce in the boroughs means fewer trucks on local roadways and lower greenhouse gas emissions, a goal of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's administration. Community gardeners and educators have tended plots and grown food for years. But they have only recently been joined by for-profit companies intent on getting back to the urban land. Gotham Greens began harvesting from its hydroponic greenhouse on a rooftop in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn last year; it plans to open three more next year in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. The existing operation, with 20 employees, grows bok choy, basil and oak leaf lettuce, and sells to retailers like Whole Foods and FreshDirect. Brooklyn Grange, another farming operation, incorporated with the intention of finding a site in Brooklyn. But two years ago, a one-acre rooftop became available instead in Long Island City, Queens. The partners, led by Ben Flanner, the president and head farmer, spread out 1.2 million pounds of soil and started planting. This spring, Brooklyn Grange finally made good on its name, starting a second farm on a 65,000-square-foot roof at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where more than 100 rows feature pattypan squash, scallions and beefsteak tomatoes. Mr. Flanner pointed out two benefits to an agricultural aerie — plentiful sun and an absence of pests. "There are a number of parallels with regular agriculture," he said. "What we don't have are deer or foxes or rodents".

A garden friendly policy like that is in place in New York goes out of the way to help potential "gardeners" to establish such productive system and added to this the city itself is offering the roof tops of its own buildings for gardening at reasonable contract fees. The changing attitude of established and reputed retailers towards produce grown in urban gardens is encouraging many citizens to enter this area. These retailers are tying up with those growing salad vegetables for marketing locally and thus create a win-win situation for both. Though all urban structures are not suitable for raising roof top gardens, there are still millions of such apartments and building complexes which may eventually get into this loop. Probably future designs of urban dwellings may incorporate gardening features, suitable for raising small gardens either as a part of the individual units or as a collective roof top facilitiy.


Sunday, July 22, 2012


The fast growing On-line business volumes world over seems to be rattling the traditional retailers as most consumer products are delivered to house holds at costs significantly less than that charged by the conventional merchandising system. One of the reasons attributed to this distortion is that items sold through the Internet are not often taxed, though this cannot explain fully such discrepancies. According to some projections, On-line retail business is estimated at $ 573 billion, not considered insignificant. Evolution of retail business from small "mom and pop" stores into huge Malls of today manifests the transformation of the society from a thrifty era into a high spending phase where consumers have unlimited opportunities to spend money whether own or borrowed on a multitude of choices that can enrich the quality of life. Lately many Malls built investing heavily to tap the growing consumer culture are finding that they are being threatened by the On-line business practices and to sustain them selves these modern retail outfits are trying to "invent" new ways to "retain and attract" more customers. Here is a commentary on this new phenomenon.   

"Just about every mall owner in America is looking for ways to compete with the Internet. R. J. Milligan, a real estate analyst for Raymond James, said that developers were slowly adding more service-oriented elements to malls — for instance, dividing a closed Sears anchor store into multiple cafes. But Glimcher is pushing the envelope even further than the standard model of restaurants and expanded food courts, he said, with tenants like Make Meaning (a membership store where people make crafts, cakes and other things) and Drybar (a salon with no scissors, just stylists with blow-dryers). "They've done a good job of getting the right tenants in there," Mr. Milligan said.Scottsdale shoppers can have their hair blown into beachy waves at Drybar, create picture frames at Make Meaning, try a tree pose at Blissful Yoga and grab a kale salad at True Food Kitchen before going to a movie, where they can have drinks and snacks delivered to their reserved seats. They can also take advantage of in-person-only opportunities at standard retailers, like the so-called booty cam at Industrie Denim, a jeans store, that lets women study their rear view. A Restoration Hardware scheduled to open soon will offer fresh flowers and cups of tea for sale. "We want to be a place that people go to frequently, more than one time a week," said Mr. Glimcher, so the emphasis is on classes and other hands-on experiences".

Whether Internet retailing is good or bad is another matter but still considering the on set of serious health related physical and mental down turn of populations in many wealthy countries due to sedentary life style, On-line buying is definitely a disadvantage as it is a temptation to get what one wants sitting at home with no chance of any significant physical activity. However On-line retailing is not amenable to many activities, especially those requiring personal care and attention and this is a factor that drives many Malls to change their lease profile to include more and more specialty food centers, personal care facilities, high end services, training centers for tailoring, food preparations and other skilled activities etc so that customers will have to visit them more and more often. With most Malls offering entertainment facilities and low end food courts there is already a trend emerging where more people come to Malls for this experience than for any purchase. If high end restaurants and shop outlets are given more importance, Mall attendance is bound to improve dramatically.


Saturday, July 21, 2012


Consumption of rice by those suffering from diabetes is discouraged by physicians because of its ability to get digested fast to release glucose which will increase the blood sugar immediately after ingestion beyond recommended levels. Traditionally diabetic patients were dependent more on wheat based diets which have marginally lower Glycemic Index (GI) value compared to rice. Those habituated with rice during their life time have difficulties in changing over to other grains and therefore any developmental activity that will make rice compatible with diabetes is a welcome news. After all more than 50% of the world population consume rice as a staple food and hence such a development will have great relevance. This is what is being  attempted in International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila, Philippines in collaboration with other institutions engaged in rice research. According to the results already available from the study, there are many varieties of rice which have low GI, as low as 45 and those who want to have protection from diabetes can use low GI rice varieties while others with Type II diabetes can manage the disease better with such varieties. It is interesting to read the findings of the group as contained in the following report.   

"The study found that the GI of rice ranges from a low of 48 to a high of 92, with an average of 64. The research team from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Food Futures Flagship also identified the key gene that determines the GI of rice, an important achievement that offers rice breeders the opportunity to develop varieties with different GI levels to meet consumer needs. Futuredevelopment of low-GI rice would also enable food manufacturers to develop new, low-GI food products based on rice. Dr. Melissa Fitzgerald, who led the IRRI team, said that GI is a measure of the relative ability of carbohydrates in foods to raise blood sugar levels after eating. "Understanding that different types of rice have different GI values allows rice consumers to make informed choices about the sort of rice they want to eat," she said. "Rice varieties such as India's most widely grown rice variety, Swarna, have a low GI and varieties such as Doongara from Australia and Basmati have a medium GI." Dr. Tony Bird, CSIRO Food Futures Flagship researcher, said that low-GI diets offer a range of health benefits: "Low-GI diets can reduce the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, and are also useful for helping diabetics better manage their condition. "This is good news for diabetics and people at risk of diabetes who are trying to control their condition through diet, as it means they can select the right rice to help maintain a healthy, low-GI diet," he added.Low-GI foods are those measured 55 and less, medium-GI foods are those measured between 56 and 69, while high-GI foods measure 70 and above.When food is measured to have a high GI, it means it is easily digested and absorbed by the body, which often results in fluctuations in blood sugar levels that can increase the chances of getting diabetes, and make management of type 2 diabetes difficult".

While theoretically it is an excellent study what is not realized is that there are only a few recognized brands in rice in the market while vast majority of them are sold loose in many countries with no way of identifying the variety and it is next to impossible to make any meaningful selection by the consumers at the market place. GI as a measure of assessing the anti-diabetic credentials of food is fraught with many practical difficulties. For example same rice variety can have varying GI values depending on the location it is produced, type of cooking it has undergone, the age of the rice, amount of water used for cooking, etc and unless more work is done to sort out these discrepancies there is no way consumer can rely on the published GI figures as a guide for evolving suitable diets. Of course for ready to eat foods with GI values declared on the label may have a meaning as they do not undergo any further cooking before consumption. Reading more carefully the above report, one gets the impression that it seems to be an attempt to genetically modify rice varieties to make changes at the gene level to impart low GI characteristics. Whether consumers will accept such GM varieties even with the low GI values remains to be seen.  


Friday, July 20, 2012


By far the most critical safety problem being faced by the consumers in many advanced countries is food poisoning caused by pathogenic bacteria like virulent E,coli species, Salmonella and listeria. The products getting contaminated include meat, vegetables, dry fruits, nuts, poultry products etc and fatalities vary in different episodes. In Europe the fenugreek sprout contamination with Listeria claimed several lives before even it is identified and source of supply traced. It is ironical that these deadly infections are more or less confined to rich countries where the safety standards are very stringent and the vigilance infrastructure is most modern. One interesting fact that emerges from a close scrutiny of food safety episodes is that almost all of them involved cold foods which cannot be heat treated because of their vulnerability to significant quality changes not accepted easily by the consumers. Paradoxically one of the most effective technological tools available to "cold sterilize" such foods, gamma radiation is not availed off by the industry due to nonsensical labeling rigidity on the part of the safety authorities. Another alternate option that may soon be available to the processors is the cold plasma technology which is undergoing tests to establish its technical feasibility vis-a-vis food sanitization. The claims being made by the scientific group that is pioneering the development are contained in the report below.  

"May was a rough month for fresh produce. Alfalfa sprouts, bagged salads, and diced onions were recalled because of possible listeria contamination, while baby spinach and papayas were recalled because of possible salmonella contamination. It's enough to make one scout for something new in food safety systems. And Brendan Niemira is working on something. Niemira, lead scientist at the USDA's Food Safety and Intervention Technologies Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Pa., has been studying cold plasma for nearly a decade. The process uses electricity and a gas — such as oxygen — to deactivate contaminating microbes on meats, poultry, fruits, and vegetables. Niemira and his colleague Joe Sites have treated a variety of foods — including almonds, apples, cantaloupe, lettuce and tomatoes — with cold plasma and produced multi-log reductions of E. coli O157:H7, salmonella and listeria. While cold plasma already is used to clean electronics, bond plastics in manufacturing and bind dye to fibers in textile production, its potential remains untapped in the food industry. "Anytime a technology is being developed, it's only going to be used in the industry if it shows some significant advantages," Niemira said. "Cold plasma is a waterless sanitizing process with no chemical inputs, so it's got some attractive points. The big key right now is to develop the technology so that it gives a solid level of sanitizing antimicrobial effects without unwanted side effects. That's the kind of thing that might lead an interested party to petition the FDA." Niemira said that in cold plasma trials with apples and almonds there were no changes in the product's appearance. Another advantage, he said, is the level of efficacy. While most chlorine rinses will give one or two logs of surface sanitization, Niemira said cold plasma systems have been shown to give three or four logs in trials".

As the development has yet to come out of the laboratory of the scientists concerned, it may be quite some time before technological facilities are designed and conditions standardized on a commercial scale. The fact that cold plasma sterilization has already become an industry standard for sanitizing electronic goods and bond plastics and may get accepted, to start with, for sterilization of food machinery surface, conveyor belts etc in the food industry. As multi log reduction in pathogens has been demonstrated using cold plasma, its efficacy or reliability may not be questioned. The present sanitization procedures use high volumes of water, besides chemicals like chlorine even to get a 2 log reduction of pathogens and there fore food industry is likely to accept the new technology as and when it is ready for commercial level operation. Of course investment cost and the recurring expense in using the technology may eventually determine its fate.  


Thursday, July 19, 2012


One of the largest marketing strategies of this century has been to down size the contents of a food package without the consumer ever aware of the same. If a standard package of potato chips containing 200 gm of product is converted into a newly designed packaging pouch with 20 gm less chips it is unlikely that any busy bee consumer will ever notice it. Added to this confusion if the contents are declared with odd weight parameters, the chances of the consumer finding out are still less. To day most food manufacturers world over have adopted this strategy very successfully with their food packs containing about 15-20% less products compared to that two years ago and the price line is maintained to preserve the image of the industry as one beating inflation! Computer design of packages is a rewarding business because the potential for cheating the human brain is enormous. According to knowledgeable psychologists human brain is supposed to be weak in geometry incapable of assessing sizes of containers and the contents held by them. If this is so can there be a solution that can remedy the situation? Probably no because food consumers invariably make mechanical decisions regarding purchases without paying much attention to the label declaration where, at least in the US most manufacturers include the price per unit weight for easy comparison of prices of different competitors. Here is an interesting expose' on the subject of gullibility of human brain.    

"Recently, Pierre Chandon, a French marketing professor and visiting Harvard Business School scholar, decided to test the idea that consumers know what's best for them. He asked 294 people to estimate — using photos of a 6.5-ounce bottle (the standard for decades), a 12-ounce can or a 12-ounce cup as benchmarks — how much liquid was in a range of cups, starting at 12 ounces all the way up to a 50-ounce "Double Gulp." While it sounds simple, respondents consistently guessed wrong, assuming that the larger cups held about 20 percent to 40 percent less liquid than they actually did. Dozens of other studies, using jelly beans, popcorn, ice cream and alcoholic drinks, have also shown that consumers can't be depended on to perceive serving sizes accurately. The reason comes down to the fact that the human brain has a surprisingly tough time with geometry and often can't accurately gauge when an object has doubled or even tripled in size. It's even trickier when the object is a wide-mouth cup, larger on the top than the bottom. "We tend to underestimate the increase in the size of any object," said Professor Chandon, director of the Insead Social Science Research Center in Paris. "When you double the size of something, it really looks just 50 to 70 percent bigger, not twice as big."

In India there was a time when manufacturers were allowed to market only in certain sizes stipulated under weights and measures regulations but this was relaxed with the provision that odd sizes can be offered after declaring in small print on the label that it is not a standard size! The result is that practically all manufacturers started packing consumer products in odd sizes, volumes and measures putting the buyers in great disadvantage. Fortunately this policy is now being reversed but there is still no provision for printing rate per unit which ought to have been insisted upon. This human weakness is the basis of policy decisions by some governments in limiting sale of high sugar beverages to less than a certain size to discourage indiscriminate consumption of such high energy products which have the potential to cause over weight and obesity. Here is a basis for putting reasonable restrictions on the industry so that the perceived brain inadequacy to select what is really required, is addressed.  


Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Human efforts in protecting foods from the predatory microbiological pathogens is an ongoing fight ever since the dawn of civilization and the fact that there are still many pathogens lurking around without getting annihilated speaks volume about their sagacity, perseverance and adaptability. In spite of most sophisticated detection technologies and space age electronic instruments to track them, pathogens seem to be one step ahead of humans in infecting foods and spreading diseases. Whether it is meat contamination with Salmonella or other food poisoning out breaks, the experience has shown that it requires long time in tracing the source of contamination and take ameliorative actions. Precious human lives can be saved if the time lapse between detection and tracing is shortened. This seems to the be aim of efforts by a new public-private collaborative partnership that has been recently launched where genomic sequences of 100,000 food associated bacterial species are sought to be mapped over a five year period that is expected to help identifying the type of contamination immediately once it is detected. Here are further details of this public data base creating program that will allow food safety officials access the data freely on line.

"The Food and Drug Administration is teaming up with the University of California, Davis to pinpoint the genetic codes of 100,000 types of lethal food-borne bacteria so the agency can more quickly stop deadly contamination outbreaks. A batch of food-safety incidents have hit the U.S. recently. Last year, 25 people died from listeria contamination in Colorado-grown cantaloupes. About 100 people were sickened earlier this year due to salmonella tied to raw tuna in sushi. The FDA will collaborate with the university, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and chemical analysis/engineering company Agilent Technologies Inc.,A -1.03% of Santa Clara, Calif., to sequence the genomes of the bacterial types and subtypes. They then will post the complex genetic codes in a public database maintained by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Biotechnology Information. Steven Musser, director of the FDA's office of regulatory science for food safety, said the novel venture will be akin to the DNA information compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for investigating crimes. "Right now, we spend a lot of time after an outbreak trying to figure out what country is it from, and how is it spreading," said Dr. Musser. He said such gene sequencing could have been helpful in the investigating this year's salmonella outbreak in tuna, which originated from a plant in India, the FDA concluded after investigating. "If you don't have a DNA database for these bacteria, you're working largely blind," said Paul Zavitsanos, Agilent's world-wide food-safety manager. "You've got to know what variant of bacteria you're dealing with." So, in the case of the tuna in sushi, Mr. Zavitsanos said it would be possible, with such a database, to know quickly that the salmonella variant causing illnesses came from fish and "you'd probably know geographically where it was centered on the planet." Armed with that information, he said, federal authorities could quickly shut down ports of entry for that type of fish and minimize the spread of illness. "If we had this genetic sequence already, we could know immediately that the salmonella probably came from India, and we could have responded much more quickly," said Dr. Musser. In that instance, it took nearly two months for the agency to confirm that sushi was to blame in the outbreak that is believed to have begun in February. He said having this extensive pathogen database also will speed up the process through which the CDC confirms that illnesses are linked, and that an outbreak is even taking place. The FDA said the new database can lead to tests that have the potential to significantly reduce the typical public-health response time in outbreaks of food-borne illness to days instead of weeks. The venture, which will be termed The 100K Genome Project, will be a five-year effort to discern the genetic codes of subtypes of important pathogens like salmonella, listeria and E. coli, all responsible for widespread outbreaks from a range of food products in recent years. The Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects meat in the U.S., also will cooperate in the effort. The actual sequencing will occur largely at a newly formed genome sequencing facility at UC Davis".

The free database that will be set up at the University of California, Davis, will enable scientists to pinpoint not only what food carries the bacteria responsible for a given outbreak but also what country it came from. Such outbreaks generally take weeks to solve but the new database after it is created, is expected to reduce that to a matter of a few days. So far scientists have been able to identify as many as 3,000 sequences out of which only about 1,000 are related to food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US has the largest such database but the gene maps it contains are only partial, not enough to determine which food the illness came from or its geographic origin. Cataloging gene codes is time-consuming and expensive. For example Salmonella alone has about 2,700 different strains, almost three times as many as all the sequences for food-borne bacteria that have been cataloged to date. When the project is completed in 5 years time, it may hopefully herald a new era for human beings to live without any serious fear of food borne infection dangers lurking among them.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012


In the Indian context it was once asked why no established business houses like Ambanis, Tatas, Birlas, Mundhras and other leading industrialists were not taking any interest in investing in food processing sector which was dominated by transnational companies or their surrogates like Lever, Nestle, Britannia, etc. True that in spite of the presence of these global giants, the small and micro enterprises were still accounting for large volume of processed foods marketed in the country. Probably one of the main reasons could be the relatively high risk involved in dealing with perishable foods compounded by traditional food habits in Indian population, vast majority of whom shun processed foods, preferring to cook at home which is much cheaper and affordable. How ever this trend seems to be changing and entry of some of these domestic players more recently in food retailing augurs well for the country. How far they will be able to sustain in the market, outliving the vibrant Mom & Pop shops controlling more than 95% of the retail market and whether they will ever achieve backward integration with farmers of the country remains to be seen. It is in this context one has to look at the attempts by a few upstarts to establish agri-business which if successful can be a fore runner of more such efforts for lateral entry into food business. Here is the story of a successful IT entrepreneur with some vision to try his managerial and entrepreneurial acumen to establish himself as a significant player in food area. 

"To begin with, the company has already invested about Rs 20 crore in INI Farms, involved in pomegranate plantations on over 1,000 acres across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The project involves doubling productivity and increasing the export content from 40 per cent of the total production now to over 70 per cent with the help of modern farming and post-harvest technologies. The idea is to create a pomegranate brand. "There are huge opportunities in agriculture and health care. Nobody has positioned these sectors as an exciting opportunity when it comes to business, even though the margins are as high as 45-70 per cent. If two or three people start glamorising the industry over the next two-three years, we'll be able to look at scale and brand building for such sectors," he adds. Screwvala is also looking at opportunities in rural health care, a sunshine industry that remains neglected. "That's the opportunity. Chances are you are going to be the only guy in this business. It's true there is a shortage of qualified doctors, but basic amenities in health care like pathology labs don't need MBBS doctors," he says. The second part of his dream project, for which he has himself committed Rs 250 crore over the next five years, is even more ambitious. His foundation called Share has finalised a blueprint to "improve the livelihood and empower people" in seven villages of Maharashtra, covering a million people across eight talukas and five districts. "Our idea is not to donate money but to help the villagers become independent enough to earn their livelihood. We want to have an exit strategy where we help them for the first two years by giving them enough push. Then, they take it over themselves," he adds.

What is striking here is the love and affinity shown by this investor for agriculture and health care after understanding the peculiar situation that prevails in these areas in India. The fact that he is committing a substantial amount of his own money to further his ambition speaks volume about his sincerity and missionary zeal. It is amazing that he has zeroed in on Pomegranate cultivation which has tremendous potential to be a health food in the coming years due to its value as a source of highly active antioxidants. There is a similar parallel in Amla cultivation in Maharashtra by Jain Irrigation of Jalgaon which has revolutionized the production of Indian Gooseberry, one of the much sought after health fruits with thousands of years of history and heritage behind it, beyond recognition. India needs such missionary zeal from local players with resources and vision to change the agriculture and horticulture scenario in the country.


Monday, July 16, 2012


Salt is considered a "poison" according to many health pundits and left to them selves probably they would have banished this palate tickling food ingredient from this plant long ago! But every one does not contribute to this 'hair raising" threat posed by salt as claimed by the experts citing many reasons for taking such an apprehensive view. Though salt intake 1000 years ago was reported to be hardly 0.5 gm per capita per day, to day it has ballooned into more than 8-10 gm a day and hence the red flag being raised against salt. There are many studies linking salt to a plethora of diseases like CVD, hypertension, kidney ailments etc, but the jury is still out regarding a final conclusion, most evidence being only circumstantial and based on animal studies. Different countries are trying out many strategies to persuade the food processing industry to cut down salt levels in their products but the impact is not considered very significant so far. There appears to be considerable reluctance on the part of many governments to put in place mandatory regulations that would force the industry to come up with products with lesser salt. Psychologists, knowledgeable about human mind feel that salt reduction can be achieved if the industry adopts a strategy to reduce salt slowly over a period of time without the consumer ever knowing about it. It appears human palate cannot perceive small changes in levels of salt up to a minimum limit beyond which they may react negatively. Probably this offers a "painless" way of salt reduction in processed foods.    

"Another widely used option to reduce levels of salt, but one which is generally not advertised to consumers, is the use of a gradual reduction of salt (stealth). This approach is being applauded by organizations, such as the UK Food Standards Agency and World Action on Salt and Health (WASH). Using this approach, consumers' palates will adapt to the lower level of salt, as the salt is very gradually reduced. This approach will depend on brand loyalty, ensuring that consumers do not switch to brands containing higher levels; thus, an industry wide approach would be required for some products. The rate by which to reduce salt is uncertain. Many companies have successfully used a stepwise reduction rate of 5%, but the specific approach will be dependent on food type and initial salt level (products with higher initial salt content are likely to achieve higher reduction levels)". 

This salt reduction strategy already being utilized by some in the food industry involves only gradual reduction but without actually replacing the sodium with anything else, unlike many others trying to partially substitute salt with non-sodium salty compounds that will reduce the sodium load on the body. How ever the results so far has been not very dramatic and this strategy can work only in certain cases, that too up to a limited extent. Ultimately a level of salt reduction will be met whereby a loss in overall flavor will be perceived by the consumer.  This poses a problem, as an apparent change in flavor by the consumer runs the risk of failure to repurchase the food item.  Generally food manufacturers, especially those owning reputed brand names, are unwilling to utilize a strategy that will negatively impact the taste and flavor of the product.  Therefore, extensive analysis of the effect of the salt reduction on sensory acceptability is vital.  Additionally, removing sodium without a replacement could negatively impact the product if salt plays a functional role such as microbiological, texture, water-retention etc. In a fiercely competitive market, unless every player go by the commonly accepted rule for limiting salt based on a time schedule, there will always be black sheep violating such understanding for reaping temporary benefits. That is where an international or national policy for compulsory salt reduction, in consultation with the industry, has the advantage providing a level playing field to all.