Saturday, June 30, 2012


Is the food safety situation really bad in China which is aspiring to outpace the United States and become the most powerful nation on earth? If some recent reports are to be believed, Chinese citizens are highly disadvantaged because of a food production system afflicted by malpractices, adulteration and fraud widely prevalent in that country. It appears the citizens are so concerned that they have raised their vigilance to a high level to avoid such dangerous foods and any help to navigate the treacherous food market is eagerly accepted. Recent evolving of an app in Apple's iPhone for accessing to food safety episodes on every day basis has become instant success. Here is a report that peeps into the food scenario in China.

'There's mercury in the baby formula. Cabbages are sprayed with formaldehyde. Gelatin capsules for pills, tens of millions of them, are laced with chromium. Used cooking oil is scooped out of gutters for recycling, right along with the sewage. Accounts of dubious or unsafe food in China are as mesmerizing as they are disturbing — "artificial green peas," grilled kebabs made from cat meat, contaminated chives, chlorine showing up in soft drinks. There have been stories of imitation soy sauce made from hair clippings, ink and paraffin being used to dress up cheap noodles, and pork buns so loaded with bacteria that they glow in the dark. A new investigation by the Chinese magazine Caixin has found that "these publicized food safety scandals represent only a fraction of unsafe food production practices. Hundreds of chemical food additives are pumped into products that Chinese people consume every day." The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Wednesday that Chinese authorities have discovered 15,000 cases of substandard food so far this year while shutting down 5,700 unlicensed food businesses. Things are so bad that a new iPhone app was recently launched to track food scandals nationwide. The app, which sends out daily updates on the latest outrages, was reportedly downloaded more than 200,000 times in the first week. In 2008, infant formula and other milk products were found to be contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical used to make fertilizer and plastic pipe. Six children died and some 300,000 fell sick. The melamine scandal caused a nationwide panic among parents of young children, and there was a worldwide recall of Chinese products ranging from biscuits to baby formula. Two Chinese milk producers were executed for selling more than 3 million pounds of contaminated milk powder. There were unsettling echoes of that scandal last week when China's largest dairy, Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group, found elevated levels of mercury in its infant formula and was forced to recall six months' worth of production. Yili was one of the dairies involved in the 2008 scandal. Milk and dairy safety has become such a sensitive topic in China that some Internet searches about the scandal were reportedly blocked by government censors. Another major milk producer, China Mengniu Dairy, had to destroy large batches of milk in December when government spot checks turned up evidence of aflatoxin, a cancer-causing fungus. Within a day of the news, my colleague Edward Wong reported, people on the Internet "had posted or copied posts on the bad milk nearly four million times." The string of food-safety scandals, especially in the dairy sector, has led to falling share prices — and significant buying opportunities for foreign investors, according to a Reuters report published in the International Herald Tribune. The Danish-Swedish dairy group Arla, for example, said last week that it plans to buy a 6 percent stake in Mengniu. China is already the world's largest formula market, Reuters reported, noting that the country is "expected to overtake the United States as the largest dairy market by 2020." That timeline could be hastened by a possible relaxation of China's so-called one-child policy in 2015".

One thing baffling about the above report is whether this is a new development consequent to the liberalization of Chines economy or was existing even prior to it but never exposed before. The new found economic status of many families due to rapid development during the last two decades has raised the expectations of the population and this could be one of the reasons for demand for safer and better foods. The innovative ability of Chinese fraudsters to camouflage their tinkering of food is to be admired and food technologists can learn a trick or two from them in utilizing the same techniques in improving many existing products or developing new products. How about India? The fraudsters here are in no way inferior to their Chinese counterparts and the classical example is the infamous "milk" made without cows or buffaloes or any other animals!.


Friday, June 29, 2012


Alcoholic drinks are taboos for many people on grounds of religious and other considerations and therefore foods containing alcohol also receive critical attention from safety authorities. But under the testing protocols traces of alcohol are invariably ignored because many natural foods are known to contain small levels of alcohol formed as a part of the metabolic reactions in the fresh produce materials. Alcohol is also a part of many flavoring substances and when externally flavored products are made, alcohol gets into the products also. Whether it is semantics or genuine apprehension, presence of alcohol in foods and beverages evoke strong reactions and recently there was a furor about its presence, albeit at extremely small levels in many soft drinks marketed by almost all major players in this sector. How this report is going to affect the soft drinks market is still not clear. Here is a gist of the above report.   

"According to tests carried out by the Paris-based National Institute of Consumption, more than half of leading colas contain traces of alcohol, Daily Mail reported Wednesday. These include the brand leaders Coca-Cola and Pepsi Cola, while it is mainly only cheap supermarket versions of the drink which are alcohol-free. "60 Million Consumers", the French magazine, published the results of the tests in its latest issue. The tests suggest that the alcohol levels are as low as 10 mg in every litre, and this works out at around 0.001 per cent alcohol. But the figures will still be enough to upset the thousands of Muslims who regularly drink Cola because their religion forbids them from drinking alcohol, the daily said". 

If the target of the report is consumers belonging to Islam religion, there is going to be some debate regarding the question whether such beverages containing minuscule amount of alcohol, are Halal or Haram. According to some religious pundits alcohol in manufactured products, added during the processing, make the final products Haram where as products containing alcohol naturally formed as an artifact of metabolism or natural fermentation can pass the Halal test. How far the food and beverage industry can avoid alcohol is some what difficult to predict as of now but the fact still remains that alcohol is one of the most affordable and safest solvents available to the industry and the alternative options of organic solvents may not be as safe as alcohol. It is time that those involved in Halal certification consider these facts before coming to any conclusion regarding the advisability of declaring beverages like Colas as Haram.


Thursday, June 28, 2012


Are the human teeth becoming redundant in terms of their original function of chewing food into more easily assimilable form because of the changed style of living that is in vogue to day? It appears so if modern food anthropological experts are to be believed and what they are saying has lot of logic too. The next question that follows is what role food industry has played in this transformation? It is true that to day's processed foods are more easily consumed with least assistance from the dental system because of the varied operations involved in converting raw food into a more consumer-friendly product but condemning teeth to the role of a personal decoration piece may be too far fetched as it has also a definite function in speech modulation. Here is an interesting critique on the passive role of teeth in food ingestion.

"Experts — including evolutionary biologists, food scientists and dental researchers — noted that our diet is so different from our ancestors' that dental health problems such as cavities, overbite and crooked or crowded teeth are inevitable. The conclusions were based on studies of ancient teeth, explains Simon Hillson, professor of bioarchaeology at University College London, who was there. 'Teeth are tough and survive particularly well — providing us with a wealth of anthropological data.' 'Not only are there exceptionally well-preserved examples of fossilised human ancestors available, we've been able to examine the teeth of people such as the Aboriginals and Kalahari bushmen who ate a hunter-gatherer diet like our pre-agricultural ancestors as recently as the 1950s.' The shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers, which started 13,000 years ago, is central to our modern dental problems. This has a direct effect on the development of our jaws, which are now smaller — too small to accommodate all our teeth. 'Our diets once consisted of everything in raw form — such as seeds, nuts, vegetables, meat and fruit,' explains Professor Jimmy Steele, head of the School of Dental Sciences at Newcastle University. 'Now it consists of foods that are often highly processed, pre-packaged, soft and full of sugar.' Our food is so soft in relation to what it was that our teeth are actually redundant, says Dr Nigel Carter of the British Dental Health Foundation. 'Shocking though it might sound, I'd say that apart from the necessity of teeth for appearance and speech, we probably no longer need them.' The arrival of sugar in Britain, at the start of the 19th century, also had a notable effect, adds Dr Carter: 'From that point, the state of our teeth plummeted.'

The new assertive campaigns by a few "naturalists" who propagate every thing that is anti food industry do not mean that man has to go back to the situation that obtained thousands of years ago when he has to hunt for food in fierce competition with free roaming wild beasts. To day's situation has more to do with man himself who brought about this through reckless and thoughtless actions including over consumption of foods rich in sugar, salt and fat besides promptly forgetting the need for exercise to be healthy. If dental decay and many related diseases have become so rampant, the culprit is none other than man himself, though industry and governments may have to share a portion of the blame for not discouraging "irresponsible" eating that is widely prevalent to day in many affluent societies. The multi billion dollar industry that revolves around "dental hygiene" and "dental decay" has a vested interest in continuing with the present practices and it looks like every body is happy!


Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Packaging of food materials in plastic film pouches and rigid containers is the industry standard to day because of the convenience that is inherent in using them. In the evolution of food packaging from metal cans to plastics, consumer had been enjoying many advantages plastics have, such as light weight, shatter-proof feature, low cost, ease of use etc. But during the last one decade the safety of plastics has received critical attention because of the contaminants leached into the contents during processing as well as storage. Fossil fuel based plastics contain many chemicals which are dangerous for humans and there are standards for upper limits of these leachable substances in food. While these standards differ in various countries, there are global limits set by WHO which form the basis for member countries to generate their own standards. Still more data are being generated on the dangers of food contaminants and the limits are continuously coming down as more and more sophisticated analysis techniques are developed. Environmental hazards, posed by the indiscriminate disposal of used plastics which are not biodegradable, is another challenge in continuing with them perpetually. Enormous volume of information on safety of plastics, often contradictory in nature, has raised more questions regarding the safety of plastics, especially during the last one decade. It is in this context that glass is returning to the fore as the safest alternative for food packaging, with minimum risks to the consumer, in spite of some of the logistical problems associated with its use. Here is a commentary on this shift in the food packaging scenario.   

"A shatter-resistant glass water bottle product developed by Walt Himelstein. But now, in back to the future fashion, glass is making a bit of a comeback. And it is being helped in a small way by an entrepreneur who is developing a reusable glass bottle that is hard to break and will not shatter if broken. The shift to reusable glass water bottles from plastic and metal, which began taking off a couple of years ago, is becoming big business, retailers said. "I'd say glass bottles account for 20 percent, 30 percent of water bottle sales on our site now," said Vincent Cobb, founder of, which sells a variety of reusable products. "More and more people are looking for glass." The interest does not stop at water bottles. Consumer concerns that chemicals used in packaging can leach into the products they eat and drink are driving more and more beverage makers and food producers to use glass containers, said Lynn Bragg, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, an industry association. "They're also looking for sustainable products to be ecologically responsible." Coca-Cola is expanding the distribution of products — Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, Coke Zero and Sprite — that it sells in eight-ounce glass bottles, and S. C. Johnson now sells a line of reusable Ziploc containers called VersaGlass that can be used in a microwave, a freezer and, without their lids, even in an oven up to 400 degrees. "It's part of our overall effort to increase packaging diversity so that people have more choices of packaging and portion size," said Susan Stribling, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman. No one expects glass to replace plastic anytime soon. After all, billions of plastic bottles are used every year. But in a survey of more than 4,000 consumers this year by EcoFocus Worldwide, a research and consulting group, 37 percent said they were extremely or very concerned about the health and safety of plastics used in food and water packaging, compared to 33 percent in 2010".

Use of glass alternative is currently limited to water bottling and packing of beverages including sodas. The two inherent disadvantages of glass are the relatively higher weight per unit volume and its vulnerability to easy breakage and shattering. Both these issues are being addressed and light weight, shatter-resistant and thermally stable glass containers are now being made by the glass industry for different uses. Food industry is increasingly turning to glass because of its many advantages which include excellent clarity, neutral to chemical reaction, unleachable nature, impervious to tainting of the contents, good heat conductivity etc. One of the problems that is still defying solution is how to make the glass absolutely safe by preventing breakage altogether since even if there is a crack in the container, the contents become inedible. Probably food industry may still live with this problem because such breakages and consequent rejection rate, can be factored while pricing glass packaged products.



The alarming increase of childhood diabetes in the United States is a worrying issue for all those concerned with the overall health of the population in a country where the per capita income is one of the highest in the world. Added to this is the worrisome increase in over weight and obesity among the US children which probably must be contributing to faster development of Type 2 diabetes in them. Imagine the dimension of the tragedy and the trauma of a child, when it is supposed to be eating ice creams and enjoy life, is compelled to swallow pills or subjected to insulin shots every day to manage diabetes! If statics tell the true story America is facing a daunting task in saving the child population and save the country from a catastrophe of Himalayan dimension. Though diabetes is treatable by very effective medications, the ground reality is that while "managing" diabetes, a life time drug regime deployed, adversely affect other systems in the body leading to many health complications which are highly debilitating. Here is a graphic commentary about the fast deteriorating health scenario in that country about which practically nothing is being done.
"This study should be a national wake-up call. A siren blaring the insanity of our current medical approach to obesity and Type 2 diabetes for both children and adults. When a 5-year-old has cirrhosis and an 8-year-old has a stroke this is not about personal choice or better medication. Now that scientists have proven that fast food and sugar are biologically addictive, we can't blame the individual or the family. Can a heroin addict just cut down? We need a massive call to action, a national coordinated multi-pronged campaign. We need President Obama and all the Republican candidates to stand before the nation and declare we will end Type 2 diabetes in children by the end of this decade, just like President Kennedy mobilized our nation to get a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The food industry must be held to account. Simple policy changes could have enormous impact. The food industry tries to convince us that all calories are the same, that a snack of carrots or Oreos is the same as long as they are 100 calories each. The science proves otherwise. Sugar calories act differently in the body, driving biology toward diabetes. And carrots aren't addictive, but sugar is. The food industry has hijacked our taste buds, our brain chemistry, our kitchens, our homes, our schools and our communities. When children have nearly unlimited access to sugar and processed food, when we have 600 calories more per day of sugar calories per person than 30 years ago, we have to have an honest accounting of the playing field. The food environment is designed for kids and adults to fail".
What is intriguing is the increase in the consumption of sugar calories by the children through sugar sweetened beverages and relatively easy access to these high sugared products for them. Why there is no parental control on child's selection of foods in the market place or why the industry is serving to the vulnerable palates of children with more and more such products cannot be understood, knowing pretty well that they are courting dangers in the long run in the form of health deterioration from life style disorders. All the more reprehensible is the reaction of the consumers to any meaningful restraint of consumption of such bad foods by the government as reflected by the recent happenings in New York where a modest policy of banning the sale of jumbo sized sodas has attracted hostile response from a section of the citizens there! There does not sem to be any alternative for the US government but to restrain a booming food and beverage industry from marketing patently unhealthy products with high calories and fat. Parents also have equal responsibility in grooming their children on a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables so that they do not repent later in life.

Monday, June 25, 2012


Health experts world over are unanimous in their opinion that regular consumption of fruits and vegetables can be best insurance against developing life crippling diseases which are so abundant to day affecting the lives of millions of people. The American "Food Pyramid" dietary guidelines of yesteryears as well as the current "Food Plate" version recommend that fruits and vegetables must form a substantial part of the every day diet to avoid health related problems. It is another matter that cost of these protective foods rules high compared to those foods which are calorie dense because of high sugar and fat components.  While dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals are available in plenty in most fruits and vegetables, they are also rich sources of a variety of phytochemicals with  varying healthy attributes. Many colored fruits are supposed to contain many chemicals like anthocyanins with high antioxidant properties capable of neutralizing oxyradicals generated at the cellular level and protect from dreaded diseases like cancer. According to a very recent study, phenolic substances present in stone fruits like peaches can protect human beings from diseases including diabetes. Here is a take on this new findings.    

"What is unique to these fruits, he said, is that their mixture of the bioactive compounds work simultaneously within the different components of the disease. "Our work shows that the four major phenolic groups – anthocyanins, clorogenic acids, quercetin derivatives and catechins – work on different cells – fat cells, macrophages and vascular endothelial cells," he explained. "They modulate different expressions of genes and proteins depending on the type of compound. "However, at the same time, all of them are working simultaneously in different fronts against the components of the disease, including obesity, inflammation, diabetes and cardiovascular disease," he explained. Cisneros-Zevallos said this is believed to be the first time that "bioactive compounds of a fruit have been shown to potentially work in different fronts against a disease."

It is notable that these fruits contain all the four major phenolic compounds which were found to act simultaneously on different cells to prevent the diseases posing much danger but if this finding is true the natural question that follows is whether other colored fruits do not have the same make up of phenolic compounds as in stone fruits? The phenolic chemical make up in most fruits is well known but what is not clear is their bio-availability to the body after the fruits are consumed. If consuming fruits like peaches can be a panacea for good health, there is a case for promoting their production through incentives and making the same available at low prices affordable to people, especially to vulnerable groups who over eat cheap junk foods leading to body over weight. One is reminded of the "famed" space juice evolved by the NASA for astronauts to protect them from UV radiation during space travel. This is a concoction of juices derived from 10 plant sources rich in anti-oxidants and found effective in counter acting the aging process and skin deterioration. Unless more clarity emerges in this field it is difficult to take at face value claims like the one made above and blindly start eating stone fruits. Of course no harm will be done even if these fruits become a regular part of the diet.    



Hydroponics system of agriculture depends on controlled growing of plants providing inputs through water medium without using soil under modified atmosphere conditions. One of the advantages of hydroponics is that for each crop right growing conditions can be provided through different inputs and atmospheric environment. Variations of this system include Aeroponics and Bubbleponics and now comes theAquaponics. Fruits like water melon, cantaloupe, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, grapes can be grown under hydroponics while many vegetables are being produced using the same system which include beets, carrots, celery, tomato, broccoli, peas, beans etc. Flowering plants also can be grown though it requires more attention and care in designing the system for different flowers requiring different nutrients. Aquaponics system integrates hydroponics and aquaculture for fish production, both of which compliment each other. While the fish waste of aquaculture is a good nutrient source for plants, the water cleaned up by the plant in the hydroponics reduces the water requirement for aquaculture. Realizing the importance and relevance of aquaponics some universities are even focused courses in this new emerging area for training students. Here is a take on this interesting new development.
Aquaponics differs from hydroponics in that hydroponics relies on the addition of nutrient salts to the water to grow plants, rather than relying on the nutrients naturally occurring in fish waste. "Aquaponics is the coupling of two biological systems,"DiLoreto explained. "The plants feed off the fish and the fish purify the water for the plants -- so at the end you have two products, fish and plants. It's a much more natural process." He noted that sustainable methods are used in aquaponicgreenhouses. "You can't use most pesticides because they're toxic to fish," he said. "One needs to focus primarily on biological pest management." DiLoreto added that he believes aquaponic systems go hand-in-hand with increased interest in greener, sustainable agricultural practices and organic and locally-grown foods. Current plans for the Penn State aquaponics system include using two 300-gallon tanks to grow tilapia, and a large hydroponics area where basil, lettuce, mustard greens and micro-greens will be grown.

One is reminded of integrated agriculture being practiced in some parts of the world where crops like paddy are grown in conjunction with fish ponds for mutual benefits though there is limitations here in using fertilizers and chemical protectants. Probably fisheries can survive and prosper in paddy cultivation which requires enormous water for optimal growth. Aquaponics, as is being practiced to day, can be a boon to urban gardening and limitation of land will not be a constraint for popularizing agricultural practices. Besides in the nutrition parlor fish and vegetables are mutually reinforcing foods, bringing about radical improvements in the diets of urban dwellers. Local food sentiments can only boost the potential of aquaponics in coming years as a viable alternative to commercially grown foods ferried from across the globe at great cost to the environment.    


Sunday, June 24, 2012


Allergies can be caused by food as well the environment one lives in and in many cases it can be life threatening. Children are generally the victims of allergy which increases in severity as they grow. There are remedies which are available to deal with allergic reactions but ideally keeping away from situation that poses risk of allergy can be best solution. While in the case of food, it is somewhat easier to stay away from those containing known allergens, which are about 8 in number how can any one anticipate environmental hazards that also may trigger allergy? If a recent study on allergy is any indication, urban environment is more dangerous when it comes to food allergies though common sense tells that environmental induced allergic reactions should be more serious in such places. This is understandable considering the multitude of chemicals present in urban surroundings due to high population density and and all associated human activities.  For example emissions from heavy vehicular traffic that is a feature of urban living contain many chemicals in minute quantities that can be the cause of allergy. It is a logical finding that those living in rural areas where the environment is relatively cleaner the incidence of allergy is significantly less. But the report that urban children are more vulnerable to food allergy is indeed revealing. According to the authors of the study the reason for this could be the presence diverse microorganisms in rural environment o which children there are exposed, may be responsible to make them sturdy and resistant to allergy triggering. Here is a gist of the study that has brought to surface this interesting information.

"Study results showed that 9.8 percent of children in urban areas have food allergies as compared to 6.2 percent in rural communities. The states with the highest prevalence of food allergies in children were Nevada, Florida, Georgia, Alaska, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia. "We have found for the first time that population density has an impact" Gupta told the Chicago Tribune. "The big question now is what in the environment is the trigger?" Some researchers believe that the many pollutants found in urban areas may trigger the development of allergies while exposure early in life to bacteria common to rural areas may protect against hypersensitivity to allergens. Still, finding the answer to the "trigger" question is no short order and food allergies are a growing health problem. According to 2011 research by Gupta, an estimated 5.9 million children under the age of 18 now have a potentially life-threatening food allergy. Severe allergic reactions that can lead to death include a drop in blood pressure, trouble breathing and swelling of the throat. And despite the geographic disparity between occurrences of food allergies, severe food allergy reactions are not confined to one area. The study showed food allergies are equally severe in regardless of where a child lives. Nearly 40 percent of all the children in the study had a severe or life-threatening reaction."This is really important to note," Gupta told Food Safety News. "There may be less food allergies in rural areas, but if you do have a food allergy, you still have an equal chance of having a severe, potentially life-threatening reaction. Gupta advises parents to always report a child's allergic food reaction to his or her doctor so the child can be prescribed medication to prevent a life-threatening situation".

The role of microbes in making children less sensitive to allergens, as suggested by the scientists in the above study is really significant and many recent studies have brought out the beneficial effects of human microbiome in health that offer logical explanation for this perception. Another variable factor is the exposure of children to restaurant foods and processed products containing many chemical additives and whether this also plays a part is not known. Food allergy is a manifestation of reaction to certain specific proteins present in the food and there is no permanent remedy presently available. Also to be noted is the fact food allergy has a strong genetic factor as children borne to families having a history of allergy are more likely to inherit the same. On the other hand if urban environment is the major culprit for increasing incidences of allergy in urban areas and consequent development asthma and other respiratory ailments, what practical methods can be envisaged to ameliorate the situation? In spite of all claims that environment safety agencies are monitoring the quality of air in major urban settlements, it is doubtful whether the standards and enforcement practices are adequate to meet the emerging challenges. The hypothesis that exposure to microbes during early child hood may lessen the chances of food allergy is a good lead worth pursuing to reach a logical conclusion on this issue. In many cases gut microbes belonging to different species help in digestion of proteins significantly leaving very little peptide residues that can be absorbed to elicit allergic reaction. The well organized multi institutional research projects initiated in 2007 by National Institute of Health in the US on human microbiome can be expected to bring out lot of information on the role of microorganism in food allergy reactions.


Saturday, June 23, 2012


A serious worry that is bothering many restaurants is how the new ban being proposed on "jumbo serving" size in some areas in the US will affect their sales. So far regulators have been targeting food with high caloric density or high fat content and if and when any restrictions are placed on these parameters, it would have been much easier to circumvent the same with modified formulations and new product designs. But the effect of "volume" based ban is some what difficult to comprehend because of the complexities inherent in such a control regime. American market was always driven by the concept that bigger the size of the offering, higher will be the business and the foundation of this very concept is going to be affected by the new policy on serving size of beverages. It is always true in the US that smaller the pack size, higher will be the unit cost driving the consumers, especially those who are careful with their money, to go for bigger sizes which, in turn, drives the business raising volumes. The scale of economy for manufacture invariably brings down the production cost and raise the profit margin. Probably this may be reason for the industry to protest and resist the implementation of the ban on large sized beverage servings. Here is a report regarding the dilemma of an internationally successful coffee chain as to what could be the repercussions of the new policy on its business.

"Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's plan, which would limit the size of sweet drinks sold at many establishments to 16 ounces or less, exempts any beverage that contains more than 50 percent milk by volume. Officials in City Hall and in Seattle said they were unsure how those rules might affect the Starbucks family of syrupy, milkshake-style coffee drinks, catnip to thousands of caffeine addicted New Yorkers who frequent the company's 190 outlets in Manhattan. "It's hard for us to give a definitive word on which of our beverages would be impacted by the proposal," said Linda Mills, a Starbucks spokeswoman, although she said the company was confident that many of its drinks would fall outside the proposed ban. The Starbucks question — complicated by the varying amounts of ice, sugar and milk in each customized drink — is just one of the ambiguities facing the city as it begins a three-month public comment period on the proposed rules. On Tuesday, the Board of Health, which has final say over the rules, agreed to consider the proposal formally at its next meeting, in September. The rules would ban large sodas sold at fast-food restaurants, movie theaters and street carts. But the Big Gulp, the supersized soda cup at 7-Eleven, would still be allowed under the proposal, because the proposal would exempt the sale of drinks in groceries or convenience stores".

As the new policy has not yet been implemented and it is being subjected to more stringent scrutiny in the coming days there may be some changes that will meet with some of the peculiar problems which are likely to be encountered during translation of the policy into practice. Also not understood is why convenient stores and grocery outlets are exempted from the purview of the ban and it is possible that more such stores will start beverage services for circumventing the regulation to make a fast buck in the process. What about the industry offering unlimited refills for the basic 16 oz cup for a slightly higher price which in effect will nullify the spirit behind the new policy. There is a case to exempt beverages containing fruit pulps and milk solids, even if the content is less than 50% because they are much more preferable to 100% sugar based drinks, providing some nutrition. There is every justification to bring in other foods also within the ambit of the banning policy which may include jumbo sized ice creams and large sized high fat products.  Ultimately whether such "pressures" in the form of restrictive policies will make any impact on the obesity epidemic remains to be seen. But trying to do some thing, even with a small chance of success, must not be given up in the face of any hostility from the industry and other arm chair critics!


Friday, June 22, 2012


It is interesting to read a recent news item which reported the action of Chinese food safety authorities in overhauling the catering facilities in schools across the country to improve the safety standards there with a view to protect the health of children who depend on them for their meals. The report opens a window to the prevailing situations that exist in Chinese educational institutions, especially in the lower level schools and it is revealing that in schools cafeteria facilities are provided to the students. In contrast the schools in India do not provide such facilities with most kids attracted towards street hawkers who sell unhygienic foods jeopardizing their health. Only recently the Supreme Court in India passed strictures against the government regarding the unhealthy foods to which kids are exposed with the government filing a weak reply which was an example of obfuscation. Many government schools in India depend on free foods distributed under the Applied Nutrition Program or midday meal project under the illusion that children attend the school more regularly. It will be interesting to learn more about the Chinese system though the report mentioned above gives one the impression that it is similar to the American system where kids are supplied subsidized foods through regular canteens. Here is a take on this interesting news. 

"A total of 600 school cafeterias have been given administrative penalties during China's latest inspection tour of such facilities, and more than 20,000 have been ordered to eliminate potential food safety hazards, according to a food watchdog statement released on Friday. Although the punishments were not specified, Chinese administrative penalties usually involve fines and revocations of licenses. As of the end of March, 130,000 school cafeterias across China had been overhauled during a joint inspection launched by the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) and the Ministry of Education, according to the SFDA statement. The two organs will conduct a new wave of inspections from May to the end of June, in a bid to prevent food poisoning in the warmer months and examine the implementation of the government order on ensuring food safety. A series of food poisoning cases have been reported by schools in the past month, raising fears among Chinese students and parents.Schools are required to increase students' awareness of food safety, and relevant departments are urged to strict supervision, the statement said". 

In a way, one has to admire the Chinese government for populistic measures like the above though these are at the expense of limiting the personal freedom of the citizens for the sake of national development. The intensified checking and hauling up of institutions for safety violations also speak well of the values attached to the upbringing of children, who are future citizens of the country. While the present attempt is mainly focused on safety violations, what  needs to be done further is to streamline the nutritional and health value of foods offered in school cafeterias across the country. It may be recalled that America is going through a phase where more restrictions are being placed regarding what type of foods should be available in school premises weeding out sugary and fatty foods with low nutrient density, a model that can be adapted in other countries.  


Thursday, June 21, 2012


In spite of dire predictions about the fate of the country, in the face of crushing burden of poverty, hunger and malnutrition, India seems to be plodding on without any catastrophe as being talked about for a long time. But if the statical figures coming out of this country with a massive population of almost 2 billion are taken seriously, billions of rupees invested by successive governments in the name of poverty alleviation and welfare of the so called "aam aadmi" or the "common man",  do not seem to have made any lasting impression at the ground level. Poor people continue to be poor and hungry ones reconcile to their fate! More shockingly some of the parameters used to measure human development progress reveal a distressing trend with no ready answer for this pitiable state or ready solution to lick the problem. GDP figures or per capita income growth does not tell the true story because here is a country which has made rich people richer and poor ones poorer and average figures do not reflect the agony and anguish most people are going through! Every Indian has to hang his head in shame when confronted by global reports about the tragedy  of Indian children under a democratic dispensation! Is this the cost of development which appears to be not inclusive, benefitiing only a few people in the country?. Is there no hope or salvation to millions of impoverished people in the country who dream of just a simple life with adequate food, security and self respect? Some how the government of the day is imagining that distributing food grains at subsidized cost or badly implemented welfare schemes which never reaches the beneficiaries, will mislead the world. Reports about muti billion rupees scams in the telecom sector or coal sector or in the real estate sector, even if not proven conclusively and the alleged black money hoardings in foreign countries, do not inspire confidence that there can be a turn around in the fortunes of the poor in the forseable future. Here is an incisive analysis about the situation that is unfolding in India.

"While nutritionists and economists debate the importance of targets defined solely in calories, other data shows gains in nourishment also stalled. In the 2005 National Family Health Survey, when India last weighed, measured and counted its children for signs of hunger, it found 46 percent -- 31 million -- weighed too little for their ages, almost an entire Canada of malnourished under-three-year-olds. In 1999, that number was 47 percent. Some indicators worsened: 79 percent of children had anemia, against 74 percent in 1999; 19 percent were wasted -- weighed too little for their height -- up from 16 percent. Anemia prevents the absorption of nutrients; as do the diarrhea and other diseases caused by poor hygiene and sanitation. In sheer numbers, 4 out of 10 malnourished children in the world are Indian, more than in all of Africa. War-torn Sudan and famine-struck Eritrea had smaller percentages of malnourished children, at about 32 percent, according to the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. India's hungry children are likely to have lower cognitive skills, grow up to be weakened workers, suffer from chronic illnesses and die prematurely, according to the United Nations Children's Fund. Hunger stalks them into adulthood too: 21 percent of all Indians are undernourished, according to Ifpri, up from 20 percent a decade ago. All of which costs the country about $68 billion a year, or almost 4 percent of GDP, according to Veena S. Rao, who heads nutrition initiatives for the government of Karnataka, the Indian state that encompasses the city of Bangalore. "The problem of malnutrition is a national shame," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in January, in one of about 50 public speeches where he has mentioned the subject. "Despite impressive growth in our gross domestic product, the level of under-nutrition in the country is unacceptably high." India has collected reliable and consistent national data on nutrition since 1972, soon after setting minimum daily intakes of about 2,100 calories a day for city residents, who are assumed to be less physically active. The level for rural- dwellers was pegged at 2,400 calories on the basis that tilling fields, harvesting crops and drawing water require greater exertion".

To add insult to injury, the head of the government proclaims from the roof top that nutrition problem is a national shame without giving any clue as to what he was doing during the last 7 years he has been in power or what plans he has, different from the past, to tackle the problem! His minister for environment seems to be obsessed with programs for building toilets in rural areas where open defecation is commonly accepted practice though one cannot find fault with his focused efforts. If people do not have sufficient food to eat what difference it makes where they defecate. The realization does not seem to be dawning on the rulers that poverty and unhygienic situation go hand in hand and unless an integrated approach is thought about no amount of money invested will show any result at the ground level. It was not long ago that administrators of toilet building program in Karnataka realized, how, within a matter of a few months , most toilets were converted into additional rooms for day to day use including for pooja purpose! The present proposal to increase the toilet grant from Rs 3500 to Rs 10000 is unlikely to improve the situation dramatically unless the hunger in the belly is doused. For this to happen, government will have to ensure that corruption in welfare programs so rampant in the country is eradicated ruthlessly so that beneficiaries get fully what is due to them. Unless and until this happens, the wheel of poverty and hunger will roll on and on with no let up!



To the plethora of chemicals humans ingest in the day to day life here comes another one which was recently found to be in some food products and the environment around. HBCD as it is named by the organic chemists has not yet been conclusively proved to be harmful at concentrations found in meat, milk and fish, though further studies only can reveal the extent of danger posed by this substance. What is interesting is that HBCD levels in the house hold environment is much higher than that is found in some of the foods tested so far and the implication of this finding cannot be comprehended as of now. Though government safety agencies "think" that the current situation does not warrant any alarm, it is difficult to take such assurances at their face value and sooner the issue is resolved better it will be for the consumer community. Here is a take on this new developments which needs priority consideration by the health experts for further consideration.
"A new study from researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health has revealed that flame retardant chemicals were found in many samples taken from popular food items. While less than half of the tested food products had detectible levels of the chemical called hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), 15 out of the 36 items tested positive. HBCD is used in polystyrene foam in the building and construction industry and can be found worldwide in the environment and wildlife, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It has been highly toxic for aquatic organisms, and shown to have troubling effects on animal populations. "The levels we found are lower than what the government agencies currently think are dangerous," study author Dr. Arnold Schecter, a public health physician at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas, told WebMD. "But those levels were determined one chemical at a time."
What is of serious concern is its possible role as an endocrine disruptor, capable of adversely affecting the functions of hormonal system as a whole and the Thyroid function in particular. The dangers of careless and indiscriminate disposal of plastics into the open which ultimately end up in the water bodies are obvious when it has been pointed out that HBCD is found mostly in foods derived from animals and fish which consume contaminated water and vegetation containing this toxic chemical. Endocrine disruptor chemicals are becoming more and more prominent these days because of their suspected role in causing many diseases due to interference with functions of the hormonal system in human body. Besides some of them have been implicated as obesogens, responsible for hijacking the fat metabolism leading to the obesity syndrome in most people. In the light of these findings, more serious attention needs to be bestowed on such chemicals which creep into the food system at sun-ppb levels with enormous potential to cause havoc on human health.   

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


One of the unit operations in food processing is cutting to reduce the size of raw materials to the desired size range. Slicing, dicing and cutting into different shapes, all need knives and other sharp gadgets. Time has changed since man used knives made of steel, copper and other metals to make knives and other cutting tools by a variety of domestic chores as well as for food processing as more and more mechanical and electric devices are being introduced to increase productivity and reduce manual intervention as far as possible. Special metal alloys have emerged which are robust and precise working for long time without losing their sharpness. In food industry, use of stainless steel knives and cutting blades have become standard because of the ease with which they can be cleaned up to avoid cross contamination of food in manufacturing facilities. Still contamination can still be a problem due to negligence and oversight. It is in this context that high pressure water jet cutting system is considered super efficient for food industry. High pressure water jets using Ultra High  Pressure (UHP) has been in use for some time for a variety of cutting operations in products like pizza, cakes, meat, fish, candy bars, french fries, many frozen foods etc but it gained added importance with food safety concerns due to pathogen contamination increasing day by day, especially in the US and the EU. Here is a peep into this marvelous cutting tool of immaculate efficiency.  

There are many wonders of engineering, confined to the labs and warehouses of industry, that we laypeople never get to see. That's the case with the water jet cutter, which fires out a thin stream of water through a diamond nozzle at nearly the speed of sound and can slice through everything from peaches to linoleum with the greatest of ease. It's been around in some form since the 1950s, but if you're not in the business of cutting things into ever-smaller pieces, you may not have come across it. Here is a cutter made by Paprima going through beets like a knife through butter: If you've never chopped a beet, let me enlighten you: beets are like spheres of wood. You may be tempted to pull out a hatchet to make any kind of serious progress—or, you could reach for a tiny stream of pressurized water. That stream of water has a delicate touch, too. It can slice through food items as fragile as canned peaches and leave not a scratch on them, except for a thin line of empty space. It also, as long as the water is clean, does not leave bacteria on them, which is a downside of using a metal knife to process sliced foods.

According to experts familiar with water jet cutting technology, pure water cutting has several advantages which include good sanitary protection, prevention of cross contamination, steady pressure of water ensuring uniform cutting and versatility to manage precise cutting, slitting, portioning etc using a pump generating 90000 psi pressure. Because of the high pressure water gets evaporated instantly without ever wetting the product subjected to cutting. The technology requires use of specific cutting nozzles for each application and food industry can manage the floor level processing without the need to remove the conventional cutting blades, cleaning them regularly and drying before using for the next operation. Since the high pressure jet nozzle does not come in contact with the food, contamination is never a serious issue. More over under such high pressures no microbe can survive for causing any future problem.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Reusable bags for carrying groceries are increasingly being adopted by consumers world over because of better awareness about the damages plastics can cause to the environment. It is almost two decades since the harmful environmental effects of plastics , when they are discarded indiscriminately, became an issue and tireless campaigns and a few policy orchestration by the government authorities have created some sensitivity among the consumers regarding the undesirability of continued use of plastics. Two prime considerations that weigh against plastics are that it is mostly made from the unsustainable fossil fuels and plastics are not biodegradable for long periods, as long as 800 years. Besides the ultra voilet  degradation generates artifacts which are more dangerous to the environment. Pacific ocean is one of the most polluted water bodies containing millions of tons of plastic substances. The devastating Mumbai floods in India, a few years ago which caused severe damage to the city, was attributed to choking of storm drains with discarded plastics. Many governments have tried to put a ban on production of plastic films with thickness less than 20 microns but not with any degree of success. Now that reusable bags are gaining acceptance, the dangers inherent in not taking care of these bags have been highlighted in an advisory by the Canadian health agencies which is contained in the report below. 

"Health Canada is reminding Canadians to take steps to prevent cross-contamination of foods when shopping with reusable grocery bags and bins. As an environmental choice, many Canadians are now shopping with reusable bins, plastic bags and cloth bags to reduce the amount of plastic they are using. Health Canada supports the proper use of these products, but it is important to use them safely to prevent cross-contamination of food with bacteria that can cause food borne illness. Because these bags and bins are reused frequently, they can pick up bacteria from the foods they carry, or from their environment (the ground, the back of your car or the items stored in them between grocery trips). The following steps can help to prevent cross-contamination:
-- Wash cloth bags frequently, especially after carrying fresh produce, meat, poultry or fish. Reusable grocery bags may not all be machine washable. If yours are not, you should wash them by hand frequently with hot soapy water. Plastic bins should be washed using hot soapy water on a regular basis as well. It is also important to dry grocery bags and bins after washing.
-- Put fresh or frozen raw meat, poultry and fish in separate bins or bags from fresh produce and other ready-to-eat foods.
-- Putting your fresh or frozen raw meat, poultry or fish in plastic bags (the clear bags found in the produce and some meat sections work well) will help to prevent the juices from leaking and contaminating your reusable containers and other foods. Fresh produce should also be put in plastic bags to help protect it from contamination.
-- If you are using your grocery bags or bins to store or transport non-food items, they should be washed thoroughly before using them for groceries.
It is estimated that there are approximately 11 million cases of food-related illness in Canada every year. Many of these cases could be prevented by following proper food handling and preparation technique".

Before the advent of plastics in countries like India people have been using cloth bags for shopping and regular cleaning was a feature embedded in the daily lives of the people. It is true that the the extent of danger is enhanced when moist foods are carried and raw meat carries maximum risks. Cloth bags also pose danger during rainy season when humidity is high and an improperly dried bag can attract mold growth with some risks of microbial contamination in foods. Also in vogue was the practice of using old news papers for wrapping grocery items before the implementation of the packed commodities regulations making it illegal to indulge in loose vending by the retailers. Probably it is only in India that used news papers have a market for making paper bags for use by grocery shops. Many modern retail stores use reinforced paper bags with high strength in place of plastic bags though it could cost a few cents extra to the customers. Use of paper makes eminent sense because of its sustainable nature with recycling technology well developed. Ultimately cloth bags can only provide a lasting solution and if necessary care is taken, nothing else can come any where near to this age old traditional "carry bag" system.  


Monday, June 18, 2012


The new policy being implemented in New York state for banning sale of sugary beverages in sizes beyond 16 oz is considered a controversial one because some civil rights activists feel it restricts the personal freedom conferred on them by the constitution to eat what they want without any interference from the government. Probably these critics have a case but they forget that beyond an individual, one has to think of the society in which the individual lives and it is inconceivable that unfettered personal freedom can impose misery on the society as a whole. Obesity may be a problem with an individual but what does it cost the society when its members become bloated figures because of "irresponsible" eating? Mind boggling medical costs and unbearable welfare costs to support such a population! There is no way a responsible government can act other than putting in reasonable restrictions on individual freedom vis-a-vis food consumption. After all the new policy does not bar an individual from consuming more than one unit of 16 oz bottle, if he or she is hell bent on developing obesity! Here is a commentary on the latest Soda sale restriction in the US. 

"The idea here is, you tend to eat all the food in the container in front of you," said Bloomberg. "If it's a bigger container, you eat more. If somebody put it in a smaller glass or plate or bowl in front of you, you would eat less." Plates or bowls?  Sounds like six inch dinner plates and tiny forks are right around the corner. These enlightened and progressive ideas aren't confined to the City of New York. In San Francisco, McDonalds can no longer have a toy in its Happy Meals because it makes kids want to buy them. That's just the kind of common sense legislation we need. "We're part of a movement that is moving forward an agenda of food justice," said Supervisor Eric Mar, who sponsored the measure.  Who could disagree with the noble idea of "food justice"? Parents can't be expected to know what's best for their children. We need wise government officials to force us to make the right decisions. But why stop there? Obesity has reached epidemic proportions, costing this country billions in health care. Let's take our quest for "food justice" to the local grocery store. Why should anyone need to buy a pound of bacon all in one package? Let's sell it by the slice. If you want a bunch of bacon, you're going to have to buy and unwrap each slice. That ought to slow you dummies down. The days of buying huge bags of potato chips are over; four ounce maximum from here on out. We're not going to take away your right to buy lots of bacon and chips, just make it really annoying.  Our lack of exercise is also a major contributor to our bulging waist lines. We have turned into a nation of couch potatoes. In the days of sixty inch, high definition televisions, who can resist watching our favorite programs for hours on end? Certainly, the average Joe is just too weak and ignorant to resist the lure of the Lazy-Boy. From this point forward, no television should be any bigger than twelve inches, and we should go back to black and white. But that's probably not enough. We need to get people to the gym. Don't worry, we're not going to round you up and drag you to the State Fitness Center. But, if you don't join a gym, you're going to have to pay a small tax or fee. Maybe we could even have the people running on tread mills that generate electricity. We could support the green movement and defeat obesity all at the same time. Who could be against that?

The Soda sales ban should be applicable to every other food considered not healthy including sweetened products, high fat foods and meat preparations. The new trend in the food industry in downsizing the pack sizes to make the food affordable to more and more people because of economic recession, may be a blessing in disguise because it can have some influence in restricting the quantity consumed by individual consumer. In this context one has to appreciate the developments in India where, for economic reasons, consumer pack sizes are being tuned to the buying capacity of the majority consumers and if Indian market is flooded with mini packets costing Rs 2 to Rs 5 containing comparatively smaller quantities, it is bound to have a health benefit also! American food Industry is learning this lesson late and the philosophy of New York state in controlling the sales of jumbo packs must be translated into practice by the manufacturing sector as well as the food service organizations.