Friday, May 31, 2013


After the euphoria about the likely massive inflow of foreign investment in multi brand retail market operations in India, the earlier enthusiasm seems to be fading in the light of the prevailing ground realities in the country. Many critics raised the issue regarding the adverse impact the new policy would have on the 8 million and odd domestic traders and small stores because of the deep pocket the MNCs have in aggressively pushing their agenda. Eventually it was feared that millions of people would be deprived of their livelihood by the modern air conditioned super markets and malls that may come up under the aegis of internationally established and recognized brands. Now comes the news that some of the major global players are putting pressure on the Government to modify the policy and they seem to be "concerned" about the preconditions like mandatory procurement of 30% of their products from local sources and investment requirement on back-end operations, the very heart of the policy to protect the local interests. Here is a take on this "behind the scene" maneuvering going on at Delhi to influence the government!

"Among the norms making global players jittery are the 30 per cent mandatory sourcing from small and medium enterprises, at least 50 per cent investment in back-end infra and state-wise approvals. The government's stand on not allowing FDI in e-commerce is also seen as a hurdle, as most foreign chains have been pushing the on line format to cut cost and beat competition. According to highly-placed sources, the French retailer, which was keen to expand India footprint from being just a cash-and-carry (wholesale) player, is now "going slow" and might even decide to "review" its investment plans, if things didn't go according to its expectations. Top Carrefour representatives, in their meetings with the government, are learnt to have demanded certain significant changes in the policy. To address foreign retailers' concerns and to woo them back, the commerce ministry is understood to be planning to issue a comprehensive clarification. Asked if the company was reviewing its India plans and had conveyed its disappointment to the French and Indian governments, Carrefour's India spokesperson said the company had "no comments" to offer. Besides India, where it only has cash-and-carry operations, Carrefour is present in two other Asian markets - China and Taiwan. As of December 2012, it had 218 hypermarkets in China and 61 hypermarkets and three supermarkets in Taiwan. Over the past few months, it has withdrawn from key Asian markets like Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, to reduce debt and generate cash flow. Among other geographies, it has exited from Colombia and cut stake in Turkish business, triggering speculation it might withdraw from there, too. In India, Carrefour runs a fully-owned cash-and-carry business, with four wholesale outlets - one each in Delhi, Jaipur, Meerut and Agra. It has yet to identify an Indian partner for retail operations.On the other hand, the US' Walmart, which has 20 wholesale outlets in India under a 50:50 joint venture with Bharti, is expected to extend the partnership for front-end retail, too. The UK's Tesco has a franchise agreement with the Tata group for back-end and wholesale; these two are also likely to extend the partnership for retail"

Whether government will buckle or not remains to be seen. However one thing is clear about the so called "muscle" of MNC retailers which was feared to annihilate the poor "mom and pop" stores round the corner of ever street in the country. In spite of massive efforts and investments by many industry giants who entered the retailing sector during the last one decade the organized players have not been able to capture even 5% of the business generated by this sector! Only future will tell whether MNCs will be able to fare better than their domestic counterparts. If government does relax the provisions related to domestic procurement and investment in back end infrastructure, it does not need any extra intelligence to predict that India will be swamped by cheap Chinese products sounding a death knell for the domestic players. Already Chinese products are dominating the markets for many consumer products but food products from China are yet to make a mark. One can only hope that government will stick to the original policy without bending backwards to the clout of some of the retail giants who are eying the lucrative Indian market. 


Thursday, May 30, 2013


America and China are two countries which have a love-hate relationship since both are global rivals trying to establish unchallenged economic superiority. Though America enjoyed a near monopoly as a super power ever since the fall of the mighty Soviet Union, China with its Communist dictatorship registered dramatic growth during the last one and a half decade and according to economic experts America cannot afford to antagonize this nation because of its close economic dependence on Chinese investments in the US and over dependence of America on cheap Chinese imports. While cheap and low quality consumer products may not pose serious dangers to the citizens, when it comes to food safety, one can never compromise and it is here that Americans are becoming increasingly vulnerable to food poisoning from food products imported from China which are not subject to regular and thorough checking at various ports of entry. Here is a critical commentary on the current practices vis-a-vis the safety risks Americans face due to this situation.      

Chinese imports dominate some food categories to a striking extent. In a testimony before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May (pdf), food safety expert Patty Lovera noted that China accounted for 80% of tilapia, 51% of cod, 49% of apple juice, 34% of processed mushrooms, 27% of garlic and 16% of frozen spinach consumed in the U.S. in 2011. Reports on the state of Chinese food processing establishments are discouraging. More than half of food processing and packaging firms on the Chinese mainland failed safety inspections in 2011, according to a report by Asia Inspection, a China-based food quality control company. Meanwhile, in the U. S., inspections of imported food products are minute compared to the total volume of imports. According to a recent study by the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee in 2011, FDA inspections were a mere 2.3 % of the total of all imported food products (pdf). The same study states that food imports generally have risen 10% annually since 2004, and are continuing to rise (imports grew from $399 million in 2011 to $426 million in 2012). The FDA estimates that food imports from China and India will grow by 9% annually between 2010 and 2020. The flow of reports in recent years from domestic and foreign sources alike about serious violations of food safety in China has been continuous and alarming. In the last year alone, the country has seen thousands of dead pigs show up in a major river, faced multiple milk scandals and busted operations that were passing off rat meat as mutton. In addition, as Patty Lovera told Congress, there is "widespread smuggling of products like honey to avoid tariffs and food safety restrictions [and] mislabeled products 'transshipped' through another country but produced in China." Food safety problems are, of course, not only a concern to the U.S. The German magazine Der Spiegel recently posted online a list of "rejected food" imported into the EU from China during 2012, including insect-infested potatoes, rabbit meat loaded with antibiotics, oyster sauce with staphylococcus, salmonella-infected ginger, pumpkin seeds contaminated with glass chips and arsenic in frozen calamari. American history of the late 19th and early 20th century reminds us that periods of rapid economic growth stimulate fraud and deception in food processing, which leads to increased regulation. As I noted in an earlier column, it wasn't until author Upton Sinclair aroused public concern with "The Jungle," his 1906 book on conditions in the Chicago meat packaging industry, that President Theodore Roosevelt moved to create the FDA.

China is not a saint when it comes to food safety assurance, even for its own citizens. This country was rocked by many food related frauds during the last one decade affecting children and adults alike and fraudulent practices are still being perpetuated by a section of the food industry which are being splashed across the news channels of electronic media across the globe! Whether this is happening in spite of the government or because of the government is not quite clear. The advantage China has in meting out justice is apparent when it is realized that the governing system is dictatorial in nature and unlike democracies, deciding about the guilty and according severe punishment can be swift. Still food safety scandals are tumbling out of the cup board in that country with a sickening regularity. America which prides itself the best governed country in the world, seems to be lowering its guard against China for reasons which are not very clear. If economic considerations are handicapping that country in taking the Chinese food safety problem seriously, one can only wish that the lives of innocent American citizens are not sacrificed at the altar of extraneous considerations.      


Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Salt is considered a dirty word till recently and it constituted along with sugar and fat the infamous triumvirate of unhealthy food constituents to be shunned to maintain good health and good quality life. All three are implicated in heart diseases when consumed in excess. Of these, salt, if consumed at uncontrolled levels is supposed to raise blood pressure consequences of which include heart failure, stroke and kidney failure. The moot question is, at what level of consumption it becomes excess? The recommended level of salt consumption was progressively reduced during the last few years and to day many health pundits say that man should not consume more than half teaspoon of salt daily, working out to about 1500 mg of sodium equivalent!. Billions of dollars are being pumped to take up campaigns to persuade people to bring down salt intake and many awareness programs to educate them. Now comes the news that mindless reduction of salt can be injurious to health and a healthy person must take salt that will supply 3000 to 7000 mg of sodium per day through the diet and outside this range man is vulnerable to heart disease! Here is a take on this latest finding that throws the current perception out of the window! 

The United States dietary guidelines, based on the 2005 Institute of Medicine report, recommend that the general population aim for sodium levels of 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day because those levels will not raise blood pressure. The average sodium consumption in the United States, and around the world, is about 3,400 milligrams a day, according to the Institute of Medicine — an amount that has not changed in decades. But more recently, researchers began looking at the actual consequences of various levels of salt consumption, as found in rates of heart attacks, strokes and death, not just blood pressure readings. Some of what they found was troubling. One 2008 study the committee examined, for example, randomly assigned 232 Italian patients with aggressively treated moderate to severe congestive heart failure to consume either 2,760 or 1,840 milligrams of sodium a day, but otherwise to consume the same diet. Those consuming the lower level of sodium had more than three times the number of hospital readmissions — 30 as compared with 9 in the higher-salt group — and more than twice as many deaths — 15 as compared with 6 in the higher-salt group. Another study, published in 2011, followed 28,800 subjects with high blood pressure ages 55 and older for 4.7 years and analyzed their sodium consumption by urinalysis. The researchers reported that the risks of heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure and death from heart disease increased significantly for those consuming more than 7,000 milligrams of sodium a day and for those consuming fewer than 3,000 milligrams of sodium a day. There are physiological consequences of consuming little sodium, said Dr. Michael H. Alderman, a dietary sodium expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who was not a member of the committee. As sodium levels plunge, triglyceride levels increase, insulin resistance increases, and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increases. Each of these factors can increase the risk of heart disease.

It is terrible to imagine that during the last one decade how many lives might have been lost due to sodium insufficiency across the world because of the current misconception and ceaseless salt "bashing". Besides causing heart disease low sodium is also reported to be contributing to increased fat build up and diabetes with other serious consequences. A look back on the salt consumption levels of human beings reveal the predominance of salt in products like pickles, saurkrauts, cured meat, dried fish etc and there were no reports of adverse consequences of high salt intake among them. It is after the explosive development of processed food industry during the last 2-3 decades that there were spurts of incidences of heart disease and other life style health disorders and as the proportion of processed foods in daily diet increased, the on-slaught of the the above diseases also gained momentum assuming epidemic proportion.   

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Food grain surplus available with Government of India is increasing every year due to the diligence of the farmers and decent procurement prices ( MSP) offered to them. On one hand MSP provides the farmer a safety net so that he is not exploited by the traders while increasing flow of grains into government granaries is creating an infrastructure jam in the form of inadequate safe storage facility and lack of quality and management factors. In spite of strictures from the Supreme Court on the wastage of grains year after year, very little has been achieved so far address the storage problem. Suggestions are made from time to time regarding the best way to get rid of the stored grains held beyond the food security linked storage level though Government is still not sure as to how this food surplus is to be tackled. Latest view on this subject is bizarre in that it suggests that eligible consumers are to be supplied with their 3 years' grain requirement at one go to get rid of the grain stock! Here is a take on this "hilarious" suggestion.      

The paper noted central agencies had excess stock even after taking into account what was needed for the FSB. The authors calculated that stocks with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) would be in excess of 30 million tonnes as on July 1. The value locked in these ranges from Rs 70,000 crore to Rs 92,000 crore. The paper suggested states where the Public Distribution Systems have been integrated with Aadhaar, the citizen identification number, be allowed to lift 36 months of their off take requirements at a discounted price. The discount, the authors suggested, would be equal to the cost of carrying by FCI. These states can ask consumers to lift their 36 months' quota at one go, with a discount on the PDS price. That way, consumers can get a larger quantity of grain and FCI would have more storage space. One of three other alternatives suggested is an open market sale scheme at last year's MSP, beside a maximum of five per cent taxes, cess and others.

Those who make the above suggestion must be out of their mind because they have no idea as to what will happen to the quality of grains if they are stored at the consumer end. Food grains are vulnerable to infestation by insects, prone to attack by rodents and can cause irreversible changes in quality and nutrition progressively with time. Even the FCI, government's food grain procurement and storage arm finds it difficult to prevent spoilage in spite of their scientifically constructed storage structures and how can one expect that a family can keep the grains safe for 3 years? One should not forget the oft repeated claims by food experts that post harvest food losses in the country can be any where from 25% to 40%! Both Planning Commission as well as the government officials including the Prime Minister routinely talk about such food wastage in the country though at the ground level not much is being accomplished to save these grains from spoilage! This suggestion is outlandish and it only will enable the government to shift its responsibility of protecting the food to the poor citizens.  


Monday, May 27, 2013


The mass movement against production of genetically modified food crops is assuming critical proportion if recent reports about global protests organized against the perpetrators of these foods are to be believed. Though there is no substantial evidence about the so called advantages of GM crops, the "innovators" and developers of the GM seeds maintain that there is no evidence of any danger caused by their seeds. It is pointed out that more than 80% of foods eaten by the Americans to day contain GM food ingredients and the population there is still "surviving", though most of them are obese and disease stricken! One of the tall claims made by the monopolistic seed companies is that GM technology increases crop yield and therefore is imperative for meeting future food needs. This is a canard and safety authorities in the US are closing their eyes to the long term dangers posed by these "nature tampered" products! Here is the latest development vis-a-vis the universal anti-GM food sentiments across the world.

"Two million people marched Saturday across the United States and in more than 50 other countries in a protest against seed giant Monsanto aimed at calling attention to dangers posed by genetically modified food that it and other companies produceFounder and organizer Tami Canal said protests were held in 436 cities in 52 countries. Genetically modified plants are grown from seeds that are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits or otherwise improve crop yields and increase the global food supply. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified. But some say genetically modified organisms can lead to serious health conditions and harm the environment. The use of GMOs has been a growing issue of contention in recent years, with health advocates pushing for mandatory labeling of genetically modified products even though the federal government and many scientists say the technology is safe. The 'March Against Monsanto' movement began just a few months ago, when Canal created a Facebook page on Feb. 28 calling for a rally against the company's practices. "If I had gotten 3,000 people to join me, I would have considered that a success," she said Saturday. Instead, two million responded to her message. Together with Seattle blogger and activist Emilie Rensink and Nick Bernabe of, Canal worked with A ditigal anarchy to promote international awareness of the event. She called the turnout "incredible," and credited social media for being a vehicle for furthering opportunities for activism. Despite the size of the gatherings, Canal said she was grateful that the marches were uniformly peaceful and no arrests have been reported."

GM food companies are citing the support of people to their products as manifested by the narrow defeat of a proposal in November last in California for mandatory labeling of foods containing GM ingredients. What is not told is that the organized GM food industry invested $ 45 million to "brainwash" the electorate into believing that GM foods are "substantially" same as the natural counterpart from which they are evolved. The FDA of the US, not considered truly independent in taking citizen friendly policy decisions, being in the grip of the GM lobby and its political supporters, will never be pardoned for this condescending attitude if the future of American citizens is jeopardized in any way because of its lack of concern for their safety and indirect support to the GM food industry. Even the present President will not be spared for his broken promise about mandatory labeling of GM foods made during his election campaign. One can only hope that the new vigor with which the people are fighting the GM food lobby may eventually succeed.


Sunday, May 26, 2013


To day's world is on a desperate search for the proverbial magical bullet for meeting the challenges of the epidemic of obesity in many countries, an out come of prosperity and never ending desire of the humans for leisure and relaxation. It is by now known that every creature on this earth has a mechanism to balance its body weight through the satiety signaling system embedded in its brain but due to many factors, mostly man made, this system goes haywire which causes over eating food much beyond what the body requires. It is the basic nutrition principle that if intake of calorie is balanced with outgo or expenditure by the body for the basal metabolic activity and the physical activity indulged, there probably may not be any extra body weight gained by any person. Unfortunately those who develop over weight consume or gorge on foods rich in sugar and fat, major food components that contribute calories for sustenance and day to day activity. Binge eating caused by cheap and highly palatable foods rich in the above food constituents is recognized as the main reason for putting on weight without the consumer being aware of it. Many countries try out different strategies to persuade the consumer to restrict calories and calories yielding foods but with very little success and food industry's aggressive marketing of such products does not help the cause. Latest strategy that is being proposed to curb food consumption depends on the "shock" factor by letting the consumer know the consequences of eating too much by including information on the label or the menu as to how much walking is needed to burn the calories ingested through the food served. Here is a take on this new strategy still under trial.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, said clearly signposting healthy options and nutritional content helped people make informed choices when ordering food. But she added: "While displaying the amount of exercise needed to burn calories is an interesting idea, there's more to a heart-healthy diet than calorie counting. "Restaurants can also take steps to make meals healthier by serving appropriate portion sizes and reducing the amount of salt, saturated fat and sugar in their dishes."Whether eating at home or dining out, a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and veg is the best way to protect your heart." 

Whether this strategy will really work is very difficult to predict. It will definitely sensitize the consumer for some time but in the long run there is the possibility that he may learn to ignore such warnings. History is replete with instances of consumer insensitivity developing to such good intentioned warnings and consumers reverting back to their old habits. Cigarettes and Alcoholic drinks are classical example. It will be interesting to watch the progress of the new approach being tried over a longer period of time before coming to any definitive conclusion. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013


World over street foods are offered from the side pavements of many roads in major cities and towns where real estate is exorbitantly expensive and non-affordable to most small scale food vendors. It is true that this is a despicable practice due to its nuisance value to the citizens who are forced to walk on busy roads endangering their lives in the process. From time to time eviction efforts are made by the civic authorities but without much lasting success. Though most street vendors are supposed to be poor, they bribe the police as well as the civic officials to continue with their business without any harassment and hindrance. Since this sector has grown rapidly due to the affinity of even well to do citizens to the hot foods served by them on the road side, wishing away this phenomenon is no more possible and it has assumed a different dimension from a humanitarian angle. It is unbelievable that in India there are about 10 million hawkers across all the cities and towns doing a thriving business and since they constitute a sizable vote bank, the present political dispensation ruling in the country, in a desperate effort to expand its vote bank,  has cast its eyes on this group promising many things to attract their loyalty. A bill to offer many sops to these vendors has been just cleared by the government which is sought to be rushed through the Lok Sabha shortly. Here is a take on this new "sop avatar" being pushed through hastily for reaping the "harvest" in the forthcoming national election.

Ahead of the 2014 elections, the UPA government on Wednesday offered a major sop to the about 10 million street vendors across India – a part of its targeted aam admi vote bank. After hanging in fire for over a year, the Union cabinet cleared the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, which once enacted will go a long way in protecting the rights of vendors by giving them legal protection. Presently, there is no law to regulate and safeguard the interest of urban street vendors in India The bill mandates municipalities to set up restriction free vending zones/ night bazaars where hawkers can sell their wares without being harassed by the authorities. Town vendor's committee which will have representatives from municipalities as well as vendor associations will demarcate space where vendors can operate. The Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation ministry which is piloting the bill intends to introduce it in the ongoing budget session of the Parliament. However, it looks unlikely with the opposition continuing to disrupt the session. The bill will allow anyone over 14 years to apply and register as street vendor on payment of one time fees. Once registered, the vendors would be given identity cards entitling them to sell their wares in specified vending zones. It will do away with the existing license system that has become a tool of harassing the street vendors. In a city, 2.5 % of the total population would be eligible to register as street vendors. Besides, it will also help authorities regulate hawking activities in public spaces such as pavements, parks, and thoroughfares. The bill was earlier introduced in Lok Sabha last September and was subsequently referred to the Standing Committee on Urban Development. The committee which made several recommendations such as allowing vendors outside railway stations to be included under the bill's ambit were incorporated by the urban poverty alleviation ministry in the draft bill that was cleared by the cabinet Wednesday.

It was almost 25 years ago that the issue of street hawkers was brought to national attention and a few NGOs did try to bring in reforms to streamline the vending kiosks emphasizing on hygiene, sanitation and consumer safety. Many civic bodies introduced a sort of licensing and monitoring their activities through their health department officials. Even international attention was focused for some time on street vending which is prevalent in many countries in Asia and lot of efforts were made to "modernize" the kiosks with emphasis on cleanliness, safe water use and strict personnel hygiene. The present Bill is a good initiative and if properly drafted to cover the entire gamut of the issue, it can be a significant step in creating a win-win situation to both the vendors as well as the consumers. Unfortunately political chicanery to steal credit may yet derail the Bill. It is imperative that all political parties irrespective of their color or creed or biases contribute in refining the Bill so that it is practical, useful and of immense benefit to the urban consumers.    


Friday, May 24, 2013


When some reports claiming that Cows could yield more milk if piped music is provided in their stable, there were not many takers. Similarly in an American Farm rearing more than 100 cows, each one is named individually and it was claimed that they respond to their respective names when called. There are birds which are known to "talk" largely mimicking what their masters say. Whether animals can talk to each other in a way man does not understand is a subject matter of debate though they do have feelings and societal bonding which are not doubted. What about plants? Do they talk to each other? Do they understand human gestures? Does a plant loving farmer gets more yield of crops than that produced in a mechanized farm? These are questions for which there is no conclusive answer. According to a recent report, plants do communicate among themselves that is reflected in the positive growth of some of them. This has been demonstrated with reference to Basil, a herb which was found to ensure better growth of Chilli plant when the latter is planted nearby. Here is a take on this amazing finding by a group of scientists in Australia.  

"Plants may be able to 'talk' to each other say researchers from the University of Western Australia after carrying out experiments in which two types of plants were completely separated from each other and yet one appeared to influence the other. Basil, known and revered in India as 'tulsi', is well known to have a beneficial effect on neighboring plants. This is because it gives out some organic volatile substances that inhibit the growth of some weeds. Its roots retain moisture longer and so help the neighboring plants. Earlier research had established that like basil, many plants 'communicate' to other plants by chemicals, touch or shade giving. But in this latest research by Monica Gagliano and Michael Renton, published on line in the scientific journal BMC Ecology, it was shown that basil plants could influence chili plants in a positive way even after they were completely separated from each other by a vacuum barrier. The researchers said that since chemical, touch or light communication was ruled out, the possibility of 'acoustic' signals, that is, sound was strongly suggested. They suggested that 'nanomechanical oscillations of various components in the cytoskeleton can produce a spectrum of vibrations' communicating to other plants necessary information. In the experiments, chili seeds were planted surrounding a basil plant which was enclosed in a double walled box with vacuum between the two walls. The whole set of plants was further enclosed in a similar double walled vacuumed box to block any outside interference. It was discovered that chili seeds planted next to the basil plant germinated faster than those which did not have the good neighbor. This happened irrespective of whether the basil plant was masked (kept in the box) or open (no box)."

The scientists who laid out the experiments did achieve better growth for Chiili plants planted near the Basil plant even when they were insulated from each other. However their interpretation is subject to different conclusions by different people. If these findings are scientifically valid, it may open up a whole field of agronomy which can identify pairing of plants with good neighborly relations and which in turn can increase productivity of plant foods dramatically. As the scientific basis of the finding is still to be ascertained beyond any doubt, further work of collaborative and interdisciplinary nature may be necessary for arriving at unanimity. Many people believe that plant kingdom holds lot of surprises for mankind and even a fraction of their potential is not tapped yet!  


Thursday, May 23, 2013


The non-nutritive sweetener market can never be the same after the run away success of Stevia sugars which are to day marketed as a natural low calorie/ no calorie sweetener globally. The dominance of synthetic sweeteners like Aspartame till the arrival of Stevia offered no choice to consumers with diabetes or those wanting to cut down on calories in their diet but Stevia changed all that and to day it is overwhelmingly being accepted by the consumer with least reservation. Probably attraction to every thing that is natural by the present day consumer society is pulling in more and players intent to develop sweeteners like Stevia. Recent arrival of Monk fruit sugar being made popular among low calories adherents is another attempt to tap this rich market. Like Stevia which has complex steviosides that contribute to sweetness, Monk fruit contains migrosides which have 300 times the sweetening power compared to sucrose. Hot on the heels are others like sweeteners made from the fruits of Oubli grown in West Africa. Here is a take on this emerging development which may have far reaching future implications in the low calorie sweetener market. 

Hot on the heels of the stevia and monk fruit revolution is asweetener derived from the West African fruit of the climbing plant Oubli, Pentadiplandra brazzeana Baillon. Oubli has been long recognized by natives of the Gabon Republic, a sovereign state on the west coast of Central Africa, and Cameroon for its sweetness. The sweet compound is called brazzein, and is an extracellular protein found in the pulp surrounding the seeds of the berry. First isolated as an enzyme by researchers at the University of Wisconsin in 1994, the super-sweet protein is now expressed in bacteria in order to lower the cost of production and eliminate the need for farming. After sequencing the DNA that codes for brazzein, researchers could use bacteria as little cellular factories that churn out the highly sweet protein. The newly formulated final product will be marketed under the name Cweet by Natur Research Ingredients, Los Angeles. Boasting a sweetening power 1,000 times that of sucrose, Cweet is promoted as a natural, easily dissolved and heat-stable sweetener that leaves no aftertaste. Stability at high temperatures makes the sweetener appropriate for baked applications as well as beverages. Since it's a protein, it weighs in at 4 calories per gram, but with a 1,000:1 replacement value for sucrose, it is essentially zero calories. 

How far this sweetener will compete with established non-sugar sweeteners is is matter of speculation right now though it does have the potential to become a significant player provided this plant is taken up for cultivation in an organized way. The economics also can pose challenges and the ultimate commercial viability will very much depend on the consumer cost. Though the process of extracting the sweet fraction is rather simple as it is concentrated in the pulp portion that surrounds the berry, still as it becomes popular questions regarding the safety of the product for long term use in humans are bound to be raised. The biggest advantage is that it is the most intense sweetener known so far with a 1 to 1000 sweetness ratio compared to sucrose though it cannot be categorized as a zero calorie sweetener in the strict sense as it does yield about calories per gm but as the quantity required to impart required sweetness in food products is so minuscule that it will not contribute any significant calories to the products consumed. It is necessary that the quest for unveiling many such low calorie sweeteners from natural sources with as high sweetness intensity as possible be continued since sugar cane cultivation is increasingly becoming unsustainable and the population requiring sugarless products for managing obesity and diabetes is expanding rapidly.  



Fast depletion of fossil fuel sources has created a sense of panic among wealthy countries as well as newly emerging economies and this realization has spurred enormous research and development activities to find out suitable alternatives at comparable cost. While non-conventional energy sources like solar, wind, waves, geothermal etc are available in plenty, their commercial exploitation is fraught with enormous challenges to the energy scientists. So far solar energy seems to have an edge and many countries are investing heavily in solar energy projects to generate power. With cutting edge technologies emerging from countries like China, the generation cost and investments are coming down very significantly offering some hope for future. What is not attempted in a big way is the potential capacity of microorganisms to produce energy from cheap sources at economically attractive costs. The horizontal solar panels call for wide areas for their installation and there is some element of unpredictability of availability of sunshine uniformly. Vertical reactors that can grow microorganisms to produce fuels through fermentation route, if successful, can be an attractive alternative. Here is a critique on this important area of futuristic energy front which offers some hope.     

"In a bid to find a substitute to fossil fuels as raw material for the chemical industry, scientists have engineered bacteria, which could help grow chemical precursors for fuels and plastics. "Most chemical feed stocks come from petroleum and natural gas, and we need other sources," assistant professor of chemistry at University of California, Davis and lead author on the study Shota Atsumi said. Biological reactions are good at forming carbon-carbon bonds, using carbon dioxide as a raw material for reactions powered by sunlight, called photosynthesis, and cyanobacteria, also known as "blue-green algae," have been doing it for more than 3 billion years, the Science Daily reported. The challenge is to get the cyanobacteria to make significant amounts of chemicals that can be readily converted to chemical feed stocks. With support from Japanese chemical manufacturer Asahi Kasei Corp., Atsumi's lab at UC Davis has been working on introducing new chemical pathways into the cyanobacteria. The researchers, working a step at a time, built up a three-step pathway that allows the cyanobacteria to convert carbon dioxide into 2,3 butanediol, a chemical that can be used to make paint, solvents, plastics, and fuels. "Because enzymes may work differently in different organisms, it is nearly impossible to predict how well the pathway will work before testing it in an experiment," Atsumi said. After three weeks growth, the cyanobacteria yielded 2.4 grams of 2,3 butanediol per liter of growth medium - the highest productivity yet achieved for chemicals grown by cyanobacteria and with potential for commercial development, Atsumi added. Atsumi hopes to tune the system to increase productivity further and experiment with other products, while corporate partners explore scaling up the technology. The US Department of Energy has set a goal of obtaining a quarter of industrial chemicals from biological processes by 2025".

Though the developmental efforts are on a smaller scale, if the scientists and the corporate honchos who are footing the bill for this futuristic research are to be believed, the results are encouraging enough to invest further to commercialize the findings. 2,3 Butanediol is indeed a valuable source of energy with versatile industrial applications and probably microbes may be playing much bigger role in future to augment the industrial chemicals production. Biological processes such as this using CO2 as the feed stock have the added advantage of helping the world to reduce the carbon foot print considered responsible for the global warming phenomenon. It is only recently that the CO2 level crossed the 400 ppm level which is considered a forewarning about impending disasters if world does not pull back from this brink soon!


Wednesday, May 22, 2013


Strange are the ways science comes up with new findings, demolishing prevalent beliefs! Here is the latest "finding" by a group of scientists who feel that ripe Mango consumption, in stead of aggravating the blood sugar level can actually brings down the same suggesting in a way that those consumers with sugar compromised problem can safely eat this exotic fruit without any "guilt" feeling! A closer look at the report reveals that this interpretation of their research studies is based on experiments with a few volunteers. What can a person affected by diabetes make out of this study? Absolutely nothing. In India many diabetic experts lament the tendency on the part of those with this disease to indulge in mango eating during the season which result in going their sugar level haywire! The new study seems to be contradicting the experience these physicians have dealing with their patients. Here is a take on this controversial subject which may get attention in the coming days by scientists around the world due to its repercussions.  

Consumption of mangoes may potentially have a positive effect on blood sugar in obese individuals and help to limit inflammation, according to a new research.The study led by Edralin Lucas, Ph.D., associate professor of nutritional sciences at Oklahoma State University, examined the effects of daily mango consumption on clinical parameters and body composition in obese subjects (body mass index, BMI = 30kg/m2). Twenty adults (11 males and 9 females) participated in the study, which included daily dietary supplementation with 10 grams of freeze dried mango (equivalent to approximately 100 grams of fresh mango, according to Dr. Lucas) for 12 weeks. Blood sugar levels at the conclusion of the study were significantly lower than the baseline in both male and female subjects. There were no significant changes in body composition for either gender, and BMI increased significantly in female subjects but not male subjects compared to baseline. These findings are the result of a single study and more research is needed on the effects of mango consumption on human health. "The results of this study support what we learned in our recent animal model, which found that mango improved blood glucose in mice fed a high fat diet," said Dr. Lucas. "Although the mechanism by which mango exerts its effects warrants further investigation, we do know that mangeos contain a complex mixture of polyphenolic compounds. Research has shown that several other plants and their polyphenolic compounds, such as isoflavone from soy , epigallocatechin gallate from green tea , and proanthocyanidin from grape seed , have a positive effect on adipose tissue," the researcher stated.

Of course the study only says that the results are based on experiments on obese people and is silent on whether it is equally applicable to normal healthy individuals and those having diabetes. The conclusion that mango consumption may have effect on controlling inflammation and blood glucose is based on the theory that the polyphenols present in this fruit help to bring about the benefits attributed. If this is true why mango alone? Other fruits, a few dozens in number commonly consumed all have plenty of polyphenols, even greater than that present in mango and the million dollar question is whether all colored fruits would be equally effective as mango? The authors did state that more studies are needed in this area to bring about better clarity on the issue ans sure enough more scientists can be expected to take up studies in this area.



Consumers invariably face a dilemma regarding the quality of food within a sealed pack though the date marking on the label indicating the manufacturing date and expiry date give them some clue. Still millions of consumers believing that the food they buy must be as fresh as possible scout for packs with most recent manufacturing date and get assured that they are safe. However after taking home these purchased items may lie on the kitchen shelf some more days and some time not utilized till the expiry date is reached. Under such circumstances the critical question is whether these food items can still be safe or not? Many food pundits suggest that food packages past their expiry date should not be thrown away as most of them would be still good and safe for consumption. It is argued that after all expiry date is not an absolute figure but an indicative one for the consumers to be more cautious. Still many consumers are not willing to take risk with their lives and like to err on safer side not consuming them which end up in the garbage bin. Here is an innovation claimed to be of help to such consumers in taking a decision regarding how safe is the food inside a package with the help of electronic sensors printed on flexible packaging material used to fabricate the pouches.

To fight food waste, producers could include an electronic sensor circuit in their packaging to monitor the acidity level of the food, for example. The sensor circuit could be read with a scanner or with your mobile phone to show the freshness of your steak, or whether your frozen food was defrosted. Researcher Eugenio Cantatore of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e): "In principle that's all already possible, using standard silicon ICs. The only problem is they're too expensive. They easily cost ten cents. And that cost is too much for a one euro bag of crisps. We're now developing electronic devices that are made from plastic rather than silicon. The advantage is you can easily include these plastic sensors in plastic packaging." The plastic semiconductor can even be printed on all kinds of flexible surfaces, which makes it cheaper to use. And it makes sensor circuits costing less than one eurocent achievable.

How versatile this sensor might be, can be assessed only after wide scale testing of different food products and various packing materials under factory conditions. What criteria are used to design these sensors are not clear and due to different type of food spoilage one sensor may not fit for all of them. For example food is spoiled due to chemical changes caused with or without oxygen, undesirable textural changes, moisture ingress, microbiological changes etc and if really one can come up with a sensor that can monitor all these changes, there is nothing like that. But according to the inventors the above development may take at least 5 years before becoming a reality. If there is reasonable confidence that it will materialize consumers will not mind waiting for such a day for enabling him to buy packed foods with more confidence and trust. 


Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Food industry has a responsibility to protect the health of its consumers by manufacturing healthy products because of the confidence and trust they receive from them unreservedly. Unfortunately this trust is being systematically undermined by practices considered unethical and hostile to consumer interests, at least by a major segment of the industry during the last three decades.  Safety authorities are increasingly being forced to bring in mandatory steps to discipline this industry which seems to be more focused on making easy money at the expense of the consumer. The enormous "money clout" and political patronage from the elected representatives make them immune to any penal action and corrective efforts by the government. The result is massive health crisis that is happening in countries like America where obesity and over weight people make up more than 50% of the population! Scientific data regarding adverse consequences of food additives are systematically suppressed and food standards are diluted through nexus with safety authorities. Now comes the news that American food industry controlled by a few monopolistic giant players have infiltrated into professional organizations for influencing technical decisions by scientists and generate industry friendly data. Here is a take on this unfortunate trend which needs to curbed at any cost 

"Instead of joining the fight against the obesity and diabetes epidemics, the food industry—Big Food—persistently pushes favorable legislation in Congress through aggressive and, more often than not, successful lobbying, as the recent "Monsanto Protection Act" proved. As if this were not enough, Big Food companies such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Hershey's seem to have also basically taken over the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the largest organization of dietitians and nutritionists in the country. And this is without even mentioning that research has led these companies to learn how to manipulate people's tastes and habits. Public health attorney Michele Simon talks about this in "And now a word from our sponsors: Are America's nutrition professionals in the pocket of Big Food?"—a report that questions the ethics of the Academy's acceptance of such sponsorship. "The food industry's deep infiltration of the nation's top nutrition organization raises serious questionsnot only about that profession's credibility, but also about its policy positions," says Simon in the report's summary. Simon's reports that in the past 10 years there has been more than a three-fold increase in sponsorships from the Big Food industry. One of the most loyal AND's sponsor is the National Cattleman's Beef Association, followed by ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg's and the National Dairy Council. Coca-Cola, Kraft and PesiCo come in next. If it were just because the Academy needs the funds to do its educational outreach, all this might be understandable. But has AND at least established some guidelines about the messages broadcast by the companies to their own people? It doesn't seem so. Paradoxically, the Academy represents itself as an advocate for Eating Right (their public campaign's brand), calling people to make informed choices and to develop sound eating and physical activity habits". 

What will happen to the consumers in the US if this trend continues unabated with many scientists in the pockets of the industry? Are their lives going to be more and more uncertain with practically no choice regarding what they want to eat? Who is to be believed and who are their real friends and protectors? The scientific community as a whole must be ashamed of themselves for this unholy alliance with this dubious industry! Where will the common man go in search of truth? Is a time coming for the consumer to be self reliant in terms of food safety by shunning the processed foods and in stead go back to their kitchens to make their own foods, preferably with organic food raw materials? May be yes.  



Here is a shocking news item from Kerala, the 100% literate state in the country! The food safety authorities have suddenly woken up to the possibility that water consumed in three of the major metropolitan cities might not be safe. Branded as God's own country, authorities probably were under the impression that God was taking care of the quality of water consumed by His subjects! But the "flash drive" to make a random check undertaken, probably to justify its existence, the agency seems to have unearthed a scam in the water market which at best can be called shameful! Even with limited sampling, it turned out 90% of the market samples were sub-standard and/or unsafe when tested against the specifications laid down for potable water! Here is a take on this unfortunate but condemnable  situation for which the safety authority must be held responsible.  

The three-day drive was carried out from March 21, simultaneously in Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram, as per the direction of the food safety commissioner. Officials collected 34 samples, including 16 bottled drinking water samples and nine each from tanker lorries and water sources of tanker lorries. The samples were subjected to chemical and biological tests. According to food safety officials, the situation is alarming in Kochi compared to other two cities as 90% samples collected from the city proved unsafe to drink."Both chemical and biological results of water samples collected from Kochi are not satisfactory. The presence of E coli is a major cause of concern. As per the Food Safety and Standard Act it should not be present in bottled drinking water. In the samples there was a minimum of two organisms in 100 ml," said an official with the food safety department in Thiruvananthapuram. Authorities said pH level in samples collected from sources and tankers were above the permitted level of 6.5. The iron and nitrate content in samples were also high. "If pregnant women drink water with high nitrate level, it can cause blue baby syndrome," said the official. Tests showed the presence of E coli in major brands. The presence of E coli in a well at ToshibaJunction near HMT, which is a water source, came to 1,600 organisms/100ml against the permitted level of 10 organisms/100ml. Despite the grave situation, food safety officials expressed their inability to take action against those who supply unsafe drinking, considering the scarcity of drinking water in the city and nearby areas.

After reading the report one gets the impression that the authorities (who else but the FSSAI?) is contented in flashing the results in the media to get publicity while those responsible appear to have been spared. Having misgoverned the country for decades which allowed these food criminals to thrive, exploiting the man-made water scarcity conditions, not bringing to books these perpetrators is nothing but shirking of responsibility. Selling water itself is unconscionable when Kerala is blessed with abundant rains but allowing tainted water to be sold to the unwary citizens is all the more heinous and heads must roll for perpetuating this situation. Such products must be banned in the state and the retailers who deal with such products also must be taken o task. The excuse trotted out against their inability to bring these violators to book is highly amusing that people would be starved of water!. the Government seems to be contented with the "satisfaction" that some thing is better than nothing! Will this be tolerated in any other country but in India? 

Monday, May 20, 2013


Any responsible country will spare no efforts to make the lives of its citizens safe from many dangers lurking around them including unsafe foods. In balancing the citizen's right and his well being, reasonable restrictions will have to be put in place on the former so that the public place becomes more secure for the society in general. In the case of food also every country has a legal frame work within which only food handlers, traders and processors will have to work. Lately there appears to be a bias in favor of the industry players in allowing many foods to be made and marketed by them which are patently unhealthy if the scientific yardsticks are strictly applied. Food products containing unusually high levels of sugar and fat are becoming the mainstay of the industry which is exploiting the weakness of consumers to these palate tingling offerings and over a period of time get hooked on to these life threatening products. The result is the wide spread prevalence of food related human disorders like CVD, Diabetes, Hypertension, Kidney ailments etc and there is almost a unanimous view that to day's Obesity epidemic associated with many wealthy countries is mainly due to over consumption of such foods while physical activity of individuals is declining rapidly. Governments are usually reluctant to displease the industry by mandatory restrictions and depend more on persuasion for voluntary action by the manufacturers for improving the health credentials of the products they make and sell. According to the experience in several countries such voluntary actions agreed to by the industry is often a sham and only lip service is made to mislead the governments as well as the consumers. Here is a critique on this on going "ping pong" game between the government and the industry leaving the consumer a silent spectator!

"The nation's largest food and beverage companies are under renewed attack for what critics see as misleading ads for obesity-promoting foods, especially ads aimed at kids. "The trickery that we're trying to stop includes General Mills' false claims that some of its corn-syrup- drenched products are 'natural,' and Coca-Cola Company's deceptive health claims about its Vitaminwater (which would be better called Sugarwater)," the Center for Science in the Public Interest said Wednesday in a release launching its "Stop the Lying Labels" campaign. Industry representatives counter that they have worked to make their products healthier - just as critics have demanded. "Since 2002, we have introduced more than 20,000 new product choices with fewer calories, reduced fat, sodium and sugar, and more whole grains," the Grocery Manufacturers Association said in an e-mail. "We have voluntarily adopted strict advertising criteria" through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative."

One of the strategies of war is to give an inch if peace can be brought which may not make any significant loss to the one who makes such a gesture and food industry also seems to be adopting this practice if their promises and performance are closely monitored. There are thousands of products made by the industry which contain very high amounts of sugar, fat and salt and to buy peace with the consumer activists and reluctant government safety agencies either the concentration of these ingredients is marginally reduced or a healthy ingredient is included in the recipe! High pressure promotional campaigns are undertaken to highlight the "sacrifice" made by the industry by changing the "established formula" of the products! It is like adding a drop of "Elixir" to a chalice of poison and claim that the product is better than the original poison!  Probably food industry will learn only when consumers start putting pressure on the industry by banishing unhealthy products from their buying basket and force the government to discipline the industry leaving no option but to make only healthy products. In this endeavor grading of foods based on some scientifically valid scale and printing easily recognizable icons on the label can go a long way to use the consumer force to weed way unhealthy products eventually.


It is well known that traditional ethnic foods, evolved over centuries in different cultures are slowly fading into history because of gross negligence of this sector of foods by the scientists, modern nucleus families and the governments in many countries. As the so called modern foods (also being criticized as junk foods or low nutrient density foods) are more amenable to mechanization and automation with minimum manual labor, new industries are coming up only for manufacturing these products thereby leaving ethnic foods category to fend for itself. To day these foods are made mostly by road side vendors and small eateries while the main stream food industry produces a vast array of westernized foods like baked goods, extruded products, sugar confectioneries and chocolates, Pitza and pasta products, fried foods like potato chips etc. Take the case of India where it is estimated that there are more than 5000 varieties of traditional foods prepared and consumed at homes as well as small restaurants and hardly a dozen products can boast of technologies compared to those deployed by the organized industry. Against this background the reported attempt by some entrepreneurs of Indian origin to set up a dosa chain in the United States is daring and visionary in nature. There is no reason why they would not succeed looking at their past experience in other service areas and the high confidence they exude. Here is a take on this development in the Indian ethnic food area in the US for which all must wish for the best.

"We met in 2004 in Manhattan," says Sam, adding with a laugh, "We were swimming in the same waters… We are serial entrepreneurs." They dabbled in real estate for a while, before coming up with the idea of a mass-market dosa chain. "Personally this has been a long quest," says Jawahar. "As an Indian living in the U.S., he says it's frustrating to see that Indian food has never really gone mainstream. You see Mexican restaurant chains like Chipotle. But Indian food is always targeted at the Diaspora. And even they can't eat it everyday because it's so rich, creamy and spicy." They suddenly realised there was a market nobody had noticed before. "Saravana Bhavan is successful abroad, but 90 per cent of its clientele are Indian. However, something like Manhattan's 'Hampton Chutney' (which offers dosas filled with everything from arugula to butternut squash) has a 90 per cent non-Indian clientele." Jawahar adds, "The market is ready. The timing is right. Ethnic food isn't necessarily niche anymore. America is at a stage when people want to experiment… You just have to design it right." The product, they decided, had to be fresh, healthy and tasty. But also portable, quick and convenient. Jawahar says, "And all this at the right price. Around seven and a half dollars." So they created a dosa for Americans. The new company 'Soho Tiffin,' which will launch in New York by October with its first restaurant, has been designed so it can expand into a chain of smart quick-service restaurants offering fresh customisable food. "Each restaurant should be able to do 12 to 15,000 of these dosas with a team of 6-8 people. Although we will have a central kitchen, the food will be fresh. Cooked to serve, not pre-cooked. Meats will be grilled and dosas made on site," says Sam.

Indian dosa means different things to different people and since these entrepreneurs are targeting American consumers mainly lot of standardization work will be required before the launch. Taking inspiration from chain restaurants like Chipotle, Tacobell and others which promote ethnic foods of other countries and which have become vastly popular among American consumers, these entrepreneurs want to create a similar chain with trans American foot print. Since they are zeroing on dosa like products with a western "flavor" which can be called fusion foods it may be relatively easier to build the clientele within a short time. One of the major problems would be the manual dosa making process which may not go well with sanitation obsessed American consumer. Probably the mechanized dosa making equipment of CFTRI design might be an ideal one that can make continuous dosas with reasonably good eating quality and high productivity. Those visiting New York area during the end of this year must look up for the new branded dosa in joints proposed to be run under the Soho Tiffin banner!