Friday, March 21, 2014


Chocolate has always been a controversial food item with diverse views regarding its effect on the human body. While many food scientists believe that the basic component in chocolate viz Cocoa powder is a desirable substance as it is rich in polyphenolic chemicals, it is the processed food industry which converts a healthy food into an unhealthy one by loading too much sugar and extra fat in the form of cocoa butter. Probably this realization by many consumers has given rise to a new trend in chocolate consumption with dark chocolates emerging as a healthy food due to high cocoa solid content and low fat. It is amazing that to day there are chocolate products containing as high as 90% cocoa solids and though these are bitter to taste, consumers seem to be yearning for them because of their health protecting credentials. In a new finding the scientists are reported to have unveiled the mechanism of action by dark chocolates in the body that is beneficial to human health. Here is a gist of these new findings which can have far reaching implications as far as human health is concerned.   

"It has long been known that eating chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, has numerous health benefits. Although various studies have backed this up, the exact reason as to why this is so has remained a mystery. Now researchers from Louisiana State University have provided the answer – gut microbes. Presenting their findings at the 27th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the researchers revealed that, unlike so-called "bad" bacteria in the gut, such as some Clostridia and some E. coli, that are associated with inflammation and can cause gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation, "good" bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium and lactic acid bacteria, feed on dark chocolate to produce anti-inflammatory compounds."

While the above finding opens up a vast vista for researching further into cocoa's impact in human diet, there is an inherent limitation in suggesting that bitter chocolate is a panacea for ensuring good health. It is not yet clear as to how much quantity needs to be consumed daily to derive the full benefits from their consumption and what will be the effect of over consumption by health freaks to boost their health in a hurry! Similarly there is caveat that bitter chocolate's effect can be realized only when the gut bacterial make up is right! Over whelming presence of friendly bacteria in the GI can only convert the complex poly phenolic constituents into easily absorbable simple fragments.  Bitter chocolate per se is a product highly bitter to taste in absence sufficient sugar and hence there is a limitation as to how much can be tolerated by the consumer. Probably substituting sugar with non-calorie sweeteners may hold key to making them more acceptable to many consumers. 


Thursday, March 20, 2014


The much talked about food security scheme under which some citizens in India have "right to food", whatever that means, at ridiculously low prices, seems to have become a joke world over! Splurging more than 1.5 lakh crore rupees every year from public exchequer is considered a sheer waste of national resources built up by the honest tax paying citizens of the country as it does not improve upon the existing PDS net work created over the last 3-4 decades. Added to this the misconception that providing just cereals like rice and wheat can keep the population healthy needs to be removed from the minds of the policy makers because any calorie supply to the body has to be reinforced with infusion of nutrient dense foods like pulses, fruits and vegetables. Tragically these protective foods cost so high in the country that the so called "aam aadmi" cannot get even 10% of the recommended levels! The problem of inadequate appreciation of nutrition is not confined to India only but does exist in many developed countries in the world though the proportion of those affected may be much lesser than here. Here is a commentary on the prevalent dilemma in a super rich country like the US where over eating of high calorie foods is causing havoc with the population vis a vis their health. 

"A whopping 35.7 percent of adults in our nation are obese, a rate which has doubled over 30 years, and are at higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, sleep apnea, cancer, metabolic syndrome and psychological issues. 1/3 of Americans are either Type II diabetic or pre Type II diabetic due to their eating habits. Our people are eating fruit loops and fruit rollups rather than actual fruits, high fructose corn syrup over corn on the cob, vegetable oil instead of veggies. While we are currently trying to insure millions more Americans with healthcare, we should be focusing on our food policy to prevent people from having health problems in the first place while saving hundreds of billions of dollars in the process. Our food system is backwards; the cheapest foods are the least healthy while the healthiest foods are the most expensive. We should tax all junk food and subsidize vegetables, fruit and other healthy foods. We currently subsidize soda, doughnuts, French Fries and other hyperprocessed foods. These subsidies are paid for by our own tax dollars, effectively enabling this state sanctioned poisoning. We should tax French Fry eaters 75 cents a serving and doughnut lovers 50 cents a pop. We could also redirect these current subsidies to encourage a healthy diet by making healthy food more affordable and readily available. We could sell veggies and fruits at 50 cents a pound and sell them anywhere: Drugstores, community centers, schools, supermarkets, delis, libraries, etc. Over 30 cities have instituted taxes on soft drinks, but only minimally. Mark Bittman reported to the New York Times on July 23, 2011, "Of the 278 additional calories Americans on average consumed per day between 1977 and 2001, more than 40 percent came from soda, 'fruit' drinks, mixes like Kool-Aid and Crystal Light and beverages like Red Bull, Gatorade and dubious offerings like Vitamin Water, which contains half as much sugar as Coke." The average adult drinks 52 gallons of soft drinks a year and should be discouraged by an excise tax of three cents an ounce, making a six pack cost $2.16 more. As a result of the billions in revenue generated by these taxes, we could increase our subsidies on water, the healthiest beverage, to make it 100% free. These taxes should be gradually levied to choke the market, just like our successful cigarette policy. In 1998, we settled with the tobacco industry to stifle marketing and finance anti-smoking campaigns, effectively cutting our smoking rate in half. Those who say that many people in the processed food industry would lose their jobs can turn to the tobacco industry and the five-cent return on bottle recycling to prove them wrong. Even if some people did lose their jobs, they could move to the healthy food industry where there will be increased demand for labor.The only victim of these policies is the processed food industry, which pays $4 billion for enticing propaganda to profit off of slowly killing our citizens. The Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion has a puny budget of $13 million in comparison. The role of the government is to protect public health, giving the poor options other than McDonalds. Denmark had to renege on their October 1, 2011 policy because of pressure from politicians and the food industry as well as people purchasing the affected foods across the border in Germany. Hungary, France, Finland, Denmark, Britain, Ireland and Romania however, have all stood their ground. Former Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, nobly banned trans fats and removed sodas from school vending machines while unsuccessfully banning large sodas. The effects of these proposed policies are profoundly astounding, lessening disease, improving the budget, lowering healthcare costs and increasing healthy food access, all the while self-sustaining."

The suggestion to impose high financial burden on those tending to eat more and more junk foods is sound and if the experience of tobacco industry is any guide there could be significant decline in manufacture and marketing of unhealthy foods over a period of time due to declining demand by the consumer community. The proposal to subsidize healthy alternatives like fruits and vegetables is also worth considering as this will lead to increased purchase of these protective foods by the vulnerable population. The mindless policy of providing support prices to useless crops like sugar must give way to one where farmers are encouraged to produce more and more pulses and horticultural produce. The NDDB project on fruits and vegetables does not seem to have taken off the ground in spite of their presence in this sector during the last three decades. 
It is time that the food security policy of the GOI is revisited and more emphasis is placed on nutrition and health rather than on calories alone.  


Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Search for sugar substitutes by mankind contributed to the discovery of many chemicals, some natural and others synthetic, with properties equal or greater than that of sucrose. But many of them flourished for some time while a few sustained themselves through the fierce controversies surrounding their safety for long term use as sweeteners. Currently Sucralose, Aspartame and Stevia sugars dominate the market place for alternate calorie free sweeteners while search is still going on for more options vis vis natural sugar substitutes. Rare sugar, originating from japan is the latest entrant in this field and in spite of it becoming a darling of the "crowd" there, it remains to be seen whether Rare sugar will really spread its wings out side Japan. Here is a take on this latest development in the area of sugar substitutes.     

"While it was possible to use the enzyme discovered by Izumori to transform fructose into pure rare sugar, the process was costly. Kagawa University researchers, in conjunction with private-sector researchers, eventually found a solution to make cost-effective products. The university, which formed a joint venture with Hyogo Prefecture-based Matsutani Chemical Industry Co. and others, developed a low-cost method to produce a syrup containing D-Psicose, albeit with only a small concentration of around 6 percent, by specially treating inexpensive glucose-fructose syrup using heat. Although much of the syrup is sugar based, the company says its testing shows it still possesses obesity-preventing and blood sugar-suppressing properties. When the venture started marketing its new syrup in Kagawa Prefecture for industrial use in 2011, food companies lined up to buy the syrup as a replacement for sugar in some of their products. Nationwide sales to manufacturers of the syrup started in June 2012. There are now around 50 companies selling more than 100 food products containing the syrup. A restaurant chain also uses it to make broth for its Sanuki udon noodles".

The fact that is an isomer of fructose may make it more acceptable as no chemical reaction is involved. However the data provided on its safety need to be confirmed by independent scientific groups before consumers can accept it globally. Another worrying fact is that the commercial product in the market contains high amounts of fructose which is perceived as an obesity abettor by many scientists. Nonetheless the very fact that there is a huge demand for this product in Japanese market does promise a good future for such type of sugars