Sep 15, 2018

Restore ruminations

Last evening, I finally made time to visit the organic store "Restore" in Kottivaakkam, Chennai. It was such a beautiful sight to see organic dry groceries (traditional rice varieties, millets and pulses) stocked up in huge tins. There were also many kinds of cold-pressed oils. Customers are supposed to bring their own containers and pick up the required stuff. It brought back memories of my childhood where we used to visit a "Chettiyaar Kadai" every month for groceries. The annas would pack the groceries in newspapers and we would pick up chekku oils in oil cans. No plastic packaging whatsoever.

I didn't go to Restore with the intention of buying any groceries and so didn't carry any containers. I just bought a couple of items that were packed in plastic bags along with a few books. As we were driving back home, my mind started to wander, "Wish I had a similar store in Bangalore. Oh wait, if it is not there, why can't I start something with a similar promise - organic grocery store with no packaging? Seems like a good idea. Need to think about it".

We then went to Besant Nagar Beach - a mandatory visit that my daughter D loves. It was a Friday evening and the beach wasn't crowded. As we walked down the sand, D started to pick some plastic spoons and plastic lids from water bottles. As she sat down to play with her collection, I couldn't bear to see the sheer amount of plastic on the beach sand - plastic spoons, plastic straws, green lids from plastic bottles etc. I started picking handfuls of such plastic waste and was dumping them in the garbage bin nearby. It was anger, frustration and helplessness that pushed me to do a teeny tiny bit of cleanup. After a few times of collecting and dropping the plastic waste, I noticed a stray dog that was defecating on the sand. I stopped and asked myself, "What am I doing? I cannot do such impulsive cleanup acts. I need proper gloves, a bag to collect the waste and drop them in the garbage bin". I stopped and we proceeded to the beach. The beautiful waves, clear sky and the stunning sight of horizon calmed me a little bit but I was lost in my thoughts. 

The news about the hurricanes, the recent Kerala floods and many such calamities are a proof that mother earth is fighting back. How much we have taken her for granted? We are destroying our planet in all possible ways. Our heinous acts have led to a state where the air we breathe is toxic, the water we drink is contaminated and the food we eat is loaded with chemicals. 

A few days back, we went to a "health" restaurant in Bangalore - the food was good, the service was awesome but the price for a meal for 3 was around Rs.1500. If I want to switch to organic groceries at home, I have to pay double the price. I'm also quite suspicious about the claims made by various organic brands. I read somewhere that it would take between 4-5 years to convert the soil which had been previously cultivated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers into a soil fit for organic produce. How come we see a sudden proliferation of organic produce everywhere? How can I as a consumer validate organic claims? I might be able to afford organic but what about middle and lower income-group of people? Does that mean only if you have a high disposable income, you can eat good quality food?

It was also the day of 2.0 teaser launch. The underlying message that I interpret was that the birds are fighting against mobile phones. "The world is meant not only for humans" - how true! The atrocities towards orangutans because of rapid deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia just because our demand for palm oil has increased and we want to eat food out of a packet. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every decision of ours has repercussions. We are constantly making trade-offs that impact not just our health and life but also the other species on the planet who have equal rights just like us. Why do we stand tall with that ego that we humans are superior? 

There are just too many questions running in my mind. I may or may not find the answers. I don't want to feel depressed about the state of the world. Hopefully these questions will lead me to someplace productive and impactful.

Aug 20, 2018

Baggrys Fruit n Fibre Muesli Review



Over the past couple of months, I have been conducting workshops for parents of young children to share my understanding of packaged foods. One of the most common questions I get is “What about muesli? Is it healthy? Can I have it everyday for breakfast?”.

Firstly, I would highly recommend that you try and find out the answer by yourself. 

Why? 
There are 1000s of packaged food brands in the supermarkets and I have managed to analyze ONLY around 50 of them so far. My intention is NOT to analyze each and every product. Rather my objective is to show how easy it is to understand and decipher the ingredients by yourself, so that as a consumer, you can make the right choice, before you add an item to your shopping cart.

Now to the How? 
Read the labels - Ingredients list and nutrition facts table. Yes, as simple as that.

Many years back, I used to have a bowl of Baggrys muesli every single day for breakfast. Because it was quick and convenient. After I started reading the ingredients, I no longer buy it. As a family, we no longer do the “cereal” business in the mornings anymore. The umpteen number of synthetic chemicals in the form of preservatives and flavours, sugar hidden in various forms and on top of it, the expensive price we had to pay for each box - we realised how ridiculous this habit is! The recent news about Glyphosate present in numerous breakfast cereals in the US is something that we all need to be aware of, especially those living in India who associate eating "cereal" breakfast with their self-esteem.

Yesterday, we had a bowl of fruit salad for breakfast and today it was Rava Upma with a little lemon pickle. Our other options are idli, dosa, paratha, poha etc.

Let’s see the Ingredients of Baggrys Fruit n Fibre Muesli - Mixed fruit with almonds & raisins
 

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Rolled Oats (40.3%)
Whole wheat flakes 28.4% (Wheat, sugar, iodised salt, Malt extract, antioxidant - INS 322)
Strawberry crush 10.9% (Sugar, water, strawberry pulp, thickener (INS 440), acidity regulator (INS 330 & INS 331), Contains Class II preservatives (INS 224 & INS 211))
Apple Juice Concentrate (3.5%)
Pineapple Crush (3.5%)
Broken rolled wheat
Raisins (3%)
Almonds (2.1%)
Invert Syrup
Wheat bran
Oat bran
Honey (1%)
Beetroot powder

(Contains added flavour (S) - Natural, nature identical flavouring substances)
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1) Take a note of the two Class II preservatives
INS 224 - potassium metabisulfite. May cause asthmatic and allergic reactions.
INS 211 - sodium benzoate. Linked to hyperactivity and asthma. When combined with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), sodium benzoate may form benzene, a known carcinogen.

Why would we want to consume such harmful chemicals on a daily basis?

2) For a Serving size of 30gm, the amount of added Sugar (Sucrose) is 2.4 gm (or a little more than 1/2 tsp of sugar). It isn’t much, we might think. But take a look at this ingredient “Invert syrup”. It is composed of equal parts of glucose and fructose (the other kinds of sugar), the amounts of which are not shared. Having tasted this pack of Muesli, I can say that it is definitely on the sweeter side (much more than 1/2 tsp of sugar per serving size).

3) Most of us switch to oats and muesli mainly because of the “fibre”. But do they really have high fibre as they claim? For a serving size of 30 gm, the Dietary fibre present is ONLY 3.2 gm. The oats and wheat flakes are highly processed, that they hardly have any fibre. Starting the day with local fruits like guava, papaya and banana will give us much more fibre, along with various other vitamins and minerals.

This is just one example of a Muesli brand. There are many other brands such as Kelloggs, Soulfull, Saffola etc. Before you pick one, read the ingredients - Are they all natural? Are there any unfamiliar names? What’s the sugar level per serving? 

Mindful shopping is the need of the hour. Let’s not dump things to our shopping cart, just because we have habituated ourselves to certain products and routines.

Jul 27, 2018

Maggi Atta Noodles Review


A few days back, I was delivering a talk to a group of mothers. As I was walking through my slides on the ingredients of one packaged food after another, a couple of them remarked, “please please don’t include Maggi in your list” :-)

The unanimously favourite junk food (or indulgence) for people who grew up in the 80s and 90s had to be Maggi. And for many of us, that would have been the first dish we learned to cook ;-) So we have such deep, emotional connect with the brand (which other noodle brands envy) - the connect so powerful that even after the lead controversy, the brand seemed to have bounced back.

In my 20s, whenever I return home late from work, Maggi with veggies used to be the default dinner. Or when I return early, I would wipe off a bowl of Maggi with onion raitha as an evening snack. Weird combo, you might think but my absolute favourite!

Now, after many years of clean eating, I can’t eat even a spoonful of it, let alone a bowl. My tongue rejects the overpowering salty taste and artificial flavours. I don’t crave for Maggi anymore.

For others who still love to eat Maggi, my ONLY suggestion would be to eat a small bowl once in a while (say, once in a month or two). Just because there are many “so-called” health variants, please don’t indulge on a more frequent basis. The health variants are a big sham. I had earlier written about the oats noodles, please check it out if you haven’t read it.

Let’s talk about Atta noodles in this post:

1. The pack says it has 78.7% atta. Most flours are generally called atta - chawal ka atta, ghehun ka atta, nachni ka atta. What does “atta” refer to? Is it wholewheat flour? That’s one area of ambiguity. 
2. The pack states that a portion of Maggi atta noodles has the fibre of 3 rotis, whereas the nutrition table states that a portion of atta noodles has 4.5 gm of fibre. A small 6-inch chapathi contains 2 gm of fibre, so 3 chapathis would contain 6 gm of fibre, which doesn’t match to Maggi’s claims. Another area of ambiguity.
3. Most of us add very little salt to our chapathi dough but look at the sodium level in Maggi atta noodles - each portion contains a whopping 825 mg of sodium. Though it is slightly less as compared to regular Maggi, it is still a high number if you are consuming it on a regular basis, thinking you are making a healthy choice.
4. Added gluten causes acidity, bloating, constipation and various other digestive issues. That’s one of the reasons why packaged branded atta flour isn’t recommended. Look at the 3rd ingredient - yes, wheat gluten. IF the atta refers to wholewheat, then what’s the need for added gluten?
5. The noodles also contain various other chemical additives in the form of thickeners, acidity regulators and humectant. 
6. The “taste maker” masala powder is being promoted extensively with a message that it contains ONLY freshly roasted spices. Why aren’t the ad celebrities (guys from "highway on my plate”) talking about flavour enhancer (635)? I have written a separate post on the Maggi masala-ae-magic powder where I have highlighted the side effects of 635. 

Signaling” is a powerful concept in marketing to create symbols/associations in the minds of consumers. The brand is associating itself with a “health” tag through their promotion - “Win Garmin fitness tracker every hour”. Though the actual product isn’t healthy, this promotion creates that association.

In Instagram, I saw a few food bloggers promoting Maggi through an event “Maggi’s kitchen journeys” organised in Goa that celebrates women who made their dreams come true through the culinary route. Guess what the hashtag is - #KuchAcchaPakRahaHai
Give "OC trip, OC saapadu" and these food bloggers are always ready to promote any junk and add such hashtags (OC implies free)

If we eliminate ALL Maggi packs (noodles, taste makers, masala, bhuna masala gravy etc) from our kitchen, then yes there are high chances of #KuchAcchaPakRahaHai. Else the situation will eventually be #HumPakGaye 

Jul 16, 2018

Book Review: So good they can't ignore you by Cal Newport



Some books you find interesting, some you find insightful while only a few would feel like they understand you and were written especially for you. I felt this way when I read “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert a couple of years back. Over the past one week, I was engrossed in Cal Newport’s "So good they can’t ignore you”. The underlying message felt so relatable and clarified many questions that were haunting me.

Last year, I read “Deep work” by the same author. It was such an insightful read on how our distracted daily routine with multitasking and busyness derails our ability to engross in deep, meaningful work with utmost focus. Here’s my detailed review. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend that you check it out.

“So good they can’t ignore you” as the subtitle suggests is all about why investing in building skills is more important than mere passion in the quest for work you love. 

I find these two phrases - “identify your passion” and “do the work you love” to be quite ambiguous and misleading. Does that mean that all of us need to identify what we love when we decide on our college major? It is an extremely tough ask if you haven’t had enough exposure to various options while growing up. As people grow and evolve, interests and passions also change. 

Coming back to the book, the author details out the pitfalls of adopting the “passion mindset”, a focus on what value your job offers you.
“When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness”.
As an alternative, he recommends what he calls the “craftsman mindset”, a focus on what value you are producing in your job.
“Regardless of what you do for a living, approach your work like a true performer”.
The main outcome of adopting a craftsman mindset is to work on acquiring your career capital.
"If you want to do great work, you need to build up rare and valuable skills - career capital - to offer in return.”
Identifying these rare and valuable skills, consciously stretching yourself through deliberate practice and seeking out active feedback are ways by which you go about increasing your career capital. 

The career capital you have accumulated would help you find great work - ones that offer rare and valuable traits such as control, creativity and impact/mission. 

Control - gives you command over what work you do, when you do and how you do it. It is one of the powerful motivators of a fulfilling career.

An overarching mission enables one to look at their career as a way to make a meaningful impact. In order to make this mission come true, the author recommends a strategy called “little bets” - small and achievable projects that help one to learn from small but significant wins and lots of little failures. These little bets also need to remarkable - compelling people to remark about it. 

This might sound like a lot of theory, but what I have learned is that irrespective of the work you do, you need to consciously build rare and valuable skills. This “career capital” would help you achieve those traits of great work like working towards a mission, having control over what you do and applying your creativity without any bureaucratic barriers. If you look at it, one ends up wanting to pursue their passion in order to achieve the same results.

It was an insightful read with a lot of relevant examples and case-studies. At times, it does tend to get a little dragging and repetitive. But it is worth taking the time to absorb the material and ponder over it, especially if you are an early to mid-stage working professional.

Jul 11, 2018

5 areas to focus for good health

Someone had posed me this question - "Not everything that was done in 80's and 90's is good too. If it was, India would not be a diabetes/cholesterol hub today. Isnt it?

This question came up as a comment to one of my posts as I keep referring back to 80s and the good practices followed with respect to home cooking. Whoever asked this, thanks. It’s an interesting question that got me thinking.

First of all, avoiding junk and eating healthy, home cooked food is definitely NOT the ONLY contributor to good health, though it plays an important role. There are so many other factors that need to be considered - physical activity, exercise, emotional wellbeing, keeping one’s mind active and engaged, environmental factors such as air we breathe, water we drink etc.

Speaking from my experience, if I am stressed about something, then the negative effects of that stress outweighs all my other regular healthy habits like eating home cooked food, avoiding junk, doing Yoga etc. Emotional wellbeing plays such a significant role in our health.

Going back to the question, I consider 80s to be a sandwich decade and 90s to be the decade of change post liberalisation. 

TV entered Indian households in the 80s with just Doordarshan (DD1 and DD2) with limited timings. There weren’t 24-hr back-to-back programmes back then. I remember the TV will be switched on around 7PM and we would watch News, Chitrahaar, Oliyum OLiyum etc for max 1 - 1.5 hours. Same timing applied for my parents and grandparents too. The concept of sedentary lifestyle didn’t exist back then. Every adult in the family was extremely busy with some physical work or the other. 

Come 90s, slowly things started changing, with “cable TV” entering our households. The endless serials and choices of channels reduced our physical movement and activity. Because of liberalisation, new junk foods got introduced. Bread, jam, margarine, biscuits etc became easily available. Refined oils became the norm and cold-pressed oil mills shut shop. Handpounded rice gave way to silky, polished white rice which most of us grew up eating. The practice of cooking with millets was totally lost, except for the occasional “kevurumaavu dosai” (ragi dosa) that would be made at grandma’s home. Plastic entered our homes from all directions.

That’s the same time when the number of people with diabetes and blood pressure started increasing, especially among people with higher disposable income. I remember an article I read in the 90s that spoke about how diabetes is a disease that targets the rich (panakkaarargaLukku varum vyaadhi). Who were considered “rich" back then - people who can afford cable TV and can afford the time to sit and watch through all serials, people who can afford househelp and delegate the household chores, people who can go out to restaurants, buy packaged food, get imported chocolates from cousins visiting from abroad etc.

Because of increased disposable incomes and easy availability of many “conveniences” at affordable pricing, the number of people falling into this “rich” bracket kept increasing in the 90s and 2000s. 

These above conclusions are based SOLELY on my observations and may not bear any statistical significance.

Based on the data from WHO, as you can see, the sharp increase in diabetes incidence started from the 90s and the numbers are only getting worse as years pass by.

Source: http://www.who.int/diabetes/country-profiles/ind_en.pdf

Long story short, irrespective of the decade you were born or grew up in, I believe all of us need to consciously focus on these 5 areas for our good health.

1. Eat home cooked, local foods. Avoid all packaged, junk foods.
2. Do some form of exercise that interests you and pushes you a little bit everyday.
3. Stay active throughout the day, keep moving, don’t sit for longer hours
4. Look after your emotional wellbeing. Avoid stress in all forms. Stay engaged in any activity of your interest. Get a good night's sleep for 7-8 hours.
5. Do your best to protect our planet. The health of the planet impacts your health.

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