Dec 14, 2018

Book Review: The Great Smog of India by Siddharth Singh

Come Oct every year, we keep hearing about the smog in Delhi. The reasons quoted in the media were mostly focused on stubble burning and/or Diwali crackers. I wanted to understand the underlying reasons behind stubble burning and the other reasons behind rising air pollution, not just in Delhi but also in other parts of the country. This year, both my husband and I were hit with allergy related cold and cough often. The frequency of such issues were higher, compared to the previous years. And the recovery took more time than the usual viral infections. Dust, mites, traffic, smoke etc were the reasons given for these allergies. Similar to the way I tried to understand about food and nutrition over the past 5-6 years, I have been wanting to understand in depth about what goes in the air we breathe and water we drink. 

This book "The Great Smog of India" couldn't have come at a better time. The author has taken ample effort in demystifying air pollution and the various facets that need to be considered. Starting from the basics of what constitutes air pollution, particulate matter and its various sources, the first 3 chapters set the context very well, before diving into the reasons and sources that increase particulate matter in the air. The author also raises valid concerns on the silence towards air pollution related issues and its impact on health care, employment and productivity of citizens, which would in turn impact the growing economy.

I was simply nodding my head when he talks about how India's economically privileged class have managed to escape situations where the Govt has offered sub-optimal solutions in fields of education (private schools), health care (private hospitals), security (gated communities), clean water (water purifiers and filters) and now clean air (air purifiers).

This statement below is so relevant and true:

Not only do air purifiers allow us to consume clean air, they also lead to increased energy consumption - which in turn can lead to increased power demand and therefore emissions, further impacting those who cannot afford the purifiers.

After setting the context, the author has taken the reader on a journey by explaining the 5 main reasons behind the "great smog" in a clear and easy to understand language without any complicated jargon.
  1. Geographical and meteorological reasons
  2. Energy generation, sources and the externalities behind each source
  3. Industrialization and growth
  4. Transportation
  5. Agricultural impact post the Green Revolution
The chapters explaining the history and timeline of various critical decisions behind these 5 reasons were quite insightful. I was particularly interested in reading about rice-wheat cropping system being followed by farmers in the Northern region which necessitates burning crop residue, because of the limitations and costs involved in other alternative solutions.

The book also talks about various solutions to address this problem of air pollution - "reduce or remove the sources of pollutants using innovative policies, technologies and investments". Air pollution needs to be considered an important "national" issue to be addressed. Instead of blaming the meteorological reasons, inaction by certain states, lack of cohesive policies and lack of right data points to quantify the issue, we need to look for innovative solutions, addressing the various sources of pollutants.

It was truly an insightful read with many key take-aways. If we care about the air we breathe in, we need to know how it is getting affected by various factors. It is high time that we as citizens take serious note of this issue and demand the right solutions from our elected representatives.

P.S. The book was sent to me by Flipkart as part of their "bloggers initiative". The review is my honest and unbiased feedback on the book.

Dec 4, 2018

3Rs of healthy eating

You might have heard of the familiar 5Rs related to waste management and sustainability - Reflect, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking of a similar framework that is so relevant to healthy eating habits as well.

Having been reading about food and nutrition for many years now, I have come to believe that both from a quality and a quantity standpoint, our eating habits have become poor.

Because of the poor quality ingredients being used in processed foods, the frequent eating-outs, take-aways, the pesticides and chemical fertilizers being used in our fresh produce, the quality of foods we put in our mouths have deteriorated over time. 

The other important but overlooked aspect is the Quantity. It is shocking to note how we keep munching something or the other throughout the day, mindlessly in front of our screens. There is hardly any gap between meal times. More than the main meals, we tend to snack a LOT. These may not be applicable to the entire population but a general trend among the affluent. 

I have found this 3Rs framework to be very helpful to communicate my perspectives on healthy eating. The 3Rs comprise of 
  1. Remove/Reject
  2. Reduce and
  3. Replace

We keep adding more and more super foods and other ingredients to our daily diet, in the hope that green tea will reduce belly fat, quinoa will help in weight loss etc. Our pantries and fridges are filled with so many stuff (jams, preserves, sauces, spreads etc). If an ingredient is promoted as a super food, we immediately add it to our never-ending shopping list. 
Instead of "adding" more to our diet, I would suggest we "Remove" or "Reject" certain foods and ingredients. 
Remove/Reject anything packaged, especially those with a lot of unidentifiable ingredients.
Remove all that is imported and has high carbon footprint.
When it comes to healthy eating, "less is more" is so true. We don't need fancy ingredients. We can lead a healthy life with a minimal pantry.

Replace is something that we have all been addressing over the past 5-6 years. So I'm not going to dive into the details, as the awareness is high. Replace unhealthy ingredients with healthy, natural ingredients.
White sugar with cane sugar, palm sugar or jaggery
Iodised salt with unprocessed / Himalayan pink salt
Refined oils with cold-pressed oils
White polished rice with handpounded rice and millets

The main intention of this post is to talk about the second R - Reduce.

Reduce the quantity we eat, as we age. I read somewhere that as we enter our 40s, the number of meals should be 2 and not 3. If that's not feasible, let's atleast try to reduce the quantity we eat in each of our 3 meals. 

Reduce mindless snacking - when your mind is occupied with a tough problem or you are ruminating about some issue at workplace, no unnecessary munching please. 
When you are relaxing in front of a TV, no snacking, especially late nights.
Reduce the frequency of restaurant trips, take-aways and home deliveries.
Reduce the amount of groceries you buy on a weekly/monthly basis. I had shared a few tips in this post.
Reduce the number of food options when you are hosting a party. Let the focus of the party be about interesting conversations and NOT ONLY about food.
Reduce the number of items you cook on a daily basis. It is better to eat 1-2 freshly made dishes than 4-5 dishes that have been cooked a week back. I don't remember my grandparents eating a feast every other day. They ate simple fresh meals and led healthy lives.
Reduce the number of treats - sweet and deep fried. Brands pitch their chocolates with the tagline "sweet edu, kondaadu" for every teeny tiny event. If you want to treat yourself after achieving a tiny milestone, why not an experience you would enjoy that doesn't involve food? For me, that would be half-an-hour of uninterrupted time to listen to ARR's music, an afternoon nap on a Saturday or relaxed time to cuddle up with a good book.

Food gives us energy, nourishes us and helps us to pursue our life's goals. That doesn't mean we pressure our digestive systems to be constantly working all through our waking hours. The reason why intermittent fasting works for many people is the break our digestive system gets from processing all the food we stuff into our mouths.

I hope that this 3R framework makes sense and helps you to look at healthy eating in a different light. Comments welcome.

P.S. This post is equally applicable to me and my family as much as to my readers. I'll revisit this post whenever I'm deviating from these 3Rs. It is certainly not my intention to advise if it comes across so, but merely sharing my thoughts on this topic.

Nov 27, 2018

Brittania Nutrichoice Digestive Zero Biscuits Review

Many of us presume that digestive biscuits are healthy and can be eaten guilt-free. I had earlier written about the popular McVities digestive biscuits and how it tags to an existing habit of eating biscuits with tea/coffee (Do check it out if you haven't)

A few days back, I spotted a new variety of Brittania Nutrichoice digestive biscuits at a supermarket with a tag "zero" - zero sugar and zero maida. Needless to say, I was intrigued and started reading through the ingredients. On googling, I realized that this brand was launched a couple of years back.

Whole Wheat Flour (61%),
Edible vegetable oil (palm),
Maltitol (965),
Wheat bran (5%),
Raising agents (503(ii), 500(ii))
Milk Solids
Iodised Salt
Emulsifiers (322, 471, 472e)
Malt extract
Sweetener (955)
Dough Conditioner (223)
Spice (Nutmeg)

For people who repeatedly ask me why I call out wheat flour as maida, please check the first ingredient here. It is clearly written as "WHOLE WHEAT FLOUR". Maida is always stated as wheat flour or refined wheat flour.

So yes, this pack of digestive zero contains NO maida, which seems to be a good thing. But let's go through the rest of the ingredients.

The second ingredient is palm oil - one of the unhealthiest and cheapest forms of oils being used by the food processing industry. 100 gms of digestive zero biscuits contain 21gm of fat, which is quite high (and on similar levels as that of McVities digestive biscuits). 

There are two different artificial sweeteners being used in this pack - maltitol (965) and sucralose (955).

Maltitol is a sugar alcohol (a polyol) used as a sugar substitute. It has 2.1 calories per gram (white sugar has 4 calories per gram) and a glycemic index of 52 (table sugar has a glycemic index of 60). Since maltitol is a carbohydrate and contains calories, it affects blood glucose levels. Some of the side effects of maltitol include abdominal cramps and intestinal gas. It is also mentioned in the pack - "polyols may have laxative effect". Being the third listed ingredient, it is strange why the brand is not explicitly calling out maltitol as an artificial sweetener.

Let's look at sucralose. It is a zero calorie, artificial sweetener. 

This Harvard article sums up the side effects of artificial sweeteners (Do read if you are interested). A few points that caught my attention -

" One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits "

" Non-nutritive sweeteners are far more potent than table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. A miniscule amount produces a sweet taste comparable to that of sugar, without comparable calories. Overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes. That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable. In other words, use of artificial sweeteners can make you shun healthy, filling, and highly nutritious foods while consuming more artificially flavored foods with less nutritional value. "

" Artificial sweeteners may play another trick, too. Research suggests that they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. As a result, we may crave more sweets, tend to choose sweet food over nutritious food, and gain weight. "

Having observed a few family members who have been on sucralose for many years, I can see these patterns in their eating habits. Just because they believe that sucralose is not sugar, they tend to add it to every damn thing - lemonade, green tea, idli molagapodi (no kidding). They drink 6-7 cups of tea/coffee per day, with sucralose as the sweetener. The moment they see sweet/dessert while eating out or at a family function, they pounce on such sugar treats first before the main course, sometimes even asking for a second serving.  Continuous intake of sucralose has made them crave for more sugar. They don't like to eat natural sweet tasting fruits like papaya, watermelon etc. The only fruit they like to consume are those long, yellow Morris variety of bananas which are too sweet. They are struggling with weight gain, they have been on diabetes medication for decades now, with their health declining and dealing with various issues.

As with any packaged foods, these biscuits also contain a load of synthetic additives (the ones indicated in numbers) - raising agents, emulsifiers, dough conditioner etc. There is no point discussing each of these ingredient's side effects. The fact that it contains artificial sweeteners is more-than-enough reason for me to never buy this pack.

If you would like to eat something along with your tea, avoid such fake biscuits. Instead eat a simple masala roti or thepla along with your tea. 


Nov 25, 2018

Soulfull Ragi Bites Choco Fills Review

I wasn't planning to write a separate post on Soulfull ragi choco fills as I had earlier touched upon its ingredients in my post on Kelloggs Chocos. However, having seen how it is being promoted by mommy instagrammers, I decided that this product needs to be reviewed separately.

It is all so cute and fun to see heart-warming pictures of mommy and kids in a lake side picnic. But carrying a picnic basket with small packs of Soulfull ragi choco fills is the heights of fake promotion (If you don't understand the context, check out these pics)

It is being promoted aggressively as a "healthy" breakfast cereal and a "healthy" anytime snack for young kids. 

The brand and its digital aLLakkais (insta supporters) are pushing the product using the key ingredient "ragi". Yes, the ingredients list shows ragi as the first ingredient with 50%. What about the second ingredient - Sugar? Why isn't any of these mommies talking about the high sugar content (25%)?

A 30gm serving contains 7.5 gm of sugar (close to 2 tsp). So if a child eats 2 servings a day (one for breakfast and one for snack), then he/she would have consumed 4 tsp of sugar (close to hitting the 5 tsp sugar allowance limit per day).

Though the overall fats percentage is relatively low (10%), let's look at the fat sources - edible palm oil and hydrogenated vegetable fat. Both are unhealthy and causes inflammation in the long run.

As with any packaged foods, there are additives added to increase shelf life - stabilizer (INS 170), emulsifier (INS 322) and antioxidant (INS 320), each having its own set of side effects in the long run.

100 gm of ragi wholegrain contains 11 gm of dietary fibre, whereas ragi chocofills (100 gm) contains ONLY 6.1 gm of dietary fibre. This is due to the fact that the processing involved in making those fills strips off the fibre. 

If you want to include ragi in your daily diet, make
- ragi idlis, dosas and adais with wholegrain
- ragi porridge made with ragi flour / sprouted ragi flour
- ragi rotis made with ragi flour
- add ragi flour to your regular wholewheat atta to make chapathis
- bake cake/muffins at home with ragi flour
- make ragi laddoos for anytime snack
- make ragi halwa, ragi murukku for festive treats

Let’s not rely on these packaged brands to give us the "goodness of ragi".

Oct 30, 2018

Kelloggs Granola Almonds and Cranberries Review

Corn flakes, chocos, muesli and now the latest entrant, granola. Kelloggs continues to make strides into the growing breakfast cereal market in India. I had earlier written about how the breakfast cereal market growth in India can be attributed to changing consumer preferences, exposure, convenience and availability. Such breakfast cereal brands might be taking a good share from the urban consumer's wallet every week/month, but definitely not from my household.

I don't have any kind of breakfast cereal stocked up in my pantry. It is such a waste of money and it does no good to our health, though the brands continue to scream otherwise. I just wrapped up my breakfast with ragi dosas (with homemade batter) and tomato thokku. With the batter and thokku prepared ahead, all it took me was less than 5 minutes to make the 2 dosas.

Let's look at this new product - Kelloggs granola with almonds and cranberries.

The front side of the pack says "Wholesome crunch - nutritious oats, real almonds, yum cranberry, corn crispies".

Such well-crafted marketing material should be ignored and as consumers who care about our health, we should focus more on the back side of the pack - Ingredients list and nutrition facts. Get bored with this statement but I'm not going to stop repeating it ;-)

Ingredients List:
  1. Rolled Oats (25.1%), 
  2. Candied Fruit and Nut (24%) (Candied Cranberry (14%), Almonds (10%)),
  3. Sugar,
  4. Oat Flour (10.7%),
  5. Edible Vegetable Oil (Palmolein),
  6. Rice (4.2%),
  7. Whole Wheat (3.9%),
  8. Rice Flour (2.7%),
  9. Liquid Glucose,
  10. Corn Flour (1.8%),
  11. Honey,
  12. Malt Extract,
  13. Wheat Bran (0.6%),
  14. Wheat Flour (0.5%),
  15. Iodized Salt,
  16. Dextrose,
  17. Barley Flour (0.1%),
  18. Vitamins,
  19. Raising Agent (INS 500ii),
  20. Minerals,
  21. Antioxidant (INS 320)
Contains Added Flavours (Nature Identical and artificial cream flavouring substances)

1) Firstly, 20+ ingredients.
According to this basic recipe from the popular blog "thekitchn", homemade granola requires just 7 ingredients - Rolled oats, honey or maple syrup, oil, dry fruits, nuts, cinnamon and salt. But if you look at this pack of granola, there are so many unwanted stuff like malt extract, dextrose, liquid glucose, wheat flour etc. 

2) Macros - where do they stand as compared to our typical Indian fresh breakfasts?
Those of you who avoid parathas and idlis for breakfast because they are "carbs", please note that the ingredients of this granola pack include rice flour and wheat flour as well. I had earlier highlighted the same point in my review of Kelloggs Special-K. Please check it out if you haven't.
The table below is a comparison of the macros (Indian breakfast nutrition facts data from myfitnesspal).

Let's not forget the accompaniments. The chutney/sambhar increases the amount of protein, fibre along with various other vitamins and minerals. Not to forget the healing spices. It is only our wrong perceptions that have been carefully influenced by heavy marketing, which has made us believe that such packaged cereals are low-carb/wholesome/light etc, whereas our Indian breakfasts are high-carb/heavy etc. 

3) Typically, granola is made with honey. But if you see the ingredients list, the sweetener is primarily sugar and its various forms. The nutrition facts table states that one serving of Kelloggs granola contains 7.2 gm of sugar (around 2 tsp of sugar). But please note that this is ONLY sucrose. The other types of sugar such as glucose and dextrose are not accounted for. 

4) The fat used is the unhealthiest and cheapest oil available - refined palmolein. 

5) The first ingredient listed is "Rolled oats", which constitutes 25% of the granola mix. This would mean that a 40 gm serving would contain ONLY 10 gm of rolled oats. This also implies that the dietary fibre would be very low, which is proved in the nutrition table (2gm of fibre per serving). 
6) Synthetic additives:
Do take a note of the raising agent (INS 500ii). Sodium bicarbonate causes corrosion of the gut and digestive issues when consumed in large amounts. 

The antioxidant (INS 320) is Butylated Hydroxyanisole, which is banned in Japan because of its carcinogenic and estrogenic effects. Can cause hyperactivity, asthma and allergies. 
In my previous post, I spoke about unscrupulous nutrition experts mushrooming everywhere and how people without proper qualifications call themselves as experts and guide people in nutrition and weight loss.

This is my question to Person B who is being hailed as an Ayurveda expert in Instagram. A few days back, I came across her posts promoting Kelloggs Granola. Based on my limited understanding of Ayurveda, I believe that honey should not be heated. 
Person B, if you are a true Ayurveda follower, then how can you promote Kelloggs granola where honey is added as part of the baking process?
For those of you who like to bake granola at home without honey, here's a good recipe using jaggery.

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