Jun 28, 2017

The truth behind Quaker Oats milk

 I neither watch TV nor I read newspapers. So the only way I get to know about latest packaged food launches is through food bloggers who write sponsored/promotional posts. One such product that is being promoted aggressively is “Quaker Oats + Milk”. And the caption that caught my attention is “Co-created with Sachin Tendulkar”.

Before we proceed, let me admit that I used to be a huge, huge fan of Sachin when he was playing active cricket. After retirement, I was hoping that he would teach his batting skills to talented youngsters, become a mentor / coach or something. It is a shame that he decided to co-create “junk foods”. 

Let me first list down the facts about this drink. 

It is a milk-based drink, made with oats (India’s one-of-a-kind grain-dairy beverage). It comes in two flavours - almond and mango. The product’s promise is that it has fiber advantage and helps in digestion. 

I looked at the ingredients list of the almond flavoured milk. Guess what! There is no almonds listed anywhere. Are the almonds hiding inside “added flavours”?
“Oats” is promoted as the primary ingredient in their messaging and packaging. But the percentage of oats flour is only 3.5% and listed after “sugar” (which means, the quantity of sugar is more than oats). If the quantity of oats is so less, where does the “fiber” come from?

The key ingredient to note here is “polydextrose”. 

As per Wikipedia,
“Polydextrose is a synthetic polymer of glucose. It is frequently used to increase the non-dietary fiber content of food, to replace sugar, and to reduce calories and fat content.”
It is an artificial way to increase fiber intake. Do we need to start off our mornings with such synthetic fibre additives, when a bowl of fruits or a veg salad can give natural fiber, vitamins, minerals and wholesome nourishment to our bodies?

The packaging itself states, “Polydextrose may have laxative effects”.  Some of the side effects of polydextrose include intestinal gas (flatulence), bloating, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. One might argue that these side effects are applicable only when consumed in large quantities. My point is not about the quantity of intake but rather questioning the need for such artificial fiber.

Here’s a good read on artificial fibre in the form of polydextrose that’s been added to foods to disguise junk as “health foods”.

Now, let’s come to the 3 stabilizers listed in this pack.

460(i) - Microcrystalline cellulose
It is a term for refined wood pulp. Commercially prepared from wood and cotton. Please note that the majority of cotton production in the world is GMO. 

Cellulose is non soluble, but can be fermented in the large intestine. Large concentrations can cause intestinal problems, such as bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. Due to this fact it cannot be used in weaning foods for infants. (Source)

446 - Succistearin 
Succistearin (stearoyl propylene glycol hydrogen succinate) is produced by the reaction of succinic anhydride, propylene glycol, and fully hydrogenated vegetable oil. It is used as an emulsifier in or with shortenings and edible oils, to help improve the tenderness in baked goods and bakery items. Used in foods such as dairy-based drinks, processed cheese, fat spreads, processed fruits, confectionary, bakery products, processed meats, beer and wines. Not permitted in Australia. (Source

As per this site, this additive is approved in US but not permitted in EU, Australia and New Zealand.

407 - Carrageenan
Carrageenan is a natural polysaccharide that has been extracted from red seaweeds, Chrondrus crispus, Gigartina stellata, Euchema spinosum, E. cottonii, as a gelatinous substance. High concentrations bring about flatulence and bloating. It is suspected to have effects on the immune system and to cause cancer. (Source)

Research has linked food-grade carrageenan to gastrointestinal disease in laboratory animals, including ulcerative colitis-like disease, intestinal lesions and ulcerations and colon cancer. (Source). In other animal studies, results indicated that when carrageenan was subject to high temperatures and acidity that it may cause ulcers and gastrointestinal cancer. (Source)

I have only scratched the surface when it comes to the side-effects of these additives. But the reasons are more than sufficient for me to never touch this pack. 

If I want to have a grain-dairy beverage, I would drink a glass of sathu-maavu kanji (health-mix drink) or sprouted ragi porridge. For fibre, my fruits, vegetables and millets are doing a wonderful job, thank you very much. 

No polydextrose and synthetic fibre for me, even if was co-created by Sachin himself.

Jun 27, 2017

Brand "diabetes" - the premium positioning

In my previous post, I wrote about how a brand hopped onto the “diabetes” bandwagon through a minor change in their existing product mix. In today’s post, let me share with you an example of how a brand not only tweaks its product slightly but also commands a premium by taking a “diabetes” focused positioning.

I discover such new products, thanks to food bloggers who generously promote them. One such discovery is this new “Sugar Release Control Atta” under the parent brand of Aashirvaad from ITC. I even saw a huge hoarding in ORR (Bangalore) a few weeks back.
The product’s promise as picked up from their site:
Aashirvaad Sugar Release Control Atta is a blend of whole wheat flour and pulse/legume flours forming a unique "Natural Grain mix". Ingredients like Oats and Methi ensure that this Atta is high in protein and fibre with a Low Glycemic Index. 

Wait a minute!
So through this product, is the brand saying that all those diabetic patients who eat regular wholewheat chapathis for dinner aren’t regulating their sugar levels and that they need much more than that? Can we conclude that wheat alone is insufficient to regulate sugar levels? 

What about their existing product “Aashirvaad multigrain atta” that was launched a few years back? Doesn’t it include “a mix of wheat flour and legume flours”? What’s different and new in this new “Sugar release control” atta?

I went to the supermarket and started looking at the ingredients list (my obsession) of all the three products. Here’s the comparison:

As you can see, the ingredients are EXACTLY the same between multigrain and sugar release control atta, except for 0.1% of fenugreek powder. The percentages of the other flours were not mentioned in the pack of sugar release control atta. I wrote to ITC to share the % figures but I haven’t received a response yet.

The percentages of the various flours are tweaked slightly in this new product. Assuming the ingredients list is in decreasing order, in the multigrain flour mix, the highest contributor is soya flour, followed by Bengal gram flour (besan).

What’s most interesting is the price point. The “sugar release control” atta is priced 11% more than multigrain atta and 20% more than wholewheat atta. By tagging with buzzwords such as “diabetes”, “sugar release” etc, the brand is commanding a premium. For the target segment, this premium price doesn’t create any dent in their pockets. “Just noticeable difference” (JND) is minimal in this case and the switching costs are nil. So irrespective of whether people have diabetes or not, they wouldn’t mind switching to this new brand, thereby contributing to increased profit margins of the parent brand. 

Do we really need a separate diabetic-focused atta? Not at all. This is what I’ve been following for the past 3-4 years. I buy regular wholewheat atta and also a bunch of other flours like ragi, bajra, jowar, amaranth, bengal gram (besan), other minor millets etc. Whenever I make the dough, I mix equal proportions of wholewheat and one of these flours. So it would be say, 50% wholewheat atta and 50% ragi flour. This way, I can consume considerable proportions of other grains that are gluten-free, high in protein and fibre. It’s so simple and easy to take control of this proportion mix. It doesn’t make sense to hand over this control to a brand that just gives me <15% of other grain flours and command a 20% premium.
P.S. Adding just 0.1 gm of fenugreek powder (in 100 gms of flour) and then calling it out explicitly as part of their brand promise - Isn't that weird? 

Update (3rd July): I received a response from ITC - "Since aashirvaad   sugar   release  control  atta  is a proprietary  product,  we  will  not  be  able  to specify   the  split  of  individual  ingredients'
percentage. However, what we can share is that the multigain  flour mixture comprises of 15.4%, which includes  defatted  soya flour, bengal gram flour, oat  flour  (1.36%),  psyllium  husk powder, maize flour as well as fenugreek seed powder (0.1%).
The same as what is mentioned in the packaging.

Jun 21, 2017

Brand "diabetes" - how we are being fooled (Part 1)

The reason why I studied marketing and consumer behavior with so much interest 8 years back seems to become clear now. When education blends with your passion/purpose, it feels like magic. 

Over the last few days, my social media feed is flooded with updates from food bloggers on this newly launched Fortune Vivo diabetes care oil. No one cared to explain what the oil is made of, how it manages diabetes, how it regulates blood sugar etc. The copy just sounded like they were being instructed to include these key phrases - “clinically proven”, “insulin sensitivity”, “manage sugar levels”, “regulate blood sugar”. 

So I went to the store this morning as I was really curious to know what this miracle oil is made of:

As you can see, it is a mixture of “physically refined rice bran oil (80%) and filtered sesame oil (20%)”. The pack also states “Patent applied” on its front side, to sound as though it is a revolutionary innovation. 

Surprised how clever marketing can be! See how we are being fooled! 

In South India, we have been using sesame oil (nallennai) for centuries. Since it has so many healing properties, it is not called eLLennai (sesame oil) but called nallennai (good oil). Not many people would like the strong aroma of sesame oil (I love it !!), so the brand has nicely masked the aroma by combining it with rice bran oil.

I use the same brand’s rice bran oil which costs me Rs.120 per litre, whereas this new diabetes positioned oil costs Rs.140 per litre.  

The brand also gives some “tips” to control diabetes. Though I agree on the first 3 points, the 4th one - “50% of diet should consist of protein”, Seriously? 
For once, I’m glad people don’t read anything written on the packaging. 

Do you want to control/prevent diabetes?
Eat fresh, home-cooked meals. Stay active. Sleep well. Avoid stress. Avoid ALL packaged/ready-to-eat junk foods.

You don’t need special “diabetes” branded products that are nothing but repositioned / redesigned product mix.

Jun 19, 2017

Rice is nice, Eat without fear

Over the past few days, news about plastic rice went viral all over social media. If we stopped for a minute and thought whether the news made any sense before sharing, we could have stopped it from going viral.

Do take a few minutes and watch this well-explained video on 
- why plastic rice is not an economically viable option, even if it was a reason to sell adulterated rice
- why a ball of cooked rice will bounce

Our farmers are already facing issues of drought, selling below MSP and what not….Do we have to burden them more by spreading such illogical rumours and curbing the demand for rice?

Is this a conspiracy of Western corporations who are behind these rumours, in their grand plans of controlling India’s food market? Maybe, I’m not sure. But from our side, let’s be responsible citizens and stop spreading rumours about plastic rice in social media. 

Even before this rumour started, rice has been blamed for the rise of diabetes and obesity related issues.

I have been a strong proponent of millets but I don't recommend making the switch completely from rice to millets. 

If you observe the food patterns of urban middle class, 40+ aged people from South India, most of them have switched to oats for breakfast and wheat chapathis for dinner. People with diabetes strongly believe that wheat chapathis are the best dinner option for their health. I’m curious to know how this all started, what triggered people to make the shift and end up believing that chapathis are "good for diabetes".

Let's do a quick comparison between rice and wheat (Source):
  1. The calories in rice (362 Kcal per 100 gms) and wheat (348 Kcal per 100 gms) are almost the same. 
  2. Wheat has slightly more fibre as compared to rice (2 gms vs 1 gm per 100 gms of grain). But the commercial, packaged wheat atta we get from supermarkets is already stripped off all fibre, so the reason that chapathis have more fibre than rice doesn’t hold any value. 
  3. Wheat is also better when it comes to proteins (11.8 gms vs 6.8 gms per 100 gms of grain). BUT most rice-eaters don’t eat rice as it is, we usually have it with protein-rich dals/sambhar etc.  
  4. Carbohydrates in rice (78.2 gms per 100 gms) is more as compared to wheat (71.2 gms per 100 gms). 
  5. Glycemic index of rice is also high as compared to wheat. BUT the typical Indian meal that is served along with rice (dal, vegetables, sambhar, rasam etc) ensures that glycemic index is lowered and it becomes a well-balanced meal. 
Keeping aside these modern nutrition metrics aside, this is what I believe in:
- Rice is predominantly grown in the South. Our traditional food principles recommend that you eat food that grows in the same region you live in. So if you are living in South India, rice should be your staple diet. The same rule applies to millets. Millets are cultivated in the states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu. So it makes sense to include more millets if you live in any of these three states. 
- Wheat is considered to be “heat-generating”. Typically, in the rural, dry regions of North, people consume wheat rotis with onion slices. Onions are cooling and so they balance out the heat from wheat. Same principle is applicable when rotis are served with a few slices of cucumbers, lemon or buttermilk. So if you live in Chennai and you are eating chapathis everyday for dinner in these hottest summer months, please make sure you balance the heat with ingredients that are cooling OR switch to rice which is inherently cooling.

Instead of white polished silky rice, let our choice be brown rice / semi-polished rice / hand-polished rice, where most of the bran is retained, giving satiety, fibre and B-vitamins. 

“India had nearly 1,10,000 varieties of rice till 1970 and this diversity has been lost to posterity as a result of the green revolution with its emphasis on mono culture and hybrid crops. Now, only 6,000 species or varieties of rice survive. The destruction of the rice diversity of the country is a contribution of the green revolution”. (Source)
With such plastic rice rumours and falsely-believed news of rice being the sole reason for diabetes, I’m afraid we might end up losing those remaining rice species as well.  Let’s support rice and rice-growing farmers, please.

P.S. You know what makes me cringe - a few nutritionists advocating mock cauliflower rice in place of regular rice, so you get the same texture and "feel of eating rice”. 
“Mudiyala daa saami” ….Roughly translated to "I can’t take it anymore, God!” :-)

Jun 15, 2017

Rise of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals in India

Image Source: http://in.reuters.com/article/idINIndia-57892920110624

 I vividly remember this discussion that happened in Consumer Behavior class 9 years ago. The session was on diffusion of innovation and our Professor was giving an example of how Kelloggs failed to launch their brand of cereals in India in the 1970s. The test sample couldn’t relate to the breakfast cereal concept. Since they were used to the habit of eating fresh, hot preparations for breakfast, they couldn’t bring themselves to eat a bowl of cereal with cold milk. It failed to meet their “fresh” expectations. They strongly believed in their prevailing food culture and eating habits. 

When we were kids, if our mom/grandmom makes idli/dosa for breakfast almost every single day, we would crib, “ennamma, daily idli dosai yaa?”. But the present generation kids are content with having a bowl of chocos with milk every single day. If at all they want a change, it is either bread toast with jam or pancakes with sugar-laden syrups.

Is it because they are a happy, content lot? Not really. They have been systematically trained to get addicted to these sugary cereals. They are not exposed to the fresh, Indian way of breakfasts. 

One of my favorite topics to read and research is “behavior change”. Most literature emphasizes the fact that behavior change is hard. If that’s the case, how did Kelloggs manage to reenter the market, create a product category and make it a mandatory purchase in the weekly shopping list of urban Indians with high spending power?

These are the 5 reasons I could put together:
1. Behavior creation through aspiration
Exposure through global television made 90s kids become aware of breakfast cereals. By positioning it as “cool” and creating an aspirational image, youngsters were ready to try out this concept of breakfast cereal. Brands like Kelloggs have broken the initial “mindset” barrier through a barrage of TV advertisements. 

2. Product formulation
Most of the kids-focused cereals are loaded with sugar. Research has already proven how sugar is an addictive substance. The taste buds of kids love sugary foods by default. And these cereals are taking advantage of this fact and keeping the consumers hooked onto their brand.

3. Premise of Convenience
Schools start quite early these days and there’s no time to prepare fresh food. Even if the moms wake up early to cook fresh breakfast, the kids need to be interested in eating, which is a tough ask. Given the hectic lifestyles that urban Indians lead, the brands need to hardly do much to promote these ready-to-eat breakfast cereals. As this report states, “the market is self-propelled”.

4. Compatible comparisons
Most of the marketing messages of the breakfast cereal brands ensure that the audience could relate to their existing Indian eating habits. Kellogg’s comparison of chocos with roti - “roti jaise guno” is to make people believe that a bowl of chocos is equal to 2 rotis. Similar comparisons were also used to promote variations with almonds, honey etc. Our grandmas used to advise “roz badam khaalo”. And now these brands advocate the same advice through almond enriched cereals. 

5. Fear of health issues
The same 70s generation that rejected breakfast cereals have now switched to eating oats on a daily basis.  They still prefer to eat “hot” breakfast. Their behavior hasn’t changed but the numerous health issues and convenience factor have motivated them to switch to oats. To cater to their “Indian” taste buds, brands have various masala flavored options. There is hardly anyone interested to know what is added in these masala varieties.

Now for some stats (Source),
According to India Breakfast Cereal Market Overview, India's breakfast cereal market was growing with an annual growth rate of 22.07% over last five years.
Kellogg's India, Bagrry and PepsiCo Quaker are the three leading companies capturing more than 75% of the market. 

Three sub-categories of breakfast cereals (Source):
Market size of corn flakes - Rs.600 crore
Market size of oats - Rs.300 crore
Market size of muesli - Rs.100 crore  
Does these stats sound surprising to you?

The alluring promise of “convenience” has made us lose our innate quality of “inquisitiveness”. We also need to blame our education system that shut our mouths in our early childhood days when we asked tough questions.

How many of us have invested time in understanding
- What does “flaking” process involve?
- How does a corn become a “flake”?
- Where are these corns sourced from? Are these GMO or non-GMO?
- What is the processing mechanism?
- What are the steps involved to ensure the flakes are dry?
- How is it being preserved for months together?
- What are the other ingredients added?
- How are “fortified” vitamins being added?
- Are such “fortified” vitamins being absorbed by our body? If so, to what extent?

Do I have answers to all these questions? Not yet. But from whatever I’ve been researching so far, these ready-to-eat cereals are neither good for your health nor for the environment. I’ll continue to prepare my Indian fresh breakfasts for my family, even if anyone complains “adhe idli dosai yaa?” (idli dosa again?)

Jun 13, 2017

Notes from Semmai vanam's workshop

Recently, I attended a one-day workshop on “vaazhviyal maruthuvam” (Traditional Living as medicine) conducted by Thiru.Senthamizhan who runs this organization named "Semmai vanam". I had earlier read his book “Inippu” where he talks about diabetes and how it is a disease invented by the pharma industry. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in knowing why diabetes has become a brand these days.

The workshop was in Tamil and so I wanted to jot down my notes in English, so more people can benefit from it.

Senthamizhan started off with two important issues that indicate how far we have deviated from our roots.

1. Lack of self-freedom => When we feel sick, there is no freedom to take rest and recover. We are dependent on our sick leaves and tied down by our work responsibilities.
2. Lack of compassion towards our family members => He gave an example of applying oil / massaging the joints, that used to be the norm a couple of decades back. We hardly take the time out to do it for ourselves, let alone our family members. 

He also emphasized the fact that we should understand our body as a whole and not as individual organs. If a particular part of our body is aching, it doesn’t mean that there is an issue in that specific part. 

Pain, headache, cold etc are symptoms but the real issue is somewhere else in the body. We need to identify the root cause. Allopathic medicine always focuses on treating symptoms. High sugar levels is a symptom, it is not a disease. We need to identify why the sugar levels are high and why our pancreas is not functioning well. We need to stop giving names to these symptoms. High/low thyroid levels is again a symptom. 

Stopping prescription medicines is your RIGHT. 

Eat only when hungry.
Drink water only when thirsty.
Rest well during night (after 7PM)
Have hair bath in normal water everyday. No hot water bath. Lukewarm water bath only during cold weather.

Food creates energy through digestion. Every body’s digestion process is different. Eating right type of food at the right time is also important.

Rules for food:
- Locally grown cereals (rice and millets - for people living in Bangalore). Reduce wheat as much as possible, since it is not suitable for this region.
- Give first preference to country vegetables - cluster beans, brinjal, arbi, banana stem, banana flower, yam etc (naattu kaigari) and second preference to vegetables like potato, cabbage, beans, carrot etc.

Don’t separate foods based on individual nutrients.

High fat foods such as pork, beef etc are only suited for cold regions.

Requirement of nutrients is directly proportional to the amount of physical work you do in a day.
Rice - best suited for people who do less physical work.
Millets - more nutrients, therefore best suited for people who do more physical work. Though millets awareness is high, don't over-do it.

Going for a walk is only a practice, not really physical work. This human body is meant for physical work. Doing household chores (sweeping, mopping, washing dishes, washing clothes etc) are essential to stay fit. 

Peanuts, till seeds, cashews, raisins - high energy foods for children.
Cashews are suited for Indians, we don’t need almonds and walnuts on a regular basis.

“Commitment” to personal relationships is more important than getting “committed” to EMIs. 
The explanation he gave to differentiate between unarchi (emotion) and unarvu (feeling) was outstanding. 
Hunger is a feeling whereas preference for certain tastes is an emotion.
Peace is a feeling whereas happiness, anger and sadness are emotions.

If we focus more to satisfy our basic feelings and give less importance to emotions, then our lives will be more meaningful.

Immunity decreases due to excess medication.
When someone catches a cold, the body is getting rid of excess mucus, which shouldn’t be stopped.

Excess body heat + excess mucus => Ideal condition for cells to multiply. For those with less immunity, chances of such cells turning cancerous are high.

Reducing body heat (pitta) and getting rid of excess mucus (kapha) - should be taken care of.

Excess mucus - if not addressed, it shows up as kidney related issues and then skin disorders. 
Anxiety, tiredness etc - are related to improper digestion. Symptom - increased sugar levels.
2 meals a day - recommended, that too only when you feel hungry.

Tamarind - increases pitta. Use less quantity.
Dals - increases vaadha. Use less quantity. 

If pitta is high, it shows up as hairfall, uterus related issues, eye related issues etc.

Avoid refined oils. They cause digestion related problems. Cold-pressed oils (groundnut oil, coconut oil and sesame oil) in limited quantity - recommended. Avoid deep-fried items in the night.

Green leafy vegetables (keerai) are difficult to digest. So mash them using a hand-masher (maththil kadainthu saapidavum). 

Always consume ghee in melted form. Add it to rice but don’t cook with it.

Drumstick and drumstick greens are very healthy and nutritious. Can be taken as a soup in the evenings. Use only fresh greens, dried ones aren't that good.

Recommended breakfast in the mornings - kanji (porridge) with thuvaiyal (made with either coriander, pirandai, gongura, curry leaves, ponnaanganni)
For dinner, easy-to-digest foods like idli, idiyappam, puttu

Slowly stop using fridge. Vegetables lose their nutrients when refrigerated. Instead, you can store them in mud pots (one mud pan filled with water, another mud pot immersed in this pan where you can keep vegetables). Will last for 10 days.

When someone is having fever at home,
- give only warm water
- if they are hungry, then give rice kanji for a couple of days.
- if they ask for something else, then give rasam rice

Rest and not eating anything is the best cure for fever.

If high fever - then keep a wet cotton cloth on the forehead
During fever, don’t give mosambi juice, bread or tender coconut water.

Hibiscus tea - very effective for uterus related issues.
Uluthankali (porridge made with black urad dal) - recommended for women and girls

At the end of the workshop, he also covered many home medications for cold, cough etc. The details are available in the book “Adukkalai marundhagam”.

I also brought home a bunch of his books, which I’ve been reading the last few days. His writings make a lot of sense to me, especially in these days when we have come so far from our roots. 
To know more about Semmai vanam, follow their FB page.

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