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Rapid diminution in protein levels in all foods in India: A Swot!
Dr. Pragya Khanna2/20/2018 9:24:32 PM
Now a days we often wonder as to why our healthy food choices fail to keep us fit and disease-free. Yes! Think again. The data released by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, suggests that the foods we eat today are less nutritious than what we used to consume just three decades ago.
The doctor's words seem to always ring in our ears: eat more protein-rich foods. But this timeless advice may be hard to implement if the latest report of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad, is to be believed. The levels of protein in Indian foods, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, are declining rapidly. For instance, between 1993-94 and 2011-12, protein levels in beans dropped around 60 per cent; in brown lentil (whole), it went down by 10 per cent; and, in goat meat, it has come down by 5 per cent.
Protein is a vital macronutrient needed to cope with the wear and tear of the body, in making enzymes and hormones. It is the building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. The deficiency of protein can manifest itself in many ways, like sluggishness, slow recovery from injuries and brain fog (lack of focus). If not addressed, this deficiency can lead to nutritional diseases in children like Kwashiorkor and Marasmus.
According to scientists even the amount of protein consumed by most Indians is not of high quality. Seema Gulati, head, Nutrition Research Group, Centre for Nutrition & Metabolic Research says, "Our diet is not very meat-intensive. Even those who are non vegetarians, on an average, eat it only on a weekly basis". It has been found that egg, fish and meat make up for just seven per cent of protein intake in rural households and nine per cent in urban counterparts.
According to a study in 2014 it was found that dietary patterns among Indians tilted towards carbohydrate intake much more than protein. In rural and urban households, cereals account for 58 per cent and 49 per cent of total protein intake respectively.
While pulses are viewed as the main source of protein in a vegetarian diet, it's not as simple as eating more pulses. The saddest thing about daal is that it is one of the poorest sources of protein, unless you eat a certain ratio of daal to rice, for instance one to four at every meal. The quality of a food source's protein is determined by the number of amino acids it has. Protein from animal food products has higher number of amino acids, and therefore, it is better than plant proteins and to get the same kind of protein from plant-based foods, the diversity of food must be widened.
There are also external factors for declining levels of protein in food. Experts say intensification of agriculture has impacted soil health. Large parts of agricultural soil in India are deficient in zinc, boron and iron, according to a study by the Indian Institute of Soil Science, Bhopal. Moreover, studies have shown that climate change can affect plant nutrition levels, reducing their protein, zinc and iron content.
Scientists say rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the environment could also be affecting plant nutrition levels. In a 2014 study published in Nature, researchers compared the nutrient levels in wheat grown in present-day conditions with those grown in an atmosphere with elevated CO2 levels, as expected by 2050. They found that wheat grown in high CO2 levels had 9.3 per cent less zinc, 5.1 per cent less iron and 6.3 per cent less protein.
Rice grown in such a condition had 5.2 per cent less iron, 3.3 per cent less zinc and 7.8 per cent less protein.
A 2015 study, published in Global Change Biology, provides an explanation for this decline. High CO2 levels in the atmosphere lower the nitrogen concentration in plants, which in turn affects the protein content in food. The effect persisted even after the researchers used nitrogen-rich fertilisers on the crops. This suggests lower protein is not due to limited access to nitrogen in the soil.
In all probability, the poor nutritional status is here to stay. The Centre for Science and Environment in their report suggest that the government should use the latest nutrient values to revise dietary regulations, nutrition, public health and agriculture policies. "We have seen a wide variation in the levels of micronutrients in food collected from different geographical regions. A study of such regional databases will help understand the relation of food with diseases," says T Longvah, director, NIN. "Long-term approaches, such as exploration of biodiversity, nutritional characterisation and mainstreaming of underutilised foods, and plant breeding are stable and sustainable means of nutritional enhancement of foods," he says.
Experts also suggest a targeted approach for dealing with nutrient deficiency in food. Anura Kurpad, head, Department of Physiology and Nutrition at St John's Medical College, Bengaluru, says, "If there is a true decline, policies should begin to look at biofortification."
Also if biodiversity disappears we will lose the food wealth on our plates. Food will become impersonal. It will become a sterile package designed for universal size and taste. This is what is happening today as we eat packaged food from plastic boxes. Conservation of this biodiversity, indeed its festivity, requires us to cultivate it on our plates. Otherwise, not only will our food become sterile, but we will also lose nature and the knowledge that links it to food and nutrition.
Also millets, soybeans and chana (gram) are high quality food. They have much more protein, much more iron and micronutrients. Mixing nutrients from different sources is important to have a balanced diet.
Globally, organic cultivation is also being looked at as a solution to the problem. A 2007 study published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry analysed samples of dried tomatoes kept at the University of California-Davis for flavonoids. The samples included tomatoes grown by both conventional and organic system between 1994 and 2004. Analysis showed that some flavonoids like quercetin and kaempferol were present in higher levels (79 and 97 per cent, respectively) in organic tomatoes.
We are even more certain today that India has the opportunity to be different in its food journey. We do not have to first eat badly and then rediscover healthy and medicinal food that is not filled with toxins. We have a living tradition of healthy food still eaten in our homes. We still cherish diverse cuisines and we still crave for our unique smells and tastes. But knowledge of this diversity is disappearing.
Our food is getting "multinationalised", industrialised and "chemicalised". It is the same anywhere and everywhere. Bizarrely, this McDonaldisation of food has been promoted as a sign of modernity and affluence.
However, forlornly all this is not accidental or incidental. The food industry has a game plan, of which we are innocent participants. Read the excellent account of the food transition in the US, captured in the book, "Salt, Sugar and Fat", by New York-based writer Michael Moss. The plot is exposed. As Moss explains, it was in the mid to late fifties when food giants decided that the key word for them to change people's eating habits was "convenience". Their impediment to the "social change was the army of school teachers and federal outreach workers who insisted on promoting home-cooked meals". This was a time in the US when the state agriculture departments had extension services to teach homemakers the ins and outs of gardening, canning and meal planning with nutrition in mind. Home economics was taught in colleges.
This was also a time, when feminist movements were on the rise. Much like tobacco companies, food companies also found this a great platform, women who returned home after a gruelling day at work only to find that they had to cook and care for husbands and children. Both industries capitalised on this by promoting "liberation" of smoking and not cooking. This was also the time when television was making inroads into homes. Evenings were too precious to "waste" on cooking and cleaning.
The food industry, explains Moss, made two sneaky exercises to draw women into their fold. One, they created their own army of home economics teachers. Dazzling and stylish, these women would set up their own cooking contests. By 1957, US multinational General Foods had 60 of these home economists on its payroll. These women worked with the company and promoted its products, pushing the idea of convenience. Two, to compete with home-cooking promoted at the time by a woman called Betty Dickson, who worked with the American Home Economics Association, the industry brought in its own substitute, Betty Crocker. This friendly but sophisticated food icon was created by the advertising department of Washburn Crosby, which later became General Mills, another US food giant.
Betty Crocker never slept, says Moss. She became the face of the food mix, which were sold as grand time savers. The age of processed and convenience food had been ushered in, and it took over the American family life. In 1959, Time magazine did a long article on convenience foods and sold it as "modern living" which was all about "just heat and serve". Food had been revolutionised. It was now processed and pre-cooked. Industry had changed the habits of people, even without their knowledge. It was subliminal. This "change" in the food habits has continued. Since the seventies, the food industry has introduced new habits. Again, by design.
This happened in the US in the 1970s and beyond. It is happening in our world today, and we do not even know it. We are becoming Americanised. Our own instant snacks, often healthier and more nutritious, have gone astray. More importantly, it has become fashionable not to eat home-cooked meals. We have never understood that the Indian diet (if I am allowed to generalise) has the hallmarks of the healthy Mediterranean diet. It too is based on eating seasonal, eating local produce and traditional preparations. We had balanced diets. But somewhere along the way, this science of food culture has been lost. We cannot blame it all on the food marketers; they will do what they have to do. We have to blame it on our lack of self-pride or self-awareness about what we were doing in our farms, forests and kitchens. We are losing this knowledge because of sheer neglect.
These foods are rich in sugar, salt and fats, ingredients that are addictive. All these habits have been created. We are the products of the makers of designer food. It is no surprise then that this food is responsible for ill-health across the world. After all, industry is about profit, not health. We have allowed our takeover.
Today Betty Crocker, who captured stores with convenience foods, needs to be reinvented in the Indian scenario. This time, as someone who captures kitchens with our grandmother's or mother's recipes. We need to look for the seeds, stems, leaves and flowers that would make up our daily food.
This might not be easy as the natural habitats of these plants are now covered with concrete. The most biodiverse regions of the country are under threat from industry, globalisation, urbanisation and what not! We need to create a demand for the biodiversity-rich foods that have served generations before us, and we need to protect the environment where these plants grow.
The researchers estimated that roughly an additional 150 million people may be placed at risk of protein deficiency because of elevated levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Globally, 76 per cent of the population derives most of their daily protein from plants. They found that under elevated CO2 concentrations, the protein contents of rice, wheat, barley, and potatoes decreased by 7.6 per cent, 7.8 per cent, 14.1 per cent, and 6.4 per cent, respectively.
It is high time that we understand the need for safe and nutritious food to safeguard our own health and that of our coming generations.
Dr. Sood explains that for the average adult male, ideal protein intake is anything between 1.5-2 g/kg of body weight/day and for an average adult woman, ideal protein intake is between 1-1.5 g/kg of body weight/day. Any intake lesser than that leads to difficulty in performing daily tasks as protein is essential for all activities of the body, including hormone and enzyme function.
Today our aim should be to create cuisines that uphold nutrition, nature and sustenance. It is the link that connects our lives with food, nutrition and nature that can make us celebrate the joy of living.
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