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INTERVIEW

“India is sitting on a gold mine of nutrition waiting to launch in global food market”
Monday, 12 April, 2021, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
CSIR-CFTRI (Central Food Technology Research Institute), Mysuru, is helmed by Dr Sridevi Annapurna Singh, as Director. In a face to face interaction with Nandita Vijay, Singh discusses varied topics - key developments, trends and challenges in research. Excerpts:

What have been the key developments at the institute since you took over as director early this year?
The institute has now started a farmer training programme under the Prime Minister Formalisation of Micro Food Processing Enterprises Scheme (PM FME Scheme) with an outlay of Rs 10,000 crore. Here Karnataka government has recognised CFTRI as the technical institute and we are training 500 farmers. The programme was to be complete on March 31 but was forced to be extended till April on account of rise in Covid-19 cases.

In the area of reconstitutable foods, CSIR-CFTRI has played a major role. Can you give us an update?
Considerable research on reconstitutable foods took place in the 70s. But the concept of Ready to Eat (RTE) mixes came in decades later when educated housewives took up careers and were strapped for time to cook. The trend to purchase RTE mixes caught on to serve the dual income homes. Today, it is  unlikely that people would even attempt making a jamun at home instead they opt for the ready mixes to finish cooking in a jiffy. In this area of RTE mixes, considerable research is going on with tech transfer for commercialisation.

Reconstitutable foods are seen to provide solutions when lifestyle diseases and disorders are affecting people’s health. There are specific foods for diabetes among other conditions and celiac diseases which are high on gluten-free, high on fibre and low on sugar.

CFTRI had come out with Bifidocurd tipped to be a Gen Z beverage. Tell us more about this.
Bifido bacterium is a probiotic and a good bacteria of the gut. It helps to improve health. Gut microbiome is now recognised as the second brain in the human body. It is known to control diseases later in life. If the gut microbiome is healthy then it is likely that one could avoid lifestyle related diseases. During the 12th Five Year Plan: 2012–17, we worked on the bifido bacterium. This is an  anaerobic bacteria that cannot grow in the presence of oxygen. To develop a product using this bacteria with a good shelf life can be a real challenge. One of my colleagues is working on this and developed it with soya which is proven to show shelf life of over a week.

What are the challenges at Indian food research labs?
India faces dual challenge of under nutrition, on the one hand, and over nutrition, on the other. In rural areas cost drives the diet. In the urban areas, it is taste and acceptance. In both cases certain essential nutrients are missed. Human body definitely requires nutrients should come from food. Even if R&D labs are focussing on nutritional foods, the market is driven on a totally different philosophy. Hence need market our knowledge with the food companies. What we see is that consumers are wiser about food nutrition and are evaluating traditional diets of their grandparents. Our institute has already done extensive research on traditional foods. So it is easier for companies to look at technology transfers.

Would you agree that there is need for government R&D labs to partner with the industry for faster commercialisation?
Definitely, and lot of companies are doing just that. The current  consumer-driven market and the pandemic have seen an interest for unique grains specific to each region in India that have continued to be preserved as a daily diet.  India is a treasure trove for foods. Many R&D institutes in these regions have carried out considerable work. Government R&D centres are coming forward to hand-hold the micro small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). With schemes like PM FME among others, India is sitting on a gold mine of nutrition waiting to be launched into the global food market.

Do you sight promising prospects in India’s food R&D?
When India got independence, there was not enough food and the move was to save every grain. Then came the Green Revolution where certain grains were given prominence like rice or wheat. When women came out to work, many of our traditional dishes were out from the ‘thali’. The same meal was repeated from breakfast to lunch and dinner. This routine for the last 30 years, took toll that resulted in lifestyle disorders. There is a demand for convenient foods without compromising on the taste, health and nutrition.

What are the trends on India’s food R&D landscape?
An emerging trend is foods for specific population. Like for instance sports diets for endurance. There is also a huge growing population of geriatrics, provides scope for development of foods for the elderly. Besides, need for infant foods, particularly, to address phenylketonuria (PKU) which is an inborn error of metabolism and even convalescent foods for kidney and cancer patients. Now with the pandemic immunity booster foods are in vogue. There are also foods promoted by traditional practitioners. It is here scientific validation is the key and if this happens then there is no stopping for India and Indian foods.

In your view do you see young candidates qualifying from colleges offering food processing courses interested in taking up research?
That is a difficult question because there are not that many government laboratories that are really working on food. CFTRI has been here for the past 70 years. Although now we do see a lot more food labs than the past, because many companies are setting up R&D centres, so students who qualify are being picked up by the industry as they find it easier to grow in their career with multiple options.

Do you see the recent extension of productivity linked incentive scheme to food processing sector help boost research because innovation is key for product development?
No doubt about that. Even under the PM FME Scheme, Karnataka government is encouraging formation of farmer clusters. Here CFTRI has participated to develop by lining five or six villages to a processing facility, accessible to individual farmers for carrying out primary processing. Value addition of farm produce increases their income substantially.

With Karnataka government support, CFTRI campus also has an incubation centre with 12 suites where any food startup with valuable concepts, does not want to invest in a facility can utilise the facility. Our scientists will help crystallise the concepts and permit using our pilot plant facilities, till startups can begin operations on their own. There is also an accelerator programme with online mentorships. In addition, a fully operational food industry which is looking to diversify without investing in equipment, could access CFTRI to conduct the food product trials.

As the director of CFTRI, what are the problems you sight that are encountered in research?
Funding is a big issue. There is need for access to global funding sources. While big companies expand in R&D activities, the MSMEs cannot afford research. This is despite the funding schemes provided by the department of biotechnology (DBT) and MoFPI. However now government grants insist on translational research. The need of the hour is commercialisation with accountability. Therefore research labs need to partner with industry to develop feasible concepts as the government is extremely serious about this.

Another issue is the need for research that focusses on nutritional deficiencies which affects one’s health in the long-term. This is where we need to focus our study on plant proteins, ascertain processes to extract proteins from the plants. Proteins have a functional property like providing texture and colour. A protein with an emulsifying character like egg white for cakes to get the desired texture can be replaced with an equivalent plant protein can have a huge market opportunity. Therefore we are not only looking into the nutritional but also the functional characteristics. Proteins when broken with enzymes, release peptides. Many peptides are known have health benefits are known bioactive peptides used to control blood pressure, induce relaxed sleep or even reduce stress. These can be developed as beverages.

During this continuing phase of the pandemic has the Institute received the required budgetary allocation from the government? Also with UN declaration of 2023 as the year of millets what is the action plan on the cards?
There has been considerable streamlining within CSIRs. However the government has been extremely encouraging to identify research areas and calling for proposals to funds.

Specific to millets, the institute under a Karnataka government grant is setting up a Centre of Excellence for Millets. Karnataka is the major producer of millets and CFTRI too has done extensive research to develop related processed foods.
 
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