The Indian food system dates back to almost 8000 years and has evolved over years and continues to evolve even today. Thousands of traditional food recipes, unique foods from different regions of the country, a clear understanding of when to eat what food, the knowledge of Ayurveda and the use of herbs for health benefits have all existed for centuries. Indian traditional cooking also defines what to cook in different seasons, suitabilityof foods to suit the time of the day, the season and even moods.
The concepts of functional foods, dietary supplements and nutraceuticals are also not new to the traditional Indian food system and there are plenty of examples of this. Despite high biodiversity and traditional knowledge, today India’s contribution to the modern food and nutrition science, commercial level of food processing technology, discovery of new phytonutrients, dietary supplements, or developing global food brands has been insignificant and seems to lack innovation.
When one starts looking at traditional Indian food through the lens of today’s food and nutrition science as we understand it, one starts appreciating the richness of this traditional wisdom and how it is still relevant today and is a gold mine for many new food innovations. Eating a variety of food will ensure we get a variety of taste, fibers, minerals and phytonutrients.
There are very good examples of symbiotic foods that enhance the bio-absorption of the important macro and micronutrients based on the principles of rasayana, besides providing additional minerals, fibers, and health beneficial phytonutrients to the main meal. The accompaniments in Indian meals are the best examples of dietary supplements if one wants to put it in today’s context. These can be further developed and improvised by applying modern science to deliver targeted benefits by adding more phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.
There are thousands of chutney recipes that one can choose from. If one compares the nutritional value and the variety of taste that chutney can add, they will be clear winners over a mayonnaise or formulated bread spread. Many chutney preparations also use raw ingredients, which means the phytonutrients will be intact.
Understanding the scientific rationale behind various recipes will give rise to developing more robust recipes offering targeted health benefits. According to the Indian food system, there are six different flavours, namely, sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent and spicy. The innovation that we could look for is to present the chutney in a convenient and contemporary format with targeted proven benefits. Globally, mixing of ingredients follows the rule of compatibility, while the Indian approach is an exception to the rule and looks at blending the non-compatibles.
This principle in itself needs deeper understanding. Over a period of time, the spice blending practices have evolved with more focus on the taste and less on the health benefits. Incidences of neurogenerative diseases are much lower in Asians who regularly consume spices as part of daily diet as compared to populations that do not consume spices. Extensive research over the last decade has indicated that nutraceuticals derived from such spices as turmeric, red pepper, black pepper, licorice, clove, ginger, garlic, coriander, and cinnamon target inflammatory pathways, and thereby may prevent neurodegenerative diseases.
Only the health benefits of curcumin have been fully explored and several products based on curcumin and its highly bioavailable forms have been commercially explored. There are several Indian spices that need to be explored for new generation nutraceuticals. India today is the largest producer and exporter of oleoresins, but very little work is being done in terms of innovation in discovering new phytonutrients whose benefits are established with the needed scientific rigor.
Traditional wisdom does tell us about the benefit, but we need to put the right science behind it and develop technologies to make them available in a consumer-acceptable format. ‘Haldi milk’ sounds very traditional but ‘Curcumin latte’ seems to appeal globally! In Indian traditional Ayurveda, aswagandha root has been prominently advocated as an ergogenic aid to improve strength and vitality. However, recent research has linked aswagandha root extract to improve muscle growth and recovery.
As a result, the aswagandha root extract is now finding wide acceptance in sports nutrition. Both in case of aswagandha as well as curcumin from turmeric, it is traditional knowledge that led to discovering new applications and also use of latest extraction and separation techniques that have enabled new application and efficacious formats to be presented. Idli is rated as the healthiest breakfast even by WHO.
The fermentation of idli batter may start with yeast but soon is taken over by probiotic bacteria. Recent studies have also shown that certain probiotics generated during fermentation also survive the steaming process making Idli a probiotic food as well. How much research have we done in promoting this food as a healthy breakfast over high sugar and carbohydrate containing breakfast cereals? The various accompaniments that are served with idli will further enhance its status as functional food.
If one sees idli as a platform, then many variations are possible. The process of making idli was once tedious and required two days of preplanning, and hence was fast disappearing from the breakfast menu. A simple innovation in the supply chain has now ensured that idli batter is available in almost all the local grocery shops round the clock. This innovation has redefined idli as the all-time snack and has converted it from a typical south Indian food to a pan-Indian snack. With innovative approaches, one can globalise this snack format.
Susupedosa is traditionally given to lactating women for blood purification. This traditional practice must be scientifically investigated and mechanisms of action understood. If needed, the product and process of making should be improved with the knowledge of modern science and technology to present this as a functional food. There are many such traditional foods whose benefits are very specific but we have not looked at them seriously.
From traditionally a millet consuming country, we have rapidly moved to be a wheat consuming one. Bringing back the millets to our daily diet would mean developing technologies to increase the shelf life of the flour and also modifying the flour starch to make it easier to roll. A variety of value added foods should be developed to promote these nutritious foods. Foods also have to be sustainable and eco-friendly.
The question is, should India be also looking at quinoa, which is now globally promoted as the super food just because it is a global trend or should we evaluate its suitability for India? The chemical composition of quinoa and fox tail millet is not very different. Foxtail millet has been in India for centuries, there is a long history of its use and acceptance and there are known recipes that use foxtail millet. We can always develop more contemporary food formats using foxtail millet. Its taste is acceptable to Indians and Indian soil can sustain this crop. The push of Indian farmers to grow more quinoa may also upset the ecological balance here. Foxtail millet is the oldest surviving crop, highly adaptable to changes in environment and is draught resistant.
The latest approach of looking at foods and phytonutrients that promote the production of stem cells and modulate them to produce the needed phytonutrients within the body opens up completely new and exciting applications of foods that have specific health benefits. A lot of our traditional spices and herbs must be screened for this activity to potentially develop stem cell promoting foods or food ingredients.
The whole world is now waking up to the importance of pulses as the most balanced superfoods. They are good for the health of people, planet and economy and this year is declared as the international year of pulses. However, the per capita consumption of pulses had dropped by 50 percent in the last 20 years. We have not even understood the impact of this major change. Per hectare yields of pulses in India have been the lowest in the world and thus, more farmers are giving up growing pulses.
It is only innovations to bring new varieties that are grown in rain fed area, high yielding varieties and lot of innovations in value added contemporary foods that will bring more pulses back to the Indian diet. New research is showing the long term health benefits of the so called antinutrients in pulses and thus pulses are also seen as the source of new nutraceuticals. For a capital of world diabetics, India should work on developing more value added products with pulse as the main ingredient. Banana has very high level of fibers.
So, banana chips, even though are fried, would be a healthier option than potato chips. Offering new flavours and using centrifugation methods to reduce the fat content will result in high fiber chips as a snack. Even the traditional Indian papad as a high protein chip, presented in a contemporary form with appropriate packaging technology, can have a global appeal as an alternate to potato chips. Making nutraceuticals affordable is also a challenge.
Most nutraceuticals we find in the market are very expensive and out of the reach of many people, especially those who need them. When one isolates a nutraceutical from a food matrix, the question is what happens to the rest of the biomass. If it becomes a waste, then it will amount to a lot of food being wasted. We need to be continuously exploring isolation of nutraceuticals from by-products of food industry. The white portion of the watermelon fruit is discarded though it is edible and is a rich source of fibers.
The green rind of watermelon is rich in citrulline, which has been shown to help relax blood vessels, boost the immune system and reduce the muscle fatigue. Extraction of citrulline from watermelon rind must be explored. Mango rind is rich in antioxidants and many phytonutrients. Today, this rich biomass is completely wasted. Banana stem is an excellent salad material, rich in high quality fiber and minerals; this is another biomass that is completely wasted today.
Extraction of phytonutrients, proteins and fibers from rice bran, even after extracting the oil, is worth exploring considering the large volumes that we generate. Considering that India is one of the largest producers of food, the biomass utilisation is a very relevant issue. Indian pickles are also a way of preserving food for years. The ingredients that go in to making pickles make them a good source of phytonutrients and since they are never heated, it ensures the stability of phytonutrients. Developing better preservation methods, reducing the fat content and salt content are some areas that need to be explored.
Pickles help bring in the balance of the six tastes and also help improve saliva secretion and inducing digestive enzymes. We must develop them as health foods and evaluate them as dietary supplements to deliver more phytonutrients, minerals and active compounds. Our traditional knowledge of food and food ingredients and our rich biodiversity in itself is a gold mine. Many innovative food products, dietary supplements and nutraceuticals developed from that will have global appeal.
We should not follow the global trends blindly, but we should evaluate them in the context of Indian taste, our genetic makeup, our ecological system, water resources and the real health benefits it can bring to public health at large. We need to believe in our tradition, have a sense of pride and make every effort to innovate, improvise and support the traditional foods and make them relevant for the present. It is time India regains the position of thought leader in food science and technology that it once enjoyed.