By Prof. Narendra Nayak
Mangaluru, May 25, 2017: Last month, I had been invited by the Karnataka Raitha Sangha to speak on human rights at a simple marriage ceremony. This was combined with a house warming and also food for thought in the form of lectures. A book called Punya Koti about all the greatness of indigenous cows was also released by the seer of Muruga Rajenda Math on the occasion. This was duly done and we who were on the dais were to hold the copies of the book to pose for a photograph. In the interim I leafed through the book and found many objectionable portions and refused to pose with it which was noticed by the seer who asked me the reason and I told him that I would not like to pose with such a book which would amount to endorsement of the same! He mentioned in his speech about this and also appreciated me. It was also stated that electricity could be generated from gaumutra by dipping two electrodes of copper and zinc into a container of it! Well, that is the most primitive galvanic cell which functions on the different electronegative potentials of the two metals, one of which gets gradually corroded and gets deposited on the other! That’s not all, according to the book a whole pharmacy could be stocked with products made from gaumutra which could be panaceas for very disease under the sun, moon and stars!
Later, a person named Anantji took the stage next and started a long diatribe about a number of topics claiming to be an authority on human anatomy , medicine, nutrition and a number of others. By the time he had finished his harangue which was full of half-truths and damn lies, I was furious because he had murdered my subject in cold blood in my presence. Another person who was a surgeon by profession came on the stage and blasted the guy for his ignorance and misleading the farmers. The audience was full of farmers and other lay persons who were not educated enough to see through this man’s chicanery. The surgeon was particularly upset because the expert had stated that PCOD (poly cystic ovarian disease- a disorder affecting many women about which there are many theories) was a disorder of the uterus and also that iodized salt was causing thyroid disorders!
While we need to take a look at the whole lot of claims put forward by this man which are not his alone but of a lobby which is now turning out to be a powerful one consisting of a motley crowd of environmentalists, dietary faddists, vegans, yoga enthusiasts, organic farmers and such have been making claims which can be said to be starting from fads promoting pseudo science to dangerous nutritional advice.
The term organic denotes the dictionary definition of compounds made of carbon but the present adjective is to classify those crops/biological products without pesticides, fertilizers etc grown under fully ‘natural’ conditions. While the objectives appear to be laudable, the prices do not! For all products categorized under these are very very expensive some times more than two to three times that of the garden variety sold in shops and roadside! While there is not a shred of evidence that these provide more nutrition, cure any disease, promote well-being or even taste better, nothing prevents the proponents from making such claims! The same claims are made of the milk of the so called desi cows with scientific jargon like A1 and A2 casein!
They say sugar is bad but jaggery is good! Facts state otherwise. The active ingredient of both is sucrose a disaccharide made of two components glucose and fructose. Both are made of sugar cane! Fructose is lipogenic whatever its source may be and glucose raises blood glucose levels whether it is from sugar or jaggery! As for claims that it is cheap, sugar which is used in lesser amounts for one, being purer being another and can be stored for longer! The prices of jaggery being more and the capacity to sweeten is less too. Sucrose per se is better avoided and it coming from cane sugar, beet sugar, jiggery or any other source would not matter. The same applies to honey too which is touted by many as panacea! The fact is that it is a hydrolysate of sucrose the process being carried out by invertase, an enzyme present in the saliva of the bees. While there are claims of the other things in the honey having therapeutic effects there is hardly evidence to back these claims. The only verified claims are about its healing power on wounds particularly one type called as Manuka honey from New Zealand. There are no other reported benefits of consuming honey. Even price wise it is a very expensive way to get energy because of its energy content is no more than 4 kcals per gram the same as sugar. Adding an organic label to it doubles the price.
Well another claim is about refined wheat flour and that alloxan is formed during the bleaching process . This has been used to produce diabetes in experimental animals. While no correlation has been shown about it in any studies one could take it at face value. But it would be very difficult to correlate this with the diet of Indians which does not contain much of this. The other culprit being pointed out was gluten the protein of wheat which is present in whole wheat flour as well as the refined variety! So, the claims of organic wheat being superior has hardly any evidence.
The other confusion made by the organic lobby is about GM wheat. The attempt is to confuse between GM and hybrid wheat. While GM(genetic modification) means the introduction of DNA of another species into it hybrid means selecting the best of genetic traits for cross breeding. While those who know the subject would understand this, it would be easy to fool the lay public.
The strangest of the claims is that about common salt- sodium chloride. While this is a product derived from evaporation of sea water there are claims of natural salt, organic salt etc. While salt per se cannot be an organic compound claims are made about that too! It was said that ‘natural salt’ has a brown color while the refined one is white! While excessive salt consumption can be linked to hyper tension it is the sodium chloride content that matters and not its color! The same lobby has a strong objection to fortification of salt- their contention is that iodisation of salt causes thyroid problems while the fact is that the supplementation is done for supplying iodine which though is required in microgram quantities, deficiency can lead to severe hypothyroidism resulting in enlargement of the gland called goiter.
Another group of ‘organic’ grains they want to plug are the millets which they call as siri dhanyas and are claimed to be panaceas. Here is what an eminent physician Dr. Shrinivas Kakkilaya MD, a consultant physician well known for his rational approach to medicine has to say about them- Siri Dhanyas or Rich grains, are nothing but millets, like Ragi, the finger millet. They have suddenly become a fad – after Yoga as a cure for all ills, now it’s the time for the Siri Dhanyas as the wonders to prevent and cure all ills. But just as Yoga is neither true yoga, nor is a prevention nor a cure for any ills, the Siri Dhanyas have no Siri, and no preventive or curative properties against any diseases. Only the selling middle men will become Srivanta or rich! All these grains are millets - pearl millet (Sajje, Bajra), Barnyard millet (oodalu in Kannada), foxtail millet (navane), Kodo millet (arka or haaraka), Proso millet (baragu), little millet (saame) etc. And like ragi, all these millets have carbohydrate content ranging from 61-70%, about 4-10% less than that of rice and wheat. The caloric content, fiber content and protein content of these millets are also comparable to those of rice, wheat and corn, with only minimal differences. Therefore, terming these millets as extraordinary, or as nutritionally superior to rice or wheat is wrong and totally misleading. (In comparison, most vegetables have carbohydrate content of 1-3%) Consumption of these millets will neither prevent any disease, particularly diabetes, nor will help in the control or treatment of any disease, including diabetes. Moreover, there is no evidence to prove that these millets can prevent or cure any illness. But to be fair these grains require far less water than the typical cereals and are draught resistant. Another point to be noted here is that they are all supposed to be marketed through co-operatives under the control of this lobby and are very expensive .
Then, what about Gaumutra? With claims that the mother cow is a source of everything good, healthy and of course natural on the planet everything from its excreta to milk have been conferred with phenomenal curative powers. The biochemical estimation of cow urine has shown that it contains sodium, nitrogen, sulphur, Vitamin A, B, C, D, E, minerals, manganese, iron, silicon, chlorine, magnesium, citric, succinic, calcium salts, phosphate, lactose, carbolic acid, enzymes, creatinine and hormones.
Of course science goes for a toss here as all these are excretory products but since they originate from the urinary tract of the holy cow they must be hallowed indeed, Creatinine is an excretory product which has no metabolic role, while uric acid is the end product of purine catabolism in humans and can cause gout if in excess it becomes a very useful product when it comes in gaumutra! Urea is claimed to be good source of nitrogen to which all of us have to agree but to whom is the question- of course to plants, bacteria, fungi and yeast! For the uninformed there is no entity called as Vitamin B because the term vitamins of the B complex is applied to a number of water soluble compounds needed for healthy living required in small quantities and the deficiency of which could lead to disorders.
This lobby does not spare the edible oils. While the lobby controlling them is quite close to the powers that be, even their machinations are not as bad as the allegations made in the enlightening speech of this expert. His allegation was that the edible oils were sold at much cheaper prices because of hold your breath- adulteration with mineral oils! While a simple test can identify this any such is a criminal offence and this so called organic-yoga lobby has no qualms in making such wild allegations.
The cow milk is considered divine. That too not of any cow but the desi cow as distinct entity to be distinguished from the videsi cross bred ones! Now there is a strong lobby in many places selling the milk of the desi cows in many places. Claiming to be pure milk from indigenous breeds without any processing they fail to understand that Pasteurisation of milk is a process which removes many pathogens and makes is safe for use. Besides the same lobby advocates the use of pure cow’s ghee made from hand churned butter prepared by curdling the milk of desi cows, of course as to be expected at very steep prices! Though those who are marketing these are laughing all the way to the bank those purchasing are to think of the whole process as the worship of gaumata and their money as offerings to this divine entity!
The most fantastic claim of the lobby is about A2 casein. While the milk of the foreign breeds and cross breeds is supposed to contain A1 casein, that of the Indigenous breeds is secreting A2 casein in the milk. Well for the uninitiated it would be appropriate on my part to explain what this is. Casein the predominant protein of milk (of all mammals) is a phosphoprotein which curdles very easily. This is needed for the milk to stay in the stomach of the babies for the feeling of satiety and so that the contents are released slowly. Mutations in DNA cause changes in the amino acid composition of proteins and one such has caused changes in the amino acid composition of casein. There are unproved allegations that a peptide called BCM 7 released during the digestion of A1 casein cause anything from heart disease in adults to type 1 diabetes in children though there is no evidence to prove these contentions. As far as the claim that exclusively desi cow milk contains A2 casein it is a damn lie. A1 milk comes from breeds like the Holstein, Friesian, Ayrshire and British Shorthorn. Milk that is high in A2 beta-casein is mainly found in breeds that originated in the Channel Islands and Southern France. This includes breeds like the Guernsey, Jersey, Charolais and Limousin. Besides lots of milk from the dairies is pooled milk and contains cow and buffalo milk. All breeds of buffalo in India secrete only A2 casein! Going by Dairy news of India, India is predominantly a buffalo milk country 55 % of milk production is from buffaloes as the same seems to be very favorable for the farmers in terms of economics. 21% of the total milk production is from Indigenous breeds of cattle and 24% of the total milk production is from Cross bred cows. This is as per 2007 statistics. Some of the whatsapp messages like indigenous cow milk because of the hump is rich in vitamin and it absorbs sun light therefore yellow in color are dubious claims. Cows because they do not metabolize all Carotene into vitamin A passes the same carotene into milk therefore it is yellow in color. Another claim that A1 milk causes virtually all diseases in medical encyclopedia like Down’s syndrome, spastic child, mental disorders, diabetes, Hypertension etc is absolutely wrong.
Well what are the vested interests behind these claims wanting to do? 1. Is it to promote the products which they want to sell under different dubious claims ? 2. Establish a hold over the farmers by establishing a monopoly through their so called co-operatives. 3. Use religious sentiments to market products with unproven claims. 4. Link well-being with yoga, Ayurveda and the product which they market. 5. Make pseudo scientific claims to ‘prove’ their contentions. 6. Scare people through unverifiable claims of all sorts of ill effects of using technology to improve quality and yield to make them buy their products at exorbitant prices.
Well, is it possible to feed a burgeoning population with so called organic farming- the answer is absolutely not. Improved yield, hybrid varieties, use of better storage conditions have increased the availability of food and these are responsible for India to become a grain exporting country from a basket case. If we go a few decades back, all the agricultural products in India were ‘organic’ as there were no fertilizers’ or insecticides. If we go by the statistics from the first census onwards the average life expectancy of an Indian was 19 or so in 1919. In 1947 it was around 34 or so. Now after the use of all the ‘bad’ technology it has come to 67 in 2015 or around that. Is it due to the fertilizers and insecticides? Is it inspite of them? Well it does not need much intelligence to understand how science has helped to increase the life expectancy.
Well what should one do about such claims? First of all we have to understand that the claims of panaceas have never been proved so far! If one likes the taste of the so called ‘organic’ products it is a good enough reason to buy them. But even for that one needs to understand that it is the label that makes them so! Because studies have shown that when double blind trials were made with the same stuff labeled as organic showed that a large number felt that the one labeled as organic tasted better! No need to believe that they are the cure for all the ills of the human body and the society! Remember that pesticides used in recommended quantities help to save crops. There is no difference between fertilizers say urea whether it comes from a cow or manufactured in a factory. Many of the refining processes improve the products quality, shelf life etc. Finally extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. We would be happy with just ordinary evidence that the so called ‘organic’ products can cure or prevent any disease. So, one be beware before falling into such traps and pay through the nose for products of dubious quality and taste!
Prof. Narendra Nayak is a consumer activist and a rationalist. This is a regular column and we invite readers’ response. The writer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org