A DEEP DIVE INTO THE ORGANIC FOOD INDUSTRY
Updated: Jun 12, 2022
IN CONVERSATION WITH MS. ADRITA BANERJEE, FOOD SCIENTIST.
-By Avni, Priyanka and Stuti
After graduating from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, with an M.Sc. in Food Science & nutrition, Ms. Banerjee has worked as a Food Science Editor, Subject Matter Expert, Label Consultant and a Certified Safety supervisor along with having a number of publications and academic projects to her name. She runs her own food review and culinary writing blog and is currently working at Live Green Co as a Food Scientist.
She can be reached at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/adrita-banerjee-048a76155
Q1) What do you think has caused a sudden rise in demand for organic food over the years? Can it be traced back to some sort of celebrity influence advocating a healthier lifestyle, or a general shift in consumers’ preferences?
“The change can be attributed to the shift in the mindset of people where they have realized that though the packaged food offers convenience it also has a cost to pay, food forms a major part of our lifestyle and influences our health in a very significant way. So when people realized that packaged food is taking a toll over their health they started looking for healthier options. this entire thing gained momentum only when people realized the importance of food on health and lifestyle, moreover the marketing techniques and celebrity influence mentioned in the question acted as a catalyst to this entire movement and facilitated the rise in the demand for organic food.”
To start off I think the rise in organic food is not sudden rather it has been building up over the years, from the last two decades, so to say. Coming to the root cause there is no one factor but it is multifactorial, over the years we have seen the consumption patterns change so the world has witnessed both the rise and the downfall of the convenience ultra-process food industry. The change can be attributed to the shift in the mindset of people where they have realized that though packaged food offers convenience it also has a cost to pay, food forms a major part of our lifestyle and influences our health in a very significant way. So when people realized that packaged food is taking a toll on their health they started looking for healthier options. Therefore the concept of organic food took over however organic farming existed way before. This entire thing gained momentum only when people realized the importance of food on health and lifestyle, moreover, the marketing techniques and celebrity influence mentioned in the question acted as a catalyst to this entire movement and facilitated the rise in the demand for organic food.
Q2) Can you take us through a day in the life of a food scientist? What are the tasks which you are required to perform on a day-to-day basis?
“No two days are same because food science as a field is very creative but at the same time it requires enormous scientific research. My daily tasks are mostly focused on product ideation or lab validation, reading literature review or scientific papers and narrowing down product prototypes.”
To begin with, it is difficult to narrow it down, and to be honest no two days are the same because food science as a field is very creative but at the same time, it requires enormous scientific research. So you have to merge creativity with scientific validation, analysis, and lab work, so it is something that takes a lot out of you but it also leaves you with a spark to explore more. I start my day by jotting down a to-do list and having a nice cup of tea, I mainly brainstorm ideas about the product segment I am working on or I clean through huge databases about product ingredients or research about them. Other than this my daily tasks are mostly focused on product ideation or lab validation, reading literature reviews or scientific papers, and narrowing down product prototypes. When I am working on the commercialization of products it will begin from ideation to taking that product to the market shelf. In between, there are several steps like brainstorming, ideation, various tests such shelf life testing microbiological analysis, etc. My daily work, therefore, depends on what stage I am currently on so basically it differs from day today.
Q3) What is the current scenario of the Organic Food market? Is it controlled by the locals or is it an import-driven industry? Do you think India has reached a stage where it can act as a major exporter?
“It is the local vendors which are running the market and this is also due to government schemes in place to head the same. To answer the second part, India definitely has the potential to reach the major exporter stage, India is home to around 30% of the certified organic produce in the world. It definitely has a lot of potential in addition to this Sikkim was announced as the first organic state in the world.”
Initially, when there was a rise of organic food, India depended on importers to meet their demand but now I could say that it is the local vendors which are running the market and this is also due to government schemes in place to head the same. There are definitely importers too but the majority I would say is held by the local vendors.
To answer the second part, India definitely has the potential to reach the major exporter stage, India is home to around 30% of the certified organic produce in the world. It definitely has a lot of potential in addition to this Sikkim was announced as the first organic state in the world. So to summarize it will soon reach this stage but for that to happen I feel that the organic food market should be streamlined and should be bought under a common umbrella and this step needs to be taken by the central authorities so that everything is controlled and is done in an efficient manner.
Q4) Is there any technology or innovation in the Organic Food Industry that can enhance the price competitiveness of organic food products in the near future, bringing them at par with conventional food, thus removing the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of organic food in India: their higher cost while still maintaining their organic-ness?
“If the entire production is to be streamlined and bought under a common umbrella then it would eliminate this price barrier so this could be one of the first innovations we can look at. Further, if consumers are given this token of confidence that the food they eat is not only claiming to be organic and is actually organic, then they might buy the food even if it has a higher price point than the conventionally grown food. Application of biotechnology could also do wonders but it is also something which is fairly new and would require a lot of research and implementation on the grass root level.”
Yes definitely, if I talk about technological development, right at the top of my mind, is the use of different traceability technology, now there is a lot of organic food being farmed in India but there is no authority to streamline this entire production line or even supervise it. If the entire production is to be streamlined and bought under a common umbrella then it would eliminate this price barrier so this could be one of the first innovations we can look at. One of the major reasons people do not buy organic food is also because they have many apprehensions and doubts when it comes to this concept. If consumers are given a token of confidence that the food they eat is not only claiming to be organic and is actually organic, then they might buy the food even if it has a higher price point than the conventionally grown food. The application of biotechnology could do wonders but it is also something that is fairly new and would require a lot of research and implementation on the grass-root level.
Q5) Why is there so much uncertainty & debate in the food science and medical community regarding the health benefits of organic produce or even what defines organic? How do you think the conflicting opinions on these topics affect the perception of consumers in the marketplace?
“The market is filled with myths and misconceptions as different schools of thoughts exist. I think to answer this debate we have to think about food holistically and what actually constitutes it. If only one part of my diet is organic and the rest is filled with junk or packaged food then there is not going to be a difference in the benefits I'm going to acquire.”
There are some benefits to the consumption of organic food but at the same time the market is filled with myths and misconceptions and everything so there are actually different schools of thought which exist. I think to answer this debate we have to think about food holistically and what actually constitutes it. If only one part of my diet is organic and the rest is filled with junk or packaged food then there is not going to be a difference in the benefits I'm going to acquire. Basically, a person needs to replace all food in his or her diet with organic food to see the real difference but at the same time, we need to ensure that the food is really organic and not just labeled as organic. A lot of arguments on the internet regarding this fact that food that is not actually organic and claims to be organic does not really benefit you is very true in a way. This creates a lot of panic and confusion in the market regarding organic food. So consumers who already have a doubt in their mind regarding organic food are further burdened with this sort of confusion in the market and this only takes away their willingness to buy and trust organic food. It is now the responsibility of Public health bodies on nutrition or on food science and technology to come forward and take it upon themselves to make people more aware of what is the correct way to look for and consume organic food, education on this concept could bring about a positive change in consumer perception towards the whole organic vs inorganic food debate.
Q6) Organic Farming is expensive but beneficial for the environment and the health of the land. In your view, what steps can be undertaken to help more farmers transition to organic farming? Do you think there are any practices from other countries that have the potential to be replicated in India to popularise Organic Farming?
“Government must introduce benefits and incentives that come under a central umbrella. Agriculture budget should be focus more on Organic production to meet the increasing demand.”
Farmers already have the know-how of organic food production. The reason for its unpopularity is that the small farmers doubt if Organic Food Industry can accelerate their financial standing, and this is something the whole industry should look into. Merging the Private and the public sector can act as a driving force to steer the farmers in this direction. We need more educators who can implement the schemes effectively. Government must introduce benefits and incentives that come under a central umbrella. Some technological improvements can also provide support in this shift. Further, some farming practices and the adoption of newer machines can help propel towards healthier food. Last but not the least; the agriculture budget should be focused more on organic production to meet the increasing demand.
Q7) Do you think an increased intervention by the government would be beneficial for the Organic Food Industry as every year a huge part of the budget is allocated towards agriculture, but there is no focus on Organic Farming specifically?
“Large scale research should be conducted by the central bodies like FSSAI and National Institute of Food Science, who are on the forefront and have the capability to execute.”
Just Introducing schemes is not enough as the full extent of their operations is not achieved in India. Large-scale research should be conducted by central bodies like FSSAI and the National Institute of Food Science, which are at the forefront and have the capability to execute. They can, for example, sign contracts with the Government. Scientific documenting back the research and helps regulate more effectively.
Q8) Recent reports have revealed that even the products by companies like HUL and Patanjali, which are often referred to as the monopoly for Organic food, are adulterated thus making the public doubt the authenticity of organic products in general and making them reluctant to change. How do you think we can overcome this?
“ I think their education needs to come in and people need to be made aware that adulteration is not just present for organic food, it is present for conventional food products or the package food products that we buy. So if you are afraid of adulteration, be afraid of all the foods that you are buying, not just for organic food.”
Adulteration is of concern for the food industry in India, not just for organic products. I think food adulteration or if I put it as intentional adultery, which is happening in India is pretty enormous and is practiced on a very large scale. All the products which are not branded are almost found to be adulterated. There are studies that found them to be unsuitable for consumption. But considering that even with big brands like mentioned and their products coming out to be under investigation puts us in a position where we really need to think what is currently the scenario of safety standards in India. And I would say that the standards are present but same with organic farming; They are not being implemented as rigorously or as actively as needed for a big nation like India, with so much of population, so much agricultural produce, there needs to be a lot more safety implemented, which I think in turn will help also mandating the organic produce because that also comes under the whole umbrella. All the brands should do regular auditing and regular inspections. But I think their education needs to come in and people need to be made aware that adulteration is not just present for organic food, it is present for conventional food products or the packaged food products that we buy. So if you are afraid of adulteration, be afraid of all the foods that you are buying, not just for organic food.
Q9) Organic food companies are almost creating hysteria amongst the crowd by advertising that what they are consuming is full of chemicals and they need to replace it immediately with the healthier counterpart, to what extent is this true and not merely a marketing gimmick at their end according to you?
“If I say that it is not a marketing gimmick, that would be incorrect because some of it is definitely a marketing gimmick. Not all conventional foods are straight away a threat to our health. Any kind of harm that is coming from food does not happen right away or straight away. for example, if I consume it once in a very small amount, it is not going to cause a threat for my health right away. For it to create an effect, I need to consume it for a long term. So there are a lot of things that need to be considered when we ask questions that food is full of chemicals.”
Everything is made up of chemicals. If you take an Apple, it has malic acid, it has acetic acid, it has essential oil. All of these intrinsically are chemicals. So the way to approach is which one is better and which one is known to have a bad effect on our health. That is the question I think which we should be asking and not posing a particular food to be full of chemicals. So definitely, this whole approach of a few brands who are leveling all foods that we are consuming, in particular, are to be full of chemicals and that will die right after consuming. Then that is very wrong because when you are promoting something to be like that, you are also being inclusive of the fact that not everybody in this country can afford organic food or clean level food or green food like people talk about these days. So we also need to consider those facts and not put things in the forefront in a way that people think that all the foods that have been given to us from the industry are not suitable for consumption. It is not really that way. Also, all the pillars of additives are not, like I said, unsafe for consumption right away. Though, scientific studies say that there is potential for them to have some effect on the health of kids or children. But these are mostly studies that are done at a pilot level or at a very small level. So there is not really very validated data to back that. So, people who do not have that ability or do not have that affordability, definitely putting across all the food in the industry to be something full of chemicals is in a bad light.
Q10) Live Green Co produces minimally processed plant-based products and is into novel innovation of clean label ingredients and plant label formulations. Can you please further describe the work your current organization, Live Green Co, is doing at the moment and your role as a Food Scientist there?
“Charaka is our exclusive software platform where we have developed this database where we have hundreds and thousands of ingredients analyzed, all plant-sourced or plant-based. These ingredients have the potential to displace all the additives or fillers which are currently being used by the industry.”
Live Green Co is into plant-based formulations. We are currently working on alternative proteins. Mainly our production and operations are based out of Chile, in Santiago, that is where the plant-based products are being processed and made. We also have this product lineup such as non-dairy ice cream, vegan burgers, or pancake mixes. These are the kinds of products we are currently producing and thinking of expanding into other categories as well. The other part of our innovation lies in the clean label segment where we are mainly working on ‘Charaka’. Charaka is our exclusive software platform where we have developed this database where we have hundreds and thousands of ingredients analyzed, all plant-sourced or plant-based. These ingredients have the potential to displace all the additives or fillers which are currently being used by the industry, are known to be harmful, and have some scientific backing that they pose a threat to our bodies when consumed in a large amount or on a long-term basis. So, we are ideally looking to replace all these additives with natural ingredients. By natural, I mean planet-based with no to minimal processing. That is the database we are currently working on. This work mainly happens in India because we have our knowledge and science headquarters in Bangalore. Charaka also takes into account ancestral wisdom i.e. Ayurveda. Ayurveda has already created a set of plants or ingredients. We try to create a connection between the ancestral wisdom and we take those ingredients and turn them into modern ingredients through the scientific know-how and e-technology. We look at the ayurvedic database from a modern, scientific perspective and we try to infuse them with e-science knowledge to see how it can be implemented in food.
Q11) What are your views on Genetically Modified Organisms? And if you had to compare, which would be more sustainable: Organic Foods or genetically modified crops, and why?
“While doing this, I found out different, interesting things. I realized that there are a lot of brands mostly from the private organic sector which are making these claims of being clean & green but not necessarily that they are healthy or are what they claim to be. So, there is a lot of misconception regarding labelling still prevalent in India.”
My work was about label and compliance verification so mostly I screened a lot of brands that are currently operating in the organic segment. While doing this, I realized that there are a lot of brands mostly from the private organic sector which are making these claims of being clean & green but are not necessarily healthy or what they claim to be. So, there is a lot of misconception regarding labeling still prevalent in India.
The regulatory bodies also have a role to play in this because there are certain mandates or standards specified under the FSSAI Act 2006 where you can claim a product to be ‘natural’ just as a brand trademark. A product may or may not be natural, may or may not be plant-sourced, but you can use the word ‘Natural’ on the front packaging as a promotional label. This is very funny and misleading because when the consumers look at a product on the shelf, they are looking at the front packaging and what they will perceive from the usage of the word ‘Natural’ is that the product is good for their health. This is because most consumers don’t look at the back, at the ingredients which have gone into the making of the product. Nowadays, most of the consumers are looking for products labeled as “No added sugar” or “Fat-free”, these are definitely marketing gimmicks because how much of this is true depends on what is being used in the product for which you have to check the back packaging. Most of the consumers do not do that, and even if they do some of them may not have sufficient knowledge to understand what the ingredients are or they don’t understand their origin. Things such as hidden labeling or misguiding claims should be mandated, regulated and unless a strict regimen is followed, I don’t think these are going to go away anytime soon but consumers nowadays are being aware themselves so I think that is a very positive point to take into consideration.
Q12) Previously, you have worked as a Project Consultant at One Green, which is a one-stop destination for sustainable & organic food, among other categories of products. So, can you share your insights regarding the importance of labeling & certification requirements when it comes to Organic Food in India?
“Talking about sustainability of a particular method or practice, I think public perception is also something that should be taken into account. It is because if something is not being accepted by the masses, then there is no point in it being sustainable in the long run.”
Talking from India’s perspective, Genetically modified crops have been tried and tested here. We have one crop, BT cotton, which is not a food crop but I think that is the only accepted and certified GMO in India, and other than that, there was the introduction of golden rice which was not successful. Overall acceptability towards GMOs was not successful in India as per a lot of scientific reports that have been published so far. The public perception towards GMOs is not very suitable either. They have a lot of reluctance towards this product. I think they associate Genetically modified organisms to be something that is life-altering, which is a foreign substance and when consumed might do something harmful to their bodies. So it is still at a very latent stage in India. It’s not like the feasibility is not there but I feel there is no demand for it as of now.
Q13) What according to you is the future of the organic food industry? How do you think more awareness can be created about Organic Foods as they are grown without artificial pesticides and fertilizers in order to maximise the job opportunities in this industry?
“Also, considering the traceability factor, they should also take up the traceability blockchain method more actively. It takes a lot of funds but I think it is something we should take up by principle. When you are saying that ‘I am into organic food products’, then you should also be responsible for verifying the same in the public eye.”
I think, as of now, the future of the organic food industry looks very bright. The pandemic has a major role to play in it too, has accelerated the demand for organic food. People are now looking more into not only what they are consuming but how or where the food is coming from. People have become more inquisitive. They are making responsible choices for sustainability nowadays owing to the whole movement for being eco-friendly and more sustainable. I think these two factors have definitely created a huge demand-supply scenario in India for organic food and considering that India is already producing so many organic commodities in high amounts like cereals, millets, oilseeds, sugar crops and it also exports all such commodities on a large scale, I think right now is the time when regulatory bodies should come forward to make all the mandates and to streamline the whole process of certifying the quality of organic produce because that is where the main barrier remains. Once the process is streamlined, the problem of premium pricing will cease to exist because that is when more farmers would come forward to the transition to organic farming practices from conventional farming, which in a way will lead to more production and reduce the cost. At the same time, the awareness and education regarding the safety and reliability of organic food will continue to help people make more informed choices while they are purchasing food. The private players in this segment too should not just dish out claims to meet the public demand, they should be transparent and more responsible because they are producing something which is for consumption and affects people in the long run. Also, considering the traceability factor, they should also take up the traceability block-chain method more actively. It takes a lot of funds but I think it is something we should take up by principle. When you are saying that ‘I am into organic food products, then you should also be responsible for verifying the same in the public eye.
Q14) Owing to a weak regulatory system, it is possible for manufacturers to lie about the product they sell, which creates distrust among the public about the validity of their claims. As per your experience, how much or what percent of the organic food available in markets can be trusted as right?
“There can be reliable brands working in this segment. One brand which comes to mind is Pristine Organics, you can look at their website. They are doing a great job.”
Yes, definitely, due to a weak regulatory system it is possible that the manufacturer may not be complete or 100% right about the claims that they are making. I wouldn’t say that that is the case with all food manufacturers, definitely not, but a certain percentage of them. There are claims which are ambiguous in nature. Having said that, it is difficult to say what percent of organic food available in the market can be trusted, but I can definitely tell you that the way to go ahead is to look for certifications. There are organic certifications logos that you can find on the packaging. So that is what you should ideally look for while buying organic food. It is better to buy organic produce which is being regulated by the government and not the private sector. But yes, there can be reliable brands working in this segment. One brand which comes to mind is Pristine Organics, you can look at their website. They are doing a great job. So brands like Pristine Organics have adopted means of traceability, where they are declaring themselves how they procure their raw materials from farm depots. I think those brands are reliable and you can go ahead with their products. Other than that, if you want to take the route of verified sources, government certifications is what you should look for.
The Panel Discussion, therefore, revolved around the various aspects of the Organic Food Industry and included discussions on :
1. Increasing popularity of organic food in accordance with changing consumption patterns 2. Need for the adoption of a sustainable lifestyle 3. Effective government schemes to be implemented on a local level to help develop the Indian organic food market 4. India's potential to put its organic products on the world map 5. Inaccessibility of the organic food industry due to privatization 6. Use of biotechnology to boost production 7. Inadequate supply chain of organic food
Ms. Banerjee also engaged with the audience and satisfied a number of queries with immense detail, always providing valuable insights based on her own experiences. We extend our heartfelt gratitude for such an extremely informative discussion that helped us achieve more clarity about the work of a Food Scientist. We look forward to conducting more valuable sessions with her in the future!
Through this blog, we would also like to extend an invitation to professionals from various fields, for a conversation with us on multidisciplinary issues and themes. For further details, please feel free to contact us through our website.