Kathmandu: We all must eat healthy food. This goes without saying. But what makes a food healthy and how much nutrition that the food we ingest are questions we do not ponder on as much as we should. Do we ever check the quality of food before having it? Is our government serious about inspecting food quality? These questions rarely make their way into Nepal’s mainstream discourses. There are only a few people who can answer these questions in Nepal. Dr Prakash Adhikari, a food scientist, is one of them.
Dr Adhikari, who exudes a characteristically jolly presence, is an R&D leader and oils & fats expert, with more than 15 years long experience under his belt. His work is focused on research and development, particularly R&D strategy and innovation, product development, and technical service. He has published over 20 papers on these subjects in various international journals. Currently, he is an R&D Leader at Mewah R&D Solution, a Malaysia-based agri-business focused on edible oils and fats.
In this interview with Nepal Live Today’s Prasun Sangroula, Dr Adhikari talks about a range of issues from the state of food quality inspection in Nepal and how conscious the government and Nepali people are about food quality to the quality of cooking oil we use daily and the possibility of Indian butter tree (Chiuri) in Nepal.
We rarely see discourses on food quality in Nepal. The country seems to be negligent, if not unaware, about the importance of food quality. What do you think? How serious are Nepalis about the food they eat?
The consciousness about food quality seems to be growing. Slowly, to some extent, Nepalis are becoming conscious of cooking oil. At least, in the urban areas, people have begun looking at its quality and ingredients. But we can’t say the same about the rural areas. People there use oil which is economical and easily accessible. Quality goes out of the equation.
But in the overall scenario, people in Nepal are still not serious about the quality of food they ingest. One main reason behind it is a lack of education. People do not have knowledge on nutrition and its role in their bodies. They also don’t know about a balanced diet and its importance. We are extremely backward in all these things. In some ways, people in urban areas are becoming conscious of food quality. But people in rural parts lack it because of poverty. For them, getting food twice a day is more important. To think about the quality of food and nutrition, then, is out of the question.
How effective is the mechanism to check the quality of food in Nepal?
We do have a mechanism to check the quality of food but that is only limited to the papers. A lot of things are written in those papers, and many of them are either copied from other sources that might even have been outdated. For instance, there is nothing mentioned about trans fat in any of the papers concerning food quality monitoring. Of all the fats, trans fat is the worst for your health. While many countries have already banned it, our checking mechanism hasn’t done anything about it.
The negligence towards public health and lack of willingness to work for the betterment of the public by the government and bureaucracy have made our quality checking mechanism futile. With that, there might also be the lack of manpower to make the mechanism effective.
Technologically, where do we stand in food quality monitoring?
We highly believe in trading. But we never think of innovation, and developing new technologies. Only very few think about it but they are also frustrated or disappointed because they do not get adequate support from the government. Our leaders talk about innovation only in their speech, but when it comes to translating that speech into action, they disappear.
Could you tell us about the practice of food packaging in Nepal?
Unfortunately, the packaging practice is not satisfying. The first thing the countries we trade with want to look at is the packaging style. Packaging must be attractive because it is the first thing that customers notice. If the packaging does not look good, then the people’s interest in the product declines.
‘For people residing in rural areas, getting food twice a day is more important than its quality and nutrition’
We never care about packaging. As we have very limited products and fewer alternates the manufacturer does not give importance to packaging.
The limited products and fewer alternatives of those products have compelled people to be indifferent to the packaging of the product.
Now let’s talk about cooking oil. What kinds of cooking oil are used in Nepal? Are they healthy?
Globally everyone uses a similar kind of cooking oil. Nepal mostly prefers sunflower oil, soybean oil, and mustard oil for cooking. The mustard oil is usually processed in a local mill and I have doubts about its purity.
I have done research in the cooking oil of Nepal and found them adulterated. Recently, one person told me that he bought soybean oil from the market during winter, and later it froze. But the pure soybean oil never gets frozen; only the palm oil freezes during winter. It means that soybean oil was adulterated.
You have been researching Indian butter trees (Chiuri) for a long time. Could you tell us more about it?
I have been researching in Chiuri for the past 5-7 years. I am figuring out how we can use Chiuri in Nepal as a cooking oil. Reportedly there are over one million Chiuri trees in Nepal. Likewise, around 90,000 metric tons of Chiuri beans are found in Nepal. Chiuri can replace the palm oil that is imported from Malaysia and Indonesia. Similarly, I am also trying to promote Chiuri, which is our indigenous tree, in the international market.
If we process the beans of Chiuri, then we can get oil from it but the problem is there has not been a proper study about the way of using it. Few European countries have started using Chiuri oil in cosmetic items but it has not been used as food. But there has not been proper marketing of those products made up of Chiuri oil.
Lastly, when are you returning back to Nepal, and what’s your plan after that?
I am planning to return back to Nepal as soon as possible, but it is not as easy as it looks. I want to continue my research and work on oil and food in Nepal. In this regard, I have been frequently holding meetings with like-minded individuals.