The Telegraph
| Monday, December 12, 2016 |
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Good mole in the meal

A diabetic’s diet may not need to be so bland anymore. T.V. Jayan spoke to scientists who are developing dishes that will allow them to eat varied fare and fewer pills

Diabetics take heart; all those irksome food restrictions that you have to live with day in and out, may soon be a thing of the past. Researchers in a food lab are cooking up new recipes keeping in mind over 60 million diabetics in India.

The dishes, spiked with natural molecules that are found to have beneficial effects on blood sugar levels, will not only help in checking rising glucose in the bloodstream but, in the long run, also help reduce anti-diabetic medication if eaten regularly. The researchers are concentrating on items such as cookies, juices and kheer - treats which diabetics have to avoid.

Molecular nutritionists in the Mysore-based Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), a constituent of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, have been looking for a while for naturally-occurring compounds that help lower blood glucose levels.

By mixing these in regularly consumed dishes, the CFTRI scientists hope to come up with an effective yet sumptuous meal plan for those who suffer from diabetes. Such a tailored food regime may be a boon to those who are on the brink of becoming diabetic (pre-diabetic) as it would help stall full-blown diabetes.

"As these molecules are part of traditionally consumed food items, they do no harm even if healthy people consume them," says CFTRI director Ram Rajasekharan. The recipes they are working on are nothing but dishes with very low glycaemic value, he explains. A food item with low-glycaemic value releases glucose slowly, making you feel full for longer and not spiking your blood sugar level at once.

As a pilot, CFTRI plans to introduce bisi belle bath - a traditional Kannada meal to which sugar-fighting natural molecules have been added - on a train that runs between Chennai and Mysore. "We have already signed an agreement with the Indian Railways. A startup incubated on the CFTRI campus called sCoolMeal will cater it," says the CFTRI director. He hopes that the firm, founded by a group of US-returned techies, will gather adequate data so that the scientists can improve on the cuisine.

"All anti-diabetic drugs work by targeting one of six molecular targets," The most popular anti-diabetic drug metformin, for instance, works by activating an enzyme called AMP kinase. Produced by the liver, it is a cellular fuel gauge whose job is to ensure adequate insulin is released when the food arrives in the body.

Scientists have already identified a compound in a wild variety of ginger grown in the northeastern parts of the country which activates AMP kinase in a similar fashion, says Rajasekharan, who is a biochemist by training. If this natural molecule can do part of the AMP kinase activation, it is possible that there can be a reduction in the quantity of metformin required by the body, he argues. "After all, all anti-diabetic drugs are taken for life and many of them have side effects," says Rajasekharan, who was instrumental in setting up a department of molecular nutrition at CFTRI four years ago.

Similarly, the CFTRI scientists have identified an ingredient in many minor millets that works exactly like Januvia, a costly but highly effective oral diabetes drug. Januvia acts by inhibiting the production of an enzyme called DPP-4, which suppresses the activation of the hormone called incretin, essential for adequate insulin release. As a result, when Januvia is taken, it improves the insulin levels after a meal and thus lowers the amount of glucose made by the body.

Screening of active ingredients found in certain sparsely used millets helped the scientists identify a natural DPP-4 blocker, says Ravi Kumar, a CFTRI scientist involved in the project.

CRFTI scientist P. Ganesan, on the other hand, is working on natural molecules that would help delay onset of retinopathy, a sight-threatening complication of diabetes. His team has identified certain pigments from dietary sources that can regulate the damage caused to retinal cells by excess glucose present in the circulating blood. "We intend to come out with soups enriched with these essential pigments which we hope would help manage glucose mediated stress in the eyes of diabetic patients," says Ganesan.

The researchers are also working on other diabetic drug targets such as PPAR-gamma and bile acid binders. According to Kumar, each of these natural molecules is already being tested on laboratory-bred animal or human cell lines for their efficacy and safety.

However, Seema Gulati, a nutritionist associated with the New Delhi-based Diabetes Foundation (India) is sceptical whether such tests are enough. After all, when these active ingredients are introduced in a meal, their action is very similar to drugs. Hence there should be more detailed studies before their introduction. "It is important to know how do they work on vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women and the elderly," she says.

Rajasekharan says the institute has already tied up with four medical colleges around Mysore, including Mysore Medical College and Kasturba Medical College in Manipal, for such trials.

If they are cleared, as he expects them to be in a few months, diabetics may have an array of cookies, juices, soups and other food items to choose from to keep their blood sugar in check.

Millet on top

♦ It is a smart carb with lots of fibre and low simple sugars. So it has a relatively low glycaemic index and produces lower blood sugar levels than wheat or rice

It is a rich source of magnesium, which helps more than 300 enzymes do their work, including those involved in glucose use and insulin secretion

It is a staple in the diet of the Hunzas, who live in a remote area of the Himalayan foothills and are known for their excellent health and longevity

It hydrates the colon to keep you from being constipated; it acts as a probiotic, feeding microflora in your ecosystem

Its consumption decreases triglycerides and C-reactive protein. Scientists in Seoul, South Korea, concluded that millet may be useful in preventing cardiovascular disease 

It is gluten-free and non-allergenic. Its high protein content (15 per cent) makes it a great addition to a vegetarian diet