Nutrition and exercise habits have an impact on non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, which are not spread by infection or through an agent but are caused by genetic, environmental and behavioural factors.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 77 million adults suffer from type 2 diabetes in India, and nearly 25 million more are at a high risk of developing it. The scenario is similar for cardiovascular diseases. In 2016, as the WHO reports, 63% of total deaths in India were due to non-communicable diseases, and 27% of which were attributed to cardiovascular diseases.
Shalini S. Arya is a food technologist at the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT) in Mumbai, India. Her work aims to improve the nutritional value of traditional Indian foods and to prolong the shelf life of local staple foods using sustainable ingredients that are less costly. Through her research, she explored the potential of these traditional foods for preventing diabetes and fighting malnutrition.
"I became a food technologist by chance. I was very good at math, and I had been admitted in an electronic engineering curriculum. When I told my father, he insisted that I had to become a teacher, instead," Arya recalled. Eventually, after months of discussions, they agreed on a food technology course, which turned out to be the right choice for her.
"At the very beginning, I thought that it would be like dealing with cooking and household issues. But soon, I realized that it was real science, with chemistry, math, engineering, and a lot of brainwork."
In 2008, she obtained a PhD from ICT, and in 2019–2020 received a postdoctoral fellowship supported by TWAS and the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq), which represented a turning point in her career. It allowed her to spend one year in Lorena, Brazil, with the School of Engineering at the University of São Paulo, where she set up new innovative techniques that she is now applying in India.
"The CNPq-TWAS postdoctoral fellowship was an amazing opportunity for my career. This fellowship helped me build self-confidence and international collaborations," Arya said.
In Brazil, Arya worked on hydrodynamic cavitation, a process that creates tiny bubbles inside a liquid through an abrupt pressure change, without heating the sample. This allowed her to increase the nutritional qualities of beverages and liquid foods, and reduce their microbial content.
Arya test-processed orange juice, milk, apple, jabuticaba pulp and other Brazilian fruit juices, with successful results. This technique destroys potentially toxic microorganisms and deteriorating enzymes while preserving vitamins and micronutrients, and the overall taste remained the same.
Now, she is using hydrodynamic cavitation in India to improve the quality of tomato, carrot, aonla, and sugarcane juices, as well as several other fruits and vegetables, as she described in a research published in the journal Current Research in Food Science.
Preserving food traditions
Arya had a difficult youth. "I lived with my family in a small town called Maharashtra. Since my early years, I could not play with the other children: I was in charge of preparing food for everybody since my parents were at work," she recalls.
This is why she never forgot her roots and the food traditions that are deeply embedded in Indian society. And this is why she still values the vital role of staple foods like chapatti, naan, roti, paratha and other kinds of flat breads that Indian housewives cook several times a day.
"There are more than 3,000 different traditional foods in India, and flat breads always play a major role. But each family follows its own recipe, which may differ from others'. In addition, the major constituents normally used tend to degrade quickly."
With these constraints in mind, she investigated the molecular features of the flours commonly used to prepare flat breads, identifying which molecules degrade the bread and which make it more durable. To improve the chapatti's stickiness, and the dough's strength, kneading and rollability, for example, Arya added millets and banana peel powder. Her results were published in the journals Food Bioscience and Journal of Food Measurement and Characterization.
In another study published in the journal LWT - Food Science and Technology, she added chickpeas and green gram’s flour to chapatti flour, which increased the overall protein content. Eventually, to standardize the recipes, she counselled with food industries on how to apply these discoveries to their products.
"If possible, I tend to avoid using chemicals for laboratory reactions. For extraction procedures, I use natural substances that do not leave undesirable leftover material in the final product," she explained.
Curbing food waste
Food waste and waste valorization is another field where she has obtained valuable results.
According to the UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021, each year the world’s food waste totals 931 million tonnes, 570 million of which occurs at the household level. That is the equivalent, on average, of 74 kg per capita each year.
In one of her scientific articles published by Trends in Food Science and Technology, Arya quoted figures suggesting that India discards about 5.6 million tons of fruits and vegetables, or about 10% of its total post-harvest, each year.
To help curb the waste, she tested inexpensive, locally available ingredients such as pomace, peels, leaves and fish waste. Through extraction and separation of different compounds, she could recover bioactive substances—components found in small amounts in plants and certain foods that may promote good health— important for the treatment of diabetes and hypertension, a condition that correlates with heart risk.
"Indian people are poor. They cannot afford good-quality food, or regular health checks," she said. Using new lab procedures that she set up, Arya obtained natural additives to turn traditional and sustainable grains such as millets into drinks with nutritional and health benefits.
Also, she obtained traditional Indian products with a low glycaemic index, which do not cause spikes in blood sugar levels and are crucial for people living with diabetes. In 2015, for this research, the International Life Science Institute (USA) awarded her the prestigious Malaspina International Award.
On the women's side
Arya's efforts, however, go beyond basic science. From 2020 until now, she has been a very active member of the Executive Committee of the Global Young Academy (GYA), an international body representing the voice of young scientists from around the world.
With GYA, she contributed to the publication of Motherhood in Science – How children change our academic careers, a book to help the wider academic community understand the impact of childbirth and child raising on women scientists around the globe.
She is also actively promoting a more consistent presence of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She regularly visits Indian villages to motivate young girls and women to study and enter a scientific curriculum.
"The world should realize that women are naturally more empowered and have very huge strength and potential," she said, highlighting the importance of events such as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which is celebrated on 11 February worldwide. "But support is also essential, and I thank again TWAS for being a driving force in my career."