It is one of the great ironies of our time: a shocking 60 percent of children under five years of age die due to malnutrition in developing countries even as a staggering 1.2 billion suffer from obesity. Worse, a significant section of the society has begun its journey away from fresh food towards unhealthy and processed junk food, adding another layer of woefulness to the issue of nutrition.
Poor nutrition, owing to financial reasons or to a general lack of awareness, can be blamed for a large number of ailments, especially among the urban population. The overexploitation of existing agricultural resources has resulted in nutrient-deficient crops.
A complex combination of factors are involved in the widespread lack of nutrition, which has become such a hugely worrying social phenomenon. The solution lies in providing the right nutrition at the right cost.
The trigger for the innovation was provided by Tata Chemicals’ patented low-cost process for the synthesis of high surface area silica nanoparticles that are bio-compatible. Apart from bulk applications of silica (as with rubber, paint and in the construction industry), the team started exploring niche applications for silica.
Since silica nanoparticles are highly porous and have a high surface area (~500 m2/g), the team began looking at the possibility of using these particles as delivery vehicles for pharmaceutical, agricultural and other products, by encapsulating certain plant micronutrients and drugs. The results were impressive: these particles displayed great versatility at loading water soluble as well as insoluble compounds.
Silica is essential in the development of the human skeleton and calcium deposition. It helps to prevent baldness, stimulates healthier hair growth and is believed to be useful in preventing veins and arteries from getting hard and stiff. As we age, scientific measurements have shown, the ability of the human body to absorb silica reduces. Moreover, silica is not present in sufficient amounts in a wide variety of foodstuffs today due to food processing; this makes silica supplementation essential.
Armed with these insights, the Tata Chemicals team developed the idea of combining the inherent nutrition of silica with its ability to load water soluble and insoluble compounds to find a solution to the nutrition problem: to add essential nutrients such as zinc, iron, copper, magnesium, etc; vitamins (soluble and insoluble); and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids into the silica nanoparticles for delivering of nutrition to humans.
Nutrient-loaded silica nanoparticles serve a dual purpose: they are inherently nutritious and they work well as an carrier of other nutrients. This, along with a cost-effective process, seemed like an ideal combination to target an entire range of stakeholders. The Tata Chemicals team proposed the use of nutrient-loaded silica nanoparticles as ingredients for food, health drinks and food additives to benefit all sections of society.
To put the potential of the innovation in perspective, the vitamins and minerals market was estimated at $11.7 billion in 2006, whereas the sports nutrition product market was estimated at $6.6 million in 2004.
Silica particles, by themselves or fortified with different value-added molecules and elements, have been sold by a number of small companies in the West. The Tata Chemicals team proposes developing a silica-based health drink with all the added minerals, vitamins and essential fatty acids, customised for all ages. This is in alignment with the nutraceuticals business that Tata Chemicals has set its mind on pursuing.
There’s potential also in the food additives market as silica is a well-known anti-caking agent. The plan is to fortify the silica particles with different additives and then add to salt or other foodstuffs, providing a value addition to the existing product.
Tata Chemicals has an existing consumer products business and an upcoming nutraceuticals business, where the new product would fit in perfectly. The existing distribution channels in these businesses can be used for the new product as well.
Although there are couple of US-based multinationals selling similar products in the market, Tata Chemicals would have the advantage of being cost competitive and innovative, which will give it wider reach across various socioeconomic segments of consumers.Tata Chemicals was one of 12 award winners at the Tata Innovista 2012, the annually held celebration of creativity in the Tata group. Read about the other winners and the innovations that brought them to centre stage >>