Sunday, April 28, 2013

Cooking tech - which cookware is safe to use?

Last week, Dad came over to visit me and happened to see my non-stick cookware which is 7-plus years old, and peeling to reveal silvery metal surfaces below. "You have to replace it immediately", he warned me, adding that non-stick surfaces are suspected to release toxic chemicals, and will probably be banned or discontinued within the next 2 years.

I have heard rumors about health issues with non-stick pans but I have not taken them very seriously. Now that I had to replace all my cookware, I decided to spend  a couple of days researching options on the internet. There is a lot of confusion and many contradictory opinions as to which cookware is safe or not. I do not really know which are the reliable sources to cite. But here is my perspective, based on technical inputs from my Dad (who is an engineer), granny's wisdom, and the factual sources on the internet.

1. Start replacing or phasing out non-stick cookware

Non-stick cookware must be replaced if the surface cracks, peels or warps. Generally, you will find that this happens within 2-3 years - it does not have a long life, and proof of this is that most companies will not offer a long warranty period for it. There is no unanimous verdict on the safety of non-stick surfaces, but what everyone accepts (including Du Pont, the inventor) is that over-heating of the surface beyond 260 Celsius can cause toxic gases and chemicals to escape. They are not proven to be fatal to humans, but neither would you want to expose yourself. If like me, you bought a lot of non-stick cookware because it is cheap, attractive and practical, I do not see any need to panic and throw it all away. But it does make sense to start replacing it or phasing it out of your kitchen.

2. Keep cookware in a range of materials including new and old ones

Almost every cookware has some reaction with heat, and food. The goal is to cook the right foods, in the right vessel. This means it's practical to keep cookware made with different metals and surfaces, for different cooking needs

Stainless steel is perfect for boiling and for acidic preparations with tamarind, tomato, lime etc. It is  the most non-reactive. However, it reacts badly in my experience to saute/ shallow fry cooking especially if you like to use less oil. It burns easily and creates dark hot spots. Therefore I do not find that it makes a good kadhai or wok.

Prestige Steel saucepan

Cast iron (available abundantly in wholesale market areas and big steel shops) is great for dosa tavas, kadhais and woks. We have used this traditionally for years. We know that it leaches iron content into food, and this has been a reason to use - to enhance iron intake in the diet. Cast iron is good for saute/fry but acidic cooking including rassam, sambhar or sabji with tomato, reacts to iron giving an unpleasant metallic taste in food.  I prefer cast iron for dry roasting with oil rather than any wet cooking or boiling. I have to flag off here that most iron vessels are improperly seasoned  and therefore rust easily. If you have the patience and correct technique to season the vessels yourself, you are fine. Otherwise, buy from a reliable brand or supplier, even if it costs extra. I am very partial to the steel shops in Mylapore, Chennai. I have bought some awesome cast iron there.

Lodge Logic Skillet

Aluminium/ hindalium is still extensively available in Indian steel shops - as tavas, saucepans, kadhai's and more. Despite the scare of aluminium poisoning triggering Alzheimer's, or causing kidney and brain problems, we continue to use them. Fact is, we ingest copious amounts of aluminium on a daily basis (soft drink cans and antacids are big culprits) and with well maintained vessels, the aluminium dosage would be minute.

Mom has some age old aluminium vessels at home and Dad is quite keen that she throws then away. Aluminum does leach into food, especially with acidic preparations. And the leaching will increase as  the surface becomes more pitted and old. I would say that we need to start retiring these vessels from duty and replacing them. The urgency is not as great as non-stick but it's there.

Glass, ceramic and stoneware are hugely recommended as being the most non-reactive cookware materials but are unfortunately poorly suited to flame/ stoves and are most suitable for microwave or oven. Most Indian food is not cooked this way, so their utility to us may be limited.

Hard Anodised Aluminium is what I have chosen to replace my non-stick. It is aluminium cookware whose surface is made non-reactive. It seems that under certain conditions, it may leach a little aluminium into food, but the quantities are extremely miniscule. If well maintained and treated with love, it will last very long indeed. 

Hawkins Futura Frying pan

Other cookwares include ceramic coated aluminium, enamelled iron  etc. However, there are some reports that some of these products from cheaper manufacturer's contain traces of lead, cadmium etc. I think safety lies in buying from a reputed manufacturer like Le Creuset or Steub who have developed proven techniques and know their business well. Le Creuset costs heaven and earth (USD 200 per pot on average) but I hope to acquire one in this lifetime. This brings me to my last point.

3. Spend a little extra on a good brand of cookware

Human nature being what it is, we probably shell out more on attractive table ware, serving dishes and cutlery and less on cookware. Actually, we are better off doing the reverse. Cookware is put to a daily torture test and ought to be off good quality to withstand heat, rough washing and different types of foods/ cooking techniques.

It's worth the time and effort to search out slightly more expensive cookware, which is well finished, endorsed by a trusted manufacturer and heavy rather than light. Heavy vessels will last longer, and will also hold heat for longer, enabling you to save fuel. 

This is specially true if you still intend to buy non-stick. A reputed brand which charges more, is also likely to put more care into creating a durable product.

Here are some pictures of cookware that I really love

Staub Cookware on Amazon

Friday, April 26, 2013

My 8 handbag gadgets : stuff I cannot live without

This post is about the gadgets that literally travel everywhere with me - the daily gadgets that stay on my person, or in my handbag, and I will feel incomplete without. It is a relatively short list because I have excluded a lot of things that travel in my rucksack - those are mostly work related and I would not carry them, say if I went shopping to a mall on a weekend. But these gadgets are my slightly worn, scuffed and much loved companions. I'd like you to meet them.

1. Fitbit Ultra

wrote about my Fitbit purchase in December and I have to say that in practice, it's working well as a constant companion and measurement device. I do not take it off even when I sleep and I am wearing it as I type. It has survived the washing machine once and has been dropped twice but recovered!

Fitbit is now graduating to a cool looking wrist band but I still find the clip-on device more unobtrusive and I can wear it on any formal or casual dress.

2. Galaxy Nexus

This was my pick for budget smartphone earlier this month. I do buy whatever I recommend. I am a happy owner of the Galaxy Nexus since a year, and looking forward to running Android 5.0 next month. I have no real reason to upgrade from this awesome phone.

3. Swatch steel watch

This green steel watch from Swatch is a classic fashion accessory. It does not talk, display a stop watch, measure temperature or do anything cool. It exists to look good on my wrist and does a great job of that. It's four years old, and you will still find it in some Swatch outlets. Clearly, it never went out of style!

4. iPad 2 (32 GB, Wi-Fi + 3G. Two years old)

It has grown on me with time. Though I still do not work on it, I have gotten used to carrying it for presentations, sales pitches and client meetings. I often use it in preference to taking a print out for my own use. I have not upgraded to later versions simply because it still works well and it has an awesome battery life. It's lighter than the later iPads too! 

I am not posting a separate picture, as it has been used as the base for all the other gadgets I photographed. And no purchase link, as it is discontinued since last year.

5. Cowon D2 (8 GB Flash MP3 player with 16 GB memory card. Four years old)

I have replaced the screen connectors once, the buttons twice, but it still works good. It's a fantastic portable dictaphone and I use it to record my research interviews as a back up for my more expensive Sony dictaphone. It also pairs well with my headphones and with my Audio Engine speakers.

Flipkart still stocks a slightly later version of  this device for Rs. 7500 and I would advise you to buy one before all MP3 players generally die off. It's one of the best I have owned, and I have owned a few.

6. Ultimate Ears Triple-Fi headphones (Two years old, USD 200)

This is my third pair of Triple Fi's. I bought the first pair in Singapore in 2008 at the princely sum of USD 350. I got them replaced free under warranty once and then they gave way again. I re-purchased them off Amazon courtesy some dear friends in the US. And this time, they look set to last another three years. Sometimes I want to change, just out of sheer boredom. But over years, I have begun to take for granted the purity and delicacy of the sound that these blue beauties turn out. Every now and then I plug into some allegedly 'high end' headphones in malls and I realise how muddy they sound. And I am grateful for what I have!

You can find a pair on Logitech's India site for Rs. 21,000 but you can definitely get them cheaper if you buy them abroad.

7. Croma portable charger

Purchased for Rs. 1300 three months ago, this indispensable device is capable of re-charging my phone from near zero charge to 30% in about 20 minutes. It is indispensable when I am on the move, in a train or a cab, or at a coffee shop without a power point. It saves  me every now and then. In case you are wondering, it comes with connectors for virtually any type of phone you can imagine including the old 'thin pin' Nokia phones.

8. Jabra EasyGo bluetoooth headset

It's my third or fourth headset but Jabra's famous patented ear gels make this by far the most comfortable one I have ever worn. I can have this on my ear for 6 hours plus and not get fatigued. Rs. 2000 on Flipkart and worth it just for the comfort.

9. The handbag

It's not a gadget, but it looks geeky so here is a picture. Rs. 1500 from Dharavi.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The best budget smartphones in 2013

So there are lots of candidates for  the best smartphone right now, but which are the best picks for a budget smartphone? In my opinion, all that is newest and glitters is not necessarily gold. Some of last year's phones are available at hefty discounts and are well worth taking a look at.

1) Samsung Galaxy Nexus (Rs.20,000)

It's more than a year old already, and it has been replaced by the LG Nexus 4, but the older 'Google phone' is still well worth buying. Samsung never launched it officially in India, but you can pick it up at Rs.20,000 or less on eBay India. With a dual core processor, Super AMOLED screen,1 GB RAM and a good battery life, it has specs that can outclass most newer phones in this price bracket. The icing on the cake - with software updates directly from Google, your phone will not be obsolete for a LONG time to come. Lots of Custom ROMs and mods for the adventurous to try as well.

Source : GSM Arena

2) Nokia Lumia 520 (Rs. 10,000)

Win 8 OS may be struggling to gain traction, but the new Lumia range has given it a fresh lease of life.  Most budget phones below Rs. 15,000 tend to be cursed with slow and laggy hardware, tiny low-res screens and tacky finish. Not so with the Lumia 520. At this price point, I doubt if you will find any phone with better build, OS stability and features. The screen, dual core 1 GHz processor and 5 MP camera are what you find on it's higher priced siblings, Lumia 620 and 720. Specially created for low-cost smartphone markets like India, there is no doubt that this beauty on a budget will find many takers.

Source : Nokia

3) iPhone 4 (Rs.20,000 with exchange scheme)

Apple has aggressively jumped into the smartphone war in India. Firstly by increasing availability through third party retailers and secondly by launching buy-back schemes, such as the one on the iPhone 4. Demand for the third-generation, three year old handset has waned in Western markets, but Apple can still juice some profit from this range in markets like India. The iPhone 4 (8 GB) is priced officially at Rs.26,500 but retailers will offer a minimum and guaranteed exchange price of Rs.7000 for your old handset. The exchange price can go up if your handset is valued higher. So you can get  the iPhone 4 for Rs.20,000 or less. It's a sweet deal, replacing the similar deal on iPhone 3GS a year back. 

At this price, an iPhone running the latest version of Apple OS is a good buy, as much as the Nexus!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Health goes digital - emerging trends in 2013

Digital health took off in a big way in 2012. Health tech accelerator Rock Health reported that investors poured $1.4 billion into digital health companies last  year, and an overall increase in the number of deals closed, as well as the value of funding. Further, healthcare purchasing tools for customers and health tracking were two of the focus areas for investment.

Technology undeniably has a huge role to play in the area of personal health, and the advent of smartphones has made it even more ubiquitous. You might have noticed the increase in the number of calorie counting or exercise monitoring apps, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In this post, I want to highlight the latest developments and emerging trends in health tech in 2013.

1. Health goes mobile

With an estimated 40,000 health apps available across platforms, mHealth is clearly poised to become huge. Smartphones are always with us, and they usually have constant internet connectivity. This makes them ideal as tracking devices (counting steps climbed or distance walked) and also as input devices (entering the meals consumed in a calorie counter). As the sensors on smartphones become more sophisticated, they can even function as rudimentary recording or measurement devices - we already have apps that use the cell phone camera to measure blood pressure and heart rate. 

It has been estimated that 1/3rd of US smartphone users turn to cell phones to track basic things like diet and exercise. When you look at the older segment (above 35), this figure goes up to 60%. It's an interesting indicator of how the mobile phone is becoming ubiquitous in health.

Hospitals and health care providers are also using the mobile to connect with patients - to provide outpatient care, to share tips and reminders with expectant mothers, to automate reminders and booking for regular appointments and health screenings and to monitor elderly and ailing people who live alone.

2. The internet of things makes health tracking continuous!

Companies like Withings and Fitbit have pioneered wireless scales that record your weight, BMI and body fat percentage and transfer it to a mobile app. 

Health tech start up Asthmapolis wants to help asthma patients by hacking their constant standby - the inhaler. The company has designed a snap-on bluetooth sensor to track how often people use inhalers and sends the data to smartphone apps that provide analytics and tips to users. Most importantly, the data helps to identify patients who are at high risk for getting an attack, and implement measures to bring the asthma under control. In fact, studies have shown that access to realtime data has led to a 50% drop in patients with uncontrolled asthma. It's not only patients who benefit but also health insurers, who buy the software and monitoring solutions from Asthmapolis to cut their own health care bills from patient admissions

And now Swiss scientists have developed a tiny bluetooth capable device that can be inserted easily under the skin using a needle and is equipped to collect constant stats on several markers including blood glucose and cholestrol. This is of huge value to track high-risk patients with chronic conditons.

And of course, let's not forget the huge trend of 'wearable tech' - devices such as the FitBit, Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up and Basis Watch - which constantly collect and present information to the user in a way that aids habit change.

3. Education, diagnosis and early detection

For a moment, let's go back to the basics. A recent survey by Pew Internet research showed that 80% of internet users turn to a search engine first when they have a health related query. Access to internet on both mobile and PC, offers a huge opportunity to put accurate information at the users fingertips - information that can be used for prevention, self diagnosis and even early detection. Web MD and iTriage both offer 'symptom checker' apps on desktop and mobile. There is a serious potential for a health search engine that gives access to reliable health information. And there is a real scope for governmental/ institutional health bodies to increase access to people, and to offer netizens the chance to book a health appointment, diagnostics test, or even a telemedicine consultation over phone.

On a more futuristic note, SF based start up Scanadu is developing a device along the lines of the famous 'tricorder' in Star Trek - a gadget that lets you check your temperature, pulse and other vital signs, simply by holding it close to your body. It then sends this information to your smartphone, from where it can be sent to your doctor.

4. Social media as a tool of behaviour change

This is perhaps the most interesting and potent development in health tech. Any device or technology, no matter how advanced, needs to outlive its novelty value. It needs to induce a behaviour or habit change in the long term if it is really going to solve a health issue for the user. And to this end,  it's not enough to create a gadget or an app, we need to figure how to motivate and emotionally engage with people. This is where the social angle can play a big role. Programs that use technology along with some element of human interaction (an expert coach and/or a peer group) are those that show the best results.

San Fransisco startup Omada Health targets people at risk for diabetes to sign up for an online coaching program called ‘Prevent’ that can cut their risk of developing the disease by upto 58%. The 4 month program utilises a proven curriculum developed by the National Institute of Health and adds a digital component.  Participants in Prevent are placed in 12-member groups with a health coach leading each group. They interact only through an online public forum and strive towards common goals. For example, the first goal is a weight loss of 7% - group members do not know how much the others weigh, but they can track each others' progress towards the goal. The peer group functions both as a support mechanism and a motivator to compete/ showcase oneself favorably. It contributes hugely to members achieving their goals.

Sources : GigaOmTechiTechCrunchFastCompanyVentureBeat