I had 2 separate conversations yesterday that were on a topic that We’ve been quite obsessed about in the pre-work leading up the Krya factory. How do we process herbs and grains to ensure that they are easy and convenient to use without sacrificing the nutrients that go into them?
Grain processing for nutrient absorption is an ancient art. Archeological excavations indicate that plant domestication is about 11,000 years old. We first started domesticating vegetables like the bottle gourd, which was used as a vegetable and a container before the evolution of pottery and the art of ceramics. Cereal grains were domesticated around 9000 BC in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. Apart from fruit bearing annuals, pulses like peas and grains like wheat were part of this wave of plant domestication.
The domestication of plants and cereals grains led to a great change in our way of life: this paved the way for Man to change from being a nomadic hunter gatherer to a fixed dweller in domesticated groups which slowly evolved to cities and towns. So in a way, the cultivation of cereals and grains created human civilisation itself.
The quern stone is an important landmark in the history of grain processing. Ethnographic evidence indicates that querns were used to grind not only grains for food, but also different kinds of herbs for medicines and cosmetics. Different types of querns existed in the ancient world: saddle querns, beehive querns and rotary querns which we are familiar with in India.
The evolution of the water powered mill mechanised the use of the hand quern to some extent. The force of flowing water would generate enough power for the grinding wheel to begin turning. The grinding mechanism was similar to the rotary quern and the grain would be crushed between the rotating wheel and the stationary base of the Water mill. The Barbegal Aqueduct and Mill is a Roman Watermill complex located near the town of Arles in southern France.
This mill was strategically located on a Roman aqueduct created to supply drinking water from the Alpilles mountain chain to the town of Arelate (now the town of Arles) on the Rhone River. This aqueduct fed 2 parallel sets of 8 waterwheels to power the attached flourmill. The mills were thought to have been operated almost continuously for 200 years from the 1st century AD and have an estimated capacity of 4.5 tonnes of flour per day – enough to feed the 30,000 inhabitants of Arles.
How fast does it spin?
One of the ways to analyse the quality of processing is to find out the speed of the grinding mechanism. All rotary based mechanisms where the method involves something rotating around a fixed axis ( a grinding stone in the case of a wet grinder) or even the drum of your washing machine have a measure called RPM (revolutions per minute) to measure the frequency of rotation. The greater the RPM, the greater is the precision and power of the grinding, washing or drilling device.
A modern ultrasonic dental drill can rotate upto 800,000 RPM. Depending upon the spin cycle you choose in your washing machine the drum can rotate between 500 – 2000 RPM. When cruising at a minimum idle speed, your car engine has an RPM between 750 – 900 RPM. A Formula 1 car’s racing engine is operated at nearly 20,000 RPM. The speed of ancient water mills is estimated to be about 120 RPM.
High speed milling machines: devolution?
With the invention of fossil fuel powered electricity, water mills were slowly substituted by electricity powered mills. Milling machines themselves also underwent several technological changes. From the stone based water mills, we moved to roller mills. Roller mills produced a huge technological breakthrough as they were able to separate wheat bran from its endosperm, helping in the introduction of “Maida” or refined wheat flour.
To achieve this super refined flour, slightly wet wheat would be passed through a roller mill. This moisture acts in 2 ways on different parts of the wheat: it softens the endosperm, helping it be ground extremely finely, and it hardens the bran leaving it as a coarse grind. Therefore, you could easily sieve and separate the super refined endosperm from its coarser, much healthier bran and sell super refined flour.
Today’s milling machines are high speed impact pulverisers. Often sold for various purposes from grinding granite and stone for the construction industry to grinding food products like grains and spices, impact pulverisers and hammer mills are sold on 2 counts: speed of food processing (as described through the RPM) and fineness of the material ground.
Krya’s experiments in herb and grain processing and our observations:
We have a line of cleaning products that include a detergent and a dish washing product and a line of personal care products that include a face wash, hair wash and a body wash. Our quest when formulating and manufacturing our products is twofold: are they able to harness all the power of the natural ingredients we use while providing our users with a certain degree of comfort and convenience during use.
The yardstick for determining whether a particular manufacturing process is good or not, really depends on the metrics for measuring a product. Most powdered products are measured on a single metric only: the size reduction of the particles that has been achieved and the evenness of the particle size. Think of any brand of compact powder or even a talcum powder you might use for your child. Apart from the fragrance, perhaps the only way you might measure the quality of your product is the even and smooth feel of the compact on your face or the powder on your child’s skin.Unfortunately this metric of smoothness and evenness has now expanded to cover all powder based products, no matter what they are originally supposed to do.
Turmeric, the ubiquitous spice in Indian cooking and medicine is used extensively as is in cooking or as a part of important spice mixes like sambhars powder and rasam powder. Turmeric is a notoriously tough root to grind. Most household mixer grinders cannot get a smooth turmeric powder, so turmeric is usually sent to the neighbourhood flour mill for processing. (Of course the mechanism of the mixer grinder is not suited to grinding at all, as it is designed for a cutting rather than a pounding action). Different kinds of industrial grinders can be used for turmeric grinder.
In very large, high capacity spice grinding operations, an impact mill or a cyclone mill is used to grind turmeric. The RPM of an impact mill starts at 1500 RPM and it can go upto 2800 RPM depending on the purpose of the mill. This kind of mill can dramatically reduce the processing time of grinding hard turmeric roots. This means that greater volumes of turmeric can be ground and processed in this factory.
Ayurvedic medicine processing:
Rasanadi chooranam is an Ayurvedic medicine which is always available at our home. This is an extremely useful preparation to control water accumulation in the sinuses. In Ayurveda, a pinch of Rasanadi chooranam is applied every time you wash your hair at the lymph nodes and certain points on your head. This chooranam helps retain heat in these points and help dry up water before it has a chance to be absorbed internally and reach the sinuses. If you suffer from water accumulation or a feeling of heaviness in your head after washing your hair, in wet weather or if your head sweats a lot, Rasanadi chooranam will make a huge difference to your health and well being.
We tested the physical characteristics and aroma of Rasanadi chooranam bought from 2 different Ayurvedic brands: One came from a government run (presumably lower funded) organisation and the other from a big brand name Ayurvedic company. The Rasanadi chooranam from the government funded Ayurvedic Company was darker in colour and coarser to touch. It was also extremely fragrant and generated a feeling of warmth as soon as it was applied on the head. However the Rasanadi chooranam from the big brand company was much lighter in colour, extremely fine to touch and had little or no aroma. It did not have the immediate warming characteristics of its poorer counterpart.
Both brands have used the same Ayurvedic formulation from the same Ayurvedic text. Both brands use a mixture of conventionally grown / cultivated herbs and forest collected herbs. The major difference lies in the way they have been processed. Clearly the bigger brand has used a more expensive, hi impact, high RPM pulveriser. This pulveriser has, through a combination of high heat, greater number of beating heads and higher energy, achieved fineness of the final product by sacrificing aroma, and some of the products functional characteristics.
Active ingredients and how to release them:
Processing food and natural medicine or cosmetics follow similar principles. The active ingredients in plants are bound up within their cell structure. Our role in creating functional products is to release these active ingredients so that they get to work as soon as you apply, soak or eat them. In grain processing which we spoke about, the active ingredients in the grain like the B vitamins and protein is readily available to the body only when we soak, ferment, or create flour. This very act of creating flour, if done improperly can completely destroy the active ingredients present within the grain.
The active ingredients of soapberry which we depend upon to produce hair magic or laundry magic in the Krya hair wash and Krya detergent is called saponins. These saponins are distributed through the outer shell of the soapberry fruit. To extract these saponins, we need to either soak the fruit in water and extract it as an aqueous extract or powder the shells and make the saponins more bio available so that they are released faster in the presence of water or mechanical action.
However saponins, like most active ingredients are sensitive to air, and heat. When processed in a high heat generating milling operation, they get denatured or cooked. These denatured saponins have a lower foaming action and have a completely different aromatic profile when compared to properly processed saponins.
Why process a soapberry at all? Using a whole soapberry is not as effective or convenient as using the powdered soapberry or an aqueous extract. Because it is only through subjecting the whole soapberries to some form of processing, we are able to make the saponins readily available to us.
When is herb or food processing just right? And why you should care
Food or natural products are truly nutritious and provide well being when they have been carefully made, using high quality raw materials and careful processing techniques. High heat and fast processing has 2 negative effects on plant based material: It destroys the volatile, delicate aroma compounds and it denatures vital nutrients like vitamins (some of which are extremely heat sensitive).
For example, thiamine in wheat is one of the first vitamins to be lost in high speed processing. This is especially true in high speed mills where temperatures can reach upto 204 degrees centigrade. In our skin and hair care products, we use several delicate, extremely volatile, aromatic herbs.
Lemongrass for instance, goes into our Kids body wash. Lemongrass is a dry, fibrous grass, and is especially soothing for delicate skin. Its volatile compounds are released by either carefully crushing the grass or through steam distillation to extract its essential oil. When the grass is dried at high temperatures (above 60 deg c) or processed using high speed cutters, the plant loses its vibrant, citrusy top notes. The resulting powder resembles dried hay, and simply adds volume without adding to the therapeutic qualities of our body wash.
The Just right level:
Much like Goldilocks and the three bears, there is a “just right” level in all natural product processing. But obviously this varies depends on the kind of product being spoken about.
Here are 3 checks for you to evaluate if your brand of completely natural food, cosmetic or household product has been sourced and processed correctly:
1. Is its colour distinctively lighter compared to the original raw material? The more an ingredient is crushed or processed, or sieved, the lighter it becomes. For example: refine white flour or Maida is super white in colour. This is because the brown coloured bran has been sieved out of the flour, and the endosperm has been moistened and pulverised to a very fine degree.
2. Does it have a characteristic natural aroma? Or does it smell cooked / roasted or burned? Is there any strong, distinctively “un natural” fragrance? If the food or natural cosmetic you’ve bought smells neutral, has no fragrance or has a burned / cooked fragrance, then what you’ve bought has been over processed. Alternatively, if you are buying a brand of natural hair wash and what you smell reminds you of a bubbly lemony synthetic shampoo, then obviously what you’re using is not very natural.
3. Is it extremely even and is the powder of a very high degree of fineness? It should come as no surprise to you that natural ingredients are not identical. No two grains of rice or wheat are alike. No two leaves from the same stalk have identical aromatic compounds of physical characteristics. Similarly, when food or natural products are processed, it is not possible to achieve microscopically identical particle size.
All a manufacturer can do is to sieve the final product to ensure that the particle size achieves a certain minimum or maximum threshold. Within this limit, variations will continue to exist. Complete evenness and near identical particle size can only mean repeated processing and sieving in a high speed mill.
If you are observing this in your flour, then you will be eating nutritionally weak flour. It would make sense to either switch brands or to decide to process your own flour. If you are observing this in your natural hair care or cosmetic product, then your product will not work as well as it could on you. The repeated processing the product has undergone has depleted it of any nutrients that could be absorbed by your skin and hair. Again, switching brands or making your own personal care products would make better sense.
- For low heat , carefully processed flour, ask for your organic store’s own brand of flour (to ensure freshness).
- Krya’s skin and hair care products will be launched commercially in a month’s time. This is why its taking this time.
- Krya’s all natural cleaning products for the home can be found here.
About the Series:
This article is a part of Krya’s writings on natural products and their sourcing and processing. We are passionate about promoting a truly environmentally sustainable lifestyle and this can be achieved only if we come to rely on using high quality plant based material to clean and care for ourselves and our homes. This follows our earlier series on toxic products in our home and how you could learn to identify and detox your home from the harmful action of more than 100,000 suspect industrial chemicals that surround human life today.
If you would like to explore our toxics series further, here’s what we’ve written before this piece:
- An introduction to the series
- Common carcinogens implicated in breast cancer found in your home
- Is it a conspiracy? A pre-planned genetic supremacy race? Or simply misinformation? Some reasons behind common toxics & why they continue to be used
- Are we putting our children at risk by using these products on them? Here are 3 toxins that plague children through the products we use on them.
- Do the products we buy contain toxins? How do we decode what goes into them? Here’s Urban Survival 101 telling you what you should look for in food product labels.
- Do the cosmetic products we buy contain toxins? How do we decode them? Here’s Urban survival 102 telling you what you should look for in cosmetic labels
- Two non toxic cleaner recipes you could try in your home and a Krya factory update
- A holistic approach to beauty and health and a fermented Amla drink to make this February for your family