Each of the millets is three to five times nutritionally superior to the widely promoted rice and wheat in terms of proteins, minerals, vitamins and fibre. So far, only Karnataka, Odisha and Uttarakhand have introduced millets in their PDS. These coarse grains should be added to the mid-day meal scheme too.
Millets have been the staple diet and health guardians of traditional societies for centuries.Photo: Pixabay
India is the world’s number one producer and consumer of millets, with Rajasthan as the top producer of millets in the country followed by Karnataka. Millets are marvellous sources of nutrition and three years back, in 2018, the Indian government notified millets as “Nutri-Cereals”, which was also nationally declared as “The Year of Millets”.
The importance of millets, also known as coarse grains, can be gauged from the fact that in March this year, the United Nations declared 2023 as “The International Year of Millets”. The resolution in the U.N. General Assembly was proposed by India, and the Union Agriculture Ministry is already busy planning its campaign.
According to a note prepared by the agriculture ministry: “Millets can help tackle health challenges such as obesity, diabetes and lifestyle problems as they are gluten-free, have a low glycemic index and are high in dietary fibre and antioxidants.” The note further states that “millets are nutritionally superior to wheat and rice owing to their higher levels of protein with a more balanced amino acid profile, crude fibre and minerals, such as iron, zinc, and phosphorous.”
Traditional and rural communities across the country have for a very long time been using millets as part of their daily diets. According to a research paper by P Ashoka and others, (published in November 2020 in The International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences), millets originated in and around India, and have been the staple diet and health guardians of traditional societies for centuries.
Belonging to the Poaceae/Graminae family, they are small-seeded grasses, yielding two major millets (sorghum and bajra) and six minor millets (finger, foxtail, little, proso, kodo, and barnyard millets). Recently, a few minor millets have been added to this group, like fonio, quinoa and browntop millet.
“Each of the millets”, the November 2020 paper notes, “is three to five times nutritionally superior to the widely promoted rice and wheat in terms of proteins, minerals (calcium and iron), and vitamins and fibre.” Millets, it says, “are an ideal food for all the people, irrespective of age, and especially beneficial for children, pregnant and lactating women who are prone to anaemia.”
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In south India, flour of barnyard millet (Echinochloa species) is popularly used for making local foods like idli and dosa. In the north, especially in Uttarakhand, it is mixed with milk and sugar/jaggery to make a sweet dish, madira ki kheer and with buttermilk known as paleu.
Mixed millets khichdi is also popular in many parts of India while millet cookies, puffs, flakes and laddus are fancied items at high-end organic food stores all over the country. Research studies confirm the high nutrition of millets in general and barnyard millet in particular.
A recent research paper, ‘Barnyard Millet for Food and Nutritional Security: Current Status and Future Research’ published in Frontiers in Genetic Nutrigenomics in June 2020, reads: “The nutritive value of barnyard millet is superior to that of other major and minor millets. It is a rich source of calcium, protein, magnesium, fat, vitamins, and some essential amino acids.” The paper is authored by VG Ranganathan and others from the Agricultural College and Research Madurai.
According to this June 2020 paper, the average carbohydrate content of barnyard millet varies between 51.5 and 62.9 per 100 grams, which is lower than that of other millets; its fibre, ranging between 8.1 per cent and 16.3 per cent, is higher than in any other cereal.
This is not all. The protein content of barnyard millets ranges between 11.2 per cent and 12.7 per cent and is reasonably higher than in other millets and cereals. “The high ratio of carbohydrates to crude fibre ensures the slower release of sugar in the blood, aiding in maintaining blood sugar levels,” informed the paper.
Mysuru-based scientist, Khader Valli, is popularly known as the “Millet Man of India”. He explained why millets are superior to rice and wheat, and how our body processed food was important to the absorption and value of food.
“Any food that takes a longer time to break down the glucose and fructose to be absorbed by the blood is truly healthy. While rice takes only 45 minutes to be absorbed by the blood, positive grains or millets take six hours,” Valli informed.
A post-doctoral fellow of environment science at Beaverton, Oregon, Valli did his PhD on steroids at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. But that was a long time ago. For the past 35 years, since he quit a lucrative job in the US, Valli has dedicated himself to the promotion of millets.
The scientist swears by their therapeutic value and prescribes a mix of five millets to his patients. Called the Siridhanya (rich grains) diet plan, it includes kodo (Paspalum scrobiculatum), barnyard, foxtail (Setaria italica), browntop (signalgrass), and little millets. Valli claims to have cured patients suffering from a host of diseases, including anaemia, infertility, and diabetes. Valli said that barnyard millet, known as udalu in Kannada and jhangora in Hindi, was his “personal favourite”.
Recognising their nutritional value, the agriculture ministry recommended the inclusion of millets in the public distribution system (PDS) for improving nutritional support, but the idea has not caught on. Only Karnataka, Odisha and Uttarakhand have introduced millets in their PDS, the main problems being the low shelf life of millets and poor storage facilities.
For the same reasons, millets have not been included in mid-day meal schemes, among the most important places for the implementation of the Indian government’s plan for millets.
While the government is still struggling against bottlenecks, private businesses are retailing millets successfully. Not just whole millets and millet flour, but also ready-to-eat items made out of them are in high demand at upmarket food stores, which, till now, were considered a poor person’s diet.
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According to R S Bana, senior scientist at the Indian Council of Agriculture Research-Indian Agriculture Research Institute, Delhi, the young population of traditional and tribal societies have an “inferiority complex” about millets, and need to be educated about their nutritional value. “They perceive rice and wheat as superior foods, an observation that is endorsed by researchers. However, the scene has changed over the last decade,” he said.
Bana agreed that there is a sizeable section of the rich and educated people who have lately quite sensitive to the value of millets. “Once they adopt these cereals as a staple diet, the approach of the poor people would also change who are at present eating these nutritious foods ‘by default’,” said the senior scientist.
To underline the importance of millets in the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition (POSHAN), a ‘POSHAN Atlas’ is being prepared under the guidance of the Principal Scientific Advisor. The atlas has information on state-specific recipes that account for cultural food preferences and palates. The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has designed and is running the “Eat Right India Initiative”, which, as per the agriculture ministry paper, could be an avenue for pushing for a wider consumption of millets in the country.
Also, another document, The Current Position of Millets, prepared by the agriculture ministry, talks about ways to promote the consumption and production of millets in India. Interestingly, it refers to a millet recipe book in regional languages published by the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR).
So, what are you waiting for? Bring the millets home and indulge in some healthy food items!
Luthra is a senior journalist based in Delhi. Views are personal. The article is produced with support of India Science Wire.