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Millets: Healthy but no super grain

While millets are great for you, blindly replacing the rice and wheat in your pantry with vast quantities of millets is inadvisable. Diet diversity is, and has always been, key to good health

The renewed spotlight on millets is already appears to be playing out in India (iStockphoto)

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A tiny green millet sapling thrusts its way out of arid soil, then young grain sways in a gentle breeze as the voice-over on the minute-long promotional video proclaims: “I may be small, but I am strong.” The video, released by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization to mark 2023 as the International Year of the Millet, goes on to list the various benefits of growing and consuming millets. “I want to share the benefits widely with all people and the planet,” continues the voice. “But I cannot do it alone. So, bring me back to your table.”

This promotional video, one among many recent fervid entreaties to consume more of these ancient grains, repeats the oft-touted narrative around millets: their ability to thrive in harsh conditions with little water, the nutrition benefits they offer, their great taste and versatility, their link to ancient food cultures and traditions. In all the boosting, what’s often overlooked is the fact that millets need to be seen as a way to expand food diversity, rather than a super grain that needs to immediately displace the more-prevalent rice and wheat.

Also read: Making friends with foxtail and other millets

The renewed spotlight on millets already appears to be playing out in India. In January, Chandigarh launched the Millet Mission to promote the consumption of this grain in schools, while Guyana offered 200 acres of land to India for millet production. On December 20 last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared on Twitter that he enjoyed a sumptuous lunch of only millet dishes, including millet khichdi, ragi dosa, ragi roti, jowar roti and bajra-based desserts, at the Parliament.

Admittedly, some of the brouhaha around millets is justified. As Mumbai-based nutritionist, Khushboo Jain Tibrewala points out, this highly-varied group of small seed grasses, are more nutritious than all-purpose wheat flour and white rice as they possess a lower glycemic index, higher fibre content and many micronutrients and antioxidants. It is a healthful grain choice in an age of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, PCOS and diabetes. “Overall, they are an excellent choice for those looking to include more nutritious foods in their diet,” says Bengaluru-based sports nutritionist Ryan Fernando, the founder of QUA Nutrition. “Switching to millets may also help reduce the carbon footprint, as their production is more sustainable and has a lower environmental impact.”

Having said that, blindly substituting the rice and wheat in your pantry with vast quantities of millet is inadvisable. “There are many valid reasons why millets should be promoted,” says Dwijendranath Guru, founder of The Millet Foundation, a Bengaluru-based resource and support organisation. “A meal with ​millets is better, but doing just that does not make it a nutritious meal.” Simply replacing other grains with millets without taking a critical perspective of nutrition will cause more challenges than solutions, adds Guru, a passionate advocate for sustainable food systems. “Food is an extremely subjective and individual matter; you have to realise that everything doesn’t work for everyone.”

ANCIENT GRAINS

Like wheat and rice, millets belong to the ecologically dominant Poaceae or the grass family, one of the largest families of flowering plants consisting of over 10,000 species and occupying nearly a quarter of the world’s vegetation. Millets, which are mostly consumed in Asia and Africa and widely associated with birdseed in America, are extremely diverse in nature. There are over 20 species, nine of which are grown in India, including finger millet(ragi), pearl millet (bajra) and foxtail millet (thinai). “Everyone says millets, millets, millets but there are different kinds of millets with very different nutritional properties, it is important to bring in diversity to our farms and plates so that we can benefit from the nutrition that all these grains offer,” says Guru.

Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist Dr Kurush F Dalal explains that millets have been part of our diets since the Neolithic period, grown side-by-side with rice and wheat. Rice came to southern India only 2500 years ago; till then millets was the only grain consumed, he adds. Literature of the Sangam period, which dates roughly between the 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD, implies as much, says Chennai-based food designer Akash Muralidharan. He has conducted research on the landscape and food of ancient South India, and describes a poem about two lovers meeting that specifically mentions foxtail millets. “The girl has a thinai sweet for her lover, and they sit down and enjoy it,” he says. “It stands proof of the prevalence of millets in the Sangam era.”

Also read: The millet rises

Until the 1950s, millets were an important part of the Indian diet, making up 40% of the grains cultivated in the country. Today, while India continues to be the biggest producer and consumer of millets (followed by Nigeria and Mali), they occupy less than 20% of the grain grown here, something policymakers are trying to change. The decline in millets can be attributed to several factors. For starters, caste and class have shaped how this grain was consumed with rice and wheat being seen as aspirational grains and millets relegated to being the food of the poor, points out Dalal. The Green Revolution of the 1960s, which leveraged technology to increase food production and make the country more self-sufficient, focused on high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, impacting grain diversity. The minimum support price (MSP) intervention by the government of India to protect farmers from any sudden plummet in farm prices also contributed to the decline. “This automatically meant that farmers grew rice and wheat and not any other grain,” says Dalal.

In the last decade, concerted attempts by various state governments-- Karnataka and Odisha, notably--have been helping bring millets back to the table. From a global standpoint, highlighting the benefits of ancient grains like quinoa, faro and teff, has been the zeitgeist of the world of nutrition. And millets, often positioned as the Indian alternative to quinoa by the health community, have been a vital part of these conversations. Bengaluru-based Raja Varun, the founder of Forgotten Foods, which has a range of millet-based products, among its other offering, agrees. “There has been a huge surge in millet demand with more people willing to try out millets,” he says.

A QUESTION OF BALANCE

Millets are healthy but you needn't switch to them unless you like the way they taste
Millets are healthy but you needn't switch to them unless you like the way they taste (iStockphoto)

Supermarket shelves may be stacked with millets in all forms and shapes, from raw to sugary cereals, but you don’t need to immediately switch to ragi dosas and bajra rotis at all meals unless you actually enjoy the taste of them. If you are an urban Indian looking to drop a few pounds, swapping a bowl of rice for one of millets isn’t as important as ensuring you stay in a calorie deficit. While millets do have more soluble fibre, protein and antioxidants compared to rice, from a calorific perspective there is very little difference between them. A cup (174gms) of cooked millets provides 207 calories almost the same as cooked rice, which provides around 206, points out Rahul Gopal, a Chennai-based sports nutritionist and lifestyle coach. “If your primary goal is weight loss, then it doesn’t matter which one you pick,” he says. “If you don’t enjoy the taste of millets, don’t eat them.

Contrary to the reigning narrative, millets are not a high source of protein, containing between 6 and 12 gms per 100 gm, only marginally higher than rice. Multiple studies have indicated that a staggering 70-80% of Indians are protein deficient, unable to hit the recommended 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for a sedentary adult. Millets, like legumes, may contribute to hitting your protein macros but they are no substitute for protein sources like eggs, meat, fish, dairy or soy.

From a food security and hidden hunger standpoint, cultivating, promoting and rebranding millet is a welcome move. “Millets require almost no inputs, grow even in extremely low fertility soils, don’t need deep ploughing, can be sown with minimal tools or machines, need only one weeding (if at all),” points out an article published by The Millet Foundation, adding that millets are also fairly resistant to pest attacks. “They are also way hardier in storage,” points out Guru. But he also firmly believes that it is important to examine how rice and wheat are currently grown and processed, before “jumping onto the millet bandwagon to solve the lack of nutrition in our foods.” Rice and wheat, in their ancient grain forms, were diverse, hardy and nutritious too. He explains that mass production and processing designed without bothering about the nutrition content of the output have reduced the nutritive value of paddy rice and wheat as consumed by large populations today. Polishing grains by stripping off the bran layer, which is rich in minerals, fibres, and essential fatty acids makes them whiter and brighter but also reduces it, primarily, to a concentrated source of carbohydrates. Historically, millets were spared this since they were processed using traditional techniques. This is changing. Most millet rices in the market today are stripped off their bran, just like paddy rice is” Guru says. “Unless we process millets in a nutrition-conscious way, we will end up falling into the same trap we did with paddy rice and wheat.”

As always, it comes down to promoting diet diversity, one of the key drivers of human evolution over the last 6-million-odd years. While millets are good for you, they also contain anti-nutrients like phytic acids, polyphenols and tannins, which can “tend to reduce the bio-accessibility of minerals (iron and zinc), due to which the millet diets are greatly compromised," as a February 2022 paper, published in Frontiers of Sustainable Food Systems points out. And yes, if you are dealing with thyroid issues, it is better to avoid pearl millets since they contain goitrogenic substances, points out Fernando. “Additionally, some people may find that consuming too many millets can lead to digestive discomfort,” he says.  

Introducing them slowly and in limited quantities can help mitigate this issue as Forgotten Foods’ Raja Varun has discovered. He has been doing this, slowly replacing one rice-based meal with a millet-based one but continuing to eat the former at other meals. "It is never about replacing one cereal completely with another. For improved biodiversity and better gut health, we have to focus on more diverse diets,” says Varun, adding that balance and moderation are key to good health. Nutritionist Fernando, while appreciative of the health benefits of millets, agrees. “I would recommend millets to my clients as a nutritious and delicious addition to their diets,” he says. “However, I would suggest they make sure they are eating a balanced diet, as millets are not a complete source of protein or other essential nutrients.”

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