The small 'big' grain

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The small 'big' grain

Friday, 18 May 2018 | Excerpts

Junk quinoa and tap into our traditional forgotten foods and cereals for better nutrition, say experts

At laksh Farms, a sprawling oasis in Delhi’s outskirts, verdant with crops and trees, Ila and Captain Shakti lumba grow finger millet (ragi) in summers. For Ila lumba, growing the crop is like going back in time. “I didn’t grow up with bajra or foxtail millet...I was a total city slicker,” she says. “But my grandmother, who was from Uttarakhand, would make kodo ki rotis when I was young. Remembering that, I said to myself, ‘let’s try to grow it here!’” A decade later, laksh Farm’s ragi sells like hot cakes at farmers’ markets in Delhi.

Meanwhile in Bengaluru, nutritionist and food blogger Nandita Iyer discovered the magic of millets in her quest for healthy, delicious meals. Born and brought up in Mumbai, rice used to be the mainstay of her diet. She says, “I wasn’t fond of eating white rice through the week. I picked a few types of millets and found it interesting. I started with foxtail millet and would then order different millets each time.” Saffron Trail, Iyer’s uber popular blog, abounds in millet recipes, from foxtail millet and basil patties to ragi ginger cookies.

Suddenly, millets are everywhere. Bollywood actress Alia Bhatt swears by ragi chips in health websites and fashion magazines. Gourmet chefs are adding millet to an array of recipes, from pakode and biryani to risotto and brownies.

In Sikkim, millet may have been traditionally used for local brews (known as chaang), but now these grains are also key ingredients in the recipes of microbreweries in Bengaluru and Pune.  There are restaurants, culinary workshops, recipe books, cooking groups, exhibitions and even a marathon dedicated to promoting the super grains for their nutritional benefits and sustainable production.

But millets are neither new nor exotic to India. Remember your grandmother swearing by millet porridge or delighting you with millet rotis in winterIJ Turns out, they were right as these ancient grains are treasure troves of health benefits.

 The comeback of millets is significant when considered in tandem with growing concerns about food security and sustainability. Their renewed relevance is especially important as they can aid the task of feeding an ever-growing population and address concerns of malnutrition, recurrent drought and sustainable food traditions.

Millet has been hailed by experts as the future of food. It is somewhat of an irony when one realises that the earliest records of domesticating common millet in East Asia dates back to 10,000 years.  Hence it is imperative to understand the factors that led to its gradual disappearance from the dietary habits of those communities which once consumed these grains.

Today, millets are perched on the cusp of revival, their positioning as a food trend coexisting with widespread lack of awareness. Despite the inherent benefits of these grains, production is yet to catch on and experts have suggested the implementation of various policy changes to popularise the grains .

Moreover, in a country like India, with immense diversity in food cultures, millets are staple foodstuff for some communities and entirely unknown among others. Many people who once consumed millets have made a shift to rice and wheat over recent decades and have now largely forgotten the grains.

While food trends can influence culinary preferences for a period, long-term changes in dietary habits necessitate more sustainable measures and greater information about the grains.

What are milletsIJ

As described in the Oxford Dictionary, millet is “a type of plant that grows in hot countries and produces very small seeds”.  Millet is broadly classified into two categories. One is major millets, which include the likes of pearl millet (bajra) and sorghum (jowar). The second category of millets is known as minor millets, and include finger millet (ragi), kodo millet, barnyard millet, little millet, proso millet and foxtail millet. These millets are known across many regions of the country, where they are referred to by local names.

Millets have traditionally been part of everyday meals in many semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa for many centuries. The factors that led to the gradual decline in their production and consumption in the 20th century included the labour-intensive process of dehulling many millet varieties, a perception of millet as “poor people’s food”, their use as fodder for cattle and birds and the Green Revolution, which promoted the production of wheat and rice over other grains to curb food shortage.

Nutritional and ecological merits of forgotten foods

Food is one of most fundamental necessities of life. It is also a means to enhance the quality of life by assuring the required nourishment for human beings. The lack of dietary diversity has been a major cause for malnourishment across the globe.

With the long-standing popularity of rice and wheat and their frequent usage in daily meals as well as packaged food products, nutrition experts suggest the need for alternate foods that can fill the nutritional void left by the overconsumption of a few grains. Millets in tandem with the rapidly expanding use of cereals, such as oats, grains like quinoa (a South American staple) and teff, which is traditional to South Africa, fill that void.

Millets are imbued with nutritional benefits which have led to these grains being posited as a one-stop solution to resolve the crisis of malnourishment and food security issues. According to Dr B Dayakar Rao, principal scientist at IIMR, “Millets contribute substantially for food and nutritional security and possess unique nutritional characteristics. They specifically have complex carbohydrates and are rich in dietary fibre as well as unique in phenolic compounds and phytochemicals having medicinal properties. Millets are natural source of iron, zinc, calcium and other nutrients that are essential for curbing the problem of malnutrition in India.”

Millets are rich sources of fibre, vitamin B-complex and minerals, as well as polyphenols, lignans, phytosterols, phyto-oestrogens, phytocyanins which act as antioxidants, detoxifying agents, and immune modulators. Additionally, millets are gluten-free grains, an advantage in the midst of increasing cases of celiac disease and gluten intolerance that restrict or entirely prohibit the consumption of wheat. The nutritional benefits of various millets will be elucidated in the following chapters.

The emphasis on these grains is based not only on their nutritious merits, but also the expectation that these can offer a sustainable solution to the amplifying crisis of food security and environmental damage. These crops are greatly resistant to the adversities of cold, drought and salinity, and thus suitable for cultivation on dry and arid lands.

The capacity of millets to thrive in harsh climate conditions offers an immense potential to rescue agricultural communities ridden by drought and poverty.

Despite the well-documented benefits of millets, their production and consumption remains limited. lack of awareness is a major reason behind low consumption, combined with an assortment of factors that include but are not limited to diversity of food culture, strenuous post-harvest processing, technological challenges and need for greater government support.

Reviving millets in the age of global cuisines and food trends

Promoting and mainstreaming millets necessitate a multi-pronged approach. Awareness remains one of the most important factors in this revival. Strategies to disseminate information about the many types of millets apart from the commonly known jowar and bajra, means of processing, storing and incorporating them in meals and their nutritional benefits for specific deficiencies and ailments can play a major role. As consumers are motivated to choose these grains, the increased demand will impact production positively.

Millets may be hailed as Noble Grains, but their status in the hierarchy of foods is low. Attempts at spreading awareness must also include an effort at elevating the social status of millets and highlighting their role in ensuring a healthy diet. Subsidising these grains through the Public Distribution System (PDS) and their inclusion in programmes like the Mid-day Meal (MDM) scheme can also enable their proliferation.

It is also imperative to extend efforts at awareness among farmers, familiarising them with the beneficial impact of cultivating millets on their incomes as well as on their lands. For farmers, cultivating grains suited for arid ecologies can pave the way forward for greater rate of acceptance and adoption in the agricultural community. 

With increasing concerns towards healthy eating and sustainably procured food, the time is right for marketing millets as an alternative ingredient in packaged foods and new recipes.

Using tools such as the Internet and social media and engaging influential chefs, bloggers, product manufacturers and other players in the food business to experiment with millets and familiarise their consumers can also play an important role in making these grains popular.

The goal is not to position millets as a replacement for other grains, rather to facilitate the reintegration of these grains in tandem with other ingredients for a balanced diet.

Millets aren’t beneficial only for our health, but also for the planet and agricultural communities, offering sustainable solutions to water scarcity and extreme weather conditions resulting from climate change. As rainfall dwindles and/or becomes erratic, agricultural productivity is altered and reduced. A study backed by the World Bank Group states, “Drought can have health impacts, hamper firm productivity, accelerate the destruction of forests, and compromise agricultural systems.”

Bringing Back Forgotten Foods Historical & Contemporary Challenges

Despite their advantages for health, environment and agrarian communities, millets are underrated and underutilised in most parts of the country.

Their cultivation remains confined to marginal lands and these grains are being cultivated lesser as farmers turn to more profitable crops.

low social status of millets

Millets have traditionally been an affordable grain, grown by small holder farmers for their own consumption. Writer Anjali Purohit, who hails from Maharashtra, recalls that when she was younger, millets were the staples while crops like wheat were reserved for festivities and special celebrations.

As grains previously reserved for occasional use began to be widely available, in affordably-priced varieties, consumers began to avail of the opportunity and adopt rice and wheat for regular meals. According to Indian food scientist Koushik Seetharaman, “As the Indian middle class grows, tastes are changing. Millet is increasingly considered a ‘lower-class’ food”. Seetharaman, who collaborated with a team of researchers from University of Guelph on a project to increase production and consumption of minor millets in India, had added that the notion wasn’t only shared by urban dwellers. “Even rural farmers are susceptible to that perception and don’t want to eat it.”

The use of millets as fodder for animals and birds only adds to the perception. Over the last decades, as millet cultivation dwindled to marginal lands, their consumption became limited to farming and tribal communities, for whom millets continue to constitute a large part of their grains.

New consumer tastes and dwindling awareness

Sethu Sanker, whose company Ramjee Iniyaval packages millets, says, “Each type of millet has its unique taste and aroma. Since consumers are used to, even addicted to rice and wheat, it is very difficult to convert them to millet-based products.” The major challenges faced by his company include:

  • Many customers don’t like the taste
  • They do not know how to cook millets
  • They question the need to consume millets
  • High cost of millet-based products

For customers used to decades of staple foods and packaged food produced based on rice and wheat, transitioning to millets may pose monumental challenges. low awareness accompanied by lack of interest in taste can be a deterrent for consumers, who are unable to understand the value of millets in their diet or know the means of cooking and consuming it conveniently.

The promotion of millets requires dissemination of information on its health benefits, offering easy-to-cook and packaged edible options and perhaps most importantly, a desire for change in dietary habits across regions and diverse food cultures.

Today, no food is exotic — not for very long

With growing concerns about the limited nutritional benefits of dominant crops like rice, wheat and maize, attention has shifted to bringing back ancient and forgotten grains in our daily diet. There is perhaps no better time for a millet revival than now, but the reintroduction must not be restricted to a changing super food trend.  Growing the millet market and mainstreaming it across pan-Indian food habits necessitate a multi-pronged strategy.

Consumer awareness

Modern consumers rely on culinary trends to enhance their knowledge of food. Simply put, food trends can determine what consumers want to eat for their next meal or try at Sunday brunch. Millets are ideally poised to be part of current global food trends — they are gluten-free, aid weight loss and are helpful for diabetics, among an array of other benefits. 

Millets are often called forgotten foods because the communities that once consumed them regularly are now out of touch with their benefits. Being staples till even a few decades earlier, these grains are remembered, and still consumed, by many community elders. Our grandparents are carriers of these culinary traditions and it is worth investing time in their stories and shared memories and bringing forth these forgotten anecdotes and cultural references for younger consumers.     

The Way Forward

In promoting millets as smart crops of the future, it is imperative to take a balanced approach. Dietary inclusivity does not suggest that one crop be effaced by another, but rather that they coexist to address multifarious needs.

For consumers, living in metropolises as much as in villages, habituated to rice and wheat for decades, the transition to a new staple is not easy. There is immense potential for a global culture that appreciates gastronomic diversity and revels in the joy of rediscovering long-forgotten foods.

One big world. Countless flavours waiting to be discovered and reinvented. Why should our palates be smallIJ

-- Excerpts from White Paper by Slurrp Farm & Sohini Dey 

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