Rich in fibre, protein, B vitamins and other nutrients, Millets are making a big comeback in urban diets as an extremely versatile and sustainable food choice, writes Kavita Devgan, as she makes a case for these forgotten superfoods
What’s old is new again. And this is great news. Suddenly, whole grains with ancient pedigrees are being embraced by home cooks and restaurants and are widely available in the supermarkets. And, leading the pack are millets.
As a nutritionist, I have always believed that millets duly deserve space on your plates. Rich in fibre, protein, B vitamins and other nutrients, these ancient grains are extremely versatile and can be swapped for pasta or rice in dishes, added to salads and power bowls, and cooked like oatmeal for a warm breakfast bowl topped with fruit and nuts. Plus, for the environmentally conscious people, the feel good factor is that millets require little water, grow well in arid and semi-arid regions of the world and thus, consuming them amounts to you leaving a lower carbon print in the world. This could be your contribution to ensuring that we leave behind some food for the future generations as well.
The health bonus
For the starters, the dense, earthy flavour takes some getting used to, especially since our palate is more used to the bland softness of wheat and white rice. But, there’s a lot going for them. Millets are gluten-free grains and that makes them a boon for those who are gluten resistant and even for those who wish to reduce the gluten load in their diet. Additionally, it is now a well-proven fact that consuming millets on a regular basis can help you lose weight, owing to the rich content of fibre and bioactive compounds in them.
My top five picks Sorghum (jowar)
Our grandmothers preferred jowar rotis over regular wheat rotis. There was a reason for that. While the calcium content found in jowar is very close to the content in wheat and rice, it packs in a neat punch of iron, protein, and fiber. Jowar is also rich in policosanols, which help in reducing bad cholesterol in the body.
Pearl millet (bajra)
There’s lots going for this millet. Bajra is an excellent detoxing agent and contains catechins like quercetin that help the kidney and liver function properly by excreting the toxins from the body.
It’s particularly great for monsoon season when digestion gets a little sluggish. It’s high fibre, gluten free properties help kick the digestive process into action. In fact, this millet is particularly loaded with insoluble fibre that provides bulk to the stool and keeps constipation, a common problem during this season, at bay.
It is also a friend of the heart. Bajra works on three fronts: It is rich in magnesium (that helps keep the heart healthy); has lots of potassium (which makes it a good vasodilator and helps reduce the overall blood pressure); and fibre rich (helps reduce the LDL or bad cholesterol). Magnesium present in bajra also helps control the glucose receptors in the body and keeps diabetes away.
Finger millet (Ragi)
This underrated gluten-free grain has a lot going for it. It is a rich source of calcium and iron and its main protein fraction eleusinin, has a high biological value, meaning it is easily absorbed and used in the body.
It helps the digestion immensely and is packed with cellulose, a type of dietary fibre that helps keep our digestion humming along, constipation away and cholesterol levels in check.
Plus, like barley, ragi is an ideal food for diabetics, and overweight people as its digestion is slow and glucose is released from the intestines very slowly into the blood.
Foxtail millet (kangini or thinnai)
It is loaded with smart carbohydrates, the kind which don’t increase the blood sugar levels immediately, but slowly release glucose into the bloodstream. Additionally, it is rich in dietary fibre, and minerals like iron and copper. These help reduce the levels of bad cholesterol and keep the immune system strong as well
Barnyard millets (jhangora)
It tastes similar to broken rice when cooked and is called samak ke chawal. This nutrient dense millet has high fibre content, which can effectively help in losing weight.
It is a rich source of calcium and phosphorous, which helps in bone building, and has more fibre than most other grains and delivers both soluble and insoluble fibre that helps in preventing constipation, excess gas, bloating and cramping. It also has the highest amount of iron compared to other grains.
Boost their superpower: Sprout them
To make the most of the millet goodness, sprout them and consume. Sprouts have been the buzzword for healthy eating for a long time now. But somehow sprouting is limited to lentils — moong dal, chana, lobia… And even though other grain sprouts have been around for a while, they really have not become mainstream yet. It’s now time to change that.
Sprouting increases the nutritional value by leaps and bounds as the process boosts vitamins, minerals and antioxidants of the food. There is an increase the concentration of a key nutrients like B vitamins, vitamin C, and folate. Plus, these nutrients become more bio-accessible (more easily assimilated and absorbed by the body) too. This is extremely helpful in the case of iron in particular, a mineral that is difficult to absorb from vegetarian sources.
A study conducted at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, India, measured the changes caused by sprouting finger millet (ragi), wheat and barley. They found that sprouting millets increased the bioaccessibility of iron (> 300%) and manganese (17%), and calcium (“marginally”).
The food also becomes of lower GI (Glycemic Index) and is better digestible due to the enzyme activity that peaks during sprouting, and the starchy carbs in the seed on sprouting get converted into energy. So the resulting sprouted food has a higher ratio of protein and fibre to carbs. Proteins also become more digestible when the food is sprouted. And the biggest benefits is that sprouting helps decrease the presence of anti-nutrients (like physics acid, enzyme inhibitors, lectins, saponins etc), the naturally occurring compounds that are found in plant seeds that interfere with our ability to digest vitamins and minerals within the plants.
In fact, one big benefit of sprouting grains is that studies have found that there are widespread changes in gluten concentrations of the grains when they are sprouted. Looking at how much grains we consume today (a big chunk of our diet is made of these), it is a good idea to naturally reduce gluten consumption this way.
So which grains can be sprouted?
You can sprout any kind of whole grains — the important thing is that the grain should be a whole grain, with the germ and bran intact. Refined grain cannot be sprouted.
Sprouted grains can be eaten raw, lightly cooked, ground into flour or made into a bread. So throw in a handful of sprouted grains like sprouted quinoa in your salad, add some sprouted rice to your stir fry or soup, or simmer sprouted buckwheat, quinoa, or millet in your milk to make a porridge, they hold a lot of good for your system.
Chef Anahita N. Dhondy, Chef Partner, SodaBottleOpenerwala CyberHub says she loves using millets in her recipes because she finds them versatile, easy to cook and add value to all dishes. “They are yummy as a salad where you can add crunch. In a soup, or even make a main course,” she says. In the restaurant, she serves okra millet salad, millet soup, ragi bread and at home she keeps boiled millets (particularly ragi (finger millet) and barnyard millet (samak ke chawal)) in her fridge. Easy to toss and use. According to her they might be becoming popular as a culinary trend in restaurants today all over again, but they’ve been cooked in Indian homes forever. She herself discovered them at her grandmom’s home ages ago.
The market forces
Millets in India have always enjoyed prime importance, as we are one of their largest producers in the world, but somehow the market forces recognised its potential only recently. Over the last few years, new age entrepreneurs decided to revive the culture, and are getting a good response too from the consumers. When Delhi based Meghana Narayan and Shauravi Malik decided to become entrepreneurs, they conducted extensive market research, product research and development, put in a lot of thinking and then decided to follow their heart and focus on millets. This is how they launched Slurrp Farms in 2015. Realising that the answers to healthy cooking lay in our own grandmother’s kitchens, they dug out old recipes to make their brand cookies using millets. Today, besides cookies, they offer cereals (for toddlers), dosa and pancake mixes, and munch — all made from millets.
Bengaluru based snacks brand Soulfull is another success story. Inspired by the the rising popularity of quinoa, during his stay in the US, Prashant Parameswaran, CEO and MD of the brand, struck upon the idea to come back to India and promote the humble Indian grains — Millets. He decided to make this enriching and nutritious lineage palatable for the daily consumption needs of the modern consumer. Today the band offers multiple millet-based options like millet Muesli and Smoothix including ragi, jowar, foxtail millet and bajra. They also combine the power of millets with a healthy mix of various grains, such as ragi with Bengal gram.
Definitely, there is an increased awareness of the importance of millets for our well-being. A lot of nutrition experts are talking about them. There is an increased impetus by the government too to educate people on how millets are not only nutritious but how they help the environment and farmers, thereby creating a sustainable ecosystem.
According to Parameswaran the biggest marketing challenge in making millets ‘hot’ with the millennials is to position millets right to meet their lifestyle needs. That is a tall order, but entirely doable as these brands are proving.
The need of the hour is to use unorthodox, creative measures to boost the popularity of millets via education, and by making them an appealing proposition for people (and the planet). This can be done by making fun foods with millets that appeal to todays generation. Millet noodles anyone? Minus the preservatives, of course!
The writer is a Delhi-based weight management consultant, nutritionist and author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks
Be careful though
There is no doubt about millets are one of the superfoods in our diet and nutrition chain but those who are suffering from thyroid need to go easy on them. “While millet is gluten free, it contains goitrogens, compounds in the food that suppress or reduce the thyroid activity. Goitrogens are usually reduced by the cooking process. Whereas, in millets, the cooking actually increases the goitrogenic effect. Thus, if one switched over completely to millets, the thyroid suppressing effects can be profound. If gluten is an issue then it is recommended, one shifts to another grain that is free of gluten and is non goitrogenic such as amaranth, buckwheat or cassava,” points out Noida based nutritionist Himanshu Kapoor, founder of C.Green Organic Future Foods.
Plus, millets also contain certain enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid, which binds important minerals, not allowing the body to absorb the nutrients and minerals. So the rule to follow is to make them a part of your diet, but no to over do them.
Ragi Kuzhu (Porridge)
Boil water. Slowly add 30 gm ragi powder to the boiling water and stir constantly to avoid forming lumps. Keep it boiling until it forms a medium thick fluid. Add salt (to taste), stir and put off the flame. Add lemon juice (1 lemon) and salt to 250 ml butter milk. Add butter milk to the thick ragi fluid and have it with lime pickle. You can even cook rage at night and leave overnight in the fridge; in the morning add buttermilk to it and have.
Slightly dry roast the broken bajra till a bit hot. Pressure cook the green gram dal, roasted broken bajra (bajra:dal should be 70:30 ratio), and salt with 3 cups of water till soft. Heat some ghee and add cashews. When slightly golden brown, add cumin seeds, pepper, curry leaves and ginger paste and add it to the pongal. Have with Chach (buttermilk).
From Ultimate Grandmother Hacks by Kavita Devgan (Rupa Publications)