Nutrition Meets Food Science

Evolution of Millets with Mankind

Can one food be nutrient-dense, gluten-free, and at the same time, has the resilience to grow on poor quality soils and tolerate drought? It may sound too good to be true and feel like a hoax, but it is not. When you go for grocery shopping next time, just carefully look through the aisles in the kirana store and you’ll find these gorgeous grains called millets. And unlike other pricey pantry ingredients, they are quite affordable. Millet is a food item that is worth every penny and here’s why.

A brief Introduction to Millets

Millet is one big joint family of superhero small-seeded grains with ragi (Finger Millet), bajra (Pearl Millet), foxtail millet, little millet and kodo millet as few of its famous family members. They are nutritious, sustainable and affordable.

Source: Amazon

Millets are not new to India; they have always been part of our staple diet. From food items like samaipayasam, nachni roti and bajra ki khichdi to traditional alcoholic beverages like sur, madua, themsing and lohpan, the culinary tradition of adding millets in our meals is at least centuries old.

However, in spite of the centuries-spanning legacy, millet-based foods have now come to resemble a somewhat specific concept over the course of the last few years. When the green revolution started, the government promoted rice and wheat so heavily to the consumers that a lot of them ended up removing millets from their daily diets. But a few years ago, when Andhra Pradesh got exposed to severe drought, local farmers turned to millets. Because of the millets’ ability to grow on marginalised lands without irrigation and with little to no external inputs such as pesticides, farmers worked to revive its cultivation and bring it back into the market. It was millets that helped people to fight hunger and keep farmers debt-free. And now, it is not just farmers who are advocating for this grain. Millets’ drought-resistant and water-efficient qualities have also gained attention from various NGOs and activists in India. Today millet is not viewed as just another category in food; it is being seen as the solution to the food problems that arise with climate change.

Health Benefits

Millets are desirable but not just for its climate-resilient properties. If you dig deeper into the digital library, you’ll find a lot of scientific data informing about its nutrition content and health benefits. Here’s an overview of the advantages of adding millets in your meal:

  • Millet is a cellar stocked with dietary fibre, protein and a truckload of micronutrients. The protein content of millet grains is equal or superior in comparison to wheat, rice and maize. Millets are a good source of antioxidants. However, in some cases, novel processing techniques are required to enhance the bioavailability of the micronutrients and in turn, improve the quality of millet foods.
  • People who have celiac disease and gluten sensitivities cannot eat bread and other baked foods made from wheat and rye. However, millet is a naturally gluten-free grain. You can use it in bread, and other bakery items to develop gluten-free products for people who can’t consume gluten.
  • Millets might help to control blood sugar and cholesterol. In a study published in 2010, scientists at Sri Venkateswara University studied health benefits of foxtail millet in diabetic rats and, found that millet produced a significant fall (70%) in blood glucose while having no such effect in normal rats. Diabetic rats that were fed millet also showed lower levels of triglycerides, and total/ LDL/ VDL cholesterol and an increase in HDL cholesterol.
  • In another study published in 2010, conducted in South Korea, scientists concluded that foxtail millet and proso millet might help prevent cardiovascular diseases.

Source: Amazon

Food Applications

As mentioned above, millets are nutritious and have health benefits. And because they do not require a lot of water or other external inputs, their production cost is low. It is this wide palette of benefits that separates millets from other crops and the reason why the year of 2023 will be observed as the International Year of Millets. You can add millets in your diet by adding products like ragi roti, ragi ladoo, bajra roti in your meals. And for all those who don’t want to go through the hassle of elaborate cooking, nowadays, a lot of food companies are developing and offering packaged, convenient millet-based foods to treat your pantry shelves.

Source: Drink-O

Indian companies like Drink-O with their ready-to-drink millet-based beverage, Slurrp Farm with their millet-based dosa and pancake mixes, and Early Foods with their millet-based teething sticks, cookies, and porridge are offering consumers convenient ways to include millets in their diets. There are a lot of bakery outlets and companies that are processing millets into flours and using them alone or along with the other flours to develop bread, cake, muffins, etc. Millets are also being processed and used in products like noodles, pasta, weaning foods, extruded breakfast cereals, and snack items like korramurukulu, and namkeen mixes. However all of these packaged, convenient millet-based products may not be budget-friendly. Few companies are taking advantage of today’s consumers’ adventurous food habits and selling these products at a relatively higher price than the wheat-based products and, as a result, some people may regard millets just as the latest fad.

So now, whatever approach you take to include millets in your diet- cooking or convenience- do remember to add some in your food basket next time you go food hunting in your nearest retail outlet.

Seles Gupta

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