Where there’s a millet, there’s a way.
-Dr. Mukundan Murali,
Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research,
Cereals. No, not the army of sugar-filled packed breakfast foods that made us slaves to gluttony and diabetes. Botanically, cereals are grasses that have been staple food for us humans after we evolved from our prehistoric hunter gatherer lifestyle into agricultural societies.
Rice is the most commonly consumed cereal, contributing to about one fifth of the total calories consumed by Homo sapiens. A seed of Oryza sativa is the rice paddy, which after removal of its outer husk produces brown rice. The pearly white shiny rice as we know is a product of milling, which removes 15% of protein, 75% of thiamine, and up to 90% of niacin from the paddy while retaining its calorie count. Wheat is the major source of vegetal protein in the world (13%). Wheat contains more protein and fiber, thus having a lower glycemic index than rice. Glycemic index is a measure of how fast the blood glucose spikes after intake. Lower glycemic index means that it is better suited for diabetics since they have a slow sustained release of carbs. Common wheat and durum wheat are two common varieties of wheat- while common wheat is what we use for chapatis, atta, cakes, pastries, etc, durum wheat is used to make pasta.
Maize or corn is the most cultivated crop in the world, followed by wheat and rice respectively. Most of it is used as fodder or for production of other food products, the sweet corn syrup for instance. Barley and rye have been used for centuries as food and feed crops. They are formulated into health-foods like muesli, cookies, malt flour, etc. Barley in particular has a large proportion of propionic acid, which reduces the activity of HMG Co-A Reductase enzyme, in turn reducing blood cholesterol levels. Malted barley or rye is used to make various alcoholic beverages and ubiquitous artificial sweeteners used in all supermarket packet foods. Triticale, a newcomer, is a hybrid of wheat and rye, and is made into health food and breakfast cereals.
The next cereal, Oats, is already a celebrity in the health food arena, praised for its role in reducing postprandial blood glucose, cholesterol, improving gut health and motility and its safety in gluten sensitive patients. All these are due to its high fiber, protein, and vitamin content. Oats are sold either as pressed oatmeal or as rolled oats, or made into muesli or granola.
In addition, a few ‘pseudo cereals’ are gaining popularity these days. The ‘pseudo’ is because they come not from grasses, but from other types of plants. Examples are Quinoa (/keen-wah/) which is becoming an urban diet fad, Buckwheat which is used in breads and biscuits, and the seeds of Amaranthus which are rich in lysine (lysine is the evasive limiting amino acid in most other cereals). These pseudo-cereals are good sources of protein, minerals, and are gluten free.
Moving away from the large cereals, we come to Millets. Millets vary from cereals primarily in that their edible seeds are much smaller than rice or corn. We don’t consume a lot of millets on a daily basis, but the UN General assembly has announced 2023 to be the International year of millets. Why all the showbiz?
Let’s rewind to the India of the 60s. Green revolution has increased the produce of rice and wheat along with vegetables in India to a large extent, satisfying the needs of a lot more people than before, and making the people dependent on these two crops. Until then, millets formed a huge part of the traditional Indian diet. Millets have a mild nutty flavour, they can be incorporated into most rice and wheat dishes, but they also have their own recipes that exploit their distinct taste. The commonly grown millets in India are proso millet, finger millet (ragi), pearl millet (bajra), sorghum (jowar), barnyard millet, and kodo millet. It is worth looking up the names of these in our mother tongue so we can explore the regional recipes and you can try them on your own.
Millets offer a great deal of health benefits. They are preferred in diabetics – their glucose lowering effect is due to increased concentrations of the satiety hormone leptin, their ability to reduce inflammation and insulin resistance. When cooked along with their husk (as they should be), they have a very low glycemic index. They are loaded with vitamins and minerals and are gluten free. These factors are shaping millets into the healthy diet superstars of today – the urban population particularly consuming an increasing amount of millet based cookies, bread, porridge, muesli, etc.
Do these benefits come at a cost, at the level of cultivation or distribution? On the contrary, millets help in preserving the biodiversity of our land, since the practice of polyculture in food crops has almost vanished when farmers stopped cultivating millets alternatively with the likes of rice and wheat. Millets save water used for irrigation. A shocking statistic is that 2500 liters of water are required to produce one kg of rice; while millets require no more than the low average rainfall in our country. This is a deal breaker in India which suffers from the vagaries of monsoon. They are well adapted to most kinds of soils and have a very short cultivation season. For instance, Vidarbha region of Maharashtra which used to be a large producer of millets, had moved on to rice and wheat in the 60s. Now because of repeated failure in rainfall, the region has unfortunately become now the suicide capital for farmers. Being ‘catch crops’, these miracle seedlings can help combat the deficit of food production in our country while also effectively battling undernutrition. They are also huge contributors to animal fodder. These are the reasons behind UN’s International year of millets 2023 promotion. On an operational level, the popularity of millets should be promoted by public education about their health benefits – ASHA and anganwadi workers can be their ambassadors. The government should help improve market linkages between the local farmers and the consumers, keeping up with its ‘vocal for local’ policy.
As doctors, we could add some millet based delicacies to our gastronomic libraries so that we can heartily endorse them to the people around us. These recipes are not new to us; there is already so much variety in our regional cooking traditions. We can invite innovation in the way they taste and formulate ready to eat packaged recipes, making them modern in appeal. With more demand, supply will follow, thus benefiting farmers as well. With their three pronged action against the agriculture crisis, under nutrition, and lifestyle diseases like diabetes, millets are coming back as superfoods and let’s do our part in welcoming them.
3.Anitha S, Kane-Potaka J, Tsusaka TW, Botha R, Rajendran A, Givens DI, Parasannanavar DJ, Subramaniam K, Prasad KDV, Vetriventhan M and Bhandari RK (2021) A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of the Potential of Millets for Managing and Reducing the Risk of Developing Diabetes Mellitus. Front. Nutr. 8:687428. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2021.687428
4. Kumar, A., Tomer, V., Kaur, A. et al. Millets: a solution to agrarian and nutritional challenges. Agric & Food Secur 7, 31 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40066-018-0183-3