Walk into any fancy restaurant these days, and chefs and waiters will tell you proudly that they can serve you quinoa – an exotic and apparently quite fashionable pseudo-grain grown in the Andean region of South America. It is also being sold at a premium in some organic food boutiques here in India.
Sometime last year, a journalist friend gave me a call and asked for some input on an article about the healthy, gluten-free quinoa. In reply, I gave her a fifteen-minute rant about how utterly unnecessary and irresponsible it is to ship food grains halfway around the globe, when we have such a great choice of native ones right here in India!
Nutritionally, millets and amaranth are a perfect match for quinoa, and they avoid the huge ecological footprint involved in importing grains.
A newspaper article by a Mumbai-based nutritionist recently celebrated the pseudo-grain amaranth as “India’s Superstar Grain”. She bemoans the fad for imported quinoa and strikes a blow for local grains. Why is it not equally fashionable to eat amaranth and local millet varieties – India’s native miracle grains? These foodgrains comprise a rich variety, ranging from the more commonly known ragi and jowar to less common varieties such as barnyard millet, kodo millet, proso millet or little millet.
While quinoa is a recent urban fad, Indian diets have been changing gradually for decades.
From a staple food and integral part of local food cultures, millets have come to be looked down upon by modern urban consumers as “coarse grains” – something that their village ancestors may have lived on, but that they had left behind and exchanged for a more “refined” diet.
Unfortunately, the word refined is to be taken quite literally here: Urban diets increasingly consist of refined grains, sugar and oil, and are lacking in fibre and essential nutrients. The health consequences are devastating and include obesity, diabetes, digestive disorders and cancer.
When seeing nicely packaged ragi biscuits in the health section of supermarkets, one could almost get the impression that millets are indeed becoming fashionable again. However, the statistics speak a different language: Changes in consumption trends over the past decades, coupled with state policies that favour rice and wheat, have led to a sharp decline in millet production and consumption.
In the 1950s, the area under millet cultivation in India exceeded the area cultivated under either rice or wheat, and millets made up 40% of all cultivated grains. However, in the early 1970s, rice overtook millets, and in the early 1990s so did wheat. Since the Green Revolution, the production of rice and wheat was boosted by 125% and 285% respectively, and the production of millets declined by -2.4%.
Although India is still the top millet producing country in the world, by 2006, the millet growing area was only half that of rice, and one fifth less than wheat. The share of millets in total grain production had dropped from 40% to 20%. This has dire agricultural, environmental and nutritional consequences.
Not just urban food preferences, state policies also play a major role in the shift of consumption habits. For instance, the Public Distribution System has promoted rice and wheat uniformly across India, completely disregarding local climatic conditions, agricultural traditions and food cultures. Polished rice became the cheapest and most readily available foodgrain, and as a consequence the most popular one. The change in preferences was aggravated by notions of cleanliness, purity and sophistication of refined grains versus the more down-to-earth “coarse” grains.
Millets contain a high amount of fibre, which earned them the derogatory name “coarse grains” and often degrades them to animal feed. However, in a time where urban consumers tend to go overboard on refined products, the extra fibre in millets might just be a great boon. Fibre is essential not just for good digestion and a healthy bowel; it also has a positive impact on blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Furthermore, millets are richer in several nutrients than rice, wheat or corn. For instance, they are rich in B-vitamins such as niacin, B6 and folic acid, as well as calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc and beta carotene. Each millet variety has a different nutritional profile. The table below compares several millets, wheat and rice with regard to selected essential nutrients. Millets are also ideal for people suffering from gluten-intolerance.
Millets are truly miraculous grains in terms of their nutritional value, and even more so in terms of their humble requirements as agricultural crops. They are ideal for rainfed farming systems – the majority of India’s small and marginal farms. The rainfall requirement of millets is only 30% of that of rice. While it takes an average 4,000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of rice, millets grow without any irrigation. Millets can withstand droughts, and they grow well in poor soils, some of them even in acidic, saline or sandy soils. Traditional millet farming systems are inherently biodiverse and include other important staples such as pulses and oilseeds. They are usually grown organically, as millets do not require chemical pesticides and fertilizer.
Organizations that promote millet cultivation and consumption for security of food, nutrition, fodder, fibre, health, livelihoods and ecology across India are joined in the Millet Network of India (MINI), an alliance of over farmer organizations, scientists, civil society groups and individuals.
Millets are available in organic stores, from organic online retailers, in supermarkets and various other shops. They can easily be integrated into any kind of diet.
Here’s how you can use millets at home:
•Mix millets with other grains or use by themselves like rice
•Make soft and tasty idlis from whole jowar
•Add some millets to your dosa batter
•Enjoy puffed jowar as a snack, breakfast cereal or sprinkled on salads for a nice crunch
•Use foxtail millet rava for a more nutririous upma
•Add millet flours to rotis; for cakes and raised breads, mix them with wheat flour, as millets do not contain gluten