What’s for lunch? Millet Dosa, Millet Biryani, Millet Pongal or Millet Noodels? It looks like the hunt for the next food fad is over. Everybody is calling the humble millet the superfood to stock our kitchens with. We are told it’s better than rice and wheat, it’s gluten-free and it is climate change-friendly.
Even the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. This decision aims to amplify public awareness of the health benefits of millets, their sustainability under tough climates, and their potential to be a ‘future food’ in the context of rapid climate change. According to a recent study, they were also found to reduce blood glucose levels in diabetic people by 12 to 15 per cent to pre-diabetic levels when consumed regularly.
Additionally, the growing prevalence of obesity and Type 2 diabetes across the globe due to increased consumption of polished rice, refined wheat flour and refined sugar has compelled nutrition researchers and policymakers to bring their attention back to high fibre millets as a replacement for current Indian staples.
Millets are small-seeded grasses, consumed widely as cereal grains throughout developing nations of Asia and Africa. Millets are often considered superfoods for their high fibre, vitamin, and mineral content, and are used as an antioxidant.
In India, millets are ancient grains. While describing the ‘super crops’, The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) mentions that even 50 years ago, millets were the primary staple in India. It was the green revolution and westernisation of Indian food culture that made millets unpopular among urban Indians who started perceiving them as ‘coarse grains’ consumed by the poor and used as cattle fodder.
Common millets and their nutritional value
The most commonly consumed millets in India are – sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (nachni), foxtail millet, barnyard millet, kodo millet, little millet, porso millet, etc. Millets are starchy grains, i.e., most of their content is starch. However, the starch is majorly resistant in nature that provides a slow supply of energy throughout the day, increases the feeling of fullness, prevents constipation, decreases cholesterol, and lowers the risk of colon cancer. Resistant starch is fermented slowly so it causes less gas than other fibres.
One cup of cooked millet provides 207 calories, 41 grams of carbs, 2.2 grams of fibre, 6 grams of protein and 1.7 grams of fat. They are packed with calcium, phosphorus, iron, folate and magnesium. Pearl millets contain more essential amino acids than most other cereals. Finger millets have the highest calcium content.
Health benefits over refined grains
Millets are gluten-free, which makes them a great choice for people living with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. It contains a high amount of soluble fibre that may help in lowering the blood cholesterol level as demonstrated in an animal study involving 24 rats. Unlike rice or wheat, millets are fibre-dense with low glycemic values, meaning they don’t spike blood sugar levels. This property makes them a superior choice for managing diabetes. A study involving 105 Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM) patients reported that replacing a rice dosa with a millet dosa lowered their postprandial blood glucose levels. Millets are rich in phenolic antioxidant compounds that help in reducing oxidative stress.
Furthermore, combining millets with pulses increases the overall protein value of the meal. A three-month feeding study by ICRISAT involving 1,500 children from Karnataka reported that millet-based mid-day meals boosted growth in children by 50 per cent. The meal was rated 4.5 on 5 for taste by the children.
Millets have been found to be sustainable food as they improved protein supply by 1 per cent and iron supply by 5 per cent, increased climate resilience, reduced greenhouse gas emission by 2 per cent, needed lower irrigation water and energy while maintaining calorie production and cropped area.
Limitations and how to overcome them
Millets contain phytic acid and goitrogenic polyphenols, potential antinutrients that interfere with absorption of some essential minerals and interfere with thyroid function, causing goitre. Sprouting can reduce millet’s antinutrient content.
The most common form of including millets in the diet is to consume millet flour. Dosa, chilla, utthapam, puri and paratha are popular recipes made from millet flours. Some restaurants in the southern part of India also offer millet biryani, millet bisi bele bath to the customers. Millets can also be used to prepare pongal, upma or khichdi.
Millet-based pasta or noodles are marketed as “health-friendly” substitutes for refined wheat or whole wheat noodles. However, a closer look at their ingredient list reveals rice and whole wheat flour in multiple noodle packets. Similarly, baked ragi chips also pose as healthier, protein-mineral enriched alternatives to traditional potato or cereal chips, but their ingredient content reveals the presence of edible vegetable oils and tapioca starch that are not healthy.
Despite all these qualities, one shouldn’t forget that millets are mostly carbohydrates and need to be consumed in limitation. Consult a dietitian for a personalised recommendation that matches your daily needs.
Dr Subhasree Ray is Doctoral Scholar (Ketogenic Diet), certified diabetes educator, and a clinical and public health nutritionist. She tweets @DrSubhasree. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)