The New Superfood? Weighing Millet Benefits and Risks

 

Millets – The new Superfood?

Millets are the flavour among people who are into healthy eating. Everybody is talking about them, everybody is claiming to be on a millet diet, brands are claiming the use of millets in everything from cookies to cakes.

But what is the real situation with millets? Are millets the latest in line of the many health food fads that we have seen in the two decades? Should we consider any millet benefits and risks?

Whenever I hear the discussion about millets, I am reminded of what a nutritionist friend said; millets are like Shakespeare, more people talk about Shakespeare than read it; similarly, more people talk about millets than actually eat it….so that’s where we begin.

Millet Benefits and Risks – Our Experience

We jumped on to the millet bandwagon on our return from Netherlands in 2014, where we tried quinoa and traditional wheat like Emmer, Spelt, Kamut, etc. and enjoyed the breads and cookies and whatnot. I was so ready to move to what I thought was an environment friendly, farmer friendly, health enabling grain. So, I began offering my long-suffering spouse unappetizing meals of cooked millets. I had no idea how best to use them and thought in my misguided enthusiasm that we had to learn to love these grains on any terms.

That didn’t work very well, my spouse ate it but didn’t flourish. When we spoke to our friend, an Ayurvedic physician, she immediately told him that with his vata nature he shouldn’t eat millets at all, as they were very drying in nature and exacerbated his vata condition. He was vastly relieved that the millet experiment was over and I was not going to save the planet at his expense. With this diagnosis and requirement that he has to eat red rice, I also quickly flipped back to red rice, our first love. We woke up the millet benefits and risks!

However, we didn’t give up on millets totally. We use the various millets for making variety rice, use the malted flour for nice, wholesome breakfasts, use the millet flakes for making salads, snacks and breakfasts, par boiled millets in our idli and dosa batter and have millet-based snacks like mixture or laddus. Our favourites are of course the millet avals (flakes) and the malted millet flours. Now five years after our misguided attempt to embrace all things millet, we have integrated millets in moderation into our diet without it overwhelming it.

What are Millets?

Millets are small seeded grasses, hardy, capable of growing in marginal soils. They have a short growing season and harvested millets keep for long, making them in many ways the farmer’s friend in dry and arid belts around the world. In India millets were popular in the Deccan region and rain fed regions of central India. Some of those areas are arid and many areas are almost bone dry. It was also grown by tribal communities in different parts of the country. In Kerala, which was rich in rain, millets were grown in the third season using residual moisture during pre-irrigation times. My father remembers eating little millet rice during his childhood in the 1930s and 40s.

 Millets- organic Millets food

This class of grains constituted a very important part of our ancestors’ diet. Millets waned in importance with the advent of Green Revolution and the consequent availability of rice and wheat around the year, at cheap prices through the Public Distribution System (PDS). So today we have a contradictory situation where the majority of traditionally millet eating communities have abandoned millets to a large extent, over the last two decades, replacing it with rice and wheat. On the other hand, in the recent past a lot of urbanites have picked up millets with evangelical zeal as the panacea to everything from obesity to diabetes to heartache. Where is the golden mean with respect to these grains?

Yes, millets are wonderful crops for low rainfall regions and it is great that many urbanites are eating it. However, each of us while eating millet should know some basics facts about millets and some understanding about whether it is local, is it something our body likes and needs, is it something good for us, and how we should prepare it. What we call millets as a class consist of nine grains, used commonly and known widely. There might be many others used by tribal communities and grown in remote regions, which we may not know. There are a few millets that are grown in Africa, teff being a case in point which is popular and used to make the famous injera bread.

Know your millets

The commonly known, grown used nine millets of India are:  little, finger, barnyard, foxtail, browntop, kodo, proso, sorghum and pearl millet. Of these foxtails, little, kodo, proso, barnyard and browntop millets have husk (like paddy rice). The shiny husk is non edible, so these millets need to be de-hulled and made into rice, rava or flour. Finger millet, pearl millet and jowar (sorghum) are naked grains without husk (like wheat) and do not need to be dehulled.

Each of these millets have their own nutritional composition. With these millets also, there are multiple varieties, as of now we are not familiar with the varieties and names of the specific varieties as we are with rice and wheat. Seed saver farmers and seed conservers are identifying various varieties and conserving them in many parts of India now. 

Local names of millets

English Hindi Telugu Tamil Kannada Marathi
Foxtail Millet Kakum Korra Thinai Navane Nagli
Little Millet Kutki Samalu Samai Same Sava
Pearl Millet Bajra Sajja Kambu Sajje Jawari
Sorghum Jowari Jonna Cholam Jola Jawari
Kodo Millet Kodon Arikelu Varagu Haarka Kodra
Proso Millet Chena Variga Pani Varagu Baragu Vari
Barnyard Millet Sanwa Udhalu Kuthiraivaali Oodhalu
Finger Millet Ragi Ragi Keppai/ Kezhvaragu Ragi Nachani

 

Each of the millets have their own unique nutritional profile. Many of us may be aware that finger millet is a powerhouse of calcium carrying 344 mg of calcium in 100 gms, which is more than what is available in milk. Barnyard millet is very high on fibre, pearl millet has high iron among millets with 16.9 mg per 100 gms. Proso and foxtail millets are highest on protein with 12.5 and 12.3 mg per 100 gms. Browntop millet is the king of fibre with 12.5 mgs per 100 gms. Barnyard and browntop millets are high on minerals at 4.4 and 4.2 mgs per 100 gms and there is more…

Nutritional content of Millets vs Rice and Wheat

Crop / nutrient Protein (g) Fiber(g) Minerals (g) Iron (mg) Calcium (mg)
Pearl millet 10.6 1.3 2.3 16.9 38
Finger millet 7.3 3.6 2.7 3.9 344
Foxtail millet 12.3 8 3.3 2.8 31
Prosomillet 12.5 2.2 1.9 0.8 14
Kodomillet 8.3 9 2.6 0.5 27
Little millet 7.7 7.6 1.5 9.3 17
Barnyard millet 11.2 10.1 4.4 15.2 11
Rice 6.8 0.2 0.6 0.7 10
Wheat 11.8 1.2 1.5 5.3 41
Source: Millet Network of India

Ragi- organic ragi

Millet Benefits and Risks

Millets are high fibre foods, powerhouse of nutrition, contains numerous minerals, gluten free, anti-acidic, a de-toxifying food, helps with controlling blood sugar, and can be rightfully called a health food. However, millets also need to be prepared and consumed appropriately to provide optimal benefit. In addition, millets also help control weight.

There have been questions about whether one or two millets have goitrogenic properties, that is, do they block the absorption of iodine? There is a paper by Dr Aditya Pradyumna, which concludes that like many other foods, a couple of millets have been identified to contain goitrogens. However, the level of these compounds in these millets is not certain and requires more studies. It concludes that if millets are part of a wholesome diet and there aren’t other nutritional deficiencies there is no cause to worry about millets causing health issues. So the millet benefits and risks need to been in perspective.

Pearl Millet - Organic Pearl millet

Dwiji a friend and a millet expert states, ” Millets are as good as any other grain and it should form an integral part of our food basket. However, millets need not to be eaten to the exclusion of other food items and I certainly don’t subscribe to this current millet fad. Even among millets I would recommend eating all types of millets. Even though we club them under one umbrella, each of them is a separate grain and has its unique properties. I would particularly recommend that we learn how to prepare them in a way that is best suited for our bodies to absorb it.”

Eating millets 

Millets are available in different forms as rice (de husked and polished or unpolished), as ravas (broken), as flours, as Poha (flakes). Even in the millet rices there are two kinds; raw and par boiled. The par boiling of millet rices is popular in Tamil Nadu, I have not come across par boiled millet rices in other states. The par boiled millet rices are the best to use for dosa and idli batter.

The millet rices available in stores and markets are mostly polished in addition to be being de husked. As a result of which little, barnyard and kodo millet all look the same white colour. As in the case of paddy rice polished millet rices are denuded of fibre and have lower nutrition than whole unpolished millet rices.

As millets are drying, they were traditionally eaten in porridge form. They are easy to digest when cooked with a lot of water. The current fad of eating millets as cookies, chips or crisps, I really don’t know how effective it is. Of course, we enjoy the taste of it definitely. The way millets are prepared changes its heating and cooling properties. In central and western India pearl millet is seen as a warming food, made into Bhakris and eaten with jaggery and lots of butter in winter. In south India pearl millet is eaten as porridge or as curd rice around the year and also fermented and cooked as porridge and consumed in the summer as a cooling food. So, the method of preparation has an impact on the nature of the millet.

Malted millet flours, that is millet sprouted, dried, roasted and powdered, are considered an effective health food and easy to digest. Porridge made from malted finger millet flour is fed to babies from the age of six months as weaning food. It is also considered suitable for the elderly and those in fragile health condition. Similarly, malted pearl millet flour is also popularly used for making porridge.

Mixed millet flours are being used as multi millet atta to make rotis and baking brownies etc. Since millet flours do not contain gluten one needs more skill to prepare the dough ( which is made using hot/warm water) and  for rolling out the Bhakris and rotis.

A recent addition to the range of millet forms is the millet flakes. The flakes are prepared by steaming and roasting the millets and machine pressing them. They are easy to prepare and consume and easy to get accustomed to, in terms of texture and taste compared to having millet rices. They are also very versatile and can go into many Indian dishes ranging from poha to sweet dishes to upma. It also lends itself well to  great quality, wholesome muesli.

poha

Summing up millets

Get used to millets organically, try different dishes, different forms, different millets and listen to your body. You will be able to figure out what works best for you. Do take care to buy unpolished millet rices and do insist on them being grown organically. It is not that all millets are grown organically. Since they have found a market, many have moved into millet farming and started growing millets commercially with chemical inputs. On that note, let organically grown millets come to your plate, let them find their place, but let the millets not overwhelm your diet.

About the Author

Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty (Devi) is an food and environmental activist,  and Co-founder of Bio Basics.

Devi has been actively working with the Coalition for a GM (Genetically Modification)-free India to prevent the launch of GM foods in India. She has also co-founded “Urban Leaves” in Mumbai to promote terrace gardening. She is also presently an Advisor to a Foundation that provides assistance to NGOs working on sustainability. An Advisor to Thanal based in Thiruvananthapuram, Devi is a consultant for the “Save Our Rice” campaign across 5 States committed to conserving hundreds of traditional rice varieties.

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