An actor and cardiologist, Bharat Reddy, has always believed that you only live once. Therefore, when he stumbled upon a group of farmers in southern Indian Tamil Nadu state’s Rameshwaram, who seemed to have boundless energy, he wanted to discover their secret of youthfulness.
Every now and then, they would scrunch up what looked like coarse grains and also offer it to the birds. The miracle food turned out to be millets–called Thenai in the local language–which was a staple across much of India before British colonial rulers introduced polished rice and wheat.
“When I researched this, I discovered that the grains were rich in protein, magnesium and other nutrients. Long ago, these arrived in Asia including China and India all the way from Africa,” he added.
Largely shunned by a new generation of Indians, Reddy found that when he put some of his diabetic patients on a staple diet of millets, they would miraculously recover from high blood sugar and other associated chronic conditions, either reducing or being weaned away from medicines altogether.
“If you look at people who reach the age of 40, out of 100 of them, 70 are either pre-diabetic or diabetic. If this is the scenario now, then in the next five years, everybody will turn into either diabetic or pre-diabetic,” he said.
“So instead of China, India will become the diabetic capital of the world.”
His discovery prompted him to set up the business venture Millet Marvels, which serves millet-based food across for food counters in Telangana capital Hyderabad as well as packaged millets.
Reddy is not the only one who is now trying to spawn a new food culture. A handful of producers are now aiming to wean off Indians from the staples of rice and wheat and convert them into millet consumers. With growing health consciousness following the Covid outbreak, many new food converts are materialising.
Forgotten legacy of ancient miracle food
Millets are a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses that find a mention in India’s ancient Yajurvada texts, identifying foxtail millet (priyangava), Barnyard millet (aanava) and black finger millet (shyaamaka), thus indicating their consumption pre-dates the Bronze Age (4,500 BC).
Even until 50 years ago, millets was the major grain grown in India prior to the country’s green revolution, but since then have come to be looked down upon by modern urban consumers — though villages have not entirely forgotten this ancient nutrient-rich heritage.
Some urban dwellers, who have gone back to their village roots for varied reasons, are now trying again to revive their popularity.
“I am an ICWA and MBA and was the director of finance of a Delhi-based company. In 2017, I migrated to Nandyal to start farming and organic farming of pomegranates and guava. I later shifted to millet farming because they are self-protected by nature against pests,” said Rama Subbu Reddy, owner of Sattva Milletts and Food Products, who sells under the brand name Renadu Millets.
The hardy nature of millets — known to abound in water-deficient areas — was also a strong pull for Reddy, as the organic pomegranates he produced perished quickly and sometimes entailed losses.
Unlike rice or wheat, which usually are grown with humongous amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, millets require only a small amount of organic inputs in the soil for growth.
Typically, to.grow one kilogram of rice, you need 5,000 litres of water, whereas the same amount of millets can be grown by using just 200 litres.
There are nine varieties of millets, out of which three are major crops — ragi, jowar and bajra — while six are minor crops, namely foxtail millets, browntop millets, kodo millets, little millets, barnyard millets and proso millets.
Each variety of millet has unique characteristics such as foxtail millets are high in iron content and helps control diabetes because of low glycemic index — they release sugar into the blood slowly because they take 3-4 hours to digest as compared to rice which is digested in an hour.
“When I was diagnosed with high blood sugar, I was searching for information on the Internet on what to consume to bring down my blood sugar levels. I then stumbled upon the information about millets and since then I have been telling friends and relatives about their healing properties,” said Krishna Chakravarty, a housewife based out of South Delhi’s Hauz Khas.
Subbu Reddy said that he decided to set up a millet processing plant near his village in Nandyal as the area has always been a belt for millet production.
Weaning away from rice and wheat
But the bigger challenge that he faces is creating awareness about integrating millets into the diet as people are habituated to consuming rice and wheat, which also are easier to prepare.
Millets need to be soaked in water for at least 3-4 hours before they can be ground into a batter or consumed in a number of other ways.
From his processing plant, Reddy now offers different varieties of millet as packaged products that can be used to make idlis (savoury cakes usually made with rice), upma (semolina porridge) and dosa (thin pancakes usually made with rice) or even used like a rice grain or flour to make chapati (bread).
From his base in southern India, Reddy is now planning to expand operations in north India gradually, where he plans to open a plant within a month.
Traditionally, India’s breadbasket region such as Punjab and Haryana, consumers here usually prefer to eat chapati bread or even rice.
Though millets are not as popular in northern India as the southern region, millets have been popular in some Himalayan hill regions such as the state of Uttarakhand.
Pankaj Aggarwal, managing director of Just Organiks, which is based out of Gurgaon on the outskirts of the national capital Delhi, has started sourcing millets from 4,000 farmers in Uttarakhand.
He processes the grains in a unit in the Himalayan foothill town of Rudrapur and then supplies them through three channels — exports, selling them to bulk consumers to brands like Nestle as well as to smaller consumers like mom-and-pop stores
“As a brand, we are doing almost everything that is required in the Indian kitchen, but we are also doing millets because the demand is increasing,” says Aggarwal.
Free from glutens
He said that millets are increasing in popularity because they are gluten free and many people are allergic to glutens that are found in wheat.
Secondly, many people even in northern India have realized the health benefits of millets.
“Thanks to social media, people are realizing that millets are a better choice of grain. Especially during covid, a lot of people also got introduced to millets and the distinction in food habits between northern and southern India has diminished,” he added.
“In the last four months, we have seen a phenomenal rise in demand for millets and millet flour. The demand for us has become four times as much as last year,” he added.
It is not that people in northern India were always averse to consuming millets. During periods of fasting for religious occasions, people would consume chapati bread made out of kuttu ka atta (buckwheat) and sama ka chawal (barnyard millets).
Now these are being consumed throughout the year, he said, adding that people have realised that if you have a balanced diet of millets, then you don’t need health supplements at all.