Millets and pseudocereals are traditional staples that were cultivated as part of mixed cropping in many parts of India since ancient times. With the advent of the green revolution, more emphasis was placed on the cultivation of rice and wheat that led to a decline in the cultivation and consumption of these ancient grains.
Grown in arid and semi-arid regions, millets are hardy grains that are harvested from tall, small seeded grasses and are called so because many thousands of grains are harvested from each grain sown. Millet are covered with a hard to digest hull (outer shell), that needs to be removed before it is used. Hulling does not affect the nutrient content of the grain as the germ stays intact through this process. Apart from the major millets sorghum (jowar), pearl millet (bajra) and finger millet (nachni or ragi), there are many other minor millets such as kodo millet (harikor kodra), little millet (wari /upvasachitandul), proso millet (varagu), barnyard millet (sanwa/ jhangora), foxtail millet (rala) and Job’s tears that are also cultivated in many parts of our country.
Pseudocereals on the other hand are the seeds of non-grasses that can be ground into flour or used whole. There are many pseudocereals that are consumed all over the world but three of them – amaranth (rajgira), buckwheat (kuttu) and quinoa have gained a lot of significance as health foods in recent years. In India amaranth and buckwheat are traditionally eaten as fasting foods (faaral food) in many parts.
Millets and pseudocereals are cheaper and more nutritious as compared to cereals and have many beneficial effects on health. They are good sources of proteins, containing some of the essential amino acids that are deficient in other cereals. The protein of buckwheat contains lysine the essential amino acid which is deficient in other cereal grains. Quinoa is the only plant food that provides complete protein as it contains all the essential amino acids in the right amounts.
Millets and pseudocereals are good sources of B-complex vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc. Among the millets nachni is especially rich in calcium (344 mg per 100 gm).
Like cereals, millets and pseudocereals too contain carbohydrates in the form of starch which contribute to their energy content. The starch granules of millets are slightly bigger than those of cereals.
Millets are also good sources of both insoluble and soluble dietary fibres and have a high satiety value making one feel full for longer. The fibre helps slow down the digestion of starch into glucose thereby preventing the blood glucose levels from rising rapidly. Hence, they have a lower glycemic index as compared to most of the commonly consumed cereals which makes millets a good food for weight watchers, diabetics, sportsmen and people who are engaged in heavy work. Fibre also helps lower cholesterol levels, increase intestinal motility and prevent constipation. It has been seen that the incidence of duodenal ulcers is practically nil among millet eaters. Research studies have also shown that consumption of millets can help prevent the development of gallstones in women. Buckwheat contains a type of starch known as resistant starch that possesses some of the benefits of both soluble and insoluble fibres which can be highly advantageous to overall colon health.
Millets and pseudocereals are good sources of phytochemicals particularly lignans, saponins and flavonoids that work as antioxidants safeguarding the body cells and tissues against damage due to free radical formation and are also thought be protective against hormone linked cancers such as breast cancer. Studies have shown that amaranth (rajgira) is a source of dietary phytosterols, which has cholesterol-lowering properties. Buckwheat contains a flavonoid termed rutin which has shown in experimental studies to control blood pressure as well as possess anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties.
Unlike wheat, oats or barley, millets and pseudocereals do not contain gluten and hence are ideal for people who are allergic to wheat or those suffering from celiac disease.
Millets and pseudocereals can be incorporated into our diets in a variety of ways. They can be used whole as a substitute for rice or wheat in the preparation of khichdi, pulav, dosas, idlis, kheer, upma, etc, or as a flour in the preparation of chaklis and murukus, pakodas, dumplings (mudde), chapattis, rotis, pancakes or chilas, laddoos and porridges. In some parts of India, a product similar to popcorn is made from nachni, jowar or bajra and is a popular snack in those areas. Millets are also ground into flour which is used in the preparation of weaning foods for infants.
To conclude, due to their high nutritive value and beneficial effects on health, millets and psuedocereals are good substitutes to cereals and need to be included in our diets not only on fasting days but as part of our regular meals too.
(Writer is a consultant nutritionist with 19 years of experience, practicing at Panaji and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)