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Once a staple in India, the millets have fallen out of fashion in recent years. After years of being ignored and labelled as food fit for animals, millet is back. What we see now is the resurgence from all sides- production, manufacturing and consumption. Its trending to see the South Indian thaali- Lemon rice, Sambhar rice, Rasam and curd rice in a restaurant made with millets in Chennai. Almost all the millets are represented with dishes adding an edge to the sweet millet pongal and idly. Millet mania is sweeping across Chennai. Prone to diabetes, skewed lipid profile and various lifestyle diseases, residents of the city are switching over to a high-fibre nutritious diet. Walk into any grocery store in Chennai and shelves would be lined with ready- to-eat mixes of bajra idli, ragi dosa and millet pancakes. Organic showrooms selling millet flour have opened up in several neighbourhoods in the city. Chennai isn’t alone. Hop across to Karnataka and the state seems to be in the throes of a major ragi revolution.
A major impetus was the National Food Security Act (2013), adding millets to the food basket that are being distributed through the public distribution system. Another push factor is the high MSP fixed for millets by the Commission for Agricultural costs and prices as Rs.1550/quintal (Ragi), Rs.1530/quintal (Jowar) and Rs.1250/quintal (Bajra). Mintel, a market research firm found that bakery products (this includes flour, bread, biscuits and baked items) accounted for 60 per cent of all millet-based launches, while snacks accounted for 15 per cent and breakfast cereals 13 per cent. “New product launches containing millet accounted for slightly under two per cent of food launches between 2010 and 2014. In absolute terms, the number of such launches increased by six times during that period. Millet has, in fact, nearly caught up with oats in terms of their growing presence across food categories”- Mintel.
With this, many corporate companies have been switching process to millets and sells a ready-to-eat version of mudde saru and exports the product, also intends to launch millet-based Ambli (a breakfast drink) and Huri Hittu (fried millet powder). “We saw millet making a comeback in 2012 when we launched our range of millet breakfast mixes that are a blend of power grains like ragi, pearl and jowar,”.
What we are seeing today is no overnight trend. For over two decades, a diverse set of people and organisations have been working in their own silos advocating the cause of millets each with different goals – ranging from a nutritional focus to agricultural development. Professor Swaminathan worked on millets project with a scope of addressing the 4Cs- conservation, cultivation, consumption, and commerce. “These crops taught us that the nutrition of poor tribal communities depends on millets. They inherit bad agriculture lands and their sustenance depends on continuation of these hardy crops,” says P.V.Satheesh, founder of Millet Network of India (MINI).
“These highly nutritious grains hold much potential for the manufacturers of health food. A low glycaemic index means that millet-based foods could be suitable for diabetics. The high fibre content opens up scope for foods containing millet in weight management. While this is still an underdeveloped claim in India, it is one of the most popular claims in the western markets. This means there is export potential for products such as millet-based gluten-free pasta or breakfast cereal” says Sundaresan, Ditto Analyst.
Meanwhile, Professor Swaminathan says he has written to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations to have a year of millet. Remember, the FAO declared 2013 the year of Quinoa, another ancient grain. Subsequently, it became a rage the world over and its price soared. Last year saw the Quinoa fad sweeping through India, too. While Quinoa undoubtedly is a superfood, as Swaminathan points out, we have our own local heroes in millet. It’s time the hero takes centre stage.