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- India's push to make millets great again
India's push to make millets great again
Roundup: Millets & Organics International Trade Fair 2024
We’re taking a wee bit of a deviation from our regular Deep Dive to look at a recent event I attended.
The UN declared 2023 to be the International Year of Millets. So, in early January 2024, I sauntered down to the Millets & Organics International Trade Fair 2024 in Bengaluru, India, to check out what the impact of the declaration has been on these grains.
Millets are small-seeded grasses that are cultivated as grain crops. There are several varieties of millet, grown primarily across Asia and Africa. They used to be the staple cereal grain in these regions but have been replaced by rice and wheat, a phenomenon that’s happened in the case of a lot of local grains.
Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen a lot of interest in traditional or ancient grains – including quinoa, chia, amaranth, spelt, einkorn, teff, and others – because they are seen as better for you compared to the more widespread grains available today, like rice, wheat, and maize. Also, they may be better for the environment.
Millets fall within this ambit of traditional grains as well. They used to be pejoratively referred to as “the poor man’s grain” at one point in India, but are now becoming quite trendy within health circles.
Benefits of millets
Millets as whole grains have a higher nutritional value compared to rice, wheat, or maize.
Different varieties have different specifics, but broadly, millets can be a rich source of nutrients like protein, dietary fiber, and different micronutrients.
Many varieties are a good source of iron, and a cost-effective one.
They have a lower glycemic index compared to other grains and thus could be beneficial for people with high blood sugar.
They are high in dietary fiber and can help regular bowel function and satiety.
They are gluten-free.
There’s even research suggesting that millet consumption can help manage high blood pressure, weight, risk of cardiovascular disease, and hyperlipidemia.
Millets are seen as climate-resilient crops.
They are incredibly hardy and need minimal inputs like water, fertilizers, pesticides.
Just as a comparison, rice cultivation takes up 2.5 times the water, accounts for 12% of the world’s methane emissions, and is not great for diabetics.
Can be grown in areas with poor soil and adverse climatic conditions.
Many varieties can resist pests and diseases.
They are among the few crops that can be harvested in the dry season in arid regions.
They don’t deplete soil nutrients and reduce soil degradation.
Cultivation is also seen as a way to provide additional revenue and economic security for small farmers.
As a result, millets have the potential to support food security and nutritional needs of a lot of the world’s population. However, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, millets account for less than 3% of the global grain trade.
India’s millet move
India is currently the world’s largest producer of millets, and contributes 40% to the global production, even though domestic millet production halved between 1986 and 2019. Right now, there’s a major push in the country to bring back this neglected and underutilized species because of its benefits. With this background in mind, it was quite exciting to see how the use of millets has expanded in India.
First of all, the majority of states show some indication of millet cultivation. The state of Rajasthan was the top millet grower, accounting for nearly 40% of national production. Much of Rajasthan is a desert with an arid climate, supporting how millets can grow in adverse conditions.
When it came to the companies at the trade show, they could be divided into two main categories based on format alone:
Millets as a staple
Different types of millet were sold as the minimally processed grain itself, which can be used in place of rice, but I’d also add into the mix single millet flours and flakes.
These are slightly more processed than the grain, but can also be considered as staples since they would be used as base ingredients while cooking.
The staples ranged from unfussy basic grains to those with more sophisticated claims like organic or pesticide-free.
A lot of the no-frills products were from farmer support groups looking for buyers, but also quite happy to sell directly to consumers.
The price difference between the no-frills whole grain products and the ones with claims was quite significant – 3 to 4 times depending on the variety and accompanying claims. While it does make sense that there would be a difference in price, I wasn’t ready for such a huge one.
I even wondered how the farmers would make any profits selling at the low prices that they do (around INR100/US$1.20 per kg). It turns out that while millets have a lot of benefits for health and the environment, cleaning and processing them isn’t easy. Small farmers just can’t afford the equipment to do this, even if that equipment does exist. So, even though millets are more expensive than standard rice or wheat, the amount of effort that goes into them doesn’t make it worthwhile for farmers. Many farmers prefer growing other crops altogether.
And because millets have been neglected for so long, there isn’t much research on new seed varieties and scientific practices. Farmers have also not been incentivized as much to grow millets.
Millets as value-added products
On the flip side, the Indian government has started to offer incentives to food manufacturers making ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat products that have at least 15% millet by weight/volume. This initiative, which has INR800 million (US$9.6 million) allocated towards it, is specifically meant to increase the use of millets in value-added food products for both domestic and export markets.
And such products were in plenty!
Manufacturers have gone all out in incorporating millets into their products in a whole host of innovative ways – from breakfast foods and meal elements to salty snacks and sweet treats. Such convenient and familiar formats make it easier for consumers to acclimatize to new (or forgotten) ingredients.
Breakfast foods covered both Western-style breakfast cereals and traditional Indian breakfasts. In a lot of cases with Indian breakfasts, the whole grain millets functioned as a direct replacement to rice or semolina.
For an easy lunch or dinner, some brands had also added millets in place of rice in usually rice-based dishes, like biryani and khichdi, and also offered packaged RTE versions of Indian flatbreads made from millets.
Millet flatbreads or rotti are still consumed in some parts of the country but are a little harder to make as the dough is gluten-free and doesn’t spread easily. This makes these flatbreads very convenient for people who may not have the time or skill to make them.
Noodles are quite popular across different age groups in India and this is an interesting format to introduce the ingredient into children’s meals as well.
Brands had millets added in as an ingredient, either as a single variety of millet or a blend of different varieties.
A few companies were making these products for export to other countries as well, particularly to destinations with an increasing focus on plant-based diets.
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Sweet and salty snacks had highlighted the use of millets, spanning the price spectrum.
These products were made to look like snacks that are already available in the market, making them more approachable for consumers.
Snacking has become such an integral part of consumers’ food habits that these formats hold a lot of potential as gateway products to the less processed versions of millets.
Millets in multiple snack formats
Last, but not least, there were a number of multigrain powders featuring a combination of a variety of millets, lentils, cereals, and herbs/spices that are pretty popular in India.
These powders, often referred to as health drinks, are consumed like porridge or mixed with milk and drunk hot (like Horlicks or Milo). The powders can also be added to flours to make traditional breads.
This is a very interesting set of products because of the number of different ingredients that get blended together. Most of these products highlight their natural credentials and say they have no artificial additives or preservatives.
In fact, because of the variety of grains and lentils, it is often quite nutritious and may even be a source of complete proteins (which we saw is a concern in Asia).
One company had even created a vending machine for these millet-based health drinks!
Millets don’t have an easy road ahead
Thanks to concerns over health, millets have become more acceptable among urban consumers in India. There are also initiatives in place to promote millets:
Restaurants are including dishes in their menus
Mainstream brands – Indian and global – have added millets to their products
They are being included in school mid-day meals programs and public sector canteens
Startup incubators are supporting companies working across the entire millet supply chain
Biofortified versions are being introduced
At the same time, there are challenges when it comes to taste, texture, and how to use millets. They are coarser grains compared to rice or wheat and also more expensive at present.
The processed foods seen at the event do help consumers understand the ingredients and usage before they venture into using the whole grains from scratch. But cleaning and processing are also difficult for millets, reducing the nutrition of the final product and adding to its carbon footprint – not exactly great features for a food that is touted as nutritious and climate-friendly.
Lessons from quinoa
What millets are experiencing currently is reminiscent of quinoa back in the day. 2013 was declared the International Year of Quinoa, after which production of quinoa increased from 50 countries to over 120. Consumer demand grew, prices shot up, and cultivation grew. But quinoa no longer sees that demand today.
There was significant demand from consumers for one particular variety out of the thousands available, which resulted in the neglect of these other varieties. Keeping up production under such conditions became untenable and the market (and prices) fell as quickly as it had gone up.
The millet story is just starting and awareness is still low. So there may still be time to better manage the demand and supply, learning from the issues of quinoa. This would also mean ensuring that diverse varieties get their due instead of just focusing on a select few.
A lot also needs to be done to make them worthwhile for farmers to produce. Without that, we’re not going to increase cultivation enough for it to help improve the health of the population and the planet.
On-trend formats for millets could increase popularity
There are also a lot of interesting routes for innovation with millets that might capture the attention of consumers in countries where such products are established and experimentation is higher.
For example, Nourish You has a range of millet-based milks, which also have oats and amaranth. Plant-based milks are slowly catching on in India, but still have a long way to go. But in a lot of global markets, plant-based milks are as popular as dairy products now and such innovations could add to the repertoire of milk alternatives.
Source: Nourish You
There are surprisingly a lot more recipes for millet ice cream on YouTube than I had thought, but companies in this space are few and far between. Still, there are a few companies that I came across with millet ice creams, both dairy and non-dairy versions.
Siri, for example, offers a range of millet ice creams with standard flavors and traditional Indian ones. Their range uses millet milk instead of dairy and is completely plant-based. The company says that these products are a lot healthier than usual ice cream, with nearly 60% fewer calories, 40% less fat, 22% less carbs, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Indulgent formats like this can potentially help break barriers to new or unfamiliar ingredients, even if they are a little more processed.
Interested in learning how you can innovate with millets? Our experts can help!
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