Millet, millet, which millet do you choose?

This children’s game comes to mind when you start to buy millets for your daily consumption. Here in Bangalore, millets besides ragi have gone from being available mainly at niche organic shops to the kirana store.

But if you didn’t grow up eating millets, it can be quite confusing when you first encounter a row of them – barnyard, finger, proso, kodo, pearl, foxtail, jowar to name a few. Besides, these are either colloquial or english names. A testament to millets in our traditional diet is that each language in India has a special name for a millet if it was grown and eaten in that region. Foxtail millet is navane in Kannada, kangni in Hindi, tenai in Tamil, korra in Telegu, china in Malayalam and shol in Kashmiri. Just the fact that each of these names are distinct and at least, prima facie share no etymological relationship suggests how old this millet is in our diet.

Yet, policy decisions to support cereals such as rice and wheat for growing and distribution has meant a steady decline in millet growth and consumption, a trend that is seeing a reversal in the last few years.

What does Ayurveda say about millets? Millets are classified as grassy grains (trinadhanya) and across texts their common attribute is: aggravation of vata, alleviation of kapha and pitta doshas. Which means, if you are vata prakriti or any combination of vata, or you have a vata predominant-dosa disease (such as IBS), it is advisable to limit consumption of millets. Other common gunas are cold in potency (endothermic), suggesting that it will not create heat in your body as it is digested – great for summer!

But the problem of which millet to consume is not entirely resolved based on classical Ayurveda texts. First, it is not clear which millets in Sanskrit translate to our modern day names. Barnyard millet, shayamaka, can be identified, but little millet or korre (kannada) is not mentioned. Second, this issue is not just for millets – in many instances of interpreting texts for foods and ingredients – there’s been a loss in our understanding of context, exacerbated sometimes by poor descriptions of foods, leading to an educated guess based on other considerations. Thus, we have no literal translation for all the millets.

Nonetheless, modern nutrition has revealed millets to be a powerhouse of nutrients and in times when climate change is a global problem, they are drought-resistant and easy to grow. Millets are a better source of dietary fibre than rice or wheat and contain micronutrients such as metals and vitamins. Ragi malt is a popular complementary food for infants who began weaning from breastmilk. Although it contains a higher amount of Iron than rice or wheat, the high calcium content (~10X) makes it a poor source of dietary Iron. So, eat ragi for better gut health and calcium, not as an iron source!

Author: Dr. Megha, Assistant Professor, CABHN, TDU

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