What’s healthy is rarely appealing to eat. And what’s appealing… Prashant Parameswaran’s Soulfull hopes to bridge that gap, bringing ragi in newer avatars to the breakfast table, finds Bhumika K.

The lengths we go to, to make healthy food appealing to kids! The humble ragi, known as nachni up North, often despised as being too “black” and unappealing to be eaten, or not tasty enough, gets a new twist with exotic vanilla and chocolate and a new avatar as breakfast flakes.

“Every one understands ragi’s value but feels it tastes terrible,” says Prashant Parameswaran, MD of Kottaram Agro Foods that recently launched a line of breakfast foods called Soulfull. “So you bring in the culinary aspect to create products relevant to today’s generation, and make it ‘deliciously healthy’. While every one knows about ragi mudde and ragi hurihittu in Karnataka, how many young people rushing off to work will eat them? And just to make it tasty, we don’t lower the percentage of ragi used in the product,” he quickly adds.

Prashant says his familiarity with ragi comes from being an outsider; his family is from Tamil Nadu, who then moved to Kerala and have been agriculturists growing rice, rubber, and coffee. “I wanted to work with something other than rice, wheat, and corn that have become staples.”

Ragi has many benefits, for the farmer who grows it, because it doesn’t require much water, and for eater, because it has high calcium and fibre content, points out Prashant. “And since it is breakfast and most Indians being vegetarians don’t get much of a protein fix, we’ve also blended Bengal gram dal into the cereal.”

Prashant, while studying and working in the U.S.A., found that there was a movement back to ancient grains like quinoa, even there. “They’ve gone full circle. Why do we need to ape their entire cycle? Our country is pushing for processed foods, and people are definitely going to take shortcuts. Our Indian gene pool also ensures that many of us have diabetes, BP, or cholesterol…and ragi is a grain suitable for people with all three.” The number of people with gluten allergies is also on the rise in India, he points out. And ragi is naturally gluten-free.

At their two processing units in Bangalore and one in Chennai, a live kitchen processes the ragi into a steamed batter, which forms the shell of the breakfast “bites” cereals; they are filled with either chocolate or vanilla. There is also an original ragi flake that they make, which are little flat chips of the steamed batter, and it’s packed with no added sugar.

The ragi comes from over 300 farmers, mostly in the Arasikere belt in Karnataka. “The government wants to push millets, but you need to give the farmers an assurance that what they grow will be picked up. So our enterprise has a social side to it too…It’s about going back to traditional grains at a time when farmers are constantly faced with drought, from phenomena like El Nino.”

“We are working on nine other millets including navane and saame…the idea is to not let grains that allow for biodiversity, to die,” says Prashant, who completed his MBA from Babson College, Boston, and later worked for two years with Information Resource Inc. (IRI) in Chicago on functional health foods. On his return to India he collaborated with institutes like the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Directorate of Sorghum Research (DSR) and Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in order to find something new to work on. Ragi, finally, qualified on all fronts, to begin with. “We have many former CFTRI (Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore) and DFRL (Defence Food Research Laboratory) and food packaging people on board for our R&D too. We also have a full-blown chemical analysis lab.” Apart from ragi breakfast cereal, they also have in their basket of goodies, dosa and idli mixes, including rava and rice idlis and dal dosa (adai) and ragi dosa.

Prashant has also hit upon a great direct marketing idea — on many a Sunday his company turns up at apartments, and informs them not to cook breakfast! And invites them to come down and enjoy their range of breakfasts with their families. “Urban India understands our story,” he smiles.

Launched in December 2013, Soulfull is now in Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, Kochi and Delhi.