Demand for millet-based food products steadily rising among health-conscious people

New eateries are springing up all over the city all the time. Fast food chains are slowly making their presence felt in conservative Madurai. Ready-to-eat foods are launched by the day.

Yet there is a small but knowledgeable crowd that has veered towards health food — the humble millets have begun to find a place in the plates of the health-conscious city folk. Some of the millets that are becoming popular are kuthirai vaali, (barnyard millet), varagu (kodo millet), thinai (foxtail millet) and saamai (little millet).

“Millets were the main crops cultivated by farmers before paddy took over the agriculture fields. Villagers used to prefer food made of millets,” says Shankar Narayanan, Assistant General Manager, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).” As the consumption of millets decreased among people, health problems started to increase,” he adds.

With the growing awareness of the health aspects of everyday food among people in both rural and urban areas, traditional foods are making a comeback of sorts. From the ‘rural man’s diet,’ as they are dubbed, they are making inroads into urban areas. Full of fibre, proteins, enzymes and minerals, millets offer a platter of health benefits.

Cultivation

“NABARD has been encouraging small and marginal farmers to cultivate millets since the demand is rising,” Mr. Narayanan says. Millets do not require as much of water or attention as in the case of paddy, thereby making it an effective crop to be grown in rain-shadow regions.

The demand for millets has significantly increased over the last five years, giving an impetus to cultivation of the same. Farmers in places such as T. Kallupatti, Tirumangalam, Usilampatti and Peraiyur in Madurai district have started cultivating millets thanks to demand for millet-based products in urban areas.

Value-addition

On realising the demand for health food in urban areas, self-help groups and individuals have started cashing in on it through value addition. One such initiative is the Uzhavan Unavagam, started under the auspices of former Collector U. Sagayam, On New Natham Road at Aathikulam. “We make dosas, idlis, vegetable biriyani, soups, snacks such as murukku, sev and biscuits made of ragi, jowar and maize,” says K. Arumugam, an agriculture officer, who is the brain behind this initiative.

‘Uzhavan Unavagam’ also caters to birthday parties and small events with a menu that has dishes exclusively prepared with millets.

“Millets were traditionally used to prepare ‘koozh’ and ‘kanji’. We’ve given millets a modern twist by making snacks out of them to attract young urbanites,” he adds. The snacks cost between Rs. 10 to Rs. 40.

Rural Development and Self Employment Training (RUDSET) institute, a Madurai-based organisation, has been training people in processing of millets.

“We conduct training classes and teach people how to make health mix, snacks as well as dosas and idlis from millets. People who come to learn are usually representatives from the self-help groups and those who want to start business,” says V. Bharathi, director of the institute.

V. Anuradha, who got trained at the institute, is one of the directors of the Green Future Power Foundation which makes and sells foods made from millets.

She says their distribution channels are limited to stalls at exhibitions and demonstrations at schools, colleges and banks. ‘’Most departmental stores do not stock snacks made of millets as demand hasn’t reached that level yet,” she says.

Awareness

There is a general need for greater awareness among the people of the benefits of these healthy grains even though the demand has been slowly increasing. ‘

’People just consider rice and wheat as an absolute necessity and ignore other cereals,” says V. Suganya, Senior Dietician at the Apollo Speciality Hospitals. She conducts talks in schools and colleges to create ane awareness of the benefits of healthy foods.

‘’Those who know about the benefits that minor millets have often tend to ignore them citing that they do not have time for elaborate cooking,” she says and adds that simple health mixes could be prepared which can be added to the food cooked at home.

Last month, Collector Anshul Mishra addressed a workshop on minor millets production and value-addition organised by the NABARD. He said that through the Pudhu Vaazhvu Project (PVP) and the Magalir Thittam, at least 1,000 self-help group members would be trained in processing of millets.

More such initiatives are needed to promote the humble grains, health-conscious people say.

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