Being a nutritionist, I am able to give the low-down on cereals which are greatly misunderstood as just ‘carbs' and, therefore, partly or totally avoided by dieters, I mean ‘reducing dieters'!

Cereals are the staple food in any country, and who can plan or eat a meal without a cereal dish? They are the main sources of carbohydrates and contribute the major portion of energy in any diet. They are more economical, and in India they make up the main dish which is eaten in larger quantities than other foods.

We consume any side dish, along with rice or chappatti. For instance, in the south Indian meal pattern, rice is mixed with pachadis, pickles, dhal preparations, all gravies, curries, curd and buttermilk. Even vegetable preparations are eaten with rice and never individually. Many sweets and snacks are made with cereals. In the north, wheat preparations are eaten with masala curries, dhals, raitas and curd. Now you can understand that with this overkill, the cereals sustain us but can turn out to be the killers too!

In India, the north is more suitable for wheat and rice is grown in the rest of the country where rainfall is abundant. While there are many other cereals, the most commonly used are wheat and rice. In most parts of the country, these are the only two cereals that are distributed through ration shops.

In recent times, there has been a lot of talk about wheat or rice and even other cereals. These may not be commonly used cereals. Fortunately, in India, many of these are used by villagers as they are easily available to them. Therefore, it would be good to understand the nutritional differences between them.

Let us compare raw rice in its three forms — raw, milled and parboiled rice. The energy and carbs values are comparable, but the important nutrients, protein and minerals are reduced with milling. Parboiling and hand-pounding are the best forms of processing rice. The meagre fibre content is also lost with milling. Wheat has a higher protein, fat, mineral and fibre content, all of which are reduced in the refined flour, maida. This is the main reason for condemning pizzas and pastas and other baked products made purely with maida. While wheat has more protein, the rice protein has a better biological value and is absorbed better by the body. The iron and phosphorus content of whole wheat is better than that of rice.

Between brown bread and white bread, would you know the difference? Brown bread has slightly better values, but you must be sure that you are getting authentic, whole wheat flour bread. According to bakers, atta bread is not as soft and porus as maida bread. Since they are interested in selling to the specific fussy needs of customers, they combine both flours in varying portions and even add a little caramel to give it a brown colour! So, let us not be fooled!

Ragi looks like it is richer than rice in most of its composition, but it cannot be as versatile as rice in preparations. Meal satisfaction is never complete with the consistency, colour and texture of ragi preparations.

Oats which have been heavily popularised in India in recent times are a good source of fibre, protein, phosphorus and iron. However, their fat content is higher than that of other cereals.

Corn is one of the few cereals that can be eaten fresh and is popular throughout the country.

The dry cereals like jowar, bajra and corn are rich in nutrients, but are coarse and rough. Cooking is quite difficult, as they are not as soft as wheat and rice. Their usage is limited to villages and small towns.

So, do sit up and take notice. Choose your own cereal in quantities that can love you and not kill you!

(The writer is past president, Indian Dietetic Association. Her email id is: malathi mohan00 @ yahoo.com)

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