Packed with rich nutrients and cancer-preventing properties, millets, once a staple diet of the rural people in Tamil Nadu, are fast disappearing. The area of cultivation of millets has come down by 50 per cent in three decades.
The State government is now gearing up to popularise traditional agro-products, including these tiny grains.
An order was issued on March 13 for sanction of Rs 10 crore to create awareness about tender coconut, shikakai, cotton and other traditional agro products.
According to the Agriculture department, millets were cultivated on 35,00,000 acres of rain-fed areas in 1980, mostly by tribal communities. In 2010, the area of cultivation was around 15,00,000 acres.
“Major consumers of millets were people in the lower strata of society and their access to rice and wheat brought in a total transformation in food culture. Besides, conversion of agriculture land for real estate business, migration of poor farm labourers to urban area also a major factor in the decline of cultivation of millets,” said a senior officer in the Agriculture department.
He said “skin colour consciousness” among the people created a wrong notion that rice and wheat could change their complexion.
“Fast food culture further made an onslaught on millet consumption. By avoiding millets we have made a big compromise on our health,” the officer said.
Millets could be harvested in 100 days and the maximum yield could be achieved through transplantation methods. Incentives could encourage farmers to resume their cultivation, officials feel.
Meenakshi Bajaj, Dietician, Institute of Diabetology, and Coordinator, Academy of Clinical Nutrition, Madras Medical College, said the forgotten tiny grains were “bombshells of nutrition”.
“For centuries, we have been consuming them as weaning food for children. They are very rich in calcium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium and most importantly insoluble fibre and rich source of B vitamins especially tryptophan,” she said.
According to a study by the National Institute of Nutrition, the fibre, protein and calcium contents of millets are much higher when compared to rice and wheat.
Ms. Bajaj said finger millet (ragi or kelvaragu), bajra (pearl millet or cumbu) and jowar help reduction of blood sugar, regularising bad lipids like triglycerides and also reduction of cholesterol.
“Being very rich in anti-oxidants, millets help reduce the risk of various cancers. They are heart-healthy and prevent the formation of gall bladder calculi too. In the case of post-menopausal women, millet consumption could reduce the risk of breast cancer,” she further said.
In the case of asthmatic patients they may help in reducing wheezing. They are free from gluten and mostly less allergenic. Only in patients with renal failure and some gastrointestinal disorders they may need to consult their dieticians. Millets are healthy food irrespective of the age group.