Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Why the rise of local grains is not just about health

Despite the hoopla, most traditional grains, except for one or two, are still off the radar of some of India's largest food companies

Idli, dosa, upma, dhokla, khakhra, cookies, chappatis, cakes: These are just some of the food in which traditional grains such as sorghum (jowar) and millets, as varied as pearl millet (bajra) and finger millet (nachini), are being used instead of wheat and rice. They have also made their way to restaurants and ready-to-eat packaged food companies as healthy alternatives.

Every region and tribal belt in India has its own local variety and preparation style of millets. While jowar and bajra are popular in the West, grains like oodhalu (barnyard millet) and navane (foxtail millet) are more popular in the South. In fact, some of these hardy grains have been mentioned in our ancient texts like the Yajurveda, which talk about agriculture, economic and social life during the vedic era. Yet, their consumption and cultivation had been on the decline for the better part of the last century. In 2016-17, the area under millets stood at 14.72 million hectares, down from 37 million hectares in 1965-66, before the pre-Green Revolution, according to a March report by Hindu Business Line.

However, this is set to change. The Indian government is celebrating 2018 as the year of millets. In July, it hiked the minimum support price (MSP) on some of these crops, making them more lucrative for farmers to grow. Millets are also good for our water-scarce country, since they require less water to grow than rice and wheat. Also, consumers are demanding them.

Millets are whole grains making them an excellent source of fibre, which is good for the heart. Moreover, they are gluten-free, which makes them suitable alternatives for wheat and even to expensive Western super foods, such as quinoa and oats. This has contributed to their popularity over the last decade. Demand for these healthier, economical and sustainable local alternatives is also being fuelled by restaurants and bakeries, which promote organic and local agriculture, and have come up across the country in the past 2-3 years.

Grains and millets have been part of Indian culture for centuries, but somewhere along the way we forgot them, says chef Thomas Zacharias of Bombay Canteen, who was an early adopter of quinoa about five years ago, at one of his previous restaurants. He has since moved on to becoming one of the biggest promoters of the “eating local" movement. Consumers are interested in experimenting, says Zacharias. However, he adds that restaurants often have to explain to people what millets are. His restaurant offers a jowar and barley salad, which is among its most popular offerings. At online grocery retailer Bigbasket.com, millets is one of the fastest growing categories. The category, according to Sheshukumar Tirumala, national head buying and merchandising, is growing 10-fold year-on-year, while quinoa is growing almost four-fold. On an average, quinoa costs 350-400 per kilo, whereas millets cost 80-100 a kilo and wheat and rice cost 40-60 a kilo. Yet, its not only a replacement for the exotic super foods. The category is fuelling the growth for the entire staples division. At Future Retail Ltd, which runs hypermarket and super market chains such as Big Bazaar, HyperCity and Easy Day, flour as a category grew 14% between September 2017 and August 2018. However, traditional staples like besan (gram flour), maida (refined flour) and rava (semolina) grew at 5% during the same period while wheat substitutes like chana sattu, ragi, makki, jowar, bajra, urad dal flour and moong dal flour classified as “other flours" grew by 66%.

Despite the hoopla, most traditional grains, except for one or two, are still off the radar of some of India’s largest food companies. According to Hetal Shah, co-owner Green Satvva, a five-year-old organic food retailer, which stocks about 80-100 brands and 800 units, most brands in this space are start-ups. Yet, it was way back in 2010, Britannia Industries Ltd had launched its Nutri Choice range of cookies, with a Ragi variant. About six years later, ITC Ltd followed suit with Farmlite, its healthy range of biscuits in oats and ragi variants. However, these launches are few and far between. The journey from experimenting with western super foods such as quinoa to appreciating the goodness of home-grown super healthy grains has happened in less than a decade. How the story will play out in the coming years, only time will tell.

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