Spotlight: India's love-hate affair with millets

 The United Nations has declared the 2023 as the International Year of Millets. (PTI Photo) (PTI)
The United Nations has declared the 2023 as the International Year of Millets. (PTI Photo) (PTI)


  • While India is the world’s largest producer of millets, its domestic popularity pales in comparison to that of wheat and rice, a new survey has found. Increased awareness and dietary changes are helping, but most don’t see themselves adopting millets in the near future despite the government push.

Millets, once a staple in the Indian diet, are coming in vogue again thanks to growing consciousness about health and government campaigns. India wants to make itself a “global hub" of these grains, and the United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets to raise awareness. However, many Indians do not know much about various kinds of millets, and even if they do, they don’t necessarily consume them or even see themselves doing so in the near future, found a survey of 11,281 Indians conducted by Development Intelligence Unit, a collaboration between Sambodhi, a research group, and Transforming Rural India, a non-profit. Mint explains what the millets market holds:

1. Awareness vs consumption

Nearly all respondents in the central (97%) and western (96%) regions were familiar with at least one type of millet. Those from the east (79%) were relatively less aware. Bajra was the most widely known type, by nearly two-thirds of respondents, followed by jowar and ragi, while other millets were more local.

However, a vast share of those who were aware had never consumed millets. The gap was the biggest in central India, where 46% had never consumed millets. In southern states, only 10% hadn’t done so.

Family and friends were the primary sources of awareness, but not doctors or nutritionists. Social media or the internet were also not major sources of knowing about millets, even in a year of massive awareness campaigns.

The survey covered 21 states and 64% of its sample was urban. However, the overall figures have been weighted to adjust for this. The survey, which took place in May-June 2023, was representative across city tiers, ages, genders, and occupations.

2. Millets in diet

Even among those who had ever consumed millets, just 17% said they did so regularly. Regular consumption was more common in rural India (22%) than urban India (15%), the survey found.

While 77% of the women who were aware of millets had tried millets at some point in their lives, the share was 71% among men. However, the consumption was slightly more likely to be infrequent among women than it was among men. Around 13% of men and 12% of women reported consuming millets regularly.

Within households that included millets in their diets, older respondents—those aged 36 and above—were a lot more likely (over 75%) to consume millets at least sometimes than those aged 25 and under (69%). The survey did not find any significant relationship between income levels and millet consumption, indicating that contrary to general belief, millets are not just a food option for the poor. The middle-income group was the least likely to ever consume millets.

3. Fame factor

The growing popularity of millets-based diets among the health-conscious population has boosted the foodgrain's appeal in recent years. Nearly four in five Indians who knew about millets said they were aware of their health benefits, and nearly half said they were aware that millets were rich in nutrients. This awareness was greater in urban areas.

Millets' uniqueness, however, extends beyond their health benefits. The crop's environmentally sustainable characteristics are also an important factor. Around 27% of millet consumers—primarily in Tier-1 cities—said millets’ environmental properties were among the top two reasons for consuming them. Recommendations from trusted people were an important factor as well, particularly for those living in urban areas.

Among those who do not consume millets, around 48% said they were unfamiliar with millets, while 28% said millets were not available in local markets. The unavailability was a bigger issue in central (36%) and southern (40%) India. Around 15% said cooking millets was time-consuming or difficult.

4. Culinary appeal

Compared to the more widely consumed rice and wheat, millets are often seen as unpopular due to taste. In Tier 1 cities, nearly 80% of even those who had consumed millets indicated such a view. Among non-consumers, as many as 64% in urban areas said adding artificial flavours such as chocolate and strawberry would increase the appeal. This opinion was more prominent in Tier 1 cities (73%), and not as much in rural areas (44%). Nearly half of the non-consumers also said they would like to see cooking instructions or seasonings attached to their packaging.

Meanwhile, among those who had consumed millets, nearly 70% expressed a willingness to pay a premium in price given their health benefits. However, over half of the non-consumers noted that packaged millets were pricier than rice and wheat.

The traditional perception of millets as food for the economically disadvantaged has shifted, as just about 10% respondents held this view.

5. Government push

The discourse around millets this year is expected to have minimal influence on millet consumption patterns, the survey’s findings suggest. When non-consumers were asked about the likelihood that they would integrate millets into their diets, considering the special year, a large share answered in the negative, irrespective of the government’s push. Southern and northeastern states were an exception to the trend, where 76% and 99% of non-consumers expressed openness to the idea. In northern, central and western India, most non-consumers were not interested.

Nutrient-rich millets are progressively gaining popularity, particularly in response to the surge in lifestyle-related diseases. The momentum behind millet consumption and awareness received a boost in 2018 when the Indian government classified millets as nutri-cereals, and later proposed that the UN designate 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Millets also featured in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman’s Union Budget speech earlier this year.

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