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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  India’s promotion of millets is great but will likely fail
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India’s promotion of millets is great but will likely fail

Taste tends to win every battle where it is pitted against health and so rice and wheat will retain their supremacy

Photo: AlamyPremium
Photo: Alamy

At one point during her presentation of India’s budget, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman praised millets as noble food. Prime Minister Narendra Modi thumped the desk in approval and the rest of Parliament joined the tribute as though all of them were eaters of these ancient coarse grains.

Lately, India has been doing something uncharacteristically interesting. It has been offering a health tip to Indians and the rest of the world. It has been asking people to eat millets. The main motivation appears to be to make more money off them, as India is their largest producer. But the government also appears to truly believe millets are healthy. As it is Indian nationalists think anything that is ancient is good for you. So, millets are on their way to be canonized, like quinoa. The sainthood of a food inevitably comes with some exaggerations, but all things considered, millets deserve their late recognition. They are healthier to consume than rice and wheat. This is also why millets are doomed.

Millets are grain. Like ‘vegetable’, ‘grain’ is not a botanical term. From a scientific point of view, grains are the fruit of a type of grass; they can also be considered seeds of grass or even one-seeded fruits.

No matter what we eat, most of it becomes glucose in our stomach and enters our bloodstream. Glucose is a simple form of sugar. The faster a food becomes sugar, the more appealing it is to us. The commercial success of any plant-based food is a measure of it as a sugar-delivery device. That is why the most successful grains of our times are rice and wheat. They triumphed chiefly because their modern varieties are tasty; also, they can be consumed in polished, refined forms without the inconvenience of chewing on a class of indigestible carbohydrates known as fibre.

The modern world is a slave to sugar. There is no religion or tradition or even mother’s love that can endure without sugar. People blame the “sugar lobby" for their addiction, as if they would be eating boiled cauliflower had there been a ‘boiled-cauliflower lobby’. The truth is that the emotional human has very little defence against sugar.

The success of modern rice and wheat, which are good sugar-delivery devices, has killed or diminished the lives of hundreds of millions of people by injecting them with too much sugar. The two great grains have been particularly devastating to people of certain genetic types, like South Indians.

Compared to rice and wheat, millets turn into glucose inside us rather slowly. This is also why they are considered healthy.

What is healthy eating has areas of sound scientific consensus and areas of serious dispute. As a result, diets have many religions with their own divinities and demons. I belong to a modern and sanctimonious creed that does not know its god, but knows the name of the devil, which is sugar.

After the stomach converts food into glucose and releases it into the bloodstream, the pancreas release their most famous hormone—insulin, which sends glucose to the cells for energy, reducing the sugar level in the blood. But when a person releases a high amount of glucose into the bloodstream many times a day for several years, flooding the body with excess insulin, cells begin to defy the hormone and do not absorb as much glucose as they are supposed to. The pancreas then send more insulin, and this trains more cells to defy insulin even more. As a result, many destructive things occur. Organs marinate in high blood sugar for hours, which damages them; the excess sugar is eventually converted into fatty acids and stored in the fat cells of various body parts. Which parts of the body will accumulate fat is a lottery of human genes.

The whole game of my creed is to slow the conversion of food into blood sugar. Millets, like rice and wheat, have a high ratio of carbohydrates, or stuff that can become glucose very fast. But among these carbohydrates is a substance widely known as fibre. Rice and wheat, too, have fibre but millets have more. And fibre slows the conversion of food into glucose. I found the best description of the mechanism in the book Burn: The Misunderstood Science of Metabolism by Herman Pontzer: “Fiber from our food covers the intestinal walls like a wet knit blanket, forming a lattice-like filter that slows the absorption of sugars and other nutrients into the bloodstream. That is why the glycemic index—the rush of sugar into the blood—is about 25 percent higher for orange juice, which doesn’t have much fibre compared to a piece of range, which does."

Fibre also makes people eat less by quickly giving them a sense of fullness. Also, generally, people like the taste of naked grains and vegetables more than fibrous ones, another reason why they eat less of what is fibrous. This is why I feel India’s promotion of millets will not be much of a success. Millets are not as tasty as unhealthier forms of food; and the world has always demonstrated that between taste and health, people will talk more about what is healthy and then eat what is tasty.

Millets actually face a crisis because the moment the poor can afford other grains, they will probably abandon it. This is what the poor have been doing for centuries. Abandoning these coarse grains. Millets will survive, of course, but in a niche market.

In fact, the glorification of millets as a healthy alternative to rice and wheat will inspire the broader market to corrupt these ancient grains. For instance, the ragi dosa of the future will be more rice and sugar than ragi. This is already the case in some restaurants. Every time the world wants to pretend to be healthy, it ruins a part of my life.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Published: 05 Feb 2023, 09:56 PM IST
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