Mainstreaming millets right: Dangers of promoting ultra-processed products

  • Blog Post Date 20 October, 2023
  • Perspectives
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In the fifth post of the e-Symposium on ‘Carrying forward the promise of International Year of Millets’, Reshma Roshania argues that instead of relying on the ‘Big Food’ industry to increase the production and consumption of millets, policies should focus on making millets a vital part of government food schemes. She highlights the shortcomings of Production Linked Incentives in ensuring that the nutritious value of millets is realised, and suggests that rather than investments in startups, street food vendors and small-scale food outlets should be encouraged to provide millet-based meals and cater to rural markets.

India is at the forefront of an exciting movement to promote millet consumption. Having successfully proposed 2023 as the International Year of Millets to the United Nations, India has positioned itself as the global leader in production, research and innovation of these nutritious grains.

Millets have enormous potential in tackling the country’s concurrent nutritional challenges of widespread ‘hidden hunger’ and high cardio-metabolic disease. However, the strategies being utilised to re-introduce millets as a mainstream staple are misdirected and could result in failure, unless greater thoughtfulness and creativity are exercised now.

Misplaced focus in mainstreaming millets

In the effort to increase consumption of millets, the ‘Big Food’ industry is being encouraged to launch millet-based products through sales-based incentives by the Ministry of Food Processing Industries’ Production Linked Incentive Scheme for Millet-Based Products (PLIS-MBP). The scheme’s aim is to promote the manufacturing of ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook millet-based products.

Food industry conglomerates such as Britannia, Hindustan Unilever, Kellogg, and Nestle India have jumped on board and are developing a range of packaged biscuits, breakfast cereals, instant noodles, powdered beverages, and savoury snacks– all of which are categorised as ultra-processed foods. Ultra-processed foods are composed of ingredients that are extracted from whole foods utilising industrial processing techniques, and usually have added sugar, salt, and fat, as well as flavour enhancers, artificial colouring, stabilisers, and preservatives to make the product hyper-palatable and prolong shelf life.

However, ultra-processing of millets is not the solution to promoting their use. In fact, it will be harmful. The evidence is clear – consumption of ultra-processed foods increases the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, and premature mortality (Pagliai et al. 2020). The popularity of such foods has been increasing rapidly in India, among all income groups, in both rural and urban areas. One study of adolescents in Delhi found that up to 20% of their daily calorie intake comes from ultra-processed foods (Jain and Mathur 2020).

Additionally, large investments are being made in the start-up space to develop millet-based products. Unlike sales-based incentives, the Nutrihub incubator of the Indian Institute of Millets Research offers seed funding to ‘nutri-cereal’ entrepreneurs at the idea and prototype stages, as well as training, mentoring, access to investor networks, and use of R&D facilities. Many of these start-ups brand themselves as ‘clean food’ and thus manufacture products that are free from artificial ingredients and additives. But, they are also prohibitively priced. The once ‘poor man’s food’ is now clearly being marketed to the urban elite.

There is a disconnect between what has been termed the ‘People’s Movement’ – evocative of a crusade for food sovereignty to empower farmers and revitalise the forgotten, traditional millet – and the reality of where this campaign is potentially headed, which is into the pockets of Big Food, and the plates of the well-off.

What is missing from the strategy is a strong push from the Centre to mainstream millets into the pillars of the National Food Security Act. Millets are often hailed as the ‘key’ to solving India’s food insecurity, especially in the face of climate uncertainty, yet they are far from being a fundamental component of the country’s food security schemes.

Making millets accessible for all 

The push for millets needs to recognise the power of India’s culinary backbone – street food. On the one end, farmers are being urged to increase production of millets, and at the other end, Big Food and start-ups are being incentivised to manufacture millet-based packaged goods. There is a gaping hole in the middle which includes those who source ingredients to produce fresh and lesser processed foods, such as street vendors and small-scale food outlets. 

These business owners can actually deliver millets to the masses in a healthier way. Consider, for example, puffed jowar bhel, ragi tikki chaat, or bajra ladoos. Can existing incentive-based schemes be inclusive of innovative vendors and creative dhaba chefs to promote affordable and accessible millet-based offerings? Street food is, after all, the original ready-to-eat meal, just without all of the packaging and intellectual property.

It is also essential to understand and respond to rural preferences. India is still 65% rural – for millets to truly become the staple food they once were, they must be not only accessible, but demanded by rural populations. However, most studies on knowledge, attitudes, and practices surrounding millets are from urban India.

For instance, a recent, multi-city study found the top reason for consuming millets was because of an existing health problem such as diabetes (Kane-Potaka et al. 2021). Such findings from the urban context may have little relevance in rural areas, where non-communicable diseases are under-diagnosed. Additionally, millets hold significance in many rural areas as animal feed, so preferences need to be researched and understood before launching awareness campaigns and ‘millet mahotsavs’ to tailor messaging appropriately.

Currently, PLIS-MBP guidelines state that public funds will be provided for sales of millet-based products that contain at least 15% millet. This means the remaining 85% can include ingredients such refined white flour, hydrogenated fats, sugar, and additives, yet in all likelihood will still be marketed as a health food to consumers. One only needs to look as far as Oats Instant Noodles (labelled as “nutrilicious”) or Quinoa Puffs (advertised as a diet snack) for examples of super-foods perhaps gone wrong. Big Food advertising and labelling must be regulated before millets become a nutritional disaster.

We will do well to remember that rice and wheat did not come to dominate our plates through heavy promotions, celebrity endorsements, and global campaigns, but rather structural policies that ensured profitability for farmers and affordability for consumers.

This article first appeared in Hindu Business Line. All copyrights belong to THG Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

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