Walk down the food section of any supermarket aisle and chances are you will see many grains other than wheat and rice lining the shelves. Oats, millets, amaranth, sorghum, ragi, buckwheat and quinoa, many of which are an integral part of Indian regional cuisine, are becoming the new urban cool.
As consumers become more aware of healthy eating, they are waking up to the benefits of these grains. So no wonder you get all kinds of flours and products made of these grains that are selling like hot cakes. FMCG companies, too, have been quick to respond to consumer preferences and have a slew of products offering the health advantage of alternate grains. ITC Foods last year launched its Sunfeast Farmlite Digestive All Good range in the digestive biscuits segment. It has three oats variants—chocolate, raisin and almonds—with no sugar, maida or artificial sweeteners. Britannia, on the other hand, retails its oats and ragi cookies under its NutriChoice Essentials range.
Companies offering pre-packaged ready-to-cook food, too, have several offerings. One of these is PepsiCo-owned Quaker India, which recently launched its Quaker Nutri Foods range in India. Oat-based versions of popular Indian dishes like idli, dosa, upma and khichdi are part of the new range. “Millennnial consumers—18- to 35-year-olds—are becoming increasingly aware of nutritional deficiencies and are becoming more and more health-conscious. Supergrains like oats have the wholegrain advantage, contain protein, micronutrients, address fatigue, immunity, etc. They are not just heart-healthy, they are great in sustaining energy too. They also help manage weight,” says Deepika Warrier, vice-president, nutrition, PepsiCo India, adding, “In some parts of the country, especially in the south, there is also a growing awareness of local grains. We are seeing a huge growth in the popularity of ragi (finger millet) particularly in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.”
The figures seem to agree with Warrier. As per a 2015 Nielsen report, the overall health and wellness food segment in India crossed the `10,000-crore sales mark. Also, as per a 2017 Euromonitor report, ‘Packaged Food in India’, the Indian packaged food market is forecast to see sturdy growth over 2016-2021 driven by increasing product availability because of manufacturers’ new product developments and greater penetration in smaller cities and rural areas.
Oats especially seem to be all set for a starry future. Recently, scientists from the University of Queensland, Australia, developed an oats-based blueberry muffin recipe that may help decrease the risk of heart diseases by lowering cholesterol levels in the blood. The ‘good heart’ muffin contains 3 gm of beta glucans, a healthy soluble fibre that occurs naturally in oats and cereals, and has cholesterol-lowering properties. “There is good evidence that three grams or more of oats beta glucan consumption a day can help reduce cholesterol levels,” Nima Gunness of University of Queensland was reported as saying.
Chef Vikas Khanna, one of the top 10 chefs in the world and the brand ambassador of PepsiCo, counts oats as a personal favourite too. “I have to have a granola bar in my bag at all times. The kitchen is hot… If I stay hungry for too long, I become temperamental… the granola bar, which is made using oats, keeps me going,” he says when asked about his daily intake of supergrains. “I love oats-based drinks as well.”
Talking about his culinary experiments incorporating supergrains, he says, “I have experimented on this dish of mine… it’s called prawn Balchão biryani with quinoa. Basically, it’s a biryani without rice. It has prawns, the basic Goan Balchão sauce and then it’s torched with quinoa. The other day, we did foxtail millets with curd rice. We also have a buckwheat khichdi in which we use healthy roasted vegetables. We are investing in all of this because consumers are becoming more aware. They are demanding healthier, better alternatives. Everybody is becoming health-conscious now.”
There are also some niche health and organic food start-ups that are focusing on the basic goodness of millets, especially ragi, for their ready-to-eat offerings. Slurrp Farm is one such. Launched in October 2016, it’s the brainchild of Shauravi Malik and Meghana Narayan. Their range includes organic cereals (for toddlers) and all-natural cookies (for everyone), which are made with wholegrains, millets, essential minerals and vitamins. The products have no transfats—that is, no dalda, edible vegetable oil, hydrogenated fat or palm oil—no invert syrup or golden syrup, no high-fructose corn syrup and little to no maida. “The idea initially hit us when we were working in London. Every time we would visit India, our friends would ask us for certain food products for their children. After research, we found that some of the organic products that we get abroad actually source ingredients from India. We couldn’t understand why there weren’t more suitable products for children in India with the ingredients we get here, particularly traditional ones like millets. This thought was reinforced once we both moved back to India and entered our own phases of motherhood,” New Delhi-based Malik and Narayan say.
Explaining what prompted them to launch Slurrp Farm, they say, “There are several problems with the food chain today. The contamination at every level is having frightening repercussions on societal health outcomes. We need to change how we are eating as a society… and not just little tweaks, which are about replacing ingredient X with ingredient Y. We need to eat like our grandparents did.”
Elaborating on the health benefits of millets, especially ragi, Sheela Krishnaswamy, a Bengaluru-based diet, nutrition and wellness consultant, says, “Millets have existed in Indian diets for centuries. But somewhere down the years, they got overshadowed by rice and wheat. But now, the country seems to have woken up to the fact that only rice and wheat are not enough any more. We need more varieties of crops for better health, as well as for better ecological health… Therefore, the country is seeing a huge comeback of millets, including ragi.”
Realising the potential of millets, more and more FMCG companies are evincing interest in foraying into the business. MTR Foods is one of these. “MTR Foods has committed to use more millets in its products,” MTR CEO Sanjay Sharma has said.