AFRICA – Grains such as millets were consumed as staple cereals in many parts of the world until half a century ago.

The norm shifted following investments in a few crops such as rice, wheat and maize, which edged the nutritious and climate-smart crops like millets out of the plate.

However, the narrative is about to change following a study undertaken under the Smart Food initiative led by ICRISAT, revealing that eating millets can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and help manage blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.

This indicates the potential to design appropriate meals with millets for diabetic and pre-diabetic people as well as for non-diabetic people as a preventive approach.

As part of the study, ICRISAT and the Institute for Food Nutrition and Health at the University of Reading have formed a strategic partnership to research and promote the Smart Food vision of making diets healthier, more sustainable on the environment and good for those who produce it.

According to the International Diabetes Association, diabetes is increasing in all regions of the world with India, China and the USA having the highest numbers of people with the disease.

Africa has the largest forecasted increase of 143% from 2019 to 2045, the Middle East and North Africa 96% and South East Asia 74%.

“This study has proved that millets can keep blood glucose levels in check and reduce the risk of diabetes.”

Dr. S Anitha – Senior Nutrition Scientist at ICRISAT

Bringing back the forgotten foods

Drawing on research from 11 countries, the study shows that diabetic people who consumed millet as part of their daily diet saw their blood glucose levels drop 12-15%, shifting from diabetic to pre-diabetes levels.

The HbA1c (blood glucose bound to hemoglobin) levels lowered on average 17% for pre-diabetic individuals, and the levels went from pre-diabetic to normal status.

Strengthening the case for reintroducing millets as staples, the study found that millets have a low average glycemic index (GI) of 52.7, about 36% lower GI than milled rice and refined wheat, and about 14-37 GI points lower compared to maize.

All 11 types of millets studied could be defined as either low (<55) or medium (55-69) GI, with the GI as an indicator of how much and how soon a food increases blood sugar level.

The review concluded that even after boiling, baking and steaming (most common ways of cooking grains) millets had lower GI than rice, wheat and maize.

“This study has proved that millets can keep blood glucose levels in check and reduce the risk of diabetes. It has also shown just how well these smart foods do it,” said Dr. S Anitha, the study’s lead author and a Senior Nutrition Scientist at ICRISAT.

Dr. Jacqueline Hughes, Director General, ICRISAT further highlighted that, millets are part of the solution to mitigate the challenges associated with malnutrition, human health, natural resource degradation, and climate change.

 “The rapidly accelerating threats of climate change and global health crises, including obesity and diabetes, require everyone to pull together in action.

“The partnership between ICRISAT and the University of Reading is doing exactly this, bringing together our world leading expertise in human nutrition with ICRISAT’s long established role as a leader in agricultural research for rural development,” Professor Paul Inman, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International) of the University of Reading, stressed.

The study also identified information gaps and highlighted a need for collaborations to have one major diabetes study covering all types of millets and all major ways of processing with consistent testing methodologies.

“Millets are grown on all inhabited continents, yet they remain a ‘forgotten food’. We hope this will change from 2023, when the world observes the United Nations declared International Year of Millets, and with studies like this that show that millets outperform white rice, maize and wheat,” said Rosemary Botha, co-author of the study with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

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