There is an increasing demand for foods that contain complex carbohydrates, have a low glycemic index, high dietary fiber and may also be gluten free. Wholegrain cereals are used more these days as they are rich sources of phytochemicals and dietary fiber. Regular consumption of whole grain cereals and their products can protect against the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 Diabetes, gastrointestinal cancers and a range of other disorders.
Finger Millet (Eleusine Coracana L.), or Ragi in the local parlance, is a millet that is widely grown in various parts of India and Africa. It ranks sixth in production in India after wheat, rice, maize, sorghum and bajra. It is a naked caryopsis with brick red colored seed coat and is used in the whole form (rotis, chapathis, unleavened bread), as a dumpling or as a porridge. The dietary fiber, minerals, phenolics, vitamins are concentrated in the outer layer of the grain or seed coat and offer nutritional and health benefits. Millets also provide nutritional potential in terms of protein, carbohydrates and energy comparable to other popular cereals like rice, wheat, bajra or barley.
Finger Millet contains about 5-8% protein, 1-2% other extracts, 65-75% carbohydrates, 15-20% dietary fiber and 2.5-3.5% minerals. A concern with millets was the presence of small amounts of phytates, polyphenols, tannins, trypsin inhibitory factors which were once considered as antinutrients or factors that affect the absorption of nutrients due to their metal chelating and anti enzyme activities. However, this perception has changed and they are now considered as neutraceuticals.
Ragi is widely used in various forms especially in south India, however, there is a large market of non locally produced cereals and gluten free health and nutrition products. In this document, I explore the literature on the known health and nutritional benefits of Ragi or Finger Millets.
Polyphenols are widely present in plant foods and are one of the largest groups of dietary supplements marketed worldwide. These compounds have antioxidant, antimutagenic, antioestrogenic, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties and platelet aggregation inhibition activities. The seed of the finger millet is richer in polyphenols compared to barley, maize, rice or wheat.
Finger Milllets are the richest rich source of Calcium among cereals (0.33%) (the next closest is oats with 0.11%), has phosphorus (0.24%), potassium (0.43%) a small quantity of sodium (0.02%), magnesium (0.11%), Iron (46.0%), Manganese (7.5%) and Zinc (15%) and Vitamins like Thiamin (0.48 mg/100gm), Riboflavin (0.12 mg/100gms) and Nictonic Acid (0.30 mg/100gms).
There are several studies that have looked at the beneficial properties of finger millet polyphenols
These studies have shown antimicrobial properties, antioxidant properties and antidiabetic properties. Finger Millet has been shown to
- reduce postprandial hyperglycemia (or increased sugar levels after eating) by partial inhibition of the enzymatic hydrolysis of complex carbohydrates,
- inhibit aldose reductase that prevents accumulation of sorbitol and reduces the risk for diabetes induced cataract diseases,
- prevent glycation and crosslinking of collagen reducing the complication of diabetes and aging due to presence of free radical scavengers,
- protect against hyperglycemic and oxidative stress, and
- improve control of blood glucose levels.
Regular consumption of finger millet may reduce the risk of diabetes mellitus and gastrointestinal tract disorders. Additionally, the consumption of finger millets has anticholestrogenic, nephroprotective and anticataractogenic properties. Animal studies based on an enriched finger millet diet have shown a greater reduction in blood glucose (36%) and cholesterol (13%) level.
The additional health benefits associated with high fiber foods are delayed nutrient absorption, increased fecal bulk, lowering of blood lipids, mobility of intestinal contents, increased fecal transit time and fermentability characteristics.
Where do we stand?
We see that the consumption of finger millets has several health and nutrition benefits. In terms of scientific evidence, we do see that there are only few studies that have explored these benefits in detail. Thus, there is an opportunity to research on the utility or effectiveness of Finger Millet Consumption.
If you are a health practitioner
- You may want to initiate studies that explore the benefits of finger millet consumption in various forms, compared with different processing methods as well, on various diseases
- It will be worthwhile to look at or evaluate effects and effectiveness of finger millets in diabetes, obesity, malnourishment, and Calcium deficient states (Finger millets have more calcium than milk and those who have had to eat calcium tablets may understand how yucky that process is)
- More clinical studies on Finger Millets will be useful especially as it is a locally produced crop.
If you are an individual
- You can consider including finger millets in your diet
- It has a low glycemic index and is gluten free
- It is locally produced and hence cheaper or friendlier on the pocket than oats, quinoa, and other gluten free packaged cereals flooding the market.
Diabetes, Hypertension, Cardiac diseases and Obesity and malnourishment are public health problems in India with a rapid increase in the numbers of people suffering from one or more of these. Calcium Deficient states are also widely prevalent.Besides medication and lifestyle modifications, it is worthwhile to research if dietary modifications can help control these disorders. Millets also have an important role in food security and the fight against hunger.
Selected Reference: Finger Millets health benefits