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Is bajra the new wheat? How ICAR’s turning humble millet into versatile, ‘luxury’ ingredient

New Delhi: In 2016, while enjoying a meal of idiyappam, or rice string hoppers, made by her mother-in-law, Vinutha T. was struck by how fresh the rice flour used in preparing the dish tasted.

“She told me it was, in fact, eight-to-nine months old. But to me it seemed fresh,” said Vinutha, a biochemist at Delhi’s ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI).

When Vinutha asked her mother-in-law the secret behind this freshness, the scientist learnt of an age-old heating treatment that many Tamil families use to make rice flour last up to a year. The technique, said Vinutha, involves first soaking and coarsely grinding the rice, then steaming it in an idli cooker before drying it.

To Vinutha, whose team at the time was working on increasing the shelf-life of pearl millets, or bajra, this method was a revelation. Till then, their attempts at using a variety of additives, including salts and chemicals, had proven futile.

The next day, she decided to take an idli cooker to her laboratory. The eventual result, she said, was bajre ka atta, or millet flour, with a shelf life of 90 days. A huge improvement on its previous shelf life of around 10 days.

Today, Vinutha’s team, in addition to their research, also oversees the preparation of delicious millet-based meals for dignitaries at IARI events, all aimed at demonstrating how their improved flour can replace wheat and rice flour.

Her work is part of ICAR’s efforts to make the humble bajra a luxury food option — a mission in line with the Narendra Modi government’s initiative to promote its cultivation and consumption. The policy serves the dual purpose of improving food and nutrition security, and supporting rural livelihoods.  

“If we look at the western countries, they have managed to popularise oats even in the Indian markets,” Vinutha said. “We thought, why can’t we do it for millets?”

According to the scientist,  millets have two major shortcomings that have limited their popularity in Indian kitchens.

One is the lower shelf life owing to its high percentage of lipids or fatty compounds. This means that prolonged exposure to oxygen could cause the lipids to transform into undesirable hydroperoxides, turning the flour rancid within 10 days. 

Another issue is ensuring that the flour is soft. Bajra flour,” Vinutha said, “does not have the same kind of softness as wheat flour.” 

Although rotis made from bajra flour is a common kitchen staple in many Indian states, there’s a need to make it more palatable to appeal to a wider population. For that, she realised, it was vital that the flour is softer.

Softer flour would also allow millets to replace wheat in a range of more attractive food items like cookies, brownies, burgers and pizzas, she said. 

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Increasing shelf life

The first problem was resolved by using the dry heat treatment on millet flour, she said. 

Dry heat treatments stop the enzymatic activity that causes rancidity to develop in the plant, thus increasing its shelf life, the scientist said. 

However, the challenge was how to adapt the technique to use on millets. Dry heating millet flour using the technique, she had learnt, reduced the flour to a black, charred residue.

“Millets couldn’t even withstand the low heat that is used to process oats,” Vinutha said.  

The challenge then was to find the optimal temperature to heat millets, which she eventually found and perfected. Over the years, she was able to slowly optimise a combined heat treatment of hydrothermal and near-infrared rays to increase the shelf life of the flour to up to 90 days. 

“In less than 10 minutes of the combined heat treatment, we are able to make the flour have a longer shelf life,” Vinutha said.

Softening millet flour

In order to make the flour softer, the team extracted vital gluten from wheat flour and added it to the millet flour. 

Vital wheat gluten is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch is removed, leaving only the gluten.

“It’s responsible for making the wheat flour soft since it has high visco-elastic properties,” Suneha Goswami, a scientist at ICAR and part of Vinutha’s team, told ThePrint.

Mixing vital wheat gluten helped make the flour soft enough to be used not only for phulkas but also burgers, pizzas, and brownies, providing a healthy flour option for diabetics and the health conscious. 

“For exotic foods like brownies or burgers, we have collaborated with the Indian Institute of Hotel Management, Delhi, which is optimising recipes to make delicious meals with millet flour,” said Vinutha. “They are happy with the quality because they can now replace wheat with our millet flour in a lot of recipes.”

Highly nutritious smart crops

Vinutha’s team believes that these modifications will help millets get wider acceptance. 

Millet is a family of small-seeded grass that has been traditionally grown in India for centuries. The crop family includes not just bajra but also crops like ragi (finger millet) and jowar (sorghum).

Millets are not only highly nutritious and drought resistant but also require less water and inputs than other cereal crops, making them well-suited to smallholder farming systems.

The Modi government has been promoting millet cultivation through programmes such as the National Food Security Mission (NFSM) and announcing higher minimum support prices (MSP).

“Pearl millet is known as a ‘nutri cereal’. Compared to cereals that are main staple crops in India like wheat and rice, pearl millet is far better,” Goswami explained.

This is because of its high nutritional value. “In carbohydrates, it is almost similar (to wheat and rice). Although the fat content is higher than that of rice or wheat, 74 per cent of these are good fatty acids,” she told ThePrint. 

Millets are also high in protein content compared to wheat or rice. In addition, most of the pearl millet grown in India is also biofortified with iron and zinc, the scientist said.

Marketing it as ‘high-end’

In order to make it more attractive to the wider market, the team paid special attention to its packaging, said Vinutha.

This meant ensuring that it looks on par with other luxury food products in the market.

ICAR sells the flour under the brand name ‘Hallur’ at Rs 50 a kg in its own shop. The flour has already got a licence from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), India’s food regulator, and is also sold on select e-commerce platforms like Amala Earth, Vinutha said.

However, there are disadvantages. For one thing, the product can’t be consumed by people with gluten allergies. For another, the vital wheat gluten is not produced domestically and has to be imported from countries like China, Singapore, Korea, the US, and the United Arab Emirates, Goswami said.

For the researchers, this means they have to make it in their laboratory.

“In India, we don’t have an industry manufacturing gluten,” she said. “About 50 per cent of imported gluten is used for bakery products, 20 per cent is used in sports drinks and the rest is used for fortifying flours used to make pasta and noodles,” she said, adding that large-scale manufacturing of gluten in India will not only help cut imports but will also nurture a domestic industry.  

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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Source: The Print

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