Saturday, July 28, 2012


Suman Sahai

In this tumble down world of  fast foods and junk foods, childhood obesity and the rising spectre of childhood diabetes and heart disease, should we not be stepping back as a society to question what on earth our children (and we  ) are eating, or for that matter when we are eating it. For one thing, there is almost no discipline anymore in what children are fed or at what time. Many of us at late-night dinners have seen five-year-olds and seven-year-olds eating dinner with their parents at 12 o'clock at night. And like their parents, usually their food is rich in trans fats and other unhealthy avoidables.

There was a time not so long ago when children would be in bed by nine clock after a healthy dinner of fresh foods fed to them by eight in the evening. In most families great attention was paid to what babies and children were given to eat. They were not for instance given everything that the adults ate. Chocolates and fizzy drinks, especially colas were forbidden for young children, as were most heavy, deep-fried foods.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of foods that children used to be fed, is the category of weaning foods. This was the in-between food fed to babies as they were being weaned off mother's milk. Usually after 6 to 8 months of being fed solely on breast milk,  and before they graduated to solid foods, babies were started on foods that had the consistency of gruel or thin paste. They graduated from liquid paste to semi-solids and finally to solid foods like rice, roti, vegetables  and dal.

Traditionally weaning food, especially in rural areas, used to be a milky gruel made of finger millet, called Madua  in the North and Ragi in the south. Upmarket urban women, often chose the empty calories of processed cereals, usually rice, that came out of boxes. Rural women clearly had better sense when it came to feeding their babies. Finger millet or Madua is high in protein and micronutrients especially calcium, vital for strengthening growing bones. Rural mothers knew this long before nutritional analysis uncovered the content of these wonder foods.

Tragically the practice of madua based weaning foods  is lost even in areas whereas Ragi and Madua are cultivated and still eaten. In a survey done in Uttaranchal by Gene Campaign in the summer of 2012, not one single mother was feeding her children millet gruel as a weaning food. Older women in the household spoke of giving their children millet gruel but said nobody does that any more and the young people don't listen anyway ! When asked what children were given as they grew out of breast milk, the answer most mothers gave was rice and dal. Now here is a tragedy. The easily digested high-protein millet, rich in calcium and micronutrients has been abandoned in favour of rice which is nutritionally the poorest of all cereals.

Why have we allowed this to happen? Part of the reason is in the public perception of millets which are thought to be the food of  rural hicks and associated with being the food of the poor and backward. Rural India aspires to eat the polished white rice because that is what the city slickers eat. The public distribution system (PDS) , the government's largest food support scheme, has fulfilled this aspiration because it supplies only polished white rice and wheat to poor households. So rural (and urban) babies are weaned on the impoverished calories of rice, when they could so easily build sturdy bones and healthy bodies on a diet of  ragi.

There was a feeble revival of interest in fingermillet when Japanese agencies sent people to Uttaranchal to enquire about the potential for organic millets being supplied to Japan. This was about six to seven years ago. The Japanese had interest in millets precisely to use them as weaning foods, a tradition that had existed in old Japan, and which they were trying to  revive so they could reintroduce this healthy practice and make available millets as weaning food for Japanese babies. The initial enquiries were not followed up nor was the matter pursued actively by Indian agencies and the whole episode passed into oblivion. Which is such a pity.

India is home not only to the largest number of hungry people in the world but also to the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition and under nutrition. What a difference this wonder cereal could make to the nutritional status of both children and adults. Common sense would dictate that people switch or at least include millets in their diet. But in a nation where the rural poor have chosen to raise their children on Maggi noodles and dangerously unhealthy snacks packed in foil packets, who is looking for common sense?