Nutrition attrition

  • 14/05/2001

By blindly pushing rice and wheat through the public distribution system (PDS), the government is spreading malnutrition among India’s poor. “The paddy varieties grown in our country mostly contain starch along with a few vitamins and minerals as major food components, but are deficient in vitamin A and iron,” says Anil Prakash Joshi, member of an Indo-Swiss committee that is developing a new paddy variety. “As a result, people who consumed rice as their staple diet often developed symptoms of vitamin A and iron deficiencies, manifested respectively in the form of night blindness and anaemia.” Veena Satrughan of the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in Hyderabad, says, “Rice has only carbohydrate. Nutrition is not a problem for the urban middle class which eats fruits and vegetables along with rice. But the poor who were earlier dependent on their traditional, nutritionally rich cereals are worst sufferers. ”

The chemical composition of coarse grains is superior to rice and wheat in many ways (see graph: Rich in vitamins ). Pearl millets have a higher concentration of protein, fat and minerals, particularly calcium. Small millets generally have high concentrations of lysine and methionine. Lysine is one of the essential amino acids, which have higher biological value as the body can’t synthesise them from other foods. Finger millet is the richest source of calcium among foodgrains and has high concentrations of iron, lysine, methionine and vitamin. Although finger millet contains less protein than sorghum, the biological value of the protein is high. On several protein quality scores, finger millet ranks first and pearl millet second. The Kikuyu people, the largest ethnic group of Kenya, regard finger millet as the most appropriate cereal for lactating women. “Calorie deficiency is not a problem in India now. The real problem is of micronutrients. The problem of deficiency of micronutrients like iron, zinc and iodine is not going to be solved by medicine. The only way around is to eat a variety of foods. For that we have to produce the variety,” says Satrughan.

The modern practice of milling and refining has further reduced the micronutrient content in rice and wheat. The traditional practice of paraboiling rice, which includes soaking in water and steaming of paddy, results in seeping of vitamins present in outer layer into the grain. But the practice is dying fast. Cereals, particularly whole grains, are important sources of B-group vitamins. Most of these vitamins reside in the outer bran. The amount of polishing and refining is inversely proportional to the B-vitamin content. “More than 50 per cent of the children under the critical age of five years are stunted because of protein and micronutrient deficiencies, which can be corrected through the right mix of policies,” says C Gopalan of the Nutrition Foundation of India, New Delhi.

Teru Takanohashi, professor emeritus at the Iwate University in Japan, says, “For the past four decades I visited the districts where people enjoyed longevity, and studied the diet of the people who lived long. I found that many inhabitants enjoyed long life in areas where millets are eaten.” Kamala Krishnaswami, director of NIN, says no study has been conducted in India on change of food habits and its impact on health. She says the increase in heart diseases, diabetes and hypertension is a manifestation of the replacement of traditional foods like millets with foods based on rice and wheat.

Rich in vitamins
Vitamin content of coarse cereals as compared to rice and wheat
(per 100 grammes of edible portion)
Food stuff Thiamine
Folic acid
(free) (/

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