Cereal grains are considered to be one of the most important sources of dietary proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and fiber for people all over the world. Millet is one of the oldest foods known to humans and possibly the first cereal grain to be used for domestic purposes. It is mentioned in the Bible, and was used during those times to make bread. Millet has been used in Africa and India as a staple food for thousands of years. It is suggested that people were farming millet in India about 2500 BC. India is the largest producer of many kinds of millets called coarse cereals. India accounts for 40% of global millet production, the total production as per a 2005 statistics is 98,10,000 MT per annum. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Haryana are the major States contribute the production. Based on a five-year average (1999 – 2003), India ranks 1st and 11th place in top global consumption and per-capita consumption of millets respectively. Among the major and minor millets, the minor millets include 6 main grain crops which are finger millet (ragi in Tamil vernacular or Eleusine coracana), kodo millet (varagu or Paspalum scrobiculatum), little millet (samai or Panicum sumatrense), foxtail millet (tenai or Setaria italica), proso millet (panivaragu or Panicum milliaceum), and barnyard millet (kudiraivali or Echinochloa frumentacea).
Small millets in addition to nutritional benefits rich in phytochemicals, including phytic acid, which is believed to lower cholesterol, and phytate, which is associated with cancer risk. Finger millet and Kodo millet are well known for their antinutrient constituents such as trypsin inhibitors, phytates, phenols and tannins. Dietary fiber protects against hyperglycemia, phytates against oxidation stress by chelating iron involved in Fenton’s reaction, and some phenolics and tannins act as antioxidants. Higher antioxidant activity in the phenolic extracts of Kodo millet and Finger millet than in other millets and cereals has been reported. Small millets have potential benefits to mitigate or delay the onset of complications associated with diabetes.
The consumption pattern for minor millets varies from region to region. In Southern Karnataka, 100% of the rural population and 94% of the urban population consume finger millet as a traditional food called ‘Mudde’ or ‘Thick porridge’. Kodo millet is an important food crop for vast sections of the tribal community in Central India. The people in Himalayan foothills use millet as a cereal, in soups, and for making dense, whole grain bread called ‘Chapatti’. In India flat thin cakes called ‘Roti’ are often made from millet flour and used as the basis for meals. ‘Kodo ko jaanr’ is the most common fermented alcoholic beverage prepared from dry seeds of finger millet in the Eastern Himalayan regions of the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim in India. ‘Chhang’ is also a fermented finger millet beverage popular in Ladakh region in India. The traditional, naturally fermented finger millet product is called ‘Ambali’. Finger millet is the cereal of choice for the preparation of porridges for children and for the sick and old in India. Germinated finger millet is used to make weaning foods for infants. Finger millet can be used for the preparation of popped products in India. Some rural and tribal populations of South India consume foxtail millet. The tribal people in Kumaon hills, Northern India consume weaning food containing malted foxtail millet flour and malted barnyard millet flour. Mostly minor millets consumed by the economically weaker section of the populations in India. However all communities of people should be aware of importance and health benefits of small millets.