LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Unpacking the health benefits of small grains

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LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Unpacking the health benefits of small grains

14 Jun, 2019

Chronicle

Statistics show that there has been an increase in the number of people in Zimbabwe who are suffering from diet-related illnesses such as type II diabetes and hypertension. Reliance on medication meant to alleviate the symptoms has become the norm. 

A realisation of the importance of healthy eating, not only in reducing the risk of development of diet-related non-communicable diseases but also in managing them, has been growing among Zimbabweans. 

The question to ask ourselves is: “Why is it that our fore bearers were not starving and were healthier than us even before the advent of modern medicines?” 

The answer seems to lie in their diet and to some extent their lifestyle. Indeed, if we had the means to turn back the hands of time and study disease burden in the period before.  

It is arguable that their health could be attributed, to a large extent, to the food they ate which included small grains (such as finger millet, pearl millet and sorghum) as their major starch sources. 

Research has shown that the quality of carbohydrates people consume contribute to the risk of diet related non-communicable diseases. Slowly digestible carbohydrates and whole grains have been shown to reduce the risk of the development of diet-related chronic diseases. 

This could explain the good health of generations gone by since, unlike our current population, their diets included whole (unrefined) small grains. 

In addition to being endowed with micronutrients and antioxidants, the starch from some varieties of small grains have been shown to be slowly digestible compared to the starch of commonly consumed grains. This means that the release of sugar from small grains is slow and sustained maintaining low blood sugar levels thereby making them ideal for sugar-controlled diets. Slow digestion also means one feels fuller for longer. This is probably why sorghum-based beverages like maheu are a popular source of sustenance during a long day’s work in the field. 

Small grains have been traditionally eaten around the world in different forms including flat breads, sour fermented breads and porridges, rice-like foods and the form we are most familiar with here in Zimbabwe, thick porridge or sadza/isitshwala

Unfortunately for our modern day population, commercial foods based on indigenous small grains have been scarce; all one can find if you want to include them in your diet is meal and maheu. 

The reasons for low uptake seem to lie in the perception that consumption of such foods was indicative of social status and secondly their processing was so rudimentary and in most cases one would find a lot of stone particles. However, lately more and more manufacturers are working on products based on indigenous small grains apart from ‘isitshwala’, in addition to the improved processing methods that have made the small grains more palatable for both the younger and older generations. For the more affluent class the health benefits are driving them towards the consumption of these small grains 

We all know how difficult it is to convince little ones at home, to eat these small grains based meals as we know them. Here are a few tips on getting them to embrace indigenous small grains at home:

λ Make wraps for their school lunches using sorghum

λMake chips from left-over wraps by frying them in oil, draining well and seasoning them with herbs and spices of your choice.

The need to popularise indigenous small grains is dire.

Zimbabwe still lacks a solid policy framework to promote the production of indigenous vegetable seed such as tsunga, inyevhe, mutsine, (okra varieties) derere rebupwe, regusha, rename, renyunje as well as indigenous seed varieties for sorghum, millet, cow peas, pumpkins and a whole range of the country’s crop diversity.

Agriculturalists also note with concern the practical disappearance indigenous crop and vegetable varieties at a time when nutritional density was much more important than yields per hectare.

They also say fewer crop species are feeding the world than 50 years ago, raising concerns about the resilience of the global food system.

They warn that loss of diversity means more people are dependent on a few key crops, leaving them more exposed to harvest failures. 

Higher consumption of energy-dense crops could also contribute to a global rise in heart disease and diabetes, they added.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75 percent during the 20th Century and a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050.

Agricultural experts say the world’s agro-biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate and for several major crops, up to 80-90 percent losses in variety over the past century have been reported.

Zimbabwe has lost a number of local crop varieties due to neglect, erosion of local indigenous knowledge systems, promotion of improved varieties, lack of incentives for locally adapted crops and recognition of the keepers of crop diversity, among other factors.

There is need for the promote the consumption and growing of small grains as these are better equipped to thrive under adverse weather conditions and are more suitable for long-term storage.

Small grains are important to food and nutrition security and they must not be neglected in our diet.

Compared to the research lavished on wheat, rice, and maize, for instance, small grains receive almost none in terms of research, extension service and seed availability.

They have been left to languish in the limbo of a “poor person’s crop,” a “famine food,” or, even worse, a “birdseed.”

Without the promotion of the growing and consumption of small grains, there is no doubt that their neglect will lead to an ominous slide that could propel them into oblivion in the near future.

Original post on Chronicle

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