Hyderabad: An international study on millets found that millets are "smart foods" that can boost growth in children and adolescents by 26-39% when they replace rice in standard meals. The results of the ICRISAT-led international study suggest that millets can significantly contribute to overcoming malnutrition.

The study published in the journal 'Nutrients' was undertaken by seven organizations in four countries and was led by Dr. S Anitha, senior scientist (nutrition) at the International Crops Research Institute of the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Infants, pre-school, school-going children, as well as adolescents, were reviewed for the study. Five of the studies in the review used finger millet, one used sorghum, and two used a mixture of millets (finger, pearl, foxtail, little, and kodo millets).

Among the children fed millet-based meals, a relative increase of 28.2% in mean height, 26%in weight, 39% in the mid-upper arm circumference, and 37% in chest circumference was noted when compared to children on regular rice-based diets. The observed children consumed millets over three months to 4.5 years.

"These findings provide evidence that nutrition intervention programmes can be developed and adapted to increase diversity in meals using millets, and thus to improve the nutritional content, including in feeding programmes in schools and mother and child programmes," said Dr. Jacqueline Hughes, the director general of ICRISAT.

Study author Dr. Hemalatha, director of India's National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), said that implementing millet-based meals required menus to be designed for different age groups utilizing culturally-sensitive and tasty recipes. "This should also be complemented with awareness and marketing campaigns to generate an understanding and interest in millets," said Dr. Hemalatha.

The studies were undertaken in India and based on standard rice-based meals. The researchers also found that meals significantly enhanced with more diversity, including vegetables, fruit, dairy, and staples, resulted in minimal additional growth compared to replacing rice with millets. This indicates that simply replacing or diversifying rice with millets can be beneficial for the growth of children.

"Millets are a basket of a wide range of nutrients and this growth study is part of four years of work among numerous organizations around the world who partnered to undertake a series of scientific studies on the major health claims of millets, to test the scientific credibility," noted Professor Ian Givens, a study author and director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health, University of Reading, UK.

This series of studies that Dr. Givens refers to has shown that millets help meet many of the largest nutrition and health needs. They not only help tackle child undernutrition but also assist in managing type 2 diabetes as well as overcoming iron deficiency and anaemia, lowering total cholesterol levels, checking obesity and the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

"Additionally, finger millet naturally contains high calcium levels (364 ± 58 mg/100g of grain) of which almost 23% is usually retained by the body. Available evidence shows that around 28% of calcium from finger millet is bioavailable, which means it can provide around 100 mg of bioavailable calcium/100g of grain. That could help overcome calcium deficiencies if consumed adequately," Dr. Anitha summarized.

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