The most common staple grain across Africa is refined maize, very low in proteins, essential amino acids and micronutrients. Small grains such as millet and sorghum are widely considered a probable solution to addressing not just the food security challenge, but also malnutrition and lifestyle diseases. However, getting these small grains to be accepted as superfood on people’s plates remains an uphill task. What then might be the way forward for practice, research and policy?
A joint policy brief by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), presented ‘proof of concept’ results which showed that a diet combining legumes and millets provided complete quality protein and power-packed nutrients. This combination is necessary because whilst legumes are the most common plant-based protein source that is most affordable than most alternatives, they are low in one of the essential amino acids – methionine, ably complemented by the millets.
Key Conclusions from the Study
The conclusions extracted from the detailed results of the proof of concept study illustrated the following:
- Legumes are high in protein (14-22%). A serving of 100 grams provides 50-100% of the daily value of protein required by adults.
- Legumes are low in one essential amino acid – methionine; but millets are 100% higher in methionine than legumes.
- Millets are high in micronutrients; especially when selected by type and variety.
- Protein digestibility of millets was 47 to 95%, whilst legumes were 70 to 88%; Pearl millet (Dhansakti variety) had the highest protein digestibility at 95%.
- Cooking process increased the protein digestibility for all the millet and legume combinations.
- Maximum nutritional benefits accrue when millets and legumes are combined in a 3:1 proportion.
Commenting on the study and its potential impact, the Chief Executive Officer FANRPAN, Dr Tshilidzi Madzivhandila said, “This new data further emphasises the need to diversify our staples and our diets.
These foods and combinations can open new markets for millets, pigeon and chick peas in Africa and further afield”. He indicated that there was need for accompanying policy measures to promote the adoption of this pioneering work on combining plant based proteins and millets.
Dr. Joanna Kane-Potaka, the Assistant Director General responsible for External Relations at ICRISAT and also the Executive Director of Smart Food initiative weighed in on the issue saying, “Whilst there is rising global popularity of plant based proteins, few people are knowledgeable about plant based proteins, whether they have all the essential amino acids or not. Food combinations, like millets and legumes have the advantage of not only being a complete and quality protein, but also a powerful nutri-basket”.
Priorities for the future
FANRPAN and ICRISAT propose that future investment should prioritize the following;
a) Testing more crops and varieties
- More legumes and all types of millets should be tested to identify varieties and combinations that maximize protein quantity and quality, and status of micronutrients. This should include most commonly grown varieties in the different regions.
- Test geography-specific combinations in order to pick the most nutritious combinations of legumes and millets based on the type and varieties locally available. These can be mapped for easy referencing.
b) Research recipe and product development
- Customize more nutritious meals/recipes based on the optimal combination information, for use in school and other feeding programs. Include sensory and socio-cultural acceptability testing.
- Create more nutritious food products from unexplored complementary combinations of legumes and millets to cater to niches such as weaning foods, ready to eat therapeutic foods and sports foods. Include sensory and socio-cultural acceptability testing.
- Research how different types of processing and cooking affect nutrition levels and bioavailability in millets and legumes.
- Use these combinations to further identify industrial protein isolate usages.
c) Health testing
- Test these new food combinations of legumes and millets for bioavailability and gut microbiome benefits.
d) Breeding and on-farm research
- Breeding programs need more attention on selection by nutrition elements e.g. protein levels and broken down by amino acids, protein digestibility and other nutrients.
- A systematic classification of crops and varieties by nutrition levels (e.g. high, medium and low) and producing a nutrition priority index for each crop.
- Study optimal combinations of diversity on farm with diversity in diets: Study different agro-ecologies and how combinations of crops can maximize on-farm income, provide environmental benefits as well as consumption benefits in terms of nutrition.
- Assess cost-efficiency along the whole value chain.
- Identify the most viable business model for scaling-out the proof of concept.
Policy implications to African Governments are that:
- Bring back millets as a ‘staple’, providing a level playing field with support stretching across the whole value chain from consumer awareness to food entrepreneurs to farm production.
- To maximize the benefits in nutrition programs:
- Combine millets and legumes in a 3:1 proportion.
- Select millets and legumes by type and variety with the highest protein and nutrients.
- Ensure seed is identifiable and available for the higher protein and nutrient varieties.
- Support and incentivize food industries and entrepreneurs to scale up products with nutri-dense varieties, and motivate dryland farmers to grow these varieties.
FANRPAN and ICRISAT argue that if embraced, these practices, research and policy suggestions will enhance the value of drylands to realize their full potential given the suitability of millets and legumes in these agro-ecologies.
About the Partners:
FANRPAN is a pan-African, autonomous and multi-stakeholder driven policy research, analysis and advocacy network.
ICRISAT is a non-profit and non-political organization that conducts agricultural research for development in the drylands of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa
Results are based on published study by Anitha S., Govindaraj, M. and Kane-Potaka J. (2019). Balanced amino acid and higher micronutrients in millets complements legumes for improved human dietary nutrition. Cereal Chemistry. 2019; 00:1–11.