Food security is a major global concern. Global warming, limited natural resources, an ever-growing global population and the global health crisis of under and over-nutrition coexisting are just some the complex challenges facing the global food system. To address them, we must ensure that sustainably produced food provides sustainable nutrition. This is true across the world but in areas that are most affected by a warmer, drier climate, the challenge is especially great and demands some big changes. Having enough calories is only part of the picture. Those calories need to come from foods that also provide a good range of essential macro and micronutrients.

A bowl of cooked millet.

The United Nations has declared 2023 the International Year of Millets (IYM 2023) for good reason.

Millets, a diverse group of small-grained dryland cereals, are an under-valued and sustainable source of affordable nutrients for healthy diets. They are good sources of micronutrients, dietary fibre and  antioxidants. They have a low glycaemic index, are gluten-free and some are cost-effective sources of iron. Millets are a good alternative to rice, wheat and maize because they generally have a higher energy content and some types are significantly higher in protein, while also providing more micronutrients and dietary fibre. They grow well in semi-arid conditions, making them more resistant to the impacts of climate change.

Millets were consumed as staple cereals in many parts of the world until half a century ago. Investments in a few crops such as rice, wheat and maize, have edged nutritious and climate-smart crops like millets off the plate. But millets have multiple benefits, not just in terms of health and nutrition but also related to economic development and environmental sustainability. According to the FAO their sustainable cultivation can support climate-resilient agriculture and their sustainable production can fight hunger and contribute to food security and nutrition. Greater consumption of millets can offer opportunities to smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods and greater trade in millets can improve the diversity of the global food system.

Crucially, millets can be an important part of a healthy diet. The Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health (IFNH) and The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) have formed a strategic partnership to research and promote ICRISAT’s Smart Food initiative to diversify staple foods – often 70% of the diet and eaten three times a day – across Africa and Asia. The criteria for Smart Food are that it’s good for you (nutritious and healthy), good for the planet (environmentally sustainable) and beneficial to the farmers who grow these crops (resilient and viable). In India, it is hoped that millets will increasingly replace rice, wheat and maize in ways which will also reduce the risk of a number of nutrition-response diseases (e.g., iron-deficiency anaemia) that are highly prevalent in India.

As part of our research, we’ve been looking specifically at the dietary impact of millets. Some of our work has recently been collated into a Smart Food for Healthy, Sustainable and Resilient Food Systems e-book published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems. We’ve published systematic reviews with meta-analyses of the impacts of millets on diabetes, anaemia and iron requirements, blood cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases and calcium deficiencies as well as obesity.

Our research has found that eating millets can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and helps manage blood glucose levels in people with diabetes. Drawing on research from 11 countries, the study shows that diabetic people who consumed millet as part of their daily diet saw their blood glucose levels drop 12-15% (fasting and post-meal), and blood glucose levels went from diabetic to pre-diabetes levels. This is highly relevant for India which has a rapidly increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes.

We also found that eating millets can also reduce total cholesterol, blood pressure and BMI. Our study showed that consuming millets reduced total cholesterol by 8%, lowering from high to normal levels in the people studied. There was nearly a 10% decrease in low and very low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (commonly viewed as ‘bad cholesterol’) and triacylglycerol levels in blood. Through these reductions, the levels went from above normal to normal range. In addition, consuming millets decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 4% and 5% respectively. The study also showed that consuming millets reduced BMI by 7% in people who were overweight and obese, showing the possibility of returning to a normal BMI.

Given that diabetes is increasing in all regions of the world – with Africa forecast to have the largest increase of 134% from 2019 to 2045 although India has had a greater increase (+71%) than Africa (+54%) over the last 30 years.  In addition, obesity and being overweight, major risk factors for type 2 diabetes, are increasing globally in both wealthy and poorer countries, the need for solutions based on healthier diets is critical. Our research has emphasised the potential of millets as a staple food crop that has many health benefits and awareness of this ancient grain is just starting to spread globally.

Given its resilience to changes in climate as well as the health and nutritional benefits, we really have to look to millets as a future smart food. They are an ideal solution for countries looking to increase self-sufficiency and reduce reliance on imported cereal grains. Given the recent threats to global wheat supply as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we might even see millets on western dinner tables as, unlike rice, millets will grow well in the UK climate, reducing imports and lowering food miles.

Professor Ian Givens is Director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health and Professor of Food Chain Nutrition.