Rediscovering India’s Superfoods

Malnutrition is an old friend of India, especially of her women and children.
According to the World Bank, the population of malnourished and underweight children in India is one of the highest in the world and twice that of Africa. A third of our babies are of low birth weight and, in most cases, due to the mothers being undernourished. The scenario worsens in early childhood with 42% of our children below the age of five being underweight.
Naturally, there are explanations offered for this with the most pat being poverty. With an estimated 270 million Indians below the poverty line, nutritious food is seen to be expensive and so out of the reach of many Indians. That should make sense. So then why do I say pat?

To begin with, there is no dearth of food in India. We grow food in millions of tonnes, making us one of the world’s largest producers of banana, mango, coconut, pomegranate, groundnut, rice, wheat, pulses, cashew, pepper, ginger, cardamom, saffron, and nutmeg as well as both milk and butter. We grew approximately 84 million tonnes of fruit in 2013. Even if we discount 50% of it, that is still at least 30 kgs of fruit available for every Indian ever year.

Clearly, abundance is not a problem.

Neither is variety.

As one of the twelve bio-diversity hotspots in the world, India is the centre of origin for thousands (according to some experts’ estimate, 30,000-50,000) of species of cultivated food plants. This includes 2000 species of green leafy vegetables, 20,000 varieties of rice (50 just from Bengal) and a cornucopia of fruits, 1000 varieties of mango, jackfruit, jamun, coconut, banana and more. All of them are “superfoods” in terms of the nutritional punch they pack.

Both of which would mean that access to nourishment for the average Indian should be both easy and inexpensive.

Why then does malnutrition in all its debilitating and even life-taking forms continue to stalk us?

First of all, from the all-too frequent reports of grain and other produce either rotting in our warehouses and feeding pests instead of people or being voluntarily destroyed by farmers because they can’t get a fair price for it, it is clear that something isn’t working in both our systems of food distribution as well as our agricultural policies and practices.
But more importantly, there is just not enough focus on or awareness of the fact that nutrition is available in our local produce.
For a better understanding, consider this list:
Drumstick leaves.
Malabar spinach.
Jamun (The fruit and not the sweet!)
And Jaggery.
How many of these have been upheld as superfoods by nutritionists and food gurus? My bet is none.
And yet these natives of India are superfoods both in nutritional and medicinal value.
We are all familiar with drumstick in our ‘sambars’, but did you know that drumstick leaves have four times the vitamin A content of carrots and triple the iron of spinach? Yet an estimated 60,000 children go blind in India every year as a result of vitamin A deficiency and 70% of pregnant women suffer from iron deficiency. Ironically, many countries across Africa like Malawi where vitamin A deficiency among children is as severe a problem as it is in India, have supplemented the daily diet with drumstick leaves and succeeded in combating this deficiency.
Jaggery is another great source of iron. And unlike sugar, the process used to make jaggery allows it to retain the nutrients originally present in the source material, sugarcane juice. These include magnesium, phosphorus, calcium and Vitamin B2 (riboflavin). And because it is used to treat so many ailments in Ayurveda, it is often referred to as “medicinal sugar. Yet all over the Mandya district, the jaggery making heart of Karnataka, aalemanes or the traditional jaggery making units are closing down because they are no longer profitable.
We all know about spinach. But how many of us know about Malabar spinach?

This is not just a superfood – abundant in vitamin A and C, iron, calcium and dietary fibre – but also a water conservationist. When the household well used to be the centre of all activity in India, waste water from washing, bathing and cleaning would be allowed to run into an area that became the kitchen garden. This is where all kinds of local vegetables would be grown, one of them being Malabar spinach. We talk about affordable nutrition – what could be more affordable than something that grows in your own backyard?

When Lutyens’s Delhi was taking shape, its planners drew up a list of 121 trees that were ‘indigenous, shade-giving, stately and long-lived’ to line its roads. One of them was the jamun tree and till today, the beautiful avenues of New Delhi are lined with these imposing trees. But look for data on the nutritional value of its fruit – the gorgeous purple colour signalling the presence of a very remarkable group of heart-friendly antioxidants called anthocyanins and its tart taste the high presence of Vitamin C – and you will find very little. Yet, US companies have sought to patent this fruit (along with neem, turmeric and karela) because it is an ancient and powerful ‘medicine’ for treating diabetes, an indication of how “super” this fruit is.
So why is there so little respect for local superfoods?
I think it is part of the larger Indian malaise of waiting for recognition from the West before we see the value of anything Indian. We “discovered” the amazing management system of the Mumbai’s dabbawalas only when the Forbes magazine carried a story about it in 1998, almost a full century into their existence. And the coconut’s journey from Cholesterol Monster to a superfood whose fat is similar to that of mother’s milk was complete only when it made it on the Dec 12, 2012 cover of Time magazine!
So it seems that we have forgotten who we are. And as part of that amnesia, we have forgotten who we were. When the fact is that as one of the world’s most ancient civilizations, India holds a treasury of wisdom and knowledge that has impacted modern civilization and covered everything from mathematics, astronomy and water conservation to…to yes, I dare to say this – medicine and nutrition.
But we only remember and acknowledge this wealth when the West “discovers” and endorses it. So for 1600 years after Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, yoga remained another Indian rope trick mumbo-jumbo until the West discovered it. BKS Iyengar had been teaching yoga for 15 years before Yehudi Menuhin “found” him in 1952 and Pattabhi Jois was a teacher for 25 years before his Belgian student, Andre Van Lysbeth, wrote a book about him and catapulted Ashtanga yoga to international fame.
So, like it was once with yoga, much of India’s nutritional wealth languishes in obscurity, waiting for Western patronage. There is almost no consistent policy push for either research to be done on the nutritional value of local Indian foods (ghee is a good example – as George Mateljan’s the World’s Healthiest Foods puts it “Research on ghee and health is limited,”) or on sustained programs to use them to combat malnutrition.
Is there a glimmer of hope? Perhaps. One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stated goals is to upgrade the diet of Indians, especially Indian children. And recently, he has spoken about “preventive healthcare”. If that translates into action, maybe there will be a time when we will chomp our way through ragi rotis to good health.
But the final word on this has to be from the God of All Good Things – Lord Ganesha. One of his thirty-eight avatars is Bala Ganapati who, in each of his four hands, holds objects that represent the earth’s abundance and fertility. They are banana, mango, sugarcane and jackfruit. What better acknowledgement can there be of India’s superfoods?