BY VENKATESH RAGHAVENDRA & PAYTON SOUDERS
Our food intake is based on our agriculture, so we as consumers need to demand more diversity through what we choose to spend our money on.
The reliance on certain food types has led South Asians to suffer from diabetes and heart disease. Could changing eating habits be the answer to healthier solutions?
No matter where South Asians are living around the world, we bring our food traditions with us. While there is tons of diversity when it comes to South Asian food, there is usually one similarity: rice and/or wheat. Both wheat and rice are high-calorie carbohydrates that don’t give our bodies the necessary nutrients. The reliance on these two food types has led many South Asians to succumb to lifestyle diseases like diabetes and heart disease. The truth about rice and wheat is definitely hard to swallow. But what if you could improve your nutrient intake without drastically changing your favourite foods?
EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW:
Dr Srinivasa Rao has some science-backed solutions to share with us. Dr Rao is a scientific superstar who has helped develop vaccines for diseases like dengue and HPV, founded the Indian Institute of Biotechnology to train Indian students, and persuaded the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat and Rajasthan to focus on nutrition and health through better grains and seeds to farmers. Addressing malnutrition has always been a passion for Dr Rao—he engages with the Indian government on this subject. In 2016 Dr Rao founded Granova Naturals India, a company that brings superfoods like quinoa and avocado to the Indian market.
It has become difficult for South Asians to get all the nutrients we need while eating the foods we love. Do you have any advice on how to address this?
Dr Rao: Yes, as the world gets increasingly globalised, the modernised versions of traditional recipes have lost some of their nutritional value. The traditions of home-based knowledge have been disappearing. Our food which once was an asset has now become a liability. Now, our food choices have emerged as the top cause of morbidity and mortality. To help us get back to our roots science, computational power, and nutrition knowledge have come together. A new area of science has emerged—Computational Gastronomy, led by Dr Ganesh Bagler. Dr Bagler and his team have created a database called RecipeDB, which contains an incredible 1,18,000 recipes from cuisines across the globe. These recipes include over 23,500 ingredients that were chosen based on their nutritional profiles and flavour molecules. Appropriate use of this database can help people to select and design the individual choice of food, flavour, taste, and nutritive elements that ensure good health. We have developed 365 edible plant foods of South Asian origin, mostly, to help people design their own food and enjoy eating affordable
healthy food year-long.
Can you discuss the work you have done regarding quinoa and how you brought it to the Indian marketplace?
Dr Rao: There are 20 grains that humans have been using for staple food, quinoa being the most nutritious of all of these. Quinoa comes up as a good alternative in terms of global food security and sustainability because its water requirement is one-third that of rice. Quinoa is so nutritious that NASA considers it a top candidate for any long-term space mission. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations declared that quinoa could play an important role in eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty.
The issue is that quinoa is an expensive grain, costing ₹1,771 ($23) per kilo, while rice is available at ₹77 or less in India. I knew that if quinoa could help us fight poverty, we needed to make it affordable. I circled the world learning about quinoa, starting in its native country, Bolivia, where I met a remarkable engineer who had created a simple machine to process it. I brought some of these machines back to India. Next, I travelled to villages near Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh to speak with hundreds of farmers about quinoa and its value. Together we began growing quinoa and set up a small processing centre. By the end of 2015, we got a few hundred kilos of Indian-grown quinoa.
After this the Dr Quinoa story began, our very own brand. We began selling in supermarkets for ₹600 per kilo and have now brought the price down to ₹200 per kilo. Our goal is that one day soon, it will be available all across India at the same price as rice, wheat and millets. Wherever you are in the world, quinoa is a great food to add to your regular diet. And if you aren’t sure how to use it, the RecipeDB database is a great place to start!
Another project you are working on is high-protein rice. Can you tell us about this, and how we can find this product?
Dr Rao: India is already producing far more calories (over three times) than necessary per year to feed all her citizens. All of the food is there, but we are not getting the nutrients we need from it, nor distributing it effectively. One potential solution is high-protein rice. This rice is not grown in a lab, but grown using natural selection methods. In 2021 I began to grow this high-protein rice in collaboration with the National Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, Odisha, with the help of Dr Trilochan Mohapatra, director general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi. After a successful growing season, we tested the crop and found that our rice had a protein content of 10 percent, while most other qualities of rice contain up to 8 percent. This might not seem like a huge difference, but even this level of increase can have significant health
benefits for those of us who do not get enough protein in our diets. In 2022 we are going to plant 20 acres with this high-protein rice in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, and by the end of the year it should be available in the market under the Dr Rice brand in India. We are also introducing the US-grown 12 percent protein rice developed by Louisiana State University scientists available in the US market under the same brand name—Dr Rice. This rice will give us the unique opportunity to improve our health without changing the foods we eat.
Now that we know about quinoa and naturally fortified high-protein rice, what are some other foods we should incorporate into our diets more regularly?
Dr Rao: We need to use wheat with higher fibre content. Normal wheat has 3.2 percent fibre, but there are varieties that have 5-10 times more fibre protein (up to 32 percent). We are working on possibilities to bring those to the market just as we have done with quinoa and rice. Additionally, there are some 40 different varieties of pulses and lentil beans with high protein, fibre content and several micronutrients. Their availability and consumption should increase to improve public health. There are also some 1,888 edible plants, and we are preparing a list of the most nutritive and useful plants to help people to increase the diversity in their food. Eating a wide range of foods can easily meet our
nutritive requirements and improve health. And of course, we can’t forget about water. Quality, availability, and consumption of water are major determinants of population health. Water naturally contains many minerals that are needed for health. Governments and people should
focus not only on safe drinking water but also well-balanced water with needed minerals.
A problem you talk about in your work is the lack of diversity in crop production. How does this affect the way we eat? What can be done to improve on this?
Dr Rao: Ideally, all of us should eat a wide range of foods to provide our bodies with what they need. But according to Biodiversity International, out of over 6,000 edible plants, less than 200 are cultivated commercially. Only five of these 200—rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum—account for 60 percent of our consumption. With each passing generation our food choices become narrower and narrower, and so do our nutrients. Loss of required nutrients leads to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Our food intake is based on our agriculture, so we as consumers need to demand more diversity through what we choose to spend our money on.
Malnutrition significantly affects a lot of people around the world. Could you tell us about what is being done to address this problem?
Dr Rao: Malnutrition can be calorie malnutrition (lack of energy needed) and/or nutrient malnutrition (lack of nutrients needed for good health). At present, some two billion people are affected by malnutrition. Scientists around the world have developed high-yielding varieties to reduce calorie malnutrition significantly. Now malnutrition due to a lack of the required nutrients in terms of quality and quantity is the major problem the work is facing. If one can consume nutritively rich food items commonly used and available locally, one can be healthy. Scientists have developed nutrient-rich varieties of some 200 or more food items.
The World Vegetable Center, Taiwan, analyses vegetables for their nutrient content and publishes the information. Last year they analysed 2,727 samples of vegetables like several varieties of tomatoes, pepper, amaranth, okra, and mungbean. Using these results, people can get the nutrients they are missing to improve their health by choosing the nutrient-rich varieties of their choice of food.
(Venkatesh Raghavendra is a global social entrepreneur who works with the Indian diaspora and deepens their engagement in India. Payton Souders is a young professional and social impact consultant.)
@gharkirasoi @rukssaluja @Venkatesh Raghavendra @PaytonSouders @drsrinivasarao