Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Russia's Buckwheat crunch-Real scarcity or fear of shortage?

The recent headline news about the panic that has gripped Russia over the reported scarcity of Buckwheat in the market raises a pertinent question as to why Russians are so obsessed with this pseudo grain which after all is not related to real wheat? While wheat is produced all over the world in terms of millions of tons and most western countries eat wheat as their staple, why Russians prefer Buck wheat over real wheat? As against an estimated annual global wheat production of about 715 million tons (mt), Buck wheat production was a measly 2.3 mt! Still an economic power like Russia feels threatened by a temporary shortage of this food grain! It is difficult to hazard a guess regarding the reason for this strange phenomenon though one can attribute this affinity for Buckwheat to historical facts dating back to the Russian Empire.

Buck wheat is known to mankind as far back as 8000 years ago and there is ample evidence to substantiate this fact. There was a time when Russians were growing and consuming as much as 6.5 mt of Buckwheat, about hundred years ago which started sliding down to about 4.5 mt in 1970 and production of Buckwheat in present day Russia is hardly 0.8 mt. It is China which took a gigantic step forward in growing this food grain producing about 0 .72 mt, a close second to Russia followed by Ukraine, an erstwhile part of Soviet Union recording a production of 0.28 mt. Probably Chinese must have taken up growing of Buckwheat largely for export to Russia. What has led to the present hysteria among Russian population to buy the grain in large quantities for stocking, may be speculation and rumors about shortage caused by the biting economic sanctions imposed by the western powers on Russia to punish it for its transgressions in neighboring Ukraine. One is reminded of the great salt shortage 4 decades ago in Soviet Union which also drove the people to stock salt which was later emptied into the drains causing heavy choking of drains in places like Moscow! One can attribute this to the "siege" mentality among the Russians to the bitter experience they had during the Communist rule when every consumer item was in short supply due to systemic flaws in the economy. Also the actual production of Buckwheat has declined this year by about 20% compared to last year due to wide scale drought reported in the growing regions of the country.
Buckwheat is a nutritious food grain, probably much better than the conventional wheat and being a staple food Russians are better off in terms of their over all health index. Added to this they are heavy meat eaters and the versatility of Buckwheat in blending with almost all other foods lends itself to ready acceptability across all segments of population. Its high protein content of about 18% ( non gluten), high nutritional quality of Biological Value over 92% and ample presence of minerals like Iron, Magnesium, Selenium, Zinc and high antioxidant content including the unique Rutin makes Buckwheat a nutritionist's dream food. Further presence of a rare biochemical, D-chiro-inositol DCI), a component of the secondary messenger pathway for insulin signal transduction makes it a deserving candidate for treating Type II diabetes in humans. Generally diabetics lack DCI in their system and consumption of Buckwheat is suggested as a therapy for ameliorating diabetic conditions significantly.  

Industrial use of Buckwheat is showing an increase for some time now as it is used by some brewers to make gluten free beer catering to those allergic to gluten. Buckwheat has similar malting characteristics comparable to that of barley. in the US Buckwheat is attracting more and more attention as a health food, some describing it as the "world's healthiest food". Besides, the explosive growth of gluten-free food industry there, it has found a ready ally in this grain and demand for it is bound to grow in the coming years. The proteins found in Buckwheat flour act as a functional ingredient in food formulations with reported claims that it reduces plasma cholesterol, body fat and cholesterol in gallstones. Many nutrition experts agree with the view that a daily intake of 100 gm of Buckwheat can consistently lower serum cholesterol levels significantly, lower LDL values and elevate HDL levels which is attributed to the presence of Rutin, a well established antioxidant in the grain.    

As far as Russians are concerned Buckwheat has values beyond that which makes it a good and balanced food. For them it is a "national idea". Though it was cultivated and introduced to Russia by early Mughal invaders in 13th century, it being the main food of Byzantine monks, Russia readily accepted Buck wheat giving it the name "Grechka". Today Buck wheat is consumed in Russia in many forms like porridge for breakfast, mixed with chopped liver for lunch in preparations for dinner and in a variety of other ways. It is ubiquitous in restaurants, cafeterias, schools, hospitals, military barracks, prisons and in almost every house hold. Naturally having got used to it no wonder Russians are panicking at the first sign of scarcity as they did with salt 4 decades ago!


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