Idli-sambar, rice-rasam, rajma saved Indians from Covid-19, says study. Doctors not so sure

An international study says the Covid-19 pandemic caused fewer deaths in India due to the consumption of idli-sambar and rajma-rice.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Apr 21, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedApr 21, 2023 | 12:21 PM

Indians ate 1.5 times higher legumes and vegetables and four times more whole grains when compared to Western populations.

Many attempts have been made to understand why the mortality rate of Covid-19 was much lower in India than in European countries and the United States.

Now, an international research team believes it was due to the consumption of idli-sambar and rajma-rice!

Samples from Karnataka and Haryana were chosen for the analyses.

“Indian food habits and food ingredients may have a role in lowering the severity and high death rate from Covid-19 in Indians,” said findings from the first nutrigenomic analysis published in the April 2023 edition of the Indian Journal of Medical Research, published by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

However, the researchers themselves said that additional large-scale and intervention trials were required for drawing a definitive inference in this direction.

And doctors contacted by South First said the study had an “interesting hypothesis”, but added that diet was probably one small factor among “many factors that made Indians less at risk of Covid-19”.

The study

The study was conducted by a team of scientists from Brazil, Jordan, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, and India.

The researchers analysed the diets of Covid-19 patients and compared them to the diets of healthy individuals to identify the foods that may have contributed to the lower death rates in India.

The reason behind the study was that the researchers were curious to know why the death rate was five to eight times lower in India, whose population density is higher than that of Western countries.

Debmalya Barh, an expert in genomics and precision health — also an honorary scientist at the West Bengal-based Institute of Integrative Omics and Applied Biotechnology and faculty at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in Brazil — conceptualised and led the research.

In the published paper, Barh, one of the authors, said, “We looked into the phenomena from a precision health point of view where the gene, behaviour, and environment interactions determine the phenotype of any person.”

He added: “As there are huge differences in cultural aspects, including food habits and food ingredients in India and Western countries, we focused on this area.”

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A nutrigenomic approach

“Blood transcriptome of severe Covid-19 patients from three Western countries (showing high fatality) and two datasets from Indian patients were used,” explained the research paper.

“Gene set enrichment analyses were performed for pathways, metabolites, nutrients, etc, and compared for Western and Indian samples to identify the food and nutrient-related factors, which may be associated with Covid-19 severity,” it added.

“Data on the daily consumption of 12 key food components across four countries were collected and a correlation between nutrigenomics analyses and per capita daily dietary intake was investigated,” the paper noted.

Also read: India’s 1st exclusive Covid hospital to be dismantled

The observations

Rajma Chawal

Rajma Chawal (Wikimedia Commons)

The study found that the Western population consumed nearly 20 times more red meat, 12 times more processed foods, and five to seven times more dairy products.

They also consumed three to eight times more fish, 12 times more coffee, and at least two times more alcohol than Indians.

For the Indian population group, the researchers used transcriptome profiles of Covid-19 patients from Karnataka and Haryana.

They found that Indians ate 1.5 times higher legumes and vegetables and four times more whole grains when compared to Western populations.

Also read: Covid-19 cases in India underreported by 300%?

Idli-sambar, rice, rasam, rajma did the magic?

The researchers noted that several Indian foods, including idli-sambar and rajma-rice, may have played a role in saving lives during the pandemic.

Idli-sambar is a popular South Indian dish consisting of steamed rice cakes and lentil soup, while rajma-rice is a North Indian dish consisting of kidney beans and rice.

The researchers found that these dishes, along with other Indian foods such as curd rice, dal khichdi, and rasam, were rich in nutrients that might have boosted immunity and reduced inflammation, thus helping fight off the virus.

The study highlighted that the high consumption of turmeric, ginger, and garlic — commonly used in Indian cooking — might have contributed to the lower death rates in India.

These ingredients are known for their anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties, which could have helped Covid-19 patients recover faster.

Sambar is a lentil-based dish, cooked with pigeon pea, tamarind, spices and an assortment of vegetables. (Creative Commons)

Sambar is a lentil-based dish, cooked with pigeon pea, tamarind, spices and an assortment of vegetables. (Creative Commons)

“Our nutrigenomics analyses show Western diets have properties that can trigger almost all the molecular pathways associated with Covid-19 severity. Western populations’ consumption of dairy products and processed foods activate a cytokine storm and several Covid-19 severity-related pathways,” explained the paper.

The study said the staple foods of South India are idli and dosa with sambar, and rice with rasam, where rasam contains several spices including turmeric, chilli pepper, cumin, curry leaves, mustard, coriander, asafoetida, and sea salt.

Similarly, in North India, kidney beans (rajma), chickpeas, legumes, wheat, corn, rice and several spices such as turmeric, chillies, cumin, mustard, and coriander are used in daily foods.

However, Indian foods like idli-sambar and rajma-rice, legumes and whole grain-based vegetarian foods maintain high iron and zinc concentrations in the blood.

The study explained in detail that one idli may contain twice the zinc than most commonly used zinc-supplemented vitamin tablets.

Also, Indian vegetarian diets are rich in fibre and prevent Covid-19 severity. Catechins present in tea act like the natural cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin, said the study.

Also read: India launches world’s first intranasal Covid-19 vaccine

Doctors weigh in

Dr Arvind Conjeevaram, a consultant nephrologist and transplant physician at Trust Well Hospitals in Bengaluru, told South First: “Generally speaking, nutrition studies are very difficult to do and data capture in such studies depend on hearsay evidence — what the subjects tell you they are eating as food.”

He explained: “The study hypothesises that the mortality rate in India due to Covid-19 infections was lower than in Western countries. This remains unproven.”

Conjeevaram added: “The paper throws up an interesting hypothesis about the Indian diet, especially the vegetarian (plant-based) aspect of the diet. But in the end, it remains just that — a hypothesis.”

He also said: “Perhaps a randomised, controlled, double-blind trial would be the only way to establish this hypothesis. But as I said in the beginning, it would be almost impossible to carry out such a study.”

Dr Kiran Madala, a professor and HOD of the ICU at the Government General Hospital (GGH) in Nizamabad said: “Food definitely might have played a role in immunity. However, they didn’t research it as a case-controlled study.”

“They also did not consider other, non-dietary factors. There are many factors that made Indians less at risk of Covid-19, and diet is probably one small factor,” he added.