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Food 

What is Millet? Get to Know the Newest Supergrain

November 03, 2020 6 min read

Photo of uncooked millet in a white bowl

At a glance

Bid goodbye to quinoa and chia seeds and say hello to the hottest new grain on the market. A member of the Poaceae family—better known as grasses—millet is an ancient grain, meaning it has remained largely unchanged for centuries (1). However, the food item has been gaining newfound popularity in recent years with good reason. 

Sweet-tasting and versatile, this grain works well in a range of recipes including salads, porridges and baked goods. Moreover, it’s easy to grow in the United States thanks to its tolerance for heat, cold and droughts. As a bonus, some types of millet can be harvested in just 70 days (2).

Accompanying its versatility, millet also offers a number of nutritional benefits. Along with being high in protein, this supergrain boasts a high amount of calcium, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Keep reading to learn about the history of this healthy whole grain, along with tips for incorporating it into your diet.

The history of millet

Referring to a group of highly variable small-seeded grasses, millet was first grown on the Korean peninsula between 3,500 and 2,000 B.C. (3). Although Asian and African nations have been cultivating and consuming millet for hundreds of years, it’s only in the past decade that the food has gained popularity in the United States. 

Millet first arrived in the country in the 1800s and was used to feed livestock and birds well before humans jumped on the bandwagon. However, the rise of gluten-free eating inspired many Americans to reconsider this ancient grain. Along with being a good source of protein, millet is fast-cooking and easy to digest. So, it’s no surprise that the grain is now showing up on dinner plates around the U.S.

Millet is divided into two varieties. The most common variety, major millet, comes in pearl, foxtail, proso and finger types (4). On the other hand, minor millets include Kodo, barnyard, little, Guinea and adlay. While pearl is the most popular option among consumers, all varieties offer similar benefits, including high protein content. 

How millet is used

Millet is a healthy carbohydrate used in plenty of recipes. Before it can be processed for human consumption, the indigestible hull must first be removed. This step also speeds up cooking time without the need for soaking beforehand.

There are multiple options for cooking millet. To prepare the dish in its most basic form, simply use two cups of water for every cup of millet (5). After the water boils, add the millet along with your desired amount of salt. Then, simply cover the pot and turn down the heat. This cooking method produces a firmer result and takes around 15 minutes to prepare. 

If you want your millet to be softer and creamier in texture, use three cups of water instead of two. You should also simmer for an additional 10 minutes, taking care to stir the millet periodically. The finished product will resemble breakfast porridge. You can also toast the dry millet for four or five minutes in a skillet prior to cooking for added flavor.   

What does millet taste like?

Millet’s popularity is due in part to its pleasant flavor. One of the sweeter whole grains on the market, millet has been compared to corn in terms of taste. The flavor tends to be nuttier when toasted. Its fans also appreciate the texture of cooked millet, akin to mashed potatoes or rice. 

The versatility of this grain means you can use it in any number of recipes. Popular options include savory dishes like grain bowls or millet bean patties and sweet dishes such as breakfast porridge topped with honey, coconut and berries. Millet is also a common baking ingredient, especially for those adhering to a gluten-free diet. Use millet flour as a substitute for wheat in cakes, cookies, pies and more.

Research shows that using millet in baking can be beneficial to your health. In fact, studies reveal that using millet flour rather than wheat flour enhances the nutritional profile of baked goods by boosting their antioxidant content (6).

The nutritional value of millet

Like other starchy grains, millet is rich in carbohydrates. This supergrain is considered to be an all-around healthy choice, however, thanks to its impressive nutritional profile. According to the Food and Drug Administration, one cup of cooked millet offers the following (7):

Infographic detailing the nutritional benefits of millet

Health benefits associated with millet

Millet offers countless benefits for your health and wellness. Here are some of the many reasons to consider incorporating this tasty supergrain into your diet:

Amino acids

Nutritional experts note that pearl millet has a higher quantity of amino acids than other cereals (8). Commonly referred to as the building blocks of proteins, amino acids offer numerous health benefits, including improved mood and sleep, muscle support, weight management benefits and enhanced performance during exercise (9). In fact, a review of eight studies upheld the conclusion that taking a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement after exercising resulted in superior muscle recovery and reduced soreness compared to simply resting. 

Calcium

Millet wins additional nutritional points for its high calcium levels. In fact, finger millet has the most calcium of all cereal grains at 13 percent of your daily value per cooked cup (10). A crucial mineral, calcium plays a key role in maintaining bone health and supporting nerve signal transmission (11). In particular, calcium is a crucial mineral for women, who are more prone to osteoporosis and bone density loss later in life.

Probiotics

If you suffer from chronic stomach upset, millet might be the solution. With live microorganisms, fermented millet is a natural probiotic that can help improve digestive health (12). In fact, millet is frequently processed into non-dairy probiotic beverages.

Antioxidants

The antioxidants present in millet add to its capabilities as a supergrain. In particular, millet is rich in both ferulic acid and catechins, substances known to protect the body from oxidative stress and free radicals. The result is a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses. Moreover, studies involving mice reveal that ferulic acid can have benefits related to wound healing and skin protection (13).

Glycemic index

People with diabetes may want to consider incorporating more millet into their diet. Boasting a low glycemic index (GI), millet is less likely than other grains to cause a spike in blood sugar (14). In a study of over 100 patients with type 2 diabetes, replacing a rice-based breakfast with one featuring millet was shown to help support healthy blood sugar levels. 

Grocery store filled with glass container holding grains

Where to find millet

The good news is that millet is an easy supergrain to find. Most grocery stores and natural food shops stock it in their bulk bins or in the baking aisle next to the flour substitutes. If you can’t find it at your local supermarket, you can opt to purchase it online instead. 

You can also buy food products that have been manufactured with millet. These include puffed millet cereal, non-dairy beverages, pastas and even snack foods. Store your millet in a sealed container in a cool, dark pantry or keep it in the refrigerator or freezer. 

In summary

If you’re only cooking with quinoa, it might be time to switch up your routine. An ancient grain with a rich history, millet has been nourishing both humans and livestock for thousands of years. In the last decade, however, this supergrain has joined the ranks of amaranth and farro as a trendy option for healthful eating. In particular, millet is popular among those following a gluten-free diet thanks to its high protein content and other health benefits. 

Millet’s popularity is due in large part to its significant nutritional benefits. Not only does this protein-rich grain boast several vitamins and minerals, it’s also rich in amino acids and antioxidants which help to fight free radicals. Additionally, millet is a diabetic-friendly food thanks to its low glycemic index. 

With a sweet, slightly nutty flavor and a creamy texture, millet works well in a wide range of recipes, including both sweet and savory dishes. The cereal grain is also a popular baking substitute, taking the place of all-purpose or wheat flour. As a bonus, the cook time for millet is just 10 to 15 minutes, so you can incorporate it into various meals even on busy weeknights. Give it a try the next time you’re looking for a healthy and delicious new dinner option!

April Maguire - Contributing Writer, Physician’s Choice