What is millet?
A seed that is classified as a whole grain, millet is often found in birdseed. But it’s definitely not just for the birds. This naturally occurring gluten-free cereal is full of minerals—such as potassium and magnesium—and packs a punch with plenty of protein per serving. With a mild corn flavor that cooks similarly to rice or quinoa, millet pairs well in salads, as a side dish, as a porridge for breakfast, or even in breads and cakes. To add deeper flavor to your meals, you can also toast millet before cooking to bring out its more nutty or earthy notes. Keep reading to learn more about what is millet, the nutrition facts and benefits, and how to eat this healthy grain.
Millet nutrition facts
This small whole grain offers a powerful nutritional punch.
“Millet is a starchy, gluten-free grain that is packed with vitamins and minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium,” says Samantha Murdoch, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. Those nutrients “all have a crucial role in bone health, and nerve and muscle function.”
Here’s what you’ll find in a one-cup (174 grams) serving of cooked millet.
Protein: 6.1 g (12 percent of the Daily Value)
Fiber: 2.3 g (9 percent DV)
Fat: 1.7 g
Carbohydrates: 41.2 g (14 percent DV)
Calcium: 5.2 mg (1 percent DV)
Iron: 1.1 mg (6 percent DV)
Niacin: 2.31 mg (12 percent DV)
Magnesium: 76.6 mg (19 percent DV)
Phosphorus: 174 mg (17 percent DV)
Potassium: 108 mg (3 percent DV)
A gluten-free whole grain packed with protein
If millet isn’t a regular part of your diet, you may want to rethink this. This cereal grain that looks like a seed has plenty of protein—6 grams per serving—plus, lots of fiber, iron, and magnesium. It’s also a great gluten-free alternative for people who have celiac disease or anyone who wants to reduce their gluten intake.
The best part? Millet is easy to incorporate into your meals because it’s so versatile. You can eat it as a breakfast porridge, drink it as a fermented beverage, use it as a substitute for rice, or toss it on salads. You can even use millet flour for baking.
Origins of millet
Millet is a small grain cereal that is a type of grass and is part of the Poaceae family. A native plant to many regions in Asia and Africa, it is a staple food for many cultures. It is often fermented or made into a beverage. Over a third of the world’s population rely on this whole grain.
Millet is favored not only for its nutritional benefits, but also because it can grow in hot, arid, and challenging climates.
There are several varieties of millet that are grown for both human consumption and for livestock. Pearl millet is predominantly grown in India and parts of Africa. It is one of the most cultivated millets, making it easy to find on grocery store shelves. Pearl millet ranges in color, from white and yellow to gray and brown.
Millet is classified into two different types: The commonly grown major millet, which is more popular, and the less common minor millet. Major millet varieties include finger millet, foxtail millet, pearl millet, and proso millet. According to a study in Advances in Food and Nutrition Research, finger millet has the highest calcium and potassium content compared to other types of millet.
Millet varieties differ in color, size, and where they are grown. And all have varying degrees of nutrients.
Health benefits of millet
Millet is one of the few grains that have a high protein content per serving, making it ideal for vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diets. “Millet is unique as it provides more essential amino acids compared to most cereals,” says Allison Gregg, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Jacksonville, Florida. “Amino acids act as the building blocks of protein.”
High in antioxidants
Antioxidants are molecules that fight against free radicals. Free radicals can cause harm to the body if levels are too high. “Free radical damage contributes to the etiology of chronic health problems, such as cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases,” Gregg says.
Millet is high in ferulic acid and catechins, phenolic compounds that act as antioxidants. The grain’s “rich antioxidant content helps protect the body from oxidative stress resulting from free radicals,” says Kristin Gillespie, RD, a registered dietitian and certified nutrition support clinician based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “This, in turn, helps reduce the risk of several chronic conditions, including heart disease and certain types of cancer.”
The color of the grain also makes a difference. “The darker the color of millet, such as finger and proso [varieties], the higher the antioxidant capabilities,” says Gregg.
Millet can help reduce blood sugar levels
Fiber is important for a healthy body for a variety of reasons, including helping your digestive tract with good bacteria and aiding bowel movements. Millet has both soluble and insoluble fiber. “Millet’s rich fiber and non-starchy polysaccharides content help control blood sugar levels,” says Gregg. “Its low glycemic index helps avoid blood sugar spikes.”
Conditions it might help control or reduce
The nutritional benefits of millet can help ease some health conditions.
“This grain, along with other whole grains, can help lower your cholesterol levels,” Murdoch explains. “Millet also may play a role in reducing triglyceride levels,” adds Gregg.
Not only is millet beneficial in lowering cholesterol, but “the rich antioxidant and fiber content of millet helps protect against chronic conditions, including heart disease and certain types of cancer,” says Gillespie.
Gluten-free option for those with celiac disease
Millet is a naturally gluten-free cereal, making it ideal for anyone who wants to reduce the amount of gluten they consume or for those with celiac disease. Although it’s a gluten-free whole grain, Gregg says “that you should still look at the label when purchasing millet to ensure it is gluten-free and has not been contaminated with gluten-containing ingredients.”
Risks or side effects
Although millet has an array of health benefits, it’s important to know that it has antinutrients. Those are compounds that block or minimize the body’s ability to absorb nutrients.
There are different types of antinutrients and “millet contains several, including tannins, phytates, polyphenols, trypsin inhibitors, and fiber,” says Gillespie. “Antinutrients are essentially plant-derived components that reduce the bioavailability—and, therefore, absorptive capacity—of certain nutrients,” says Gillespie.
There are several nutrients and minerals that can be influenced by antinutrients. “While these antinutrients play a role in calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium absorption, there are various factors that may impact the amount of absorption,” says Murdoch.
There can be uncomfortable side effects, especially if you eat too much millet. “Eating a large quantity of millet can lead to stomach ache, bloating, and constipation,” says Gregg.
Some people may need to pay more attention to their consumption of millet. “There are a few populations that should monitor their intake and not overdo the millet,” says Murdoch. If you have, or are at risk for osteoporosis or iron deficiency anemia, for instance, “it may be beneficial to have high iron or calcium-rich foods before or after consuming millet so the full extent of the nutrient is absorbed properly.”
Another concerning compound is goitrogenic polyphenols, which can affect the thyroid and cause goiter. Goiter is the enlargement of the thyroid gland. “If you suffer from thyroid issues, you may need to limit your intake as millet contains small amounts of goitrogen, which can interfere with thyroid activity,” says Gregg.
How to eat millet
Millet has a mild corn flavor and can be used in a plethora of dishes. Cooking millet is similar to making rice: Follow a 2-cups-water-to-1-cup-grain ratio. It takes around 20 minutes, making it a quick and easy dish to prepare. If you want to bring out more of a nutty flavor, you can toast millet with a little oil in a pan before cooking.
“I personally love to place roasted vegetables and a protein on top of millet to get extra fiber into my meal,” says Murdoch.
You can purchase millet in a variety of forms, including whole grain, millet grits, puffed, and flour.
“People should consider adding millet to their diet because it is an additional healthy option, easy to make, and affordable,” says Gregg. Millet can be incorporated into baked goods, such as cookies, breads, and cakes, and used as a thickener for soups.
“It can be cooked and eaten as a breakfast cereal similarly to oatmeal, cooked and utilized as a side dish, tossed into your salad, or even added to smoothies or protein shakes,” Gillespie says.
Try these millet-stuffed red peppers or this seeded whole grain loaf with millet.
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