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Chinese researchers gather research on a drought-tolerant grain.
A comprehensive review of millet nutrition, processing, and potential health benefits suggests bright potential for future food production with this lesser known grain.
Millet is drought-tolerant and native to semiarid regions of Asia and Africa, where it can be found as any one of several species, such as pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), foxtail millet (Setaria italic), and finger millet (Eleusine coracana). The world’s leading producer of millet is India, but China makes for optimal growing conditions, too. The Chinese government thus funded a review of millet, conducted by researchers from China Agricultural University.
The past several decades of millet science indicate that raw millet nutrition varies from species to species, but millets overall boast considerable amounts of amino acids (foxtail is quite high in lysine), fiber, resistant starch, antioxidants, and minerals. Highlight nutrients for each species are available in the full text of the study.
Making this nutrition available in consumer-friendly food products has proven challenging, according to the researchers, because industrial methods for processing millet are not as well developed as those used for processing wheat and rice. But millet processing methods are improving. Here’s an example:
It has been reported that the food uses of finger millet are confined to flour-based products because it has not been possible to decorticate (dehull) millet similar to other cereals. This is mainly due to millet grains that are small compared to other cereals. But it was observed that the hydrothermal treatment of millet hardened the endosperm texture and enabled its decortication. The decorticated millet could be cooked…to obtain soft edible texture within 5 minutes, which was not possible before.
Heat, however, can significantly lower certain millet nutrients. A recent study found decortication decreased fiber, minerals, and antioxidant capacity in millet. Another found that the process enhanced protein content and reduced fat. The numerous other processing methods for creating millet-based products-including popping, puffing, soaking, and cooking-may enhance some nutrients as much as they may weaken others.
Millet is historically used in liquids and semiliquids such as porridge, and contemporary research pulled by this review notes potential limited use for baked goods and noodle products because millet is a gluten-free grain.
As for health effects, a wealth of research backs high-fiber grains for cardiovascular and gastrointestinal health. Limited studies focused specifically on millet suggest a potential for reduced tumor incidence, lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and increased gastrointestinal bulk.
The review of millet food use and nutrition is currently available free for full access.
Nutritional Outlook magazine